Theology

The “Heathen” and the Unknown God – Part 2

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/2022

The public pressure to treat all religions as equally valid routes to God creates a tremendous emotional incentive to modify the Christian message.

When people want to make Christianity kinder and gentler, they often tinker with the cross. To keep seekers from stumbling, they remove the stumbling block. They back down from the clear message Jesus entrusted to those he commissioned to take his teaching to the world.

The impulse to soften the message is understandable. Out of tenderness and compassion, many want to suspend judgment on others’ beliefs. Plus, there are a host of questions.

“What about those who have never heard the gospel?” they ask. “What about those who are ‘basically good,’ who sincerely worship God their own way? Who are we to say what’s right for others? We can’t read people’s minds. We don’t know the reasons they don’t believe,” they warn. “Only God knows their hearts.”

True enough. Only God knows. Which is why the only way to know what God wants from us for salvation is for him to tell us. In order to give biblical answers to hard questions, we must trade on biblical truths and not on what seems to make sense to us based on mere human reflection.

What God says about those who’ve never heard, though, does not help the cause of the all-roads-lead-to-Rome crowd.

Four Biblical Facts

In the last issue of Solid Ground,[1] I began to wrestle with the question of the fate of the unevangelized. To guide our thinking, I presented four biblical facts meant to answer misconceptions many have about this issue.

First, Scripture teaches that from Passover to crucifixion God’s requirements have always been narrow. The first commandment clearly states Yahweh’s requirement of fidelity to the one, true God: “You shall have no other gods before me.”[2]

Second, Scripture teaches that no amount of sincerity—whether from Jews or from pagans—is adequate to sanitize false views of God. Indeed, Paul says, false religion is itself an expression of the willful suppression of God’s truth.[3] Jesus alone is the “true light,”[4] and the Father himself must be worshiped “in truth.”[5] Paul and Peter both emphasize the necessity of “true knowledge” of God.[6]

Third, Scripture teaches that all appeals to personal piety utterly fail since God’s standard is moral perfection, leaving none righteous, not even one.[7] In short, no one is “basically good.” No moral behavior can save us since no moral behavior is adequate to cancel out immoral behavior. Isaiah puts it bluntly:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Is. 64:6)

Fourth, Scripture teaches that men are not condemned for lack of belief in Christ, but for breaking God’s law. They are judged for wrong behavior, not for wrong belief about Jesus. True, unbelief keeps them from the antidote, the cross, thus sealing their doom (Jesus’ point in John 3:18). However, when the books are finally opened at the last judgment, men are judged by their deeds, and everyone so judged perishes, since each is guilty.[8]

Before we go further, though, I need to clear up a couple more misconceptions about those who have never heard the gospel.[9]

No Pardon Required

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but no criminal is ever entitled to a pardon. No offer of clemency is required before a judge can sentence a felon. Further, if a governor pardons one criminal, he has no obligation to pardon all. No, a pardon is an act of undeserved mercy and generosity. It is not an obligation.

Obvious truths are not always obvious, though, especially when God gets in the picture. The same principle applies to him, however. God owes no man a pardon. Further, if God pardons one, he has no obligation to pardon others. Those who are guilty and condemned receive their just due. Those who are guilty and pardoned receive grace they did not deserve.

God may show favor to whomever he wills. He is not unjust if he chooses to forgive some and not others, as Paul makes clear:

What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Rom. 9:14–15)

Note, also, Jesus’ point in his parable about workers who all received the same wage though some worked fewer hours:

But he answered and said to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:13–15)

If God completely hid himself, providing no mercy at all, he would not be unjust to punish the guilty. In What’s Good about the Good News, Neal Punt writes, “Every person finally lost receives justice. Every person finally saved receives mercy which is not deserved.”[10] D.A. Carson concurs:

The Bible does not present us with a God who chances upon neutral men and women and arbitrarily consigns some to heaven and some to hell. He takes guilty men and women, all of whom deserve his wrath, and in his great mercy and love he saves vast numbers of them. Had he saved only one, it would have been an act of grace; that he saves a vast host affirms still more unmistakably the uncharted reaches of that grace.[11]

So let us be clear on this point. Forgiveness is never obligatory for God. His vast love does not require mercy. Rather, love arouses his mercy, motivating him to act above and beyond what his love demands. Hence, he may mete out justice to whomever he wills, and he may, according to the kind intention of his will, bestow grace to whomever he wishes. [12]

Another misunderstanding needs to be addressed, though, since it creates confusion for us regarding the question of the unevangelized.

