What Happens to Heathens?
- Kaleo Church
- Dec 4, 2005
- Series: Apologetics
Confronting the Heathen Question
The subject of the heathen usually arises in the context of witnessing. The unbeliever attempts to escape the Gospel call to repentance and faith by hurling what he thinks is an unanswerable objection to Christianity: “But, what about the heathen? Are you telling me that all those innocent people are going to hell? Even when they didn’t have a chance?”
Evidently, to many non-Christians the question of the heathen serves as a challenge to the Christian as well as a nifty escape hatch from the claims of the Gospel on their own conscience. If the heathen can make their way to heaven without believing in Jesus, the unbeliever smugly assumes that he also can make his way to heaven without becoming a Christian. It is not surprising to find many non-Christians totally ignorant concerning the Biblical answer to the heathen question. But it is shocking to discover that many modern professing Christians are just as ignorant. How has this happened?
The Neo-orthodox takeover of the major denominations with their colleges and seminaries has flooded the liberal world with the teaching of universalism. At the same time, some evangelicals have embraced and are propagating semi-universalism in which any sincere heathen who lives up to the light he has will be saved. They argue that God is too loving to damn those for whom Christ died and who never had a chance. I have talked with some with decent evangelical colleges and seminaries who do not believe the historic doctrine of the damnation of all unbelievers including the heathen.
Q-Can the heathen be saved by the work of Christ without hearing of or believing in the person of Christ?
Q-Is faith in Jesus Chris always a part of the salvation process or can one skip over faith and repentance and still experience regeneration and obtain justification?
Perhaps the best way to begin our study of the subject is to clarify the question of the heathen first.
Can a sinner be saved from hell even though he does not believe in the true God or in Jesus Christ? Or, upon what grounds can a sinner claim admittance to heaven other than repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?
The popular “man-in-the-street” answer is that the heathen can be saved ffrom hell even though they do not believe in Jesus Christ. The supposed grounds of the heathens’ claim to heaven rests upon the three arguments.
If a sinner is sincere in whatever religion he believes in and he lives up to the light he has, it would be unjust for God to condemn him to hell.
If a sinner never heard the Gospel, this means that he never had a chance to be saved. Therefore it would be unjust for God to condemns someone who never had a chance.
We are condemned if and when we reject Jesus Christ and His Gospel. It is obvious that those who have never heard of the Gospel can not be condemned for rejecting it! Therefore it would be unjust for God to condemn the heathen.
The issue can be further clarified by observing that all unbelievers without exception can be placed into one of the following categories which describe the circumstances of their unbelief.
Ignorance: The geographic area in which the unbelievers live is so remote that the Gospel message has never penetrated it. The unbelievers have absolutely no opportunity to hear the Gospel even if they wanted to.
Neglect: The Gospel has penetrated the area and is present to all but some unbelievers neglect to hear or study it. Thus they are still ignorant of the Gospel and are not saved due to their neglect.
Nominal acquaintance: The Gospel is vaguely understood but there is not true saving belief in it. The unbeliever denies or rejects the Gospel and clings to his own pagan ideas and religion.
Nominal acceptance: The unbeliever professes to accept the Gospel and to believe in Jesus Christ but this profession is false. This is where much of professing Christendom is today.
Now, according to the popular conception of the issue of the question of the heathen concerns only the first case where sinners are ignorant of the Gospel because there is absolutely no opportunity to hear it. But the Scriptures are very clear that if we neglect, deny or only nominally accept the Gospel, we cannot be saved “for how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation” (Heb 2:3).
Another point that should be made is that the proper definition of “heathen” is any and every unbeliever. We must not allow people to assume that the word “heathen” refers only to the primitive peoples of the Third World. The unbelievers who live in New York City or London constitute the heathen just as much as a Hindu or Australian Bushman.
One way to bring this truth home to the unbeliever who challenges the Gospel with the heathen question is to respond in the following manner:
Unbeliever: But, what about the Heathen?
