What happens to the unevangelized? This article explains that the reality of hell, the biblical description of the state of unbelievers, and the truth that Christ is the only way should answer the question.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 1999. 2 pages.

What about the Unevangelised?

“What about our forefathers, before the missionaries came?” It was the sort of question I both longed for and dreaded. It gave me a chance to explain again the wonder of God’s grace but it was also an emotionally charged issue.

The young man who asked the question had begun life in a cargo cult in Vanuatu. His family had left the cult when he was a boy but had not accepted Christianity. Now he had somehow ended up at the bible college where I was teaching. While there, he heard the gospel taught and came to faith in Christ. As he began to think through the implications of his new found faith, the inevitable question arose, “if I am saved by faith in the Lord Jesus, then what about my forefathers who never heard of Jesus?”

For most of the students it was only about 100 years since the gospel had first come to their villages. They rejoiced greatly in the gospel. They held in high regard those foreign missionaries and local evan­gelists who had spread the good news around their nation. But the question was always there in the background. What was the final destiny of their great-grandparents and the generations before them who had not heard of Jesus Christ?

The question of what happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel has long troubled the church. It is one we need to think about again. Increasing numbers of children, young people and adults in Australia have little or no contact with the gospel. What will be their fate if they never hear it?

We may be tempted to think, or at least wish, that the universalists are right and everyone will get to heaven, eventually. But such a weighty matter cannot be deter­mined by sentiment or wishful thinking. We must turn to God’s word.

There is no simple, definitive statement in the scriptures regarding the destiny of those who have not heard the gospel. But here are a few things that can help us to consider the question.

First, the way that Jesus himself describes hell shows that it is real, eternal, and a place of terrible suffering. For instance, he says it is “the eternal fire” (Mt 25:41), a place “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9:48), and a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:12). This is the place where God’s wrath on sin is poured out.

Second, Paul several times reminds Christians of their position before they heard the gospel. To the Ephesians, he says:

As for you, you were dead in your trans­gressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.

He then includes himself in the description and adds, “like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Eph 2:1, 3). Those who have not yet heard and responded to the gospel are spiritually dead and destined to experience God’s wrath in hell.

If this is true of all Christians before they hear the gospel it would seem rather arbitrary to say it is not true of those who have never heard the gospel.

Third, the Scriptures make it clear that the only way to escape from God’s wrath is through faith in the Son of God. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Peter, speaking of Jesus Christ, said,

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12

The idea that sincere belief in some other religion, or living a morally upright life, or simple ignorance, is somehow sufficient to allow entry into heaven is contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible. All have sinned. All stand justly condemned before a right­eous God. All are deserving of his wrath in hell. But all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

We cannot limit the sovereign ability of God to save those whom He has chosen. But He has revealed only one way by which a person may be saved. That is through faith in His Son.

It is the consistent testimony of the Scriptures that those who are without Christ are without God and without hope in this world — regardless of whether they have heard the gospel.

An understanding of this truth has spurred on many in the work of mission and evangelism. After a missionary career of nearly half a century, Hudson Taylor affirmed: “I would never have thought of going out to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.”

There are, of course, other motives for taking the gospel into the world, such as concern for the honour of God’s name and obedience to the command of Christ. But surely, it is also right that we, who have received a free pardon in Christ, must have a compassion for those who are still lost in their sin.

Paul demonstrates such compassion in his concern for the Jews:

I have great sor­row and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Rom 9:2, 3

Again, to the Corinthians, he says, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). Paul was passionate that men and women should be saved from eternal punishment.

Such a passion for the lost is a reflection of God’s own concern for this lost world. It was out of His love for this world that God sent His only Son to die for the sins of the world. Can we, who are being re-made in the image of Christ, have any less com­passion for the lost than God did when He sent His only Son?

The young man who had asked the question in my class pondered God’s judgment on sin and the wonder of his saving grace in Jesus Christ. While he could do nothing for the past generations, he was convinced that the only hope for his people was for them to hear the gospel. When he graduated he returned to his village determined to plant a church there. We need such conviction here in Australia.

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