What about those who have never heard?

[2014-04-08: see update at the end]

There are certain common questions that get brought up again and again in the world of Apologetics. Why is there so much suffering? How can you claim your religion is the one true religion? And many others.

One of the perennial questions is, “what about those who have never heard about Jesus?” What follows is not so much an answer to the question, but my own not-quite-half-baked theories that I have been mulling for some time. Use the comment box to provide some feedback whether you agree or disagree.

Some background

The question stems from a few passages in the New Testament that cause folks a bit of concern. Here is a sampling.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
(Joh 14:6 ESV)

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
(Act 4:12 ESV)

No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
(1Jn 2:23 ESV)

And there are others. The basic idea seems to be that there is an exclusive connection between Jesus and salvation. One cannot enter Heaven by any means other than Jesus. This is an inescapable fact of the Biblical data, so please understand that everything that follows fully embraces and supports this reality.

The basic point seems to go something like this:

All those who enter Heaven have received Jesus’ forgiveness.

It’s a pretty simple causal relationship, really. Entry into Heaven is exclusively found through the forgiveness that Jesus offers. If a person enters Heaven then it is guaranteed that Jesus reconciled them to the Father. But then the question becomes, “what conditions led to the forgiveness?” The Bible seems fairly clear on that too (from the above passages).

If a person asks Jesus for forgiveness, then Jesus will forgive.

And, of course, the opposite scenario.

If a person rejects Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, then Jesus will reject them.

But what I find interesting is the middle option; a person who neither asks for forgiveness nor explicitly rejects Jesus’ offer. This applies specifically to those who never even know about Jesus’ offer; how could they ask for, or reject, that which they are unaware of? What about them?

While some people would suggest the Bible is explicitly clear that they fall outside the grace of God, I am not so certain. First let’s consider this from a strictly logical perspective, using the above summary statements.

P1) If a person asks Jesus for forgiveness then Jesus will forgive.

P2) Person X does not ask Jesus for forgiveness, therefore,

C) Jesus will not forgive Person X.

Logicians will recognize this as the logical fallacy of “denying the antecedent.” If it is a logical fallacy then the conclusion is false. What about the other example?

P1) If a person rejects Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, then Jesus will reject them.

P2) Person X does not reject Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, therefore

C) Jesus will not reject them.

Based on the previous example one should be able to immediately recognize this as another example of “denying the antecedent.” If we take these two logical fallacies together then we should immediately be aware of the fact we are making a logical error if we draw any firm, universal and binding conclusions about the fate of those who have never heard about Jesus. If we assume they are all condemned, we are drawing a fallacious conclusion. If we assume they are all saved, we are drawing a fallacious conclusion.

Could some be saved?

Here is where an interesting possibility emerges; could some of those who have never heard of Jesus be saved? It seems safe to conclude that we are committing a logical fallacy if we conclude that either NONE will be saved, or if we conclude that ALL will be saved. The middle ground – namely that SOME will be saved – seems to be the only remaining alternative.

But how? This is where the “not yet half-baked” nature of my theory becomes apparent. I don’t even have a theoretical mechanism in mind. Quite simple, I don’t know. But the possibility that a person could enjoy the benefits of something that the person knows nothing about seems entirely plausible. Consider, for instance, flight. For something that is heavier-than-air (be it an airplane, a helicopter, a bird, etc) to lift off the ground, some kind of pressure differential needs to exist. The wing of an airplane, for instance, produces a higher pressure on the lower surface and a lower pressure on the upper surface. It is this difference in pressure that acts on the wing and produces a net force away from the earth.

Birds utilize this every single day but do you think even one of them has any idea about air pressure? Is there a bird on the face of the earth that knows about Bernoulli’s principle? In the same way that birds enjoy the effects of something they know nothing about, it seems entirely possible that some humans may possibly enjoy God’s grace, even though they know nothing about it.

In fact, Christian theology has long wrestled with the question of infants and the mentally “simple.” The general consensus seems to be that God’s grace, at least theoretically, could extend to them. They could not possibly understand enough to respond to the message of the cross, but we believe God leaves the door open for people like this. It seems equally plausible that God leaves the door open to those who have never heard, but does not guarantee entrance to all those who have never heard.

Some more Biblical data

Since this issue stems from what the Bible says it seems only prudent to consider a few other passages from the Bible that allude to a “bigger picture.”

