I have, from time to time, found myself sitting around with friends having theological discussions in which the topic turns to the destiny of the unevangelized. At times I have decided to bite the bullet, lay my cards on the table, and admit that I actually do believe that a person has to hear the Christian gospel about Jesus of Nazareth and respond in faith in order to gain the Heaven that is eternal life in God’s new creation. My declaration sometimes receives a mixed response and has been met with some surprise that I believe a loving God would actually condemn untold multitudes of people to Hell simply for having never heard the gospel. Let me say that I appreciate it when friends and colleagues press me to think carefully and biblically about issues like this, and that I typically find such conversations to be stimulating and refining.
But the question remains: Why would I believe that God would consign people to everlasting Hell? In short, my answer is: As best as I can tell, that is what Paul thought. And if the apostle to the Gentiles thinks it, then I’m basically committed to it. But what exactly does Paul say?
One of the key texts that shapes my view on this is Romans 10:9-17, in which Paul basically says that justification and ultimate salvation come through confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in the heart that God raised him bodily from the dead. He goes on to substantiate his and all Christian mission through a series of rhetorical questions which are intended to make the point that the default position of all people is unsaved; therefore we need to send out preachers so that they can hear the good news, believe in the Lord, and call upon him for salvation, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13). Paul is substantiating Christian mission with his belief that those who never hear the good news will never be able to call on the Lord and experience his salvation, which means they remain unsaved, which, for Paul, is a bad thing and is the same as condemnation.
I know someone (probably lots of someones) will disagree with this interpretation, but it really seems to me to be the plain reading of this text. Paul takes it as a given that the default human position is unsaved, by which he means condemned. He took the better part of the first three chapters of the letter to make the point that the common human condition, for Jew and Greek, is condemnation; falling short of the glory of God, and falling short of the glory of God is the Hell from which we need to be saved.
Here’s the key point I want to make, and it is a response to the common suggestion that a loving God would not send billions of people to Hell just for never hearing the gospel. For Paul, people are not condemned because they never hear the gospel; they are condemned because they are unrighteous and have committed idolatry by worshipping created things rather than the creator who has made himself known in what has been made (see Rom 1:18ff.) People are not born in some sort of neutral default mode only later to become saved or condemned based on their response to the gospel. The default mode is condemnation; the possibility of salvation for even a few (or only one) is grace upon grace and mercy in abundance. And if we cannot see that, we would do well to spend some time reflecting biblically on the purity and holiness of God and his absolute hatred for sin, which is not inconsistent with his love.
One more thing, and I’m not the first to say this, if people will ultimately be saved having never heard the gospel, then, by all means, stop evangelizing! If hearing the gospel establishes responsibility where before there was none, then stop doing missions! If people are by default on their way to Heaven and telling them about Jesus opens the possibility of Hell, then never speak his name again! If people actually have to hear the gospel and reject it before they are condemned, then just keep quiet! You see; the very notions of evangelism and mission are inconsistent with an inclusivistic theology. People are better off never hearing.
So, let me sum up by saying that I don’t believe that God will send anyone to hell just because they never heard the gospel. Rather, I believe that those who are ultimately lost will be lost because they have fallen short of the glory of God in their refusal to give glory to God instead giving the glory that, as Creator, he alone deserves to created things. There will be no scenario where an unevangelized person stands before God and hears him say, “You never heard the gospel; you’re going to Hell.” Scripture seems to clearly indicate something more along the lines of: “You exchanged my glory for a lie, and the consequence is that you may have no share in my glory.”