Believer: Well, what about you? You will not be saved unless you believe in Christ.
Unbeliever: I don’t mean me. I am referring to the heathen, i.e., those who have never heard.
Believer: Why should they concern you? The issue is that you are one heathen who has heard the Gospel. Now what are you doing to do about it? Are you trying to avoid the issue of your sin by bringing up an irrelevant question? The real question is, “What about your eternal fate?”
The basic and foundation issue in the heathen question is whether or not the Scriptures view ignorance due to neglect or to the absence of the Gospel as constituting sufficient grounds for salvation. And, also, whether or not the lack of faith constitutes unbelief as well as the rejection of faith.
Part I. Let’s start by setting several opening principles which shall guide us in our study tonight.
Principle I: The scriptures alone can tell us of the eternal destiny of all those who do not believe in the person and work of Christ as presented in the Biblical Gospel.
We must strive to bring every thought into conformity to the Holy Scriptures. Our faith must be Biblical from beginning to end. What do the Scriptures say?
Isaiah 8:20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
II Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,
Principle II: We must be careful to avoid the three typical non-Christian approaches to this issue.
1. The person who is a rationalist thinks that his reason or logic can tell him where the heathen go at death. He usually begins his position by saying,
“I think that…..”
“It is only logical that….”
“The only intelligent answer is….”
2. The person who is experience centered thinks that stories and testimonies will decide the issue.
“Have you heard the story about….”
3. The person who is a mystic will trust his subjective emotions or feelings to tell him the truth. They usually begin their position by saying,
“I feel that….”
Principle III: Defend God at all costs.
Whatever God does is right and just. Do not the Scriptures teach us that “Shall not the judged of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). God is not unjust or unloving because He casts the wicked into hell. He is sovereign in His wrath as well as in His grace.
Romans 9:13-23 13 As it is written, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated." 14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." 18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. 19 You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" 20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? 22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction: 23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
Some people defend man at all costs even to the degradation of God. “But let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
Principle IV: Never tone down a Biblical doctrine because it offends people.
The Gospel itself is offensive to unbelievers. Should we abandon it because the unregenerate think it foolish?
I Cor. 1:8-23 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness,
The disciples came to the Lord Jesus and told Him that He had offended the Pharisees. His reaction shows us the proper attitude when the truth offends people.
Matt. 15:12-14 12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?"
13 But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 "Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch."
Principle V: Determine your spirit to believe whatever God says in His Word for “he that is willing to do the will of God shall know whether or not the doctrine is from God” (John 7:17).
Part II. Let’s look at the central position.
Proposition 1: All men are lost sinners in need of salvation.
This first proposition is so basic to the Christian Gospel that it is impossible to deny it scriptually. Carefully read Romans 1-6, for you will find in this passage a full exposition of the just condemnation of God which rests universally upon all men “for all have sinned; and the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:23; 6:23)
Proposition 2: General Revelation is not sufficient for salvation.
General revelation is that mute non-verbal witness of the creation that points men to the existence and power of God and to man’s own creatureliness and sinnerhood. General revelation confronts all men at all times through the world around them and the voice of their consciences within them (Rom. 1:18-28; 2:14-15).
While general revelation is sufficient to condemn all men because it leaves all mankind “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20), the scriptures never speak of it as being sufficient to save anyone. All men suppress and reject the light of creation and worship the creature instead of the Creator (Rom 1:18, 21-25, 28). Thus there never has been and there never will be a sinner who lives up to all the light he receives from general revelation (Rom. 3:10-18).
Proposition 3: The fact of judgment is determined on the basis of the nature of the person in question.
Because all men are “by nature” sinners, all men are under the wrath of God (Eph 2:3, Rom 1:18).
The doctrine of original sin involves the passing of Adam’s sin to all mankind. This passing or handing down is followed by the condemnation of God and the judgment of death (Psa 51:5, 58:3; Rom 5:12-21; I Cor 15:22).