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
(Rev 7:9 ESV)

The book of Revelation describes the demographics of the New Earth as including some from every tribe, language, people and nation. One should rightly ask about the best method of interpreting the book of Revelation (it is highly metaphorical, after all), so I offer this comment with some trepidation, but it seems to me that there have been plenty of tribes, peoples and languages that have never heard about Jesus, and they are now extinct. Depending on how literally one understands this passage, it would seem to open the door to the possibility that some from each of those people groups will stand before the throne of God.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse.
(Rom 1:20 ISV)

The key part here is the concept that people are “without excuse.” That phrase (or that concept) appears in all the translations I have access to. The idea seems to be that it will not be possible to claim, on the judgment day, “how was I supposed to know?” Ignorance will not be an excuse. Thus, if ignorance is not an excuse, then even ignorance about the name of Jesus will not be an excuse. But if it is not an excuse then that implies God has somehow made provision for those who do not hear about Jesus. If ignorance is not an excuse then it is possible for a person who is ignorant (even about Jesus) to still receive God’s grace.

This seems further alluded to a little later in Romans 2:1-16. Notice, in particular, verses 6 through 8.

I will be the first to admit that I have been unable to find anything in the Bible that specifically supports the view I am considering. With that in mind I offer three brief observations:

  1. As any good logician will point out, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. In other words, just because there is no clear and direct support for this idea in the Bible does not mean the idea is false. By way of comparison, the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but Christians are still right to adhere to that doctrine.
  2. The verses that seem to oppose this theory are not quite as opposed to the theory as they appear at first glance, as I described above.
  3. A major theme of the Bible seems to be God’s eagerness to extend mercy absolutely anywhere and everywhere that he possibly can without backing down on his holiness. Thus it seems conceptually consistent with the major thrust of the Biblical data that God would “find a way” for at least some of those who never heard about him.

Some objections considered

I can imagine some problems or questions that people might raise against this possibility. I will try to deal with a few of them here.

Isn’t this universalism?

NO. As I said above, it seems to be logically fallacious to assume either that everybody, or nobody, who does not hear about Jesus will be saved. It is my theory that universalism (all people go to Heaven) is false, and so is the theory that all people who do not hear about Jesus are automatically condemned to Hell.

Does that mean people can be saved through other religions?

As with the previous question, I would answer with a hearty, loud and emphatic, NO! It is true that every human being goes through life with a set of ideas about how the world works. If it is not a Christian set of ideas then the ideas they hold belong to some other religion or philosophy. Therefore, if God allows a person into Heaven who has never heard of Jesus it seems inescapable that they adhered to some other religious / philosophical worldview.

But I would argue that God saves them in spite of their beliefs, not because of them. For instance, if God’s grace covers a Muslim in a nation where evangelism is strictly outlawed, then God’s grace is extended to them for reasons other than their adherence to Islam. I suspect God’s grace is inversely proportional to their dedication to other religions. In other words, God is far more likely to extend his grace to a Muslim who accepts Islam very loosely and with serious doubts about its truth (their “acceptance” almost certainly being largely a product of social pressure) than he is to extend his grace to a Muslim who emphatically endorses Islam and all that it entails.

What’s the point of evangelism?

I could imagine some people might object that there is no point to evangelism if people can be saved without hearing about Jesus. That assumes that a person is equally likely to be saved whether they know about Jesus or not. I would reject that assumption. If, for instance, 50% of people who hear about Jesus will accept him, but only 10% of those who never hear about Jesus will find themselves under God’s grace (however that happens) then the case for evangelism is still self-evident.

Furthermore, there is something to be said for enjoying the benefits to be found in this life by knowing, and living according to, the truth. Even if a person is equally likely to make their way to Heaven with or without knowledge of Jesus (which I doubt, as described above) it is still better to live a life in accordance with truth than deceived by error. Or, put another way, it is better to live with a more compete knowledge of truth rather than only a partial knowledge of truth.

Conclusion

I’m not putting my neck on the line to say “I believe this” with certainty, but I think there is sufficient reason to consider the possibility that God has made some kind of provision for those who never hear about Jesus. This possibility, even if true, is far from a guarantee of salvation for everybody who lacks knowledge of Jesus, and should not in any way detract from our duty to share God’s love with those who do not know about him.