Man on the Run

It is tempting to assume there are millions of spiritually naïve yet honorable unevangelized people—the religious version of Rousseau’s “noble savage”—who desperately want to know God yet are left out simply because they are geographically isolated from the only message that can save them. Such an assumption raises the question, Is that just?

There are no such people, though. Scripture makes it clear that man is not so noble or naïve. They may not have heard of the Son, true enough, but they have ample evidence of the Father. What is their response? They reject the limited light given them, not out of ignorance due to physical location, but out of willful suppression of truth:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.… For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. (Rom. 1:21, 25)

Do not miss the significance of Paul’s teaching here. When left to himself, man runs from God, not towards him. Whether there’s a wholesale rejection of the entire gospel in its clarity or a refusal on the more basic level of general revelation—God’s witness in nature—man is equally at fault, “without excuse,” in Paul’s words.[13]

All humans, then—regardless of where they are located—are doubly guilty. First, they are under judgment for their lawlessness.[14] Second, they have rejected the Father—who, according to Paul, is completely evident through general revelation—before they’ve even heard of the Son.

Still, even while they are rebellious sinners, God loves them and desires for them to come to the truth.[15] Indeed, Peter counts the delay of Christ’s return not as slowness, but as patience so the guilty have time to repent rather than perish (2 Pet. 3:9).

Note that man’s persistent suppression of truth and willful rebellion against God creates a serious problem that has only one solution. If sinful man does not seek God, but instead runs from him, then God must be the one who makes the first move to block man’s retreat and turn his head toward the truth.

Jesus said it clearly: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). This means that no “heathen in Borneo” begins a genuine search for the true God unless the true God has first moved in him to do so.

If God has to turn our heads, at least in some measure, before we can respond to the gospel, then God must also supply the specific information needed for salvation as part of that process. Since, in the New Testament period, active trust (faith) in Jesus is necessary for salvation,[16] God will not supernaturally draw anyone to himself then deny him the information about Jesus that he needs to respond to God’s movement in his heart.

The act of God drawing us to himself for salvation and the revelation necessary for a response to that call are inseparable parts of God’s rescue plan. If God does the first, then he provides the second—either through a human messenger or through direct supernatural communication—for any genuinely willing to respond.

Forming an Answer

So far, we’ve covered critical ground. First, God only punishes those who are guilty. Second, he owes no one a pardon. If he pardons some but not others, God is not unjust to punish those who are culpable. Third, guilty people don’t seek God; they run from him. Fourth, God still takes the initiative to pursue rebellious human beings out of love.

With all these elements in place, we can construct a response to our initial challenge.

For anyone to come to God, he must come on God’s terms, and only God can tell us what those terms are. The continuity of salvation, the common denominator through all ages, has been man’s expression of active faith in the mercy and the promise of God. All past Old Testament believers—Abraham, Melchizedek, Rahab—demonstrated this redemptive trust. The specific content of this revelation, however, has grown through time. Abraham knew a little, David knew more, the prophets still more. The apostles (and you and I through their word) were the best informed of all.

We don’t know what the content was for Melchizedek, Job, or Jethro. We do know what God has revealed for us today, though: the atoning death of Christ. Jesus is the final statement, the perfect expression of God’s mercy, the purest object of faith, the one and only adequate sacrifice for our sins. In fact, today, a person’s response to Jesus is the acid test of what he really thinks of the Father. “He who does not honor the Son,” Jesus said, “does not honor the Father who sent him…. He who hates me hates my Father also.”[17]

God can communicate this information to the seeking heart in two ways. It’s certainly possible that in isolated situations he communicates directly as he did with Abraham. In that case, though, the God who will be revealed will be the true God, not Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Rah, Zeus, or Mother Earth. In short, the God the heathen discovers through direct revelation will be the Lord Jesus himself.

