I am often asked what about those people who have never heard the Gospel? In other words, will God hold those people accountable if they have never heard the Gospel?
In answering such an objection, the issue really boils down to the issue of general and special revelation. Hence, the acceptance of revelation, therefore, is, of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word ” apokalupsis” which means “an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.”
General Revelation: serves to explain the worldwide phenomenon of faith. Many people are religious, because they have a type of knowledge of God. All people have knowledge of God although it may be suppressed to the extent of being unrecognizable or unconscious. It is still there, and there will be areas of sensitivity to which the message may be effectively directed as a starting point. – Erickson, M. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.1998, 199.
What are the mediums that God chooses to reveal Himself to man? 1. General Revelation: Creation: (external manifestation) 2. General Revelation: Conscience: (internal manifestation) 3. Special Revelation: The Messiah: (external manifestation) 4. Special Revelation: A Messenger: (external manifestation) 5. Other Forms of Special Revelation
Medium #1- The Light of Creation
While God predominately revealed Himself to the Jewish people through specific actions in the course of human history, the Jewish people agree that the Torah was the pivotal moment of God’s supreme revelation to them. But what about the Gentile nations? After all, it is Israel that was given the Torah. The good news is God has also taken the initiative to reveal Himself to Gentiles through general or natural revelation. In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine, invisible being, we have to use induction. Induction is the method of drawing general conclusions from specific observations. For example, since we can’t observe gravity directly, we only observe its effects.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened.” (Rom.1:18-21).
In this passage, God’s knowledge is described as “eternal power and divine nature.” Paul lays out the basic principle of cause and effect. Paul says since God is the Designer (God is the cause), His “everlasting power and divinity” are obvious, “through the things that are made” (this is the effect).
Romans Ch1:18: The word “suppress,” means “to consciously dismiss in the mind,”to “hold down”, or to “hold back by force or to dismiss.” However, that which is “suppressed” is not destroyed. As much as humans try to suppress the truth of God’s existence, the human mind is still aware of their moral accountability to Him. In relation to this passage, Paul says God’s revelation says is not hidden or concealed. The reason this revelation is clear is because God shows it to him.
In other words, God makes knowledge of Himself available to man! The creation gives a cognitive knowledge of God’s existence but not saving knowledge. However, according to Romans 1:18-21, man is not left in ignorance about God.
Theologians, philosophers, and apologists have made significant comments in relation to Romans 1:18-21. Here are a few of them.
The revelation of God in nature is mediate, but it is so manifest and so clear that it does not necessitate a complex theoretical reasoning process that could be achieved only by a group of geniuses. If God’s general revelation is in fact “general,” in that it is plain enough for all to see clearly without complicated cosmological argumentation, then it may even be said to be self evident. The revelation is clear enough for an unskilled and illiterate person to perceive it. The memory of conscious knowledge of the trauma encounter with God’s revelation is not maintained in its lucid, threatening state, but is repressed. It is “put down or held in captivity” in the unconsciousness. That which is repressed is not destroyed. The memory remains though it may be buried in the subconscious realm. Knowledge of God is unacceptable, and as a result humans attempt to blot it out or at least camouflage it in such a way that its threatening character can be concealed or dulled. (Sproul, R.C, Gerstner, John and Arthur Lindsey. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing.1984, 46-59).
Former atheist J. Budziszewski: I am not at present concerned to explore Paul’s general claim that those who deny the Creator are wicked but only his more particular claim that they are intellectually dishonest. Notice that he does not criticize nonbelievers because they do not know about God but ought to. Rather, he criticizes them because they do know about God but pretend to themselves that they don’t. According to his account, we are not ignorant of God’s reality at all. Rather, we “suppress” it; to translate differently, we “hold it down.” With all our strength we try not to know it, even though we can’t help knowing it; with one part of our minds we do know it, while with another we say, “I know no such thing.” From the biblical point of view, then, the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist—as I once was—is that he is not being honest with himself. He knows there is a God, but he tells himself that he doesn’t. How can a person explain how he reached new first principles? By what route could he have arrived at them? To what deeper considerations could he have appealed? If the biblical account is true, then it would seem that no one really arrives at new first principles; a person only seems to arrive at them. The atheist does not lack true first principles; they are in his knowledge already, though suppressed. The convert from atheism did not acquire them; rather, things he knew all along were unearthed. ( Geisler, N. L. and Paul K. Hoffman. Why I Am A Christian. Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 2001, 49).
Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork. Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can be transformed into resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; we may see him as indifferent or even malignant. In the traditional taxonomy of seven deadly sins, this is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements. (Plantinga, A. Warranted Christian Belief. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2000, 214-215).
As Norman Geisler says:
As for those who have never heard, the Bible declares that if they seek God, God will get the message to them. Paul declares in Acts 17:26–28: He [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth . . . that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” (ESV).
These verses are reinforced by others that affirm that even the heathen have divine light (Acts 14), for “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 NKJV). Thus Paul could speak to the Greeks about the so-called “Unknown God” whom they really know through His creation (Acts 17). All people have the light of creation and conscience. This has been borne out by the classic twelve-volume work of the anthropologist Wilheim Schmidt, who demonstrated that originally, behind pagan (pre-literate) religions, was monotheism (in his classic work, The Origin of the Idea of God, a definitive refutation of the widely dispersed evolutionary view of Frazer’s Golden Bough). John Mbiti also has demonstrated original monotheism in his African Religions and God.-Geisler, Norman L., If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think about the Question (p. 119). Baker Publishing Group.
