And so those who’ve never even heard the gospel are punished? Surely not!
Jesus certainly seems to say so here, doesn’t he? But we need to look deeper.
We begin by noticing that ignorance lessens the punishment. A good man, unaware of the gospel, may receive very little in the way of punishment. But even a very good man has sinned and cannot claim to deserve eternity with Jesus.
No one deserves heaven, just as no one deserves a denarius for less than a full day’s work. But God is allowed to be more generous to some than to others and yet still be good — so long as he treats all no worse than justly, taking into account his perfect knowledge of their lives and hearts.
I think we get off track by thinking along these lines:
1. God has saved me.
2. God hasn’t saved people better than me.
3. They deserve salvation more than I do!
4. Therefore, surely they are also saved.
This is a very normal and very human way to think — especially in the Western world where our culture places a huge premium on egalitarian thought: “All men are created equal …” There may even be a little bit of “survivor’s guilt” in there.
But the Bible teaches us something very different —
(Deu 7:6-8 ESV) 6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
(Deu 9:4-6 ESV) 4 “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6 “Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.”
The same is true for us —
(1Pe 2:9 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We are chosen, not because of our righteousness or our numbers or the uprightness of our hearts, but because of God’s promise to Abraham — his promise to count those with faith as righteous.
We are also a stubborn people, utterly undeserving, and yet God chose us because we have faith, and so we are within God’s covenant.
Is it fair? Not even a little. It’s far, far better than fair. Those outside the covenant get fairness. We get grace. No, we don’t deserve it. And neither do those who are more righteous than we. They don’t deserve it either — and therefore they don’t deserve it more. Neither of us deserve it at all.
Is is an unfair system? Is it fair to pay a man a day’s wages for one hour’s work? No, but it’s the nature of God.
Therefore, we cannot argue that the righteous pagan is saved just because he never had a chance to hear the gospel. No, he receives a perfectly just result. He deserves no more.