Friday, November 17, 2017

What about those who haven’t heard?

The Bible teaches that a person is saved when they hear the gospel and respond with repentance and true belief in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:13). It also teaches that belief in Jesus is the only way to salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Those who have been saved long to see others also saved.  This often results in wrestling with a difficult question:

What happens to those who haven’t heard the Good News about Jesus?

Sometimes people try to use this question as a type of rhetorical weapon to demonstrate that Jesus can’t possibly be the only way of salvation. Oprah, echoing the thoughts of many before her, once asked the question in this way, as you can see in this 2 minute video clip (sorry, the picture is somewhat fuzzy, but the sound is clear):

So, what about those who haven’t heard? This is one of those questions which the Bible does not answer in an explicit, direct way.  But that doesn’t mean the Bible does not address this question.  Let’s consider what may be the most important passage on this issue.  I encourage you to slow down and thoughtfully read this, even if you are already familiar with it:

Romans 10:9 If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
 11 As Scripture says, "Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame."
 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile-- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,
 13 for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

It’s as if God says, “You should be worried about those people who haven’t heard.  Here’s My solution:  YOU go tell them.  If you can’t go, then give and pray so that someone else can go.”

Admittedly, that’s not the type of answer people are looking for.  But it is the type of answer God gives in His Word, which means it is the best type of answer and the most important type of answer.  It’s a practical answer, so let’s stop and think a little about some practical applications of the truth that is declared in the verses above.

Practical Application #1:  People Who are Asking about those Who Haven’t Heard are People who Have Heard

If a non-Christian is asking about people who have never heard as an objection to the truth of the Bible (and I’ve heard it asked that way), it may help to gently remind them that they are not in that category.  If God makes any special provisions for those who haven’t heard, these provisions would NOT apply to the person who is asking about them, since they obviously have heard the gospel. If they reject the gospel now, the Bible offers NO guarantee that they will have another chance tomorrow (Hebrews 3:15, Proverbs 27:1, Isaiah 55:6).  Not only are they not in the category of people who have not had a chance to hear the gospel, most people who are asking about those who haven’t had a chance to hear have never met anyone in this category. Very likely all their friends, family members, coworkers, and neighbors have had and do have many chances to hear the Good News.  It’s urgent that they accept God’s gracious offer of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ Jesus (Acts 2:40).

Practical Application #2: We Should Have a Passion to Spread the Gospel Where Christ is not yet Known

Paul certainly practiced what he preached.  He himself had a burning passion to continually go to new areas where Christ is not yet known. A little later in Romans he writes:

NIV Romans 15:20a It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known,

We’re not all called to go to unreached people groups, but we should each do what we can to support such work.  This includes:

*  Learning about the unreached.
*  Training up Christians to go to the unreached.
*  Financially supporting those who go.
*  Praying for those who go (this is really important)
*  Being open to go

Practical Application #3:  Working to Overcome Language Barriers in Difficult Areas

Today, the main barrier to people hearing the gospel is not geographic distance.  The main barrier to hearing the gospel languages where the Bible is not available and where few, in any, who speak that language are sharing the gospel.  By God’s grace there are now at least some Christians in every political nation in the world.  But when the Jesus spoke of “all nations” in the Great Commission He was referring to all ethnic people groups, not merely all political nations.  Some political nations have many different ethnic people groups living in them and these ethnic people groups often speak different languages.  For example, we lived in Indonesia for fourteen years.  Just on the island we lived on (Sulawesi) there are estimated to be over 100 different languages spoken.  These are truly different languages, not merely different dialects (there are often multiple dialects of each of the languages!).  Many of those over 100 local languages include many speakers who have not heard the gospel, and have very little or no opportunity to hear it in their language.

We’ve come a long way in completing the Great Commission, but there is still a long ways to go.  The cost of completing our task is high.  Most of the unreached live in areas where there is intense opposition to the gospel. There is a great need for more people willing to go long term because it takes years to learn a new language and culture and win people and disciple them.

I feel that these “practical applications” related to the Great Commission and its urgency are the most important thing we should get out of the Bible’s teaching about those who have not heard.  But because so many people struggle with the theological implications of this teaching, I will go on to share a few more thoughts.

