As a teacher of theology I am regularly faced with a plethora of questions raised by inquiring students. Though I’ve never tabulated these queries with a computer, I am convinced there is one question that heads the list in terms of numerical frequency. The question most often raised is, “What happens to the poor innocent native in Africa who has never heard of Christ?” The query expresses a deep concern for the person who dwells in remote parts of the earth, far removed from the exposure of modern media or communication. This person lives and dies without hearing a single word of the biblical message. Where does that person stand with God?
Why is this question asked so frequently? Why are so many students plagued by it? Perhaps there are several factors that stimulate the inquiry. First of all, people in the Western world are acquainted enough with Christianity to have some idea of the central motif of the love of God. Add to that the common understanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the assertion of the unique importance of the person and work of Christ. If Christ is unique and necessary for redemption, how can one avail himself of this redemption if he has no knowledge of it? If God is so loving, why does He not light up the skies with a celestial message that is broadcast so clearly that none could possibly miss it? Why is the “good news” of redemption in Christ limited to those living in cultures that have access to it?
The question is stimulated not only by matters of speculative theology but also by a spirit of human compassion. if compassion resides within us at all, we must be ever sensitive to those who live in less privileged circumstances than we. We are not concerned here with a paternalistic or imperialistic sense of cultural privilege but with an ultimate sense of redemptive privilege. There can be found no intrinsic sense of righteousness within us that would induce God to make the means of redemption available to us in a privileged way. It might even be argued that our “privilege” is rooted in our greater need for redemption owing to our greater corruption. However, since sin is universal and not restricted to either civilized or uncivilized, Western or non-Western humanity, we can hardly find the answer there.
What Happens to the Innocent Person Who Never Heard of Christ?
Regardless of the motivations for it, we are still faced with the question. What does happen to the innocent person who has never heard of Christ? The way the question is phrased will affect the answer given. When we ask, “What happens to the innocent person who has never heard?” we are loading the question with significant assumptions. If the question, however, is asked in this manner the answer is easy and is obvious. The innocent native who never hears of Christ is in excellent shape, and we need not be anxious about his redemption. The innocent person does not need to hear of Christ. He has no need of redemption. God never punishes innocent people. The innocent person needs no Savior; he can save himself by his innocence.
When the question is framed in this way, however, it betrays the assumption that there are innocent people in this world. If that is so (an assumption which Christianity emphatically denies), then we need not be concerned about them. But we are faced still with the larger question, “What happens to the guilty person who has never heard?”
The question of innocence often slips into the question unnoticed. What is often meant is not a perfect innocence, but a relative innocence. We observe that some persons are more wicked than others. The wickedness appears all the more wicked when it occurs within a context of privilege. When a person lives wickedly knowing the details of God’s commandments and has been instructed in them repeatedly, his wickedness appears heinous when measured against those who live in relative ignorance.
On the other hand, if the remote native is guilty, wherein lies his guilt? Is he punished for not believing in a Christ of whom he has never heard? If God is just, that cannot be the case. If God were to punish a person for not responding to a message he had no possibility of hearing, that would be a gross injustice; it would be radically inconsistent with God’s own revealed justice. We can rest assured that no one is ever punished for rejecting Christ if they’ve never heard of Him.
Before we sigh too deep a breath of relief, let us keep in mind that the native is still not off the hook. Some have stopped at this point in their consideration of the question and allowed their sigh of relief to lull them too quickly into a comfortable ease about the question. The unspoken assumption at this point is that the only damnable offense against God is rejection of Christ. Since the native is not guilty of this we ought to let him alone. In fact letting him alone would be the most helpful and redemptive thing we could do for him. If we go to the native and inform him of Christ, we place his soul in eternal jeopardy. For now he knows of Christ, and if he refuses to respond to Him, he can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse. Hence, the best service we can render is silence.
But what if the assumption above is incorrect? What if there are damnable offenses against God? That would change the situation and rouse us from our dogmatic slumbers. What if the person who has never heard of Christ has heard of God the Father and has rejected Him? Is rejection of God the Father as serious as a rejection of God the Son? It would seem to be at least as serious if not more serious.
What About the Person Who Knows About God?
It is precisely at this point that the New Testament locates the universal guilt of man. The New Testament announces the coming of Christ to a world that had already rejected God the Father. Christ Himself said, “I came not to call the righteous, but the sinner to repentance. Those who are well have no need of a physician” (see Matthew 9:12-13).
The biblical response to the question of the person who never heard of Christ is found in Romans 1, beginning with verse 18. The section begins with an awesome announcement of the wrath of God:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Notice that God’s wrath is revealed not against innocence or ignorance but against ungodliness and wickedness. What kind of wickedness? Both the word “ungodliness” and the word “wickedness” are generic terms describing general classes of activity. What is the specific act that is provoking the divine wrath? The answer is clear, the suppressing of truth. We must ask, “What truth i being suppressed?” The rest of the text provides the answer:
For 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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:19-21).
