Are those who have never heard the Gospel lost?

In defense of missions work.

In my role as a missionary, a dear friend once asked, “If a group of people have never heard the Gospel, and then a missionary comes and preaches it to them but they reject it, then doesn’t the missionary bring condemnation to those people?” I did not take the question personally, since it was not intended to be an off-handed rebuke of mission work.  Rather, it was the words of a confused Christian who wanted an honest answer to their apparent catch-22.

At the heart of that question is whether those who have never heard the Gospel are lost to begin with.  The root question could be reworded as follows: “Are those persons who have never had the opportunity to hear the saving message of Jesus Christ held accountable for their sins and condemned to suffer eternal separation from God?”  That’s a very serious question that deserves a serious answer.

Today, there is a prevalent mindset that a Heavenly Father of whom we say, “God is love,” could not possibly hold accountable for their sins those who have never heard of God. Such judgment (to this way of thinking) would be the farthest thing from love imaginable.  It’s not fair, and surely God is fair.

Yet in Matthew 28:19-20 we hear Jesus declare boldly, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Jesus not only intended, but commanded us take the message of the Gospel to those who have never heard of Him.  This seemed, to my friend, to put God and Jesus at odds: God’s love versus Jesus’ Great Commission.

There is no conflict, actually.  My friend’s problem was his misunderstanding of God’s love.  The declaration that those who have never heard the Gospel somehow get a pass because they did not know better, when carefully thought out, not only cripples God’s message to the world, it borders on blasphemy.  While masquerading as a curious question for high theological conversation, it subtly accomplishes the following things:

  1. If those ignorant of Christ are not lost, then God is not a loving God after all. Rather, He is an unfair and arbitrary Judge who condemns one group of sinners (those who have heard the Gospel) while pardoning another for their ignorance of Him. Sin no longer becomes the root cause of condemnation, but rather your unfortunate or accidental knowledge of God’s law. The logical conclusion is that it would have been best if God never made Himself known to anyone, for by doing so He brought condemnation upon many of them.
  2. If those ignorant of Christ are not lost, then God’s mercy and grace are lost in the confusion of “who has an adequate excuse?” The Creator no longer is the loving Father who would rather give His only Son in our stead than see us die, but the Great Judge of Excuses. If your “excuse” is not adequate, you suffer condemnation.
  3. If those ignorant of Christ are not lost, then Jesus Christ would be the cruelest man the world has ever known for commanding Christians to take this message of condemnation to the ends of the earth. Had he not done so, many billions would have not been condemned at all.  Jesus’ motive of dying out of love for the lost sinner would be lost in the cruelty of His command to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
  4. If those ignorant of Christ are not lost, then all those who are messengers of the Gospel share Jesus’ guilt in bringing condemnation to those who have never heard. This would apply also to all that support missionaries with prayer and financial support as well as for members of churches that support missions. In general, the whole of evangelical Christianity becomes one huge cruel condemnation machine.
  5. Finally, if those ignorant of Christ are not lost then we, as obedient servants of Christ, have no urgency in taking the Gospel to them. The Great Commission becomes a farce and the body of Christ must search for an alternative Great Commission…perhaps one that says, “Hide within the Church and let’s be nice to each other, but don’t you dare share Christ with any one outside the Church.”

The truth of the matter is that those who have never heard of Christ are lost. God’s justice demands judgment, but He also “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.”  Rather, “He is patient with <them>, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)  He further “demonstrates His love for <them> in this: While <they> were still sinners, Christ died for” them. God’s love and his patience work together to offer the saving message of Christ to as many as possible.

In Acts 26:17-18, Jesus rewords His Great Commission as he speaks to Paul on the Damascus road and gives the reason why He is sending the missionary to those who have not heard the Gospel. “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

I was a missionary first because Christ commanded me to be one.  Secondly, Jesus gave me a heart for those who have never heard because I long to see them rejoicing with me in heaven.