What do you think? Drop me a line in the comment box.

[2014-04-08 – In researching my response to some of the comments below I came across this fascinating insight from the Pulpit Commentary. My emphasis are in bold. Under Romans 2:6 it reads, “It is further evident from [the word translated “every man”] and still more from all that follows, that all such will be so rewarded, whether before Christ or after his coming, whether knowing him or not knowing him. Nor is the inclusion of the latter inconsistent with the doctrine that salvation is through Christ alone. For the effect of his atonement is represented as retrospective as well as prospective, and as availing virtually for all mankind … Hence the narrow doctrine of some divines, who would confine the possibility of salvation to those who have had in some way during life a conscious faith in the atonement, is evidently not the doctrine of St. Paul.” – http://www.studylight.org/com/tpc/view.cgi?bk=44&ch=2. A further exploration of the Pulpit Commentary makes it clear that the authors are not Universalists.]

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian Church, General Apologetics, Objections. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to What about those who have never heard?

  1. amesh naidoo says:

    Greetings in Jesus mighty name Mr Buller
    Thank you humbly and sincerly for responding to my email and posting your reponse based on the question that troubles me regarding those that have not heard of Jesus and what happens to them.
    Firstly Sir theories to me are just speculative opinions and not fact, its a way to intellectually stimulate arguments to a point where the questioner has no retort and based on this accepts the theories provided without substantiated facts. With regards to the vision of John of Patmos in Revelations After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
    (Rev 7:9 ESV)
    Could the fact that people from ALL tribes even extinct tribes that John saw in heaven be babies and disability stricken individuals that made up this ALL that he saw?
    The logic deduced based on those that reject Jesus will be Rejected by Jesus, and those that did not reject Jesus based on not knowing Jesus, Jesus will not reject them is a view that i cannot comprehend, as inevitably they did WORSHIP some deity and that would deem them IDOLATERS, and that obviously is a SIN,after all religion is a belief system and atheism, Agnosticism‎ etc are religious beliefs, and even before evangelism people either rejected the belief in GOD and people also chose not to bother about GOD, so will that deem them worthy of GRACE?
    The Fact that our lineage stems from Adam and Eve stipulates that the WAY was past on to us and due to the deception from MAN, people followed other notions and self created belief systems hence the span of 1000s of religious belief systems. Now deception to me is a choice as we choose to believe the deceiver, based on the numerous systems of different WAYS to believe in GOD and the SIN we commit along the WAY we believed true we where losing ourselves to the DARK, thats why GOD sent JESUS to reestablish what the original way to heaven is, through JESUS alone and JESUS blood being our SIN cleanser.
    Brother i honestly believe that nobody can answer the question, no theories can substantiate what happens to those that have never heard of JESUS, ONLY our omniscient GOD knows and this unanswerable question should be my step of FAITH in knowing that my GOD knows best.
    i have been researching and asking for an answer to this question and based on all the unsubstantiated theories and assumptions and logical reasoning nothing corroborates any satisfactory reasoning to me.
    This question makes me realise that i cannot comprehend what GOD knows and this puts me in my place regarding QUESTIONING GOD.
    May JESUS continue to bless you with wisdom, understanding and favor and flourish your apologetical evangelical ministry to guide more souls humbly to paradise.
    Amesh Naidoo
    South Africa

    • Paul Buller says:

      Amesh,

      And I thank you for your email inquiry. It prompted me to finally put my theories down in writing.

      You say, “theories to me are just speculative opinions and not fact, its a way to intellectually stimulate arguments to a point where the questioner has no retort and based on this accepts the theories provided without substantiated facts.” It is unfortunate that you think this way of theories. I have tried to present facts to support my theory and the purpose of putting forth my theory was to stimulate conversation, not to place anybody in a position where they have no retort.

      You ask if all the people from every tribe, nation, etc might represent the babies and mentally ill? Possibly. But my point in bringing those individuals into the conversation was to highlight the fact that we assume God’s grace extends to those who are unable to make a decision so it seems plausible that his grace could extent to those who were never sufficiently informed to make a decision. If God’s grace can apply to the one why not the other?

