The “Heathen” and the Unknown God – Part 1

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2022

“Mr. Koukl, I want to get in a pointed comment here.” The talk show host hesitated, dramatizing the moment for his radio audience. “We were talking about the person in Southeast Asia,” he continued, “the pagan or Buddhist or anyone who has never heard of Western Christianity. Father Kidney said, according to his [Roman Catholic] faith, that a person may be saved if he is honest and follows his religion. Do you believe that, or do you believe he is damned?”

Inside, I winced. The question was phrased so bluntly that my answer was bound to offend. In fact, on one level—an emotional one—it even bothered me.

“No,” I answered calmly, “I don’t believe he will be saved without the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Despicable Doctrine

This challenge has nipped at the heels of Christians for ages. It’s caused some to limp through their witness with shrugs, apologies, and uncertainties. When they respond with biblical clarity, they suffer dismissal for their “arrogant,” “narrow-minded,” or “insensitive” dogma.

The fate of the unevangelized is one of the most taxing issues I face since answering it requires making the kind of thoughtful, theological distinctions critics are not fond of countenancing. No matter how carefully the answer is characterized, the truth is still odious to them—a genuine stumbling block, foolishness.

The issue can be answered, though, but the solution has some theological twists. The question is fraught with misconceptions and is often laden with emotion. As with many apologetics concerns, however, sound and precise theology is frequently all that’s needed to untangle the elements and bring order. That is what I intend to do in the next two issues of Solid Ground.

At face value, in a postmodern culture, the exclusivity of the gospel and the requirement of faith in Christ for salvation are a bit much even for many committed believers. To non-Christians, the doctrine is despicable. If hearing the name of Jesus is a requirement for salvation, then entire cultures have been consigned to perdition, reducing the Almighty to a petty racist. Is that fair? Is it just?

Even C.S. Lewis drew the circle wider than many evangelicals would feel comfortable with. He distinguished between those who aggressively evade the Son of God and those who reject him out of “honest ignorance or honest error.” Of the latter, Lewis says:

If their intentions were as good as I suppose them to have been...I hope and believe that the skill and mercy of God will remedy the evils which their ignorance, left to itself, would naturally produce.[1]

The Common Denominator

Is it possible that the Bible lends support to this idea? Paul argues against works salvation by appealing to a single common denominator of the redeemed of every age. God justified New Testament believers the same way he justified Old Testament believers—by faith.

What of Old Testament believers who never knew Jesus? What of Melchizedek, a priest of El Elyon (a Canaanite name for God Most High)?[2] Or Rahab, a pagan prostitute who knew only that the Hebrew God was “God in heaven above and on the earth beneath”? [3]

Peter tells Cornelius that “God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is welcome to him” (Acts 10:34–35). Lydia was simply a “worshiper of God” whose heart the Lord opened to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).

Doesn’t it make sense that, as Rabbi Weiss argued on that radio show, “all human beings, as long as they are decent, as long as they uphold the fundamental commandments...are promised a place in the world to come”?

Some New Testament texts seem to agree. Paul writes, “[God] will render to every man according to his deeds.... For there is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:6, 11). Jesus himself states, “An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28–29).

What Must I Do?

Fundamentally, the question of salvation is a question about criteria. With the Philippian jailer, we ask, “What must I do to be saved?” How, though, can we know what God wants?

I put this question to a group of Christians. Their answer: God must reveal himself. For example, he’s revealed “his eternal power and divine nature…through what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).

“Is the issue of salvation, though, a question of who God is—his attributes—or of what God wants—his desires?”

They thought for a minute. “What he wants,” they agreed finally.

“Look at Betty at the end of the table. We can know some general things about her by observation. But how can we know her desires?”

Their response was immediate: “She has to tell us.”

Right. The same is true with God. He reveals something of his nature through the created order. But we cannot know his desires—specifically, what we must do to be saved—unless he tells us. Only when God speaks can we move beyond vague inferences to specifics.[4]

The fact that God has spoken is foundational to the Christian message. We don’t have to guess what he wants. He’s told us, and when God speaks, his Word puts an end to speculation. So what has God said? What is the biblical answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?”

Unfortunately, Scripture seems to offer two completely different—and contradictory—answers to that question, as evidenced in the verses above.

When the Philippian jailer asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30–31). When the specialist in the Jewish Law asked Jesus the same question, though, Jesus directed him to Moses. “What is written in the Law?” he asked. When the lawyer cited the two great commandments, Jesus simply responded, “Do this and you will live” (Lk. 10:25–28).