Dangerous Speculation

Some people speculate that perhaps people who live in remote areas and who die without a chance to hear the gospel will be given a chance to accept Jesus after they die. While the Bible does not explicitly rule this possibility out, we need to consider how this speculative solutions fits, or doesn’t fit, with the logic of Romans 10:9-15.  When Paul asks, “how can they believe in Him whom they have not heard”, his solution is NOT that those people will get a chance after they die. In fact, the logic of needing to go and preach would be undermined if there were chances to believe after death. 

An Analogy

Here’s my own version of an analogy I’ve heard elsewhere (but I don’t remember where or from whom):

Imagine there is a man in an apartment building. He lives on the 5th floor. His building catches on fire. By the time he wakes up the four floors below him are on fire and the floor above him is on fire and the fire is burning outside his apartment in the hallway. He’s trapped.  Thankfully, a fire truck with a long ladder shows up.  A fireman appears outside his window and calls him to come and escape. 

The trapped man says, “I think there might be a hidden fireproof escape under the rug somewhere.  I’ll look for that.”

The fireman yells, “How do you know it’s there?  Did the builder of the apartments tell you it was there?”

The trapped man replies, “No, but it makes sense to me that there would be a fire escape under a trap door under the carpet.”

Should the man look for the fire escape just because it makes sense in his mind that there should be one? Shouldn’t he instead focus on the one way out (the fireman with the ladder)? Does it make sense for people to speculate on a chance for salvation after death?  The Bible says nothing about that.  The “builder” hasn’t told us such a thing exists.  Shouldn’t we just focus on the means of salvation which God has made available? Namely, going and telling people now, in this life, the Good News.

How this Might All Harmonize with God’s Justice, Goodness, and Foreknowledge

Still, people are understandably concerned about those who died without hearing.  But it is wrong to assume that the only way God can be fair and good to those people is if He gives them a chance to believe and be saved after death.

God has not revealed in detail how He is fair to those who die without hearing, but we should have no doubt that God is entirely just in all He does. “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

We should remember that it is not unjust for God to judge people for their sins and destroy their bodies and souls in hell (Matthew 10:28).  That is what ALL people deserve based on our sins (Romans 3:23, 6:23).  But there might be more to it.  For example, it is possible that God has used his foreknowledge to arrange the world in such a way that everyone who would benefit by hearing the gospel does indeed hear the gospel. The Bible does teach that God determines when and where people will live (Acts 17:26). He may place those who would not have believed even if they heard the gospel in times and locations where the gospel has not been available. It is a possibility.  God might not explicitly tell us this because we might be tempted to wrongly interpret it as meaning our Great Commission is less urgent. I share this possibility not because I know this is how it works, but to counter the type of thinking I hear from some universalists and others that God essentially MUST give unsaved people a chance to repent after death or else God is not really just, good, and loving.


It is not wrong for us to be concerned about those who have not heard. In fact, it is right and Biblical to care about them.  It is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts to move us to complete the Great Commission which Christ gave us.  Nor do I think it is wrong to think about the theological and philosophical implications of this issue.  But God’s main response is an urgently practical one.  Our concern about this issue should first and foremost inspire us to make every effort and great sacrifices to go and share the gospel with the unreached. Jesus will be with us as we go (Matthew 28:20).

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

Monday, November 6, 2017

Because the Days are Evil

“The days are evil.”

The Apostle Paul wrote those words almost 2,000 years ago to a church in Ephesus.  But his words ring true to us in 2017.  Last week’s terror attack in New York and Sunday’s massacre at a church in Texas press home to us the truth that the “days are evil.”

It does not take great wisdom or insight to know that the days are evil.  But it does take wisdom, godly wisdom from above, to know how we should live in these evil days. 

When we see the evil all around us, our flesh is likely to react the wrong way.  We are tempted to give in to fear.  A part of us wants to withdraw and try to hide from the world.  We feel the pull of discouragement and a part of us wants to give up.  But as Christians there is another part of us, a deeper part of us, which has better desires.

Paul sees evil days not as a reason to give up in our service to God and others, but precisely as a motivation to “make the best use of the time”.  What does Paul mean by “the best use of the time”?  We don’t have to guess.  Paul tells us in the rest of the letter of Ephesians. Since we, too, are living in evil times, it will help us to review Paul’s Holy Spirit inspired counsel. It will remind us how to live when “the days are evil”.