      You are right to point out that worshiping other deities is idolatry and sin. But the truth is that all humans sin and need God’s forgiveness. Idolatry is but one of a long list of sins we might commit. The question is whether God’s forgiveness of sin is possible for those who never knew about Jesus and never had an opportunity to accept him. To point out that they possessed false (and sinful) beliefs does not change the general situation.

      Lastly, you comment, “i have been researching and asking for an answer to this question and based on all the unsubstantiated theories and assumptions and logical reasoning nothing corroborates any satisfactory reasoning to me. ” It may be the case that none of the answers you have found are satisfactory “to you” but that is not the same as demonstrating that there is a real problem with the answer that is provided. Is the logic flawed? Is there Biblical evidence to the contrary? Does my theory defy the laws of logic?

      • amesh naidoo says:

        Greetings in Jesus Mighty Name Mr Buller
        Thank you for your theories and for your response,
        Sir theories are not fact; the BIG BANG is a theoretical concept that exists pioneered by George Gammow that sparked huge debate in the existence of a creator versus the cosmic lottery evolution theory, this honestly led to the source of scientist wasting their time in trying to disprove GOD. Then based on the principles of the BIG BANG and another “life altering” theory E=mc2 by Albert Einstein general relativity(mass is equivalent to energy multiplied by the speed of light squared ) more people started to believe in this based on “intellectual” theories once again that can never be replicated or substantiated, then came along Stephen Hawking who based on the above dedicated his life to disproving God whilst working on “Black Hole’s”, he then theorized ,based on research of the event horizon of the Black Hole that absorbs information that eventually information is LOST (Black Hole Entropy theory, this is what paved the way for ATHEISM on a large scale, as his concept meant that Energy/Information/Life ends and culminates to nothingness, nothingness meant no after life to them so no GOD. How many millions were duped into following this “theory” that led to their demise on a path away from GOD? Over 38 Years his theory stood as sound yet it was disproven by an Indian student cosmologist as he replicated Hawkings theory in a live experiment. The word I prefer is FACT as FACTS can be proven and corroborated and substantiated with supporting evidence, there is a vast difference between theory and fact. Theories lead people astray.
        Regarding the notion of the plausibility factor for infants and mentally ill regarding God extending his GRACE to them and why not to those that were never sufficiently informed, well sufficient would indicate that they had the information but lacked the understanding or the “push” factor to believe, but the information was on hand, so they had a choice period and insufficient information is a FAITH factor, as we walk by FAITH as Christians and not sight, however those that had NO knowledge of JESUS is the question at hand, and to me once again I believe nobody besides GOD can answer that, everything would just be speculative/theoretical/assumptive/opinions/guesses, below are a few sights on the matter at hand with different opinions:
        1. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v6/n2/salvation-before-cross
        2. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v3/n3/creator-clearly-seen
        3. http://creation.com/aboriginal-cannibalism
        4. http://creation.com/god-justice-creation
        5. http://creation.com/hell
        Yes brother all humans SIN, we all sin and fall short of the GLORY of GOD and since mankind redefines SIN the list is innumerable, Now if they that had no knowledge of JESUS period lived righteous then yes they would definitely have found favor with GOD because JESUS himself specified that he came for the SINNERS and not the RIGHTEOUS, implying that righteous people lived at that time, and that to me means that righteous people inherited heaven. So my point on SINFUL beliefs still stand as logic would deduce that if we do not change from our SINFUL nature then we would receive the wages of DEATH, so a sinful belief is still a SIN,
        Finally I am not going to question your logic and theories, ALL I will say is that if there is a question that exists, then an answer also exists, however none of us are omniscient so nobody can answer every question, only GOD is omniscient and only GOD can answer every question, we cannot even comprehend the knowledge and wisdom of GOD so I am going to trust that my GOD is FAIR and knows best.
        Thank you
        Amesh Naidoo

        • Paul Buller says:

          Amesh,

          Because you will not consider theories (not even those theories at the websites you linked to, I am sure), and because you have conclusively decided that no human can know the answer to this question, then there is little reason to continue this conversation. I have nothing to offer that you would consider anyway.

          Thank you for bringing up the subject. Blessings on your ministry.

          Paul

          • amesh says:

            Greetings in Jesus Mighty Name Mr Buller

            I sincerely and humbly thank you for your assistance in answering the question i posed, I am grateful to you,

            Thank you for your precious time, effort, research in diserning your input.