We sin because we are sinners. What we are by nature determines the fact of judgment. Thus it is wrong to teach that we are lost if and when we reject Christ. The Gospel is preached to those who are already lost and perishing (I cor 1:18). You are condemned to hell because of what you are, i.e., a sinner.
The heathen are condemned because of what they are, i.e. their nature. They are sinners. Therefore, the are under God’s wrath.
Proposition 4. The degree of punishment is determined on the basis of the light and life of the person in question.
Because God is just, there will be degrees of punishment in hell. All sinners in hell will be perfectly miserable but not equally miserable.
In determining the degree of punishment in hell, our Lord takes into account the words (Matt. 12:26, 37) and works (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 20:11-15, 22:12) of sinners.
Disobedience and unbelief due to ignorance do not deliver one from punishment for ignorance of the Law is no excuse (Lev. 5:17). But sins done in ignorance will not receive as much punishment as sins done consciously in violation of known law.
Luke 12:47-48 47 "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48 "But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
The more you know, the more responsible you are to live up to that light. The greater the responsibility, the greater the punishment.
Certain cities were liable to more divine punishment because they actually saw and heard the Christ and, yet, refused Him.
Matt. 10:15 "Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!
Matt. 11:20-24 20 Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: 21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 "But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. 23 "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 "But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."
The writer of the Hebrews speaks of some unbelievers receiving more punishment than others.
Hebrews 10:29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?
The sin of the Pharisees was made greater by their contact with Christ (John 15:22).
While the fact of judgment is determined by what we are, i.e., our nature, the degree of punishment is determined on the basis of the amount of true knowledge we have received and the quality of life that we lived (Rom. 2:3-6).
Proposition 5: The explicit teaching of Scripture is that the only way to escape the wrath of God is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John 3:36 "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
John 10:9 "I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
Acts 4:12 "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
Romans 3:25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
I Cor. 3:11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
I Tim. 2:5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,
Proposition 5: All non-Christian religions are condemned in Scripture because they: (a) are idolatrous-pagan religions are not man’s search for God but they are mans’ rejection of God (Rom 1:18-25) (b) actually give worship to Satan and his demons (I Cor. 10:19-22), and (c) fail to find God through the wisdom of this world (I Cor. 1:18-31).
The heathen are not worshipping the true God in their religions. We reject the false idea that all religions are just different roads to God. All unbelievers are idolators.
Proposition 6: The absence of special revelation does not in any way relieve the heathen from perishing.
The fact that they die physically reveals that God views them as sinners and that they face a Christless eternity in the second death.
For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without law;
In the day when God shall judged the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel (Rom 2:11-12, 16).
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (Rom. 5:12).
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life thorugh Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom.6:23).
Proposition 7: The Scriptures teach that all unbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire when Jesus returns in glory and power (Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 21:6).
II Thessalonians 1:8 tells us about the fate of those who do not know God.
7 and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,10 when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.
Proposition 8: Unbelievers must hear or read of the Lord Jesus Christ through a human instrument in order to be saved.
The Gospel does not come to us from angels, visions or dreams. God has committed unto the Church the privilege and responsibility of spreading the Gospel.
Matt. 28:19-20 19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
Mark 16:15 And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.
Romans 10:13-17 13 For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved." 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!" 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?" 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
Proposition 9: God will always send the Gospel by a human instrument to those who have been ordained to eternal life.
Read the example of Cornelius 9Acts 11:13-14).
Proposition 10: If salvation is possible through ignorance or neglect of the Gospel, then Jesus Christ died in vain, i.e., for nothing.
His death was unnecessary and a mockery if salvation can be obtained by any other manner than by believing in Him.
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain (Gal. 2:21).
We can see through this study that the answer to the question of the heathen is easily answered if you understand the Gospel and the purpose of the cross of Christ. Without this understanding, we remain as ignorant as they.