Medium#2: The Light of Conscience
“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-15).
The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” This type of general revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. Further, everyone has general revelation in his heart. The issue of moral knowledge is what C.S. Lewis discusses in The Abolition of Man. Lewis recalls that all cultures, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Babylonian etc. show that natural revelation is true.
Medium #3: Jesus as the Messiah
A few things shall be mentioned here: If you want to study this topic further, there are other articles on this website that deal with the reliability of the New Testament. However, I am starting with these premises and conclusion.
The structure of the argument may be formalized as follows: Read a fuller form from the book In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture here:
(1) The New Testament documents are historically reliable evidence
(2) The historical evidence of the New Testament shows that Jesus is God incarnate/the Jewish Messiah. God authenticated Jesus’ teaching/ claim to divinity by His miracles/His messianic speaking authority, His messianic actions, and His resurrection .
(3) Hence, Jesus is God incarnate.
(4) Jesus (i.e., God incarnate) taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles.
(5) Therefore, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is divinely inspired.
While general revelation manifests God as Creator, it does not reveal Him as Redeemer. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Tanakh. One of these truths is the Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29; 3: 16). Although general revelation shows man is under condemnation, it is not sufficient for salvation. The ultimate special revelation that God has given to mankind is the person of Jesus the Messiah.
As Heb. 1:1–2 says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” Jesus did comment on how people respond to Him by saying, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” But he who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21).
Furthermore, the New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil 2:5-7; Col 2:9;Titus 2;13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus is the only possible Savior for the human race (Matt. 11:27; John 1:18; 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 1: 5:11-12).
While Christianity is a Jewish story and salvation is from the Jews (John 4: 22), Paul makes it know that there is no distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish people. Both are under sin and must turn to God through repentance and faith through Jesus the Messiah. (Rom. 3: 9; Acts 20:21). For those who have already rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus states that they already under condemnation (John 3: 16, 18).
Paul: The Need for Faith in Jesus the Messiah
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
We see: (1) Paul is urgent in his appeal for repentance; (2) According to Acts 14: 26, Paul states there was “a time in which God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways,” but now Paul states in Acts 17: 30, “The times of ignorance is over” – God has given man more revelation in the person of Jesus the Messiah; (3) Paul uses the same language as is used in the Jewish Scriptures about judgment (Psalm 9:9). The judgment will be conducted by an agent, a man who God has appointed; (5) Paul treats the resurrection as an historical fact and he uses it as a proof of God’s appointment as Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead! – Marshall. I.H., The Acts of the Apostles. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: MI: Intervarsity Press. 1980, 288-290.
Medium #4: A Messenger
The normative way God reveals Himself to all humans is through the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah by a specific individual who takes the initiative to explain the message of salvation to another. This matches up with the biblical data. There are cases in the Bible where people are sincerely religious but still had to have explicit faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. For example, in Acts 10, Cornelius is shown to be a God fearer. He worshiped the correct God. However, he received a vision with instructions to send for Peter and awaited his message (Acts 10: 1-6, 22, 33; 11: 14). Because Cornelius ended up responding to special revelation concerning Jesus the Messiah, he attained salvation. In the Bible, people do experience salvation by the explicit preaching of the gospel (Luke 24:46-47; John 3:15-16;20-21; Acts 4:12; 11:14; 16:31; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Heb. 4:2; 1 Pet.1:3-25; 1 John 2:23; 5:12).
One of the largest obstacles in motivating people to obey the Great Commission is a fear of rejection, misunderstanding, or ridicule. Perhaps we forget that Paul wrote to Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). The fear of being rejected by people does not come from God. Since the primary role of the Holy Spirit is to magnify the person of Jesus (John 16:12-15), He is faithful to enable us to share the gospel with the people He brings into our lives. The motivation for communicating the gospel is a compassion for people and a desire to bring glory to God. It is incumbent upon each follower of Jesus to ask whether they will make a commitment to obey God.
Medium #5: Is God Limited to a Messenger? Other Forms of Special Revelation
So what if a missionary can’t preach the Gospel to someone? What about Muslims or other areas where the Gospel is prohibited? As Geisler says:
God knows in advance who will accept the message of the gospel, and He is not limited in how He can bring the gospel to them. The normative way should be through preaching (Matthew 28:18–20; Romans 10:14–17), but one can be saved through reading the Bible (Psalm 119:130; Hebrews 4:12). If necessary, God can get the message to one through angels (Revelation 14:6), or through visions (Daniel 4:5, 35), or through dreams (Daniel 2, 7). God also can speak from heaven through an audible voice (Acts 9) or through an inner voice in the heart as He did to the prophets (e.g., Hosea 1:1). Some believe that the preaching of the message is the only way God does it because Jesus prayed, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone [the disciples], but for those also who believe in Me through their word” (John 17:20 NASB). However, in view of the above verses, it seems clear that God can use other ways if necessary. Even an angel will preach “the eternal gospel” (Revelation 14:6). If God could use dreams, visions, and angels to send His message on temporal matters, surely we cannot say that He would not do so for eternal matters if necessary. There is no one anywhere who does not have revelation from God in nature (Romans 1:19–20) and in conscience (2:12–15). Rejecting this revelation is sufficient for condemnation but not for salvation. In order to be saved today one must hear about Christ and believe in Him (Acts 4:12; 16:31). To those who have never heard about Christ yet are seeking Him, God will send a missionary, a tract, a Bible, or if necessary will give a dream, vision, or angelic message.-Geisler, Norman L, If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think about the Question (p. 122). Baker Publishing Group.