            Jesus Bless You

            • Josh says:

              From a very simple perspective, and if we choose to believe the Bible is literally true in terms of the Revelations 7:9 passage, we can conclude that at least somebody from every tribe, nation and language that has ever existed will be in heaven. According to our current knowledge, we believe there have been some tribes that were never evangelized to that have become extinct. So if we choose to interpret Revelations 7:9 literally (as apposed to figuratively, which would cause confusion on my part about what exactly it would then mean, especially when being so specific) we can believe that there has to be some way for salvation to reach those that did not know the name of Jesus or the truth of His death on the cross, resurrection and forgiveness of our sins.

              Of course, if we choose to believe in something like the age of accountability, where people unable to mentally conceive the very idea of Jesus (ie: babies and the mentally ill) are saved automatically upon death, this could solve this problem as surely some babies died that existed within that tribe. But then again that just shifts the query from “How does God determine who is saved that hasn’t heard about Jesus?” to “Why does God save those who are mentally incapable of thought about Jesus?”

              The truth is, we don’t know the answer to either of those questions, and it is quite possible that at some point in history there existed a tribe that did not contain infant deaths nor any mentally handicapped, as unlikely though that may seem. But we are still left with the question of “So what about people who have never heard?”.

              The Bible tells us that no man is without excuse, and that ignorance will not be an excuse in heaven. That means that there would be some way to receive salvation IN SPITE OF a person’s ignorance about the truth of the resurrection. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans – 1:20. This refers to God’s invisible attributes as being evident, therefore man has no excuse. This passage does not refer to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as being self-evident. This passage seems to imply that a person who sees our world should be capable of concluding the attributes of God, and perhaps then a belief in God, even if they do not know the name of Jesus or what He did on the cross. His invisible attributes are not only understood, but OBSERVED. What should we conclude of this then? That those who choose to believe in a god that is like the one true God is then saved? What if they give God a different name, or a large golden idol of what they choose to think he looks like? What if, for all intents and purposes, they ‘worship’ what they believe the true god of the universe who has all attributes of the one true God of the universe and not one attribute of ‘their god’ is contrary to the one true God?

              What if they, somehow, strike the theological gold mine and conclude all of God’s holy attributes from observations about His creation? But do they still need the name of Jesus in particular? Do they still need to know the history of what Jesus did? If we choose to believe what this passage says, it appears not so. However, those that have heard the name of Jesus yet reject Him who might still choose to believe in the God of the Bible is not saved still. Rejection of Christ causes Christ to reject you. Similarly, acceptance of Christ means Christ will accept you. But as the author asked: What about a lack of both acceptance and rejection?

              According to the Bible, it appears that there is a ‘way’ to receive salvation aside from the acceptance of Christ if you do not nor have you ever heard of the name of Christ and what He did for us. What is that way? We can’t say for certain, but it appears to involve something like a conclusion about God’s inherent attributes from observation about His creation. That appears to be the first necessary step, and I don’t believe we can know the surefire method. Surely, even if we did, it would be pointless and that knowledge wouldn’t be useful to save anybody, as it would still be vastly preferable to teach the whole Bible, particularly Jesus, rather than just that there is a God as evident through His creation and to believe that God exists. Perhaps that is the reason why the Bible does not go into it. We, as Christians and believers in Christ, are to feel compelled to go after those who have not heard, rather than just ignoring them because they can get saved anyway somehow.

              So, ultimately, we as humans would like to know of this ‘alternative’ method of receiving salvation, but that knowledge will not do us nor those who have not heard any good in the bigger picture. If we are able to communicate to those who haven’t heard, we are to communicate the Bible and Jesus, so this knowledge will not help us evangelize. But perhaps this knowledge might work towards convincing a skeptic who thinks God is unfair because people who have ‘never heard’ cannot go to heaven ever. But then again, perhaps not, as these skeptics have merely resorted to an apparent ‘problem’ with the Bible and are not interested in accepting the truth, and that truth might even serve as a stumbling block to cause the skeptic to illogically conclude “Oh, I don’t need Jesus, I can be saved anyway somehow.” or perhaps an illogical conclusion of universal salvation.

              But this all boils down to one final conclusion: We don’t know for sure, and it appears the Bible and God want to keep it that way, whether this alternative method of receiving salvation truly exists or not.

