Sunday, February 6

What Happens To Those Who Have Never Heard The Gospel?

This is the question given as the theme for Vox Apologia IV, this week's apologetics carnival, and the question I'm answering in this post. I believe we've been given a fairly complete answer to this question in scripture. Paul lays things on the line for us regarding the pagan world that was contemporary to his time in Romans 1, and there's no reason the conclusions he draws concerning them would not apply to those of any day or age who do not hear the gospel.

Here is what Paul says is happening to those who, unlike his own nation Israel, are ignorant of God's law and the truth that God reveals in it:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18, 19; NET)
Even without any verbal revelation from God, they are under God's wrath. Later on in the chapter we see the way this wrath of God is already being expressed--he is allowing them free rein to live out their baser instincts (verses 24, 26, 28), and they are suffering the natural consequences of their wicked actions. As a result of the unrestrained freedom that God has allowed them, the societies they live in are dominated by evil and hurtful behaviour exhibited among the members (verses 29-31). This freely expressed evil makes them deserving of death (verse 32), and as they continue in their sin they are "storing up wrath" for themselves that will be displayed on the day of judgment (2:5-9). We might think of it as a ball of judgment rolling down a hillside, picking up worse and worse consequences as it rolls along.

That, in a nutshell, is what happens to those who have never heard the gospel. They spiral downward until the day of judgment when the full weight of God's wrath against their sin is expressed. The question one might ask, however, is on what basis God responds in wrath toward them if they have never been exposed to the requirements of the law or to the good news of the gospel.

Paul explains that the ball of judgment starts rolling not because these people know the requirements of the law and break them, or because they know the gospel and refuse to believe it, but because God makes something about himself plain to them and they purposefully suppress that knowledge. What is it, then, that God makes plain about himself to them?
For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. (Romans 1:20; NET)
Even those without any verbal revelation from God are shown something about him by the testimony of the created order. They can't see God, but they can see his creation, and creation gives them a message about God that they cannot miss.

First of all, when people look at creation, they can't help but understand that there is a Creator. The only reasonable explanation for what we see around us is that there is a creative power somewhere behind it. We all know, deep down, that in order for creation to exist, there has to be a Maker of creation. Secondly, creation tells us that the power that created still exists, for we can see that the universe continues to be sustained as it is. The created system keeps on working, and this shows that the creative power is behind it keeps on working. Furthermore, the witness of creation tells us that the Creator of the universe is much bigger, stronger, and smarter than we are, so much so that the only conclusion we can come to is that this Creator is wholly unlike us and wholly unlike any of the other creatures. We all understand something of the otherness--or divinity--of the Maker. This is what everyone knows about God from creation.

People also know something about what their response to the Creator ought to be: They ought to worship him and be thankful to him. And this is where the culpability of those who haven't heard the gospel lies. This is why they are without excuse.
So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles....

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:20b-23, 25; NET)

People know, deep down, that God is not like them--that he is completely beyond what his creatures are--and that this "God of the beyond" is the kind of god they should be worshiping and thanking. However, instead of worshipping an eternal divine creator, people purposefully choose to worship images of created beings. They willfully choose idolatry, when they know, underneath their intentional suppression of truth, that these are idols, and that these idols do not represent the Creator who is. There is something about the truth of God that they can glean from creation that they don't like, and so they trade downward: they exchange the truth of God for the lie of idolatry. This their initial fault; this is the lever that starts the judgment ball rolling.

The only way out of this downward roll is the power of the gospel to save people from it.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16; NET)
Even those of the Gentile world--a world that stood in Paul's day without verbal revelation from God--could be saved only through the gospel. The gospel is the hope for escape from the downward roll toward God's final judgment--a death spiral that starts as a result of a wrong response to what can be known about God from the testimony of creation.

This is why, later on in chapter 10 of Romans, Paul says, "How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news (10:15; NET)." Paul is announcing the new era: the time when the good news of the gospel goes out to all people, when there is no distinction between the Jew and the Gentile, when the promise that "all who call upon the Lord will be saved" is declared. It is a glorious day, a day of hope for all, but the good news of that hope still needs a means of transmission. Preachers need to be sent to proclaim that good news so that those who hear it can believe it and call on the name of the Lord (10:11-15). Hearing the gospel and believing is the only way to be delivered from the downward spiral of judgment that begins when people reject the knowledge of God that can be gleaned from creation.
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