What About Those Who’ve Never Heard the Gospel?

An old friend of mine asked me to address the status of all of those who have never heard the Gospel. Scripture suggests that, at least in a certain sense, there’s no such person. Prior to anyone presenting a Bible, two “missionaries” proceed us everywhere: Creation and Conscience.  Our job is to build upon what they’ve already done.  Those who die before we arrive are judged by how they responded to these two missionaries. Let’s take each, one at a time.

I. The First Witness: Creation

St. Paul does some great work on this question in his epistle to the Romans. One of the most important, and controversial, passages is Romans 10:11-17, in which he says:

For the scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring (the) good news!”

But not everyone has heeded the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what was heard from us?” Thus faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

There are some Christians who use this passage to argue that anyone who never heard Christianity proclaimed went to hell. Such an interpretation is problematic, because by that logic, the faithful Jews of the Old Testament went to Hell, and certainly, that’s not right. For example, Scripture describes Elijah as being taken up into Heaven, yet he never knew the name Jesus (2 Kings 2:11). So clearly, it’s possible to have never heard the New Testament and still be saved, or the folks living pre-New Testament weren’t saved. But more fundamentally, that interpretation takes Paul’s words out of context. Look at the very next thing he says, in Romans 10:18,

But I ask, did they not hear? Certainly they did; for “Their voice has gone forth to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”

What’s Paul quoting there, and whose the “they” in question? Well, he’s quoting Psalm 19:4, and the context shows that Nature is the “they.” The Psalm begins:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft.
One day to the next conveys that message; one night to the next imparts that knowledge.
There is no word or sound; no voice is heard;
Yet their report goes forth through all the earth, their message, to the ends of the world.

So in response to the question, “What of those folks who’ve never heard of Jesus?” Paul essentially says, “No such thing.” That’s because when Nature proclaims the Glory of God, it’s proclaiming the Glory of Jesus Christ, since “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). Nature, without word, sound, or voice, proclaims the Glory of Christ, and everyone everywhere “hears” it. We can see a Creation, and know that a Creator is logically required. We can see beauty, and know that Nature’s God is loving. These things are things we can know without a missionary or a Bible.

So through Creation, we can come to a knowledge of God. We can observe that we have a Creator, and that our Creator loves us enough to make a world with beauty. This knowledge of God creates accountability. Paul says in Romans 1:18-25 of those Gentiles who turned away from God:

The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.

As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.

While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Paul seems to suggest that they dohave an excuse for those things they cannot know or perceive. That is, God isn’t judging them based on what they never heard or knew (that Jesus Christ became Man, died for our sins, and was risen from the Tomb), but judging them based on what they did know (that Creation requires an all-powerful Creator). So when the pagans turn towards idolatry, their turning towards absurdity. Obviously, a man-made thing didn’t make man. Something from Nature can’t be responsible for creating Nature. Paul rightly derides idolatry as foolish. We have with us today plenty of those who claim to be wise, and mock Theism, without any viable counter-explanation for how the universe could have come into being, how something could have come form nothing. It’s foolishness. There’s simply no refuting the fact that the universe is a contingent and created thing, and requires a Creator.

II. The Second Witness: Conscience

So Creation is a “missionary” of sorts to those who never hear the words of Scripture or the teachings of the Church. the first missionary is Creation. We all experience this, and we’re all accountable for it. The second is conscience. From Romans 2:1-16:

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.

We know that the judgment of God on those who do such things is true. Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?

By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness. Yes, affliction and distress will come upon every human being who does evil, Jew first and then Greek. But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, Jew first and then Greek.

There is no partiality with God. All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it.
For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified.

For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.

A pagan, or even an atheist, whoshies away from murder because he knows in his heart that it’s wrong is obeying the Law of God written on his heart: conscience. God is pleased with him for this. Conversely, someone who commits murder is guilty of violating this same law, even if he’s never heard of the Bible. He stillknowsmurder is wrong. You don’t need Moses to tell you that God doesn’t want you murdering people. Certain things – murder, adultery, theft, rape – feel wrong. That sensation of “I shouldn’t be doing this” is conscience. And we’re accountable for it.This is the reason, by the way, that many atheists are moral, or strive to be. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they can sense that there are moral absolutes: that true Right and Wrong exist, beyond simply our biological urges.