  2. Can we “not” assume they are all condemned at the same time “not” assume they are all saved? Would this not be an appeal to ignorance on the basis of subjective opinion regarding the necessity of Faith in God (pre-mosaic), keeping the Old a Covenant (pre-Christ) or keeping the New Covenant (post-Christ)?
    While it might be theoretically possible for one to be saved on the basis of ignorance in Christ, it hardly seems plausible for mere “asking for forgiveness” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on things like repentance and obedience on the basis of the moral law conviction.
    The context, “without excuse” is within the context of Gentiles who don’t have access to special revelation. In other words, their excuses for their sinful lifestyle and violations of the moral law will be invalid. Is it possible there was a gentile who lived an upright life, recognized a great spirit being, and repented for his moral law breaking? Sure, but realistic? Doubtful.
    Regarding the Revelation 7:9 interpretation, I think you are wholly justified in this understanding. However, I would say these people are children, infants, & mentally disabled who couldn’t violate God’s law based on the inability to understand (Romans 4:15).
    Personally I would make a distinction between ignorance of God (heathen, gentile) and inability to be ignorant or understanding of God (child, infant, mentally disabled)
    Romans 2:1-16 seems to shift from the Gentiles of chapter 1 to Jews of chapter 2. This makes most sense of the context (2:1-4). See theologian jack cottrells NIV commentary on Romans. If this is the case, your hermeneutic of chapter two would be incorrect.
    You made the argument, “absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence if absence.” Unfortunately, we do have good evidence regarding this matter (as you listed in the scriptures above). Not only this, but this argument could be applied to so many situations in the scriptures regarding salvation it could seem unwarranted as proper theology.
    While a major theme throughout the scriptures is God’s mercy, equally so if not more is God’s justice. If God’s love and justice met in a head on collision in the path of an unrepentant sinner, which would turn aside? It would be God’s love.
    While I think you did a great job writing this article, presenting your points, and attempting to open the possibility of more people being saved than we think, the path remains drastically narrow.
    Thanks for your article,
    Rick

    • Paul Buller says:

      Rick,

      Unfortunately a great deal of your response was unclear to me, so I will only comment on the few parts that I could make sense of. I would welcome further clarifications because I think you have some good points to discuss. Perhaps the lack of clarity is on my end (it’s been a full day).

      You say, ” While it might be theoretically possible for one to be saved on the basis of ignorance in Christ…” but the problem is that I never said that. I do not believe that ignorance in Christ is, itself, grounds for salvation at all. I thought I was fairly clear in the article on that point. Ignorance in Christ does not guarantee salvation, rather I was making the point that it may not guarantee condemnation.

      You ask, “Is it possible there was a gentile who lived an upright life, recognized a great spirit being, and repented for his moral law breaking? Sure, but realistic? Doubtful.” On the contrary, I think it is entirely plausible that many people outside of God’s grace recognize both the fact that there is “something more” to this universe than just what meets the eye, and are seriously concerned with living upright lives and are personally bothered by their own moral infractions. I have unbelieving friends who could be described this way. However, this amounts to my opinion versus your opinion so we’re stuck in the domain of idle speculation. The point of my article is that if such a person exists might God have a plan for them? I suspect he might.

      Regarding Rev 7:9 you say, ” I would say these people are children, infants, & mentally disabled” What is your evidence?

      You comment that my understanding of Romans 2 is flawed because it has shifted to Jews instead of Gentiles. Verses 9 and 10 specifically outline the fact that Paul is comparing and contrasting Jews and Greeks (gentiles) so clearly the switch has not yet been completed.

      You comment that we do have good Biblical evidence on this matter, and I have described plenty of it in my article. My point in bringing up those passages was to highlight what they say AND what they do NOT say. As evidence for the fact that God condemns all those who have never heard of him I suggest they do not say that at all, though I remain open to correction.

      You say, ” If God’s love and justice met in a head on collision in the path of an unrepentant sinner, which would turn aside? It would be God’s love.” Here I have to emphatically disagree with you. How could God’s love possibly “turn aside” when, as the Bible says, “God is love?” God would have to actually alter his fundamental nature in order for that to be the case. No, God’s love is an ever-present reality that informs absolutely everything he does.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Rick says:

    First I would like to say great article! I agreed with many things that you said. Sorry that my thoughts were difficult to follow… they were after all random thoughts that I formulated as I read your article so I can perceive how they might have been run together.