So which is it? Believe or behave? Is salvation through trust in Jesus or through obedience to Moses? When it comes to the question of the unevangelized—those who worship the “unknown God” and seek to faithfully follow the precepts of their own religions in “honest ignorance or honest error”—are they heirs of eternal life, made righteous through their own religion, or are they rejected by God for rejecting a Christ of whom they’ve never heard?

It’s time to begin to untie that tangle.

The Problem of God’s Narrow Ways

To properly understand the biblical teaching on salvation, we must be crystal clear on something crucial at the outset: The God of Scripture has always been narrow.

The Passover was God’s first act of deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery. Yet, in the rescue, there was danger. Those not “under the blood” were at lethal risk. Note God’s sober warning through Moses that an angel of death would sweep over Egypt on the night of that first Passover:

For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12–13)

The Egyptians were a profoundly religious people, yet their single-minded devotion to the gods of their own pantheon offered them no protection from the wrath of the one true God. Indeed, the plagues were not just judgments against the Egyptians, but against their false gods as well (“and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”).

Soon after, at Sinai, the very first commandment God gave to the Jews defined the narrow path they were to follow: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3).

In the book of Numbers, when God sent poisonous snakes sweeping through the camp as judgment for the Jews’ rebellion during their wanderings in the wilderness, God made a narrow provision for their escape: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live’” (Num. 21:8).

Note carefully that only those Jews who looked on the brazen serpent physically survived. Jesus likened this event to his crucifixion, the only means of mankind’s spiritual survival: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in him have eternal life” (Jn. 3:14–15).

Jesus’ own claim towards the end of his life, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me,”[5] perfectly coincided with his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount at the outset of his ministry:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt. 7:13–14)

Those whom Jesus personally trained to follow after him proclaimed the same narrow message. Early in Acts, Peter preached the necessity of faith in Christ to the Jews even though they were deeply and faithfully committed to their own religious traditions:

He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11–12)

Paul wrote that God desires all to be saved by means of God’s singular solution, specifically that “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:4–6).

Regardless of where one reads, then—the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, the book of Acts, or the Epistles—the message is the same: When it comes to salvation, God’s way has always been narrow.

The Problem of Sincerity

Most people in the world worship something beyond themselves. Some kind of god is the object of their religious attentions and affections, and with complete sincerity, they pay him—or it, or them—genuine homage. Why assume, though, that this is enough? Has God revealed that mere sincerity is adequate? No. Scripture says just the opposite.

In his sermon on Mars Hill,[6] Paul acknowledged that the Athenians were “very religious in all aspects.” Indeed, they had even erected an idol “to an unknown God.” Worshiping in ignorance, however—even with Lewis’s “good intentions”—was not adequate, Paul instructed them. The great Lord of heaven and earth was not made of gold or silver or stone, and he could not be contained by temples made with human hands.

Yes, God could be found by them, Paul acknowledged—if they would seek him in truth—but the Athenians had not found him yet, and the profusion of their idols was proof.

Paul chastised them for their false views of God then called them to repentance, warning that judgment in righteousness was coming and that Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected one, would preside over it.

There was no hint of pluralism in Paul’s words on Mars Hill, and he gave no hope that the men of Athens would find any refuge in their sincerity.

Later, Paul speaks explicitly to the question of sincerity when he pours out his heart in lament for his lost brothers, the Jews:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:1–4)

The Jews had zeal, no question. It was the same zeal that compelled Paul to vigorously pursue Christians from city to city, punishing them, imprisoning them, and even overseeing their executions (Acts 26:9–11). It was this misdirected zeal—this errant sincerity—that qualified Paul not as a righteous religious man but as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13–15).

Sincere zeal must be aligned with truth. This is the case in virtually every area of our lives, but it’s especially vital in spiritual things. Canaanites worshiping Molech did so zealously, but Molech was a non-god, an idol. Zeal is not an adequate defense. In fact, it can have disastrous results if not wedded to right knowledge (faithful Canaanite “worship” included child sacrifice).

The Problem of Goodness

What of the good person, though? Surely, God will not reject him? Even the Scriptures seem to affirm as much, as we have seen (above). And what choice is there, anyway, for the decent non-believer who is geographically out of range of the gospel? If he is honest and follows his religion (Father Kidney), if his intentions are good (Lewis), if he keeps the great commandments (Jesus), will he not enjoy eternal life?

Granted, if a man keeps God’s law, he’ll have no problem with God. Paul and Jesus both agree on this. The innocent “heathen” who has never heard the gospel goes straight to Heaven when he dies. Why shouldn’t he, if he’s innocent? The next question, however, is crucial: Where is such a person?