Here the apostle gives us a description of what theologians call “general revelation.” This means simply that God has revealed something generally. The “general” character of the revelation refers to two things, content and audience. The content is general in that it does not provide a detailed description of God. The trinity is not a part of this revelation. God reveals that He is, that He has eternal power and deity. The audience is general in that all men receive this revelation. God does not reveal Himself only to a small elite group of scholars or priests but to all mankind.
What else does this text teach about general revelation?
First, we learn that it is clear and unambiguous. This knowledge is said to be plain (manifest) to them; that God has shown it to them; that it has been clearly perceived. Thus, this knowledge is not obscure.
Secondly, we learn that the knowledge “gets through” and finds its mark. God does not merely provide an available objective revelation of Himself that may or may not be subjectively received. We read “they knew God.” Man’s problem is not that he doesn’t know God but that he refuses to acknowledge what he knows to be true.
Thirdly, we learn that this revelation has been going on since the foundation of the world. It is not a once-for-all event but continues in a constant way.
Fourthly, we learn that revelation comes by way of creation. God’s invisible nature is revealed “through the things that are made.” The whole creation is a glorious theater which gives a magnificent display of its creation.
Fifthly, we learn that the revelation is sufficient to render man inexcusable. The passage says, “So they are without excuse.” What excuse do you suppose the apostle had in mind? What excuse does general revelation eliminate? Obviously the excuse eliminated is that of ignorance. If the apostle is correct about general revelation then none will ever say to God, “I’m sorry I didn’t worship and serve you. I didn’t know you existed. If only I had known I most certainly would have been your obedient servant. I wasn’t a militant atheist; I was an agnostic. I didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to affirm your existence.” If God has in fact clearly revealed Himself to all men, no man can plead ignorance as an excuse for not worshiping Him.
Ignorance may function as an excuse for certain things under certain circumstances. The Roman Catholic Church, in developing their moral theology, adopted a distinction between vincible ignorance and invincible ignorance. Vincible ignorance is that ignorance which could and should be overcome. It does not excuse. Invincible ignorance is that ignorance which could not possibly be overcome. It does excuse.
Suppose a person from Texas drove his care to California and came to San Francisco. Upon entering the city limits of San Francisco the motorist promptly ran a red light. A police officer accosted him and gave him a ticket for going through a red light. The motorist protested saying, “I did not know it was against the law to go through a red light in California. I am from Texas.” Would this appeal to ignorance excuse the man? Certainly not. If the Texan presumes to drive his car in California, he is responsible to know the traffic laws. The laws are readily available and are not concealed by being locked up in a secret vault. This man’s ignorance would be vincible, leaving him without excuse.
Suppose on the other hand, that the city council of San Francisco were desperate for accumulating money quickly. Hence they meet in a secret conclave and pass a local municipal ordinance that outlaws driving through green lights and stopping at red lights. They decide the penalty for violating the law is a $100 fine. The catch is they decide not to notify the press or make any mention of the new secret law. The plan is to have a policeman at every intersection arresting motorists who stop on red and go on green. Could the arrested motorists plead ignorance as an excuse? Yes, their ignorance would be invincible and should excuse them.
Thus, the person who has never heard of Christ can plead ignorance at that point but cannot plead ignorance with respect to God the Father.
But aren’t the people who live in remote areas of the world religious? Doesn’t their religious activity remove them from any danger of the wrath of God? Isn’t it true that many anthropologists tell us that man is homo religiosus, that religion is universal? Such people may not be educated or sophisticated in their religious activity. Perhaps they worship totem poles, cows, or bee trees. But at least they are trying and doing the best they can. They surely don’t know any better. If they are born and raised in a culture that worships cows, how can they be expected to do any differently?
It is precisely at this point that the notion of general revelation is devastating. If Paul is correct, the practice of religion does not excuse the pagan but in fact compounds his guilt. How can that be? Paul continues his treatment of general revelation by saying:
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (Romans 1:22-25).
Key Points to Remember:
(1) All men know God the Father (Romans 1:18ff). The problem of the pagan who has never heard the gospel is the problem of our universal fallenness. We must emphasize that God has revealed Himself to all men. All men know there is a God. Thus, no one can plead ignorance as an excuse for denying God.
(2) All men distort and reject true knowledge of God. Since all men know God and all distort or reject that knowledge, they are not innocent.
(3) There are no innocent people in the world. People who die without hearing the gospel will be judged according to the knowledge they have. They will be judged guilty for rejecting God the Father. God never condemns innocent people.
(4) God judges according to the knowledge people have. Idolatry as a “religion” does not please God but adds insult to injury to the glory of God (see Isa. 42:8). Idolatry does not represent man’s search for God but rather man’s flight from God.
(5) The gospel is God’s gift of redemption for the lost. God sends Christ to give people an opportunity for redemption from the guilt they already have. If men reject Christ they face the double judgment of rejecting both the Father and the Son (see Colossians 1:13-17).
(6) The pagan needs Christ to reconcile him to God the Father. Christ Himself viewed the pagan as being in a “lost” condition.
(7) Christ commands the Church to make sure everyone hears the gospel (see Mark 16:15).
(8) Rejection of Christ brings a double judgment (see 2 Tim. 4:1).
(9) “Religion” does not redeem people but may add to their guilt.
Excerpt from Objections Answered by R. C. Sproul