    I apologize for mis-representing your argument. We can definitely say ignorance has nothing to do with our salvation, but in many cases has much to do with condemnation (Assuming we both agree to our definition of ignorance as lack of knowledge in Acts 3:17 or a willful rejection of knowledge in Romans 1:28). I would categorize children, infants, and the mentally retarded category of “inability to be ignorant” which would have a secondary basis for salvation built upon God’s grace and mercy in the act of Christ on the cross.

    Considering the moral law, as you cite many of your friends, I am sure being in a relationship with you they have heard of Jesus Christ. I would view your friends completely out of this category. As an example an American Indian or African Tribesman would be more likely to fit this description.

    Regarding Revelation 7:9, I think we could both AGREE that this description definitely includes children, infants, and the mentally disabled from those “tribes and tongues.” However, including any others would be your responsibility to prove (hence your article). My default position would be anything more than these would be based off mere speculation without concrete evidence or plausible inference.

    The Romans 2 switch was actually a complete thought. The reason for bringing the gentiles back into chapter 2 was to drive home Paul’s main point, “The righteous judgment of God falls on Jews & Gentiles exposing the fallacy of divine partiality.” One of the main points of Paul is, “Keep the commandments, and escape the penalty. Break the commandments, pay the penalty.” Paul is rebuking the Jews for their false understanding of divine favoritism. Of course, the only way he can do this is to contrast their condition with the Gentiles.

    Your emphatic disagreement is unfortunately emphatically incorrect. I can answer your question, “How could God’s love possibly ‘turn aside’ when, as the Bible says, ‘God is love?’” The bible says, “God is just.” His love and justice work together. God will love someone all the way to Hell because of his justice. God’s love will not override one’s free will decision to not repent. Universal salvation, which I know you deny, would be actualized for his love would always override his justice.

    Thanks for the article,
    Rick

    • Paul Buller says:

      “I apologize for mis-representing your argument.” It happens. We move on. If I end up misrepresenting you I apologize in advance.

      “Assuming we both agree to our definition of ignorance as lack of knowledge in Acts 3:17 or a willful rejection of knowledge in Romans 1:28” – I agree to the first definition (so does the dictionary – http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ignorance) but I cannot agree to your second definition. To reject a claim as false requires familiarity with the claim. One cannot reject what one is ignorant of. The act of rejecting Jesus entails NOT being ignorant about the claims of Christianity.

      I beg to differ on the focus of Romans 2. Clearly from verses 1 through to 16 Paul is still addressing the universal challenge facing humanity which he started describing in chapter one, and he does so by pointing out those moral realities common to both Jews and Gentiles (see, in particular, verses 6 – “he will repay everyone…” and 9 – “… for every human being…”). In fact, the universality of the first chapter and a half is already alluded to back in Romans 1:16 where Paul is clear that his Gospel is for Jew and Greek. I checked the commentaries I have access to and several of them are clear that verse 17 is where Paul turns his attention to the Jews in particular. The other commentaries I have access to are not detailed enough to comment either way. Prior to verse 17 he is describing universal human realities, and part of that description is an allusion to the prospect of eternal life (Rom 2:7) because every human being is “without excuse.”

      We are clearly looking at the subject of God’s love and justice differently, though I suspect if we were to sit down across a table and chat in person to sort through it that we would probably find that we were saying the same thing in different terms. However, I realized after rereading the conversation that we went on a bit of a rabbit trail. You asked, “If God’s love and justice met in a head on collision in the path of an unrepentant sinner, which would turn aside?” But that’s not the question of the article. The question is not how would God respond to an unrepentant sinner, the question is how would God respond to a potentially repentant sinner who knows nothing about Jesus? Thus we were on the wrong track from the start.

