Those who have never heard
Romans 10:13,14 says,
For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of who they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
Jesus’ final words to his disciples included a command to preach the gospel to the whole world and the promise that the Holy Spirit would give them the power they needed to carry out this command.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
But in spite of this command and the fact that he has given us the power to carry it out there are many people who die without ever hearing the gospel. What will be their fate at the final judgment?
Even though not everyone has heard the gospel everyone has some knowledge of God. Romans 1:19-20 says that God has revealed his power and divine nature through what he has made.
What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Some people have rejected this revelation and refuse to believe that God exists but there is enough evidence for anyone who is willing to receive it.
Romans 2:14-16 tells us that God has given everyone a knowledge of right and wrong.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
The fact that all religions and philosophies teach moral standards similar to those God has given us through the Bible is evidence for the truth of this statement. This knowledge is imperfect and can be distorted by false teaching but everyone has some knowledge of what is right and what isn’t.
Jesus said in Luke 12:47-48 that when God judges us he will take into consideration how much we know of his will.
That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
Those of us who have the Bible and have the opportunity to learn more about what God wants will be held to a higher standard of conduct that those who don’t. Those who have never heard the gospel will be better off than those who have heard it and rejected it. Second Peter 2:21 says,
It would have been better for them never to know the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
One thing we need to keep in mind is that the Bible is not a complete revelation of truth regarding God but only contains those things that he wants us to know. Deuteronomy 29:29 declares that there are some things God has kept hidden from us.
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.
It is possible that God has made some provision for those who haven’t heard the gospel and simply hasn’t revealed it to us. There may be a hint of this in the first observance of the Passover after the Israelites left Egypt. The Passover was to be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month. But there were some people who unable to take part in it because they were unclean.
And there were certain men who were unclean through touching a dead body, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day, and they came before Moses and Aaron on that day. And those men said to him, “We are unclean through touching a dead body. Why are we kept from bringing the LORD’s offering at its appointed time among the people of Israel?”
And Moses said to them, “Wait, that I may hear what the LORD will command concerning you.”
God told them through Moses that those who couldn’t observe it at the proper time, but no others, could observe the Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any one of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is on a long journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the LORD. In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight they shall keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it until the morning, nor break any of its bones; according to all the statute for the Passover they shall keep it. But if anyone who is clean and is not on a journey fails to keep the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people because he did not bring the LORD’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.
This is the only feast for which God made such a provision. Since the purpose of the Passover was to be a picture of how Christ would die for sin it seems possible that this shows that those who have no opportunity to hear the gospel will still have a chance to be forgiven.
This doesn’t mean that anyone who hears the gospel and refuses to believe in this life will have another chance. Permission to observe the Passover on the second month was limited to those who were unable to observe it on the first month.
This interpretation is only speculation and may not be true, so it can’t be used as an excuse for us not to preach the gospel to as many as we can. But it seems to me to be consistent with what the Bible teaches about God’s love for us.