Poll anyone on the definition of “basically good,” and you’ll notice something interesting. Invariably, when we are the ones identifying real evil, we always come out fairly clean in the analysis. Our standards are generous because our self-interests are involved. The temptation to cover our own tracks is strong.

The line dividing good folk from bad lies somewhere below us. We always seem to make the “good person” cut. Virtually everyone thinks himself in the winners’ circle, more or less, nothing like Dickens’s “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” Ebenezer Scrooge.

Poll God, and measure by his standards, though, and the picture changes dramatically. Scrooges abound, and much worse. Even when the multitude of God’s commands are reduced to two simple maxims—love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself—our lives are still moral disasters.

Think back on the lawyer in Luke 10 who asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer understood the necessity of loving God, but the second commandment confused him. He needed clarification, but note his motivation: “Wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan follows, not principally as a morality tale—though that is how most understand it, unfortunately—but rather as an assault on any attempt at self-justification. Jesus uses the parable to eradicate any hope any of us might entertain that we can in any wise save ourselves.

There is a fairly obvious reason that rigorous pursuit of obedience will do us no good: All law requires perfection. Note James:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (Jas. 2:10–11)

James confirms a commonsense notion. Laws are meant to be kept, and any violation deserves appropriate punishment. If you keep 99 laws but violate the 100th, you are a lawbreaker, nonetheless, and retribution awaits you.

That is the reason why law-abiding citizens do not periodically get congratulatory letters from their district attorneys applauding them for their rectitude and inviting them to knock off a few gas stations since they now have credit on their accounts. Law does not work that way—man’s law or God’s law.

Where is the good Buddhist, the good Hindu, or the good Muslim? The good Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim is only “good” because he faithfully worships and obeys a false god, just like the Canaanites did­­­—which can’t be good, but bad, since it violates the true God’s first commandment.

Where is the good Christian, for that matter? He doesn’t exist, not when measured by God’s standards. Jesus made that clear: “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Put simply, the problem with goodness is that none of us—from the least to the greatest—can ever be good enough. God’s perfect law puts us all under sin, as Paul writes, “that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). God’s standards of moral perfection silence every claim to self-righteousness. Each of us stands guilty in the dock.

Whenever I am tempted to weigh myself using the balance of good behavior, I recall these words of the psalmist:[7]

If you, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?

If our moral scorecards are the standard for our acceptance by God, we are all doomed. The Scripture is clear: “There is none righteous, not even one…. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Thus, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight.”[8] The record destroys us all. “Oh Lord, who can stand?” None can.

In the end, God’s law breaks each one of us—Jew or Gentile, priest or pagan, evangelized or unevangelized—because goodness is not the real problem. Badness is.

The Central False Assumption

That evening on the radio, in my conversation with two religious Jews and a Roman Catholic priest, Rabbi Weiss voiced the concern at the heart of the problem of Christian exclusivism:

I would have to state very squarely...we don’t accept that [people are lost without Christ] at all. We believe that the Almighty would have to be a very cruel, very unfeeling God that would make it necessary for so many millions of his children who are not in contact and who never have been in contact with anybody to spread the good news, to be damned eternally.

The rabbi, though, was making a mistake virtually everyone makes who balks at the demands of the gospel. It is a false assumption, a critical error made even by many Christians, a fundamental misunderstanding regarding those who have never heard the gospel. No one goes to Hell for lack of belief in Christ, whether they’ve heard of him or not. Rather, they are punished for breaking God’s law—something everyone is guilty of.

When the books are finally opened at the final reckoning, men will be judged by their deeds, not by their lack of belief, and everyone so judged perishes because each is guilty:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds…. And they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds…. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11–15)

That is the bad news, and the bad news is very, very bad. But bad news is what makes the good news good, the ray of hope revealed in the very next verse of the psalm I cited:

But there is forgiveness with you,
That you might be feared.

Is forgiveness available to everyone? Yes, I think it is, but it must be carefully—and biblically—qualified. Forgiveness from our narrow, holy God will not be on the basis of sincerity. It will not be on the basis of misplaced religious zeal. It will not be on the basis of personal goodness. That, the Scripture makes clear.

Being convinced of these biblical truths is the first step to untying the tangle of the question of the fate of those who have never heard the gospel. It is the starting point, not the final word.

There are more pieces to this puzzle than those I have laid before you here. Revealing the rest of them and piecing them together to present a final picture will be the focus of the next issue of Solid Ground.


[1] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 110.

[2] Genesis 14:18–20.

[3] Joshua 2:11.

[4] Knowing God’s moral desires—the law God has revealed by writing it on our hearts—would be an exception.

[5] John 14:6.

[6] Acts 17:22–31.

[7] Psalm 130:3.

[8] Romans 3:10, 23; 3:20.