      However, to respond to your comment that God’s justice is as major of a theme as his love, I would suggest you take a close look at one of God’s most significant self-revelations in the Old Testament, when he passes before Moses and describes himself (Exodus 34:6-7). He begins with a description of his mercy, compassion and love (he is slow to anger, faithful, etc), and follows that with a reminder that he is also just. But that second part almost feels like an add-on, or a clarification; as though the first part is really a closer description to his essence. In fact, when he is giving out the Ten Commandments he tells Moses (Exodus 20:5) that he will visit the iniquity of fathers on 3 or 4 generations, but he shows steadfast love to thousands of generations. His mercy “outweighs” his justice (in a very theologically crude manner of speaking) 1,000 to 3 or 4. Even throughout the pre-exilic period, God allows corrupt king after corrupt king after corrupt king to rule his chosen people, sending prophet after prophet after prophet to call them back – warning of impending doom – for many generations before he finally pulls the plug and sends in the Babylonians. Hundreds of years of mercy (with relatively minor international consequences here and there) before he finally brings in the big guns of his justice by removing them from his Promised Land.

      It seems to me that the Bible is clear that God’s love and mercy do not play second fiddle to his justice.

  4. Fred Schroeder says:

    Great job presenting this. My question is, what do you do with John 3:18, which states “…but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’ one and only Son.”

    • Paul Buller says:

      I’d say that a closer look at the context makes it clear that Jesus is dealing with a situation where people had access to knowledge about him. Verse 11 seems to make that fairly clear. The imagery used in 14 draws to mind a similar concept. The incident being referenced (Numbers 21) involves people being informed of the cure – look at the brass statue of a snake – and then looking at it to be cured. Cognitive awareness of Jesus as the basis for belief or rejection seems to be an assumption that underlies the entire passage.

      Thus “does not believe” is not passive and uninformed. Indeed, as I mentioned previously, verse 11 speaks of an active, informed, rejection.

  5. Joanna M says:

    Hi, I may be over-simplifying here but I’ve never considered this a massive issue. Simply because the God we worship is a just God. All my kids have asked me this question and they get the same response. God is not setting people up for failure. The plan that God put in place at the beginning of time was for salvation. The bible tells us God is a just God- so for those who hear and believe – there is justice, for those who hear and reject likewise God exercises judgement. For those who have not heard, God will deal with justly – because that is His nature. The bible maybe doesn’t tell us how these people will be dealt with but it tells us enough about the One who is dealing with them that we can be confident enough to leave it with the Lord and know they will meet with both justice and mercy.

    • Paul Buller says:

      It sounds like you have some very thoughtful kids, Joanna! I’m glad to hear that you are fostering their inquisitive minds. Keep that up.

      The only clarification I would add is that God is eager to extend his mercy insofar as the will of the person under consideration permits it. Every human who stands before God will face his justice, but in every possible circumstance (without overriding our free will) God will transfer the justice that owed to us onto his Son so that we may enjoy his mercy for eternity. This transfer will not happen in all cases – the Bible is clear about this much! – but it is God’s preference and he will exercise that option whenever we allow him.

  6. Dan Raymond says:

    Hi Paul,
    My approach to this has always been simple…I trust that God will extend His mercy and grace to those who have not heard of Jesus justly. Your points about evangelism are spot on…evangelism is for those who would not otherwise find this grace…Mark 2:17 would seem to indicate this (although in context is refers to pharasaism as “There are none that is righteous, no, not one.”)

    • Paul Buller says:

      Food for thought; “simple” isn’t always correct. Claiming that “the stork brings them” is a simple explanation of where babies come from, but an unfortunately inaccurate one.

      Thanks for weighing in.

  7. Melissa says:

    I believe the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, and He will find a way to give knowledge of Christ, other than our limited human means..We are so limited, but He is not. We too often put God in such a box..Also, He does look at the heart, and what if He sees what the people did with the knowledge that WAS available to them..Even though that knowledge was limited..Even if they didn’t have all the teaching, they were receptive to what they did have? Here in the US no one can really say they had no access to knowledge of Christ..so they are without excuse..Somehow God will give everyone the chance to know, he just hasn’t revealed the specifics to man.One thing I find interesting is that the people who ask that question, and use it as excuse for not following a God, are people who HAVE heard, have had opportunity to follow God, but they use that question as a smokescreen….God doesn’t give us all the answers because then we would rely on our own knowledge instead of faith.But He wishes for no one to perish, so I have a reasoned faith that He in His own Way gives those who have never outrightly been taught, a way to come to Him.

  8. Just wanted to add to my previous comment something one of my pastors used to say..it always makes me think and convicts me..Jesus may not return until every tribe and nation IS reached with the good news of Christ, so it gives us some urgency in getting out there and giving those unreached the Gospel..we are God’s hands and feet..

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