How Will Those Who Never Learn the Gospel Be Judged?
“On the judgment day, what will God’s response be to those who never had an opportunity to hear the gospel?”
No one, out of his own reservoir of knowledge and wisdom, can emphatically state how God is going to “judge” any specific case. For example, did Judas die lost? The New Testament is clear that he perished (Jn. 17:12; Acts 1:25). But what about Solomon? Did he turn from his life of reckless abandon? The book of Ecclesiastes may suggest that he did, but the issue is far from certain.
When God destroyed multiplied thousands on various occasions among the Gentile nations, does this mean that every soul among them was lost (cf. Rom. 2:12-16)? When vast numbers of the Hebrews fell under divinely imposed pestilence, was every accountable person that suffered the consequences of those judgments also eternally lost? We simply do not know the answers to these questions. One cannot sit down with pen and paper and make a list of all Bible characters, and then write “saved” or “lost” beside each name, as though he knew for certain the destiny of each. In some cases one may know definitively (as with Judas), but the eternal destiny of hundreds of others remains a mystery.
The Lord has not designated us as “judges,” passing final sentence with regard to the eternal welfare of others. There are, however, some guidelines in Scripture that allow the devout Bible student to draw some general conclusions. Aside from these, it is prudent to recognize and acknowledge that the sovereign Creator has not appointed us to do his work for him.
Here are some principles that are set forth in the Bible.
Righteous Judgment – Abraham once asked the rhetorical question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). The Lord will judge the world with his own righteous standard (Psa. 96:13; 98:9; Acts 17:31; 2 Thes. 1:5). He will be fair, for he is not a God who is a “respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). Not even the lost will quibble with him; rather, they will acknowledge his sovereignty and his justice (Rom. 14:11; cf. 2:5). The ungodly will be “convicted” of the rebellious way of life they pursued (Jude 15).
Certain Judgment – In his speech to the Athenians, Paul declared that God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world. The apostle affirmed that the assurance of that coming day is guaranteed by the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:31). No firmer historical anchor exists!
Dreadful Judgment – There is a declaration in Paul’s second letter to the Christians of Thessalonica that is terrifying in its prospect. Hear him:
“. . . and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thes. 1:7-9).
The point that we must make, in view of the question under consideration, is this. In the opinion of many scholars, the construction of this passage, with the double use of the Greek article, i.e., the ones who know not God, and the ones who obey not the gospel, indicates that two classes of persons are in view. Samuel Green suggested that “two distinct classes, incurring different degrees of punishment” are under consideration (Handbook to the Grammar of the Greek Testament, London: Religious Tract Society, 1907, p. 199; cf. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman, 1931, Vol. IV, p. 45).
Is one at liberty to contend, contrary to this statement, that some will be saved who never knew God, or who did not obey the gospel? Many writers make this assumption, but he who does so, does so presumptuously. When Peter asked the rhetorical question, “What shall be the end of them who obey not the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17), he did not appear to leave the question open to idle speculation.
One must also recall that, in one of his teaching illustrations, Jesus declared that even those who “knew not” the Lord’s will, but did things “worthy” of condemnation, will be punished by the returning Master (Lk. 12:47-48).
Some Concluding Points
One thing is perfectly clear. No one can count on ignorance to save him. As Paul told the people of Athens, who worshipped in “ignorance” (though perhaps sincerely), “the times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent” (Acts 17:30). The terms “all” and “everywhere” leave very little “wiggle” room!
Additionally, this point has been made frequently, and with much force. If it is the case that those who never hear the gospel will be saved in their sinful condition, simply because they do not know the truth, would it not be better to leave them in that state of ignorance? For if they are exposed to the truth, and then reject it, there is little controversy as to what their fate will be.
In discussing Romans 1:18-32, Professor Jack Cottrell has written: “We deceive ourselves if we hold out false hope for the unevangelized based on their non-hearing of the gospel” Romans, Joplin, Mo: College Press, 1996, Vol. I, p. 170).
There are difficult issues that we simply must leave in the hands of our all-wise and benevolent God. We are neither knowledgable enough to see through the fog of our limited information, nor are we righteous enough (we tend to err on the side of human weakness) to presume to say what “should be” the case.
The Christian’s task is to present the gospel – firmly and compassionately – with absolutely no compromise as to the conditions of salvation and the principles of godly living. But we must refrain from infringing upon divine territory. We must leave the final disposition of the matter to the omniscient God.
If there is one lesson that the Bible student should learn from the Savior’s “parable of the tares,” it is this: fallible men are not qualified to do the final separation of the “wheat” from the “tares” (Mt. 13:28-29).
We also must avoid meaningless speculations that may place the Lord in an unflattering light. For example, if salvation is to be bestowed upon honest/ignorant souls, apart from the redemptive mission of Jesus, then why did he come to earth to endure the cross? Did the Father whimsically send him to die, thus initiating a “plan” of redemption, when, in reality, there was no need for such a drastic measure? The very thought of such is unbearable. If we may partially paraphrase Paul, if salvation is accessed apart from Christ, did he not die in vain (Gal. 2:21)?
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.