So prior to hearing the word of God written in Scripture, an individual already has two witnesses proclaiming the Truth of God to him: Nature, and conscience. From these two things alone, using reason, can be deduced that:

  1. The universe has a Creator;
  2. That Creator is all-powerful, producing the entire universe;
  3. That Creator is loving, making a world with beauty and innumerable pleasures;
  4. There is true right and wrong;
  5. We’re called to do right, even when we don’t really want to;
  6. The call to do right seems to come from the Creator, because it runs counter to what wewant to do;
  7. When we ignore that call, our bad actionshelp bring about much of the pain in the world, and eviscerate much of the beauty.
So a person using only reasonand the witnesses of Creation and conscience could arrive at an all-powerful and loving God who we constantly sin against. That person, if they took these conclusions seriously, would have faith in God and attempt to do His Will.
On the other hand, many who have never heard Scripture (like many who have) will ignore the witness they’ve received in order to justify doing wrong. If you internally know that stealing is wrong, but really want to do it, you simply delude yourself into thinking it’s okay or even morally right in this case. You might say that the person is too rich, or is of the wrong tribe and needs to be punished, etc. Buteven these self-justifications are rooted in some sort of misguided sense of right and wrong. As I believe C.S. Lewis noted, you never justify stealing “because it’s wrong.”So those who’ve never heard of “the Bible” or “the Church” and who ignore or disobey God will be punished, but their punishment won’t be for what they never heard. Rather, it’ll be for what they knew and ignored. It’s for these things which Paul says they’re without excuse.

One final note. As shown above, it’s possible for someone to have an incomplete knowledge. God is just, and won’t hold those folks to the same standards are someone with a fuller and more complete revelation.  As Jesus explains in Luke 12:47-48,

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

To take one example: the Trinity is not something that you’re going to deduce from Nature or conscience alone. So a Christian who denies the Trinity will be held to a very different standard than someone who never learned what, or Who, the Trinity is.

III. The Role of Christians

Given everything I’ve just said, you may be asking, “Then why Evangelize?”  The answer is two-fold:

  1. To bring out those truths which we all know, but often cover up; and
  2. To proclaim the Good News, those truths they’ve never heard.
On the first point: fallen man can recognize that right and wrong exist, and that he’s called to right, but drawn to wrong. But one of the effects of the Fall is clouded reason. There are some thing which a man won’t, or even can’t, deduce on his own without Scripture and the Church. Plenty of folks look at Nature and either can’t figure out that it requires a Creator, or quiet that voice inside themselves.  Showing to these people that this voice exists – that even when they do wrong, they try and justify it, for example – reveals them to themselves.
On the second: From Nature and conscience, we should be able to deduce that we’re sinful and fallen.  We do those things which we know we shouldn’t do, the very things we condemn others for doing.  But the Good News is that’s not the end of the story.  We know that we deserve to be punished for all of the bad things we’ve done, but the Good News tells us that Jesus Christ bore those punishments in our stead, and if we through our lots in with Him, we’ll be cleansed of the disease we know plagues us.  That’s why St. Paul quotes Isaiah 52:7 to proclaim, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!


    1. In reading your post,I had my usual awe with your imparted knowledge and insights/delivery. I felt the need to respond this time because reading this also gave me a sense of contentment with the world and its design/plan. Once again, one of many of your articles I wish I could commit to memory. Catholic theology as you present it is very beautiful and convincing.

    2. Very nice and easy to digest explanation of the fate of those who have not known Jesus. It is an explanation that conforms with the unfathomable love and ever fair justice of God as compared to the self (sect) serving and close minded piece meal interpretation of Bible verses that salvation is possible only through knowing Jesus, and there is no excuse for not knowing Jesus, even for those who live in the most remote jungles of the world who have never learned the most basic ABC… God bless you and may you keep sharing your impressive Catholic insights…

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