[The last post was intended to be the conclusion of the series, but because Keith's comment is so pertinent to the question at hand, and because it pushed me deeper into God's word (which is always a pleasure), I'm posting this four-part reply. And then it'll be time for supper.]
Keith Brenton posted a comment regarding the fate of those who’ve never heard the gospel. I think we need to discuss the points he makes.
Keith has commented thoughtfully here for many years, and is the editor of the online magazine New Wineskins.
Romans 10 and the fate of those who’ve never heard of Jesus
I agree that there is no such thing as a righteous unbeliever. But I would ask – isn’t there an intrinsic difference between someone who has heard the gospel and rejected it (let’s call them “disbelievers” for clarity) and those who have never heard the gospel and therefore cannot believe it (let’s distinguish them as “non-believers”)?
Obviously, there is a difference, but whether that difference changes one’s eternal fate depends on what the Scriptures teach.
Paul recognizes this possibility in Romans 10:14 – “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Heartily agreed. Paul deals here specifically with those who’ve never heard the gospel. His point is that faith in Jesus — the faith that saves — is impossible without having heard about Jesus. Paul’s point is not to justify the lost who’ve not heard but to urge the saved to be certain to spread the gospel far and wide.
Context matters —
(Rom 10:2-3 ESV) 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.
Paul is speaking of the Jews. “Righteousness of God” refers to God’s faithfulness to his covenant to save by faith, particularly faith in Jesus. Thus, the Jews’ “zeal for God” failed them because they lacked knowledge of God’s righteousness: his salvation found in Jesus.
We don’t think of the Jews of Jesus’ day as “ignorant of the righteousness of God,” but Paul declares that to be the case. And their ignorance does not excuse them.
They knew the Torah. Many had it memorized! But they didn’t know God because they didn’t recognize God in Jesus.
(Rom 10:4 ESV) 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
They are ignorant because they didn’t see Jesus as the culmination of the Torah. But he is — for the Jews first but also to the Gentiles. But zeal for God, even for Israel, is not enough. Faith in Jesus is essential.
(Rom 10:5-7 ESV) 5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
Paul refers to Deuteronomy 30 —
(Deu 30:11-15 ESV) 11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.”
Paul declares that salvation is attainable. We don’t have to reach into heaven for it, because heaven has already come to earth. We don’t have to reach into the abyss, because salvation has already risen from the grave. Salvation is here! Just as Moses had promised 1,500 years before!
(Rom 10:8 ESV) 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);
Paul says that the salvation promised by God in Deuteronomy 30 is faith in Jesus.
(Rom 10:9-10 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
Paul continues to work within Deuteronomy 30. Salvation is within the Jews’ grasp. They need only come to faith and confess that faith.
(Rom 10:11-13 ESV) 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Paul then expands his exposition to include the Gentiles. All that he said of the Jews is true of Gentiles, too! They may be saved if they believe in Jesus. The promise, though, is only for “all who call on him.” There’s not a hint here of salvation for those without faith in Jesus.
(Rom 10:14 ESV) 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
Paul then deals with exactly the question we are wrestling with in this series: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” Indeed. That’s the question.
Some would argue that it’s not a problem. Or that we shouldn’t judge. Or that it’s very negative and bad for the church’s image to discuss such issues. Or that God will save them by some other means. What does Paul say?
(Rom 10:15-17 ESV) 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Salvation comes from faith. Faith comes from hearing. Hearing comes from the preaching of the word. Preaching comes from sending preachers.
(“Preach” translates a word meaning “proclaim the good news.” We would translate more accurately as “proclaim.” BDAG translates “announce, make known, by an official herald or one who functions as such.” Hence, the burden to proclaim is on all who speak in the name of Jesus, that is, all Christians.)
Does Scripture declare the fate of those who don’t know Jesus?
Does scripture specifically, unequivocally, inarguably deny the possibility of salvation for all those who have not heard the gospel?
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Notice the “already.” It means “right now” not “if they should hear about the gospel some time in the future.” BDAG calls the word a “marker of logical proximity and immediateness.”
(Rom 8:8-11 ESV) 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
The indwelling Spirit saves, just as God’s presence in Israel’s camp saved them. Outside the camp there is only desert. It’s the Spirit who gives life to our bodies — through whom God gives immortality. Without the Spirit, we are “in the flesh” and “cannot please God.”
(1Jo 4:1-3 ESV) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
What’s the test? Either you confess Jesus or you don’t. Should we apply the test? Of course. We are commanded to do so.