The second element of the question put to me was as regards the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel, and consequently have never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. This is a problematic concept when we try and break it down logically, and I readily admit this. However the uncomfortable reality is that Scripture is nearly silent on the subject. I only found a couple of references that alluded to the “ignorant unbeliever” at all. In Luke 12:42 and following, Jesus says that the one who knowingly violated what he knew to be right will be punished more severely than the one who erred ignorantly. Peter in his second epistle is even stronger (2:20-21), when he says of those who once believed but have returned, not only to the world, but to actively trying to deceive other believers, that “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs. . .”
There are several passages that may be inferred to include those who have never heard, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as John 5, Hebrews 9, and Revelation 20. There are vastly more passages which describe only the fate of those who have turned their back on the Lord—a far more active thing. But even from the few passages that do seem to include all people everywhere, we can infer that all flesh will be subject to judgment. Moving from this inference to the conclusion that those who have never heard are subject to the same punishment as those who actively oppose Jesus, requires a leap that Scripture does not make.
Scripture is quite clear that only those who have believed in the Lord receive eternal life (though I must qualify that the conventional evangelical definition of the term "believe" as "intellectual assent to orthodox propositions" is wide of the mark). Universalism is not a Biblical concept. But to say with certainty that the ignorant unbeliever will languish in eternal, conscious torment along with the one who has rejected and opposed Christ, is not a conclusion Scripture supports.
Finally, although this last point is a logical one and not a scriptural one (and therefore I offer it as a point to consider, not a doctrine), I have been struck by a number of cases over the years where the Spirit of God has clearly prepared a people group to receive the gospel, in some cases generations before any missionary arrives. Repeatedly I have read of missionaries arriving in a place to find people to whom elements of the truth of God have been revealed without any clear knowledge of the gospel, but who as soon as they heard the word of Christ have realized that this is what they were waiting for. It seems to me that we should be careful not to seal up our doctrinal boundaries so tightly as to exclude from our belief system those in whom the Spirit of God has been working without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood missionary.
None of this excuses us from our mandate to spread the gospel. As I said at the outset, our king has given us marching orders, and they are to be followed, not because of what will happen if we don’t, but because he’s our king. But as to the fate of those we don’t reach before they die, perhaps the most relevant scripture is Jesus’ counsel to Peter when he asked about John’s fate: “. . .what is that to you? You follow me.”
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