Usually, however, the message of the true Savior comes on the lips of a preacher bearing the good news.[18] When God touches someone’s heart to seek him, he will move heaven and earth to bring that person the message he needs to hear.

Biblical examples abound. Rahab responded to her rudimentary knowledge of the God of Israel, and God brought the Jewish spies right to her door (Josh. 2:1). Phillip “preached Jesus” to the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading Isaiah on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:26–39). Peter brought “the words by which you will be saved” to the household of Cornelius, the God-fearer (Acts 10:23–48, 11:14). The Lord “opened” Lydia’s heart “to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Each was given the specifics of Christ himself in response to their seeking.

In Death of a Guru, Rabindranath Maharaj tells of his life as a young yogi, a guru, and a member of the Brahman caste. He’d experienced astral travel to other planets, had psychedelic experiences, and received yogic visions. Deep meditation led to higher and higher states of consciousness.

Rabi discovered, though, that each step closer to his Hindu gods was a step farther from the true God he sought in his heart. When confronted with the utter emptiness of his life and the shallowness of his religion, he cried out, “I want to know the true God, the Creator of the universe!”[19] God responded to the longing in his heart by bringing the gospel to him through the witness of a young woman named Molli.

On the Street

Christians can be confident of this: Anyone seeking God in truth will find him and be accepted by him. Even so, Scripture clearly teaches that, given human rebellion, the “unevangelized” of any land—even ours—will seek his Creator only if God has already moved in his heart to do so. When God calls, though, he always provides the content necessary for that person to respond with faith in Jesus, no matter how remote or isolated that seeker may be.

Here’s how you might sum things up for a challenger “on the street,” as it were:

  • Assure them that no one is lost for rejecting a Jesus he’s never heard of. God will judge each person by the light given him and the life he has lived.
  • Point out, though, that this is not good news. God’s fingerprints are evident everywhere, and we all know we consistently fail to live as we ought, so none of us has an excuse. We are all guilty.
  • Men are held accountable for their own moral crimes against God, such as they are, and for rejecting the Father whose voice is heard everywhere. Further, God does not owe any person a pardon.
  • God can reach any person in any circumstance. He is not limited by geography, technology, language, or culture. Anyone seeking the true God on God’s terms will find him. The God they find, though, will not be the false gods of competing religions, but Jesus himself.
  • Don’t let questions about the unevangelized distract you from the most important issue: What will each of us do with the message we’ve heard?

That last point is the real issue for the man on the street. When he faces God, there will be no discussion about the heathen who never heard. Instead, the question will be different. What about those who have heard? What about him? Did he bend his knee and ask Jesus for forgiveness?

Ultimately, that will be the only question that matters.

 


[1] “The ‘Heathen’ and the Unknown God,” March-April Solid Ground, str.org.

[2] Exodus 20:3.

[3] Romans 1:18–25.

[4] John 1:9.

[5] John 4:23.

[6] Colossians 2:2; 2 Peter 1:3, 8.

[7] Romans 3:10.

[8] Revelation 20:13.

[9] There is no biblical reason to believe, by the way, that anyone who rejects God’s rescue in this life will have a second chance in the next. Hebrews 9:27 seems decisive: “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” The urgency to communicate the gospel to perishing people on this side of the grave is also a strong indicator that there is no hope for redemption on the other side of the grave. See also Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31.

[10] Neal Punt, What’s Good about the Good News? (Chicago: Northland Press, 1988), 121.

[11] D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 103.

[12] Ephesians 1:5.

[13] Romans 1:20.

[14] Romans 1:28–32.

[15] Romans 5:8, 1 Timothy 2:4.

[16] See Galatians 2:16, John 8:24, John 11:25–26, John 3:18, Acts 16:31, and Acts10:43.

[17] John 5:23b, 15:23.

[18] Romans 10:14–15.

[19] Rabindranath R. Maharaj, Death of a Guru (Philadelphia and New York: A.J. Holman, 1977), 122.