Remembering the Big Truths about God and His Work

Paul does not begin Ephesians with what we normally think of us “practical advice”.  He begins with something much more fundamental.  In a glorious burst of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving, Paul reminds us of how great God is and how wonderful His work is in our lives.  God is blessing us with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).  He made plans for our salvation before the world began (Ephesians 1:4).  He has adopted us into His family (Ephesians 1:5). He forgives our sins and He lavishes grace on us (Ephesians 1:6-7). We heard His Good News, and now those who believed are guaranteed a glorious inheritance, and God gives us His own Holy Spirit to ensure that His plan is completed (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Paul then prays for us that God will help us to understand these mind blowing truths (Ephesians 1:17-21).  He also reminds us that our Savior, Jesus Christ, is way above every power, force, and authority that exists (Ephesians 1:21) and that Jesus is using His great power and authority on behalf of His Church (Ephesians 1:22).

We need to remember these great truths when we hear the news of another terrorist attack, or when we get personal news of a problem or trial affecting us or someone we love.

Paul goes on in chapter two to remind us of how we were all doomed to die because of our sins, but God intervened with amazing grace. We are saved by faith, and then God gives us good work to do that is meaningful, important, and rewarding:

NIV Ephesians 2:10 For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10 NIV)

God has called us to be part of His people.  We were far away from God, but through the blood of Christ we have been brought near (Ephesians 2:13). Before moving on to the “practical” second half of his inspired letter, Paul again prays for us.  And what a might prayer he prays (Ephesians 3:14-21)!  He prays that we will be given strength in our inner being, and that we will know God’s incredible, unfathomable love.  These are things we need when living in “evil days”, and we should be praying these things for each other.

Advice from a Prisoner

As Paul continues into the second half of Ephesians, he reminds us that he himself is currently a chained prisoner because of the gospel (Ephesians 4:1, 6:20). Paul has been imprisoned not for doing anything evil, but for faithfully proclaiming God’s truth.  Such a man understands the meaning of “evil days”!

Guided by God’s Spirit, Paul gives us the following advice for living in evil days:

*  Guard and work to keep unity with other Christians, because it is as we serve together that His Church grows (Ephesians 4:1-16).
*  Don’t live like the godless people around us (Ephesians 4:17-25).
*  Follow the example of Jesus and live a life of love (Ephesians 5:1-2).
*  Be pure and holy, having nothing to do with evil, but exposing it with God’s light (Ephesians 5:3-16).
*  Don’t get drunk.  Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:17-20).
*  Submit to others as appropriate in various relationships:  wives submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters (which may be applied to employees submitting to their employers).  Those in authority must use their authority in loving ways which please God and benefit those whom they have authority over (Ephesians 5:21-6:9).
*  Finally, be strong in the Lord and be equipped for the constant spiritual warfare we face.  This involves being well-armed with truth, righteousness, the gospel message, faith in God, salvation, and the Word of God. This also involves constantly praying for Christians everywhere (Ephesians 6:10-18).
*  Paul, who has prayed for other Christians in this letter, then asks for prayer for himself.  He asks for prayer for courage to keep proclaiming God’s Word even though he is in difficult and dangerous circumstances (Ephesians 6:19-20).

We, like Paul, should be seeking to share God’s truth during these “evil days”

Paul makes a similar prayer request in Colossians, but here he makes it explicitly clear that we should also be making the most of opportunities to share God’s truth:

Colossians 4:3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.
 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.
 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.


Yes, our days are evil.  We have been relentlessly reminded of this hard fact in the last few months. But this is not a reason to retreat, to hide, or to be silent.  This is a time to remember the great truths and promises of God.  A time to pray for ourselves and for other Christians to have inner strength and courage to keep shining the light of Jesus and keep telling the gospel.  It is a time to guard ourselves so that we do not give in to temptation or give up in our service.  It is a time to keep working in unity with other Christians to build up God’s church.

Don’t take it from me.  Reread the powerful letter of Ephesians. It was written for people like you living in times like ours. It can be read in less than thirty minutes, which is half the time spent watching an hour of TV. Read Ephesians out loud.  Let Paul’s counsel, prayer, and encouragement sink into your hearts.  Read it again tomorrow. And by God’s grace live it out!

May God bless you and encourage you as you serve Him!

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .