I want to begin this discussion with an apology. I have the distinct feeling that this particular discussion is going to be both lengthy and perhaps a tad bit confusing and wondering. Recently, the Holy Spirit has led to begin an in depth study of the mechanics of salvation. I am currently in the course of this study, and therefore do not even pretend to have a precise picture of the entire mechanic of salvation. What I do have is a series of interconnected thoughts and revelations that seem to indicate that the mechanics of salvation are so much deeper and complex than the body of Christ even realizes. So with that in mind, I hope you humbly accept this attempt to but some order to thoughts that are so much higher than my own and will forgive any inconsistent or unclear ideas.
So what is the fate of those who have never heard the gospel? I guess the best place to start to answer that question is where God started the journey with me. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:12, NIV). As I approached this verse, I came at it from two perspectives. First, in what context did Paul write this verse? Secondly, what did Paul mean by death?
The context of the passage actually begins in chapter 5 of Romans, where Paul argues that just as one man Adam brought death into the world through sinning; Christ, as one man, brought life through his death and resurrection (5:12). He develops this thought through the rest of chapter 5 and into chapter 6 where he seemingly concludes the idea by saying, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (6:6). Except Paul doesn’t stop there. He interjects one last thought in verse 7 as if everything he had said prior to this hinged on this last idea. I believe it does.
From the beginning of the thought in chapter 5 up until verse 7 of chapter 6, Paul’s whole argument is stated in two central ideas:
- Adam, as one man, brought death into the world through sinning. Christ, as one man, brought life into the world through His death and resurrection.
- We are freed from sin because death frees us; and through the mysterious ways of God we partake of Christ’s death and resurrection.
As I pondered over these two themes, two questions confronted me. What exactly was the impact of Christ’s death and resurrection? Secondly, what exactly did Paul mean by death? I understood immediately to answer the first question, I had to understand and answer the second. It was this question that became the next step of the journey.
According to most scholars, there are two types of death, the physical and the spiritual. The physical refers to the cessation of life in a physical being; while the spiritual death is the “result of being cut off from God” (Davids). The question is which one was Paul referring to?
Paul writes, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:4). In other words we partake of Christ’s death when we believe, so what kind of death did Christ endure? It seems unlikely that it was a spiritual death based on the definition alone. Christ, was fully God (John 1:1). Can God separate himself from himself? This does not make sense, in fact it almost verges on the ridiculous. And as Towns points out, “He [God] cannot do impossibilities or absurdities” (Towns).
Another reason that makes Paul’s reference to death a spiritual one is the historical fact of Christ’s death. Christ died on a cross in ancient Rome. He was buried in a tomb. This is historically accurate. The Jewish historian Josephus writes, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross” (Josephus).
So what conclusion can be drawn from this? Obviously, Paul must have been referring to a physical death. It is Christ’s physical death that we partake of. Yet, the apostle also writes, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (v.8). Yet, it cannot be died that even believers die physically. This brings us to the idea of judgment.
God’s judgment is an ongoing, multifaceted occurrence. It is not a solo event within the course of history. Youngblood alludes to this in his definition when he writes, “Divine Judgment is God’s method of displaying his mercy as well as his wrath” (Youngblood). In fact, there seems to be two distinct judicial distinctions within God’s divine judgment – wrath towards the sinful nature within man and mercy towards the individual being of man. Paul makes this distinction, when he writes, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
This distinction brings the discussion full circle to the original question. What is the fate of those who have never heard the gospel? The answer must be that they will hear it from Jesus in person at his second coming. The Apostle John was given a glimpse of the divine judgment that will occur at the time. He wrote, “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13). This judgment cannot be for the purposes of salvation because as Paul states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesian 2:8-9).
If this is not a judgment of individual to salvation, then what is it? It must be a judgment on rewards for actions. If that is the case then it a demonstration of mercy and not wrath. If it is not wrath and they are receiving rewards then the dead must have been received into the kingdom. If they have been received into the kingdom then they must have been given the chance to choose Christ after their initial death.
So what does this mean for evangelizing today? Jesus said “the kingdom of God is at hand; and later, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Matthew3:2, Mark 10:15). As Ladd points out is the blessing of submitting to the rule of God that we receive (Ladd). It is experience of trading sorrow for joy in which we share the gospel to world. As Wright points out, “Atonement, redemption and salvation are what happen on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can be rescuers in return” (Wright).
To put it another way, we are not leading sinful man to God, God is using us to draw all men to him. Arnold puts it this way, “Most folks feel that the main purpose of the death of Christ was to bring sinful men to God. However, I would like to suggest that an even greater problem was solved in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The Cross solved the problem of how to bring a holy and righteous God to sinful men. Through redemption (sinward), reconciliation (manward), and justification, man is brought to God, but through propitiation (godward), God is brought to man” (Arnold). It is this focus which evangelism today should have.
Arnold, Dr. Jack L. “PROPITIATION: A Study on Roman 3:24-26.” III Magizine Online July – August 1999. Web.
Craigie, P. C. “Mercy.” Elwell, Walter A. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2001. 761. Print.
Davids, P. H. “Death.” Elwell, Walter A. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2001. 324-325. Print.
Josephus, Flavius. THE ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS. n.d. E-book.
Ladd, George Eldon. “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” Winter, Ralph D. and Stephen C. Hawethorne. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2009. 83-85. Print.
Robinson, W. C. “Wrath of God.” Elwell, Walter A. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2001. 1304. Print.
Towns, Elmer L. Theology for Today. Mason: Cengage Learning, 2008. Book.
Wright, N. T. “To Inaugurate His Kingdom: His Deeds, Death and Resurrection.” Winter, Ralph D. and Stephen C. Hawethorne. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Pasedena: William Carey Library, 2009. 105. Print.
Youngblood, R. “Judgment.” Elwell, Walter A. The Dictionary of Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2001. 639. Print.
All scriptures are from the NIV