What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
Hi, my name is Dan. I have a question about God's plan and laws regarding people who have never heard of God or God's word. By that I am referring to all from Pre-Colombian societies to folks who live in the backwoods of China. I have read verses (forgetting the references) such as individuals are held accountable solely for what light they are shown, and how nobody who has not heard the law is capable of honoring it. What do you think?
By the way, I love your site. It is quite excellent.
Thank you for the encouraging words. They really help me in this ministry. The question you ask has been put forth many times before in many different ways. A lot of times it is asked by the skeptic who does not want to believe that the God of the whole world would require everyone to believe in the same Jewish man who lived in the first century A.D. It seems preposterous that God would hold all the isolated and tribal peoples, many of whom have been secluded for thousands of years, accountable for their trust in Christ. I think if we examine the issue in light of the Bible it will become clearer, though.
Before any judgements are made, we must understand the predicament in which mankind finds itself. All men are plagued with a condition from birth known as sin. No person is capable of living a life perfectly. God has given us in His law a standard which we should seek to obtain. He has set down the ideal. It is the measuring stick for all human thought and behavior and it is how we can determine what is "good" from what is "bad". Each of us, if judged by the standard of righteousness, is found falling short. We are guilty of violating that standard. We are considered sinful creatures in three distinct ways: we have inherited sin, imputed sin, and personal sin that condemn us.
Mankind has inherited a sin nature from Adam. We are offspring of a sinful forefather, and his proclivity to sin has been passed through the generations down to us. The Bible is very consistent. When God created the creatures of the earth, He created "each after their kind", and so Adam's progeny are born are of the same kind as their father, corrupted by sin. Though we may do good works and we may not commit unspeakable acts, our natural inclination is to be self-serving and immoral. We struggle to teach our children not to lie, not to steal, not to cheat and not to be sexually loose. We must reinforce these concepts because humanity realizes that doing those things are responses to the natural desires people feel. This is the sin nature that resides at the core of every person. Therefore, humanity is naturally depraved and considered a wicked race. This may seem difficult to accept, but when one compares God's righteousness to the natural inclinations of a person, it shows itself to be a true statement.
Further, we are all imputed with the sin of Adam. Romans 5:12 states that "Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." Because Adam is the eldest of all humanity, he is the representative of the human race. When he violated God's law, the consequences of his actions are also imputed, or attributed to us, just as if we were the ones who sinned in Eden. Let me try to explain this more clearly.
Adam was the first man, and because all people come from Adam, they are viewed Biblically as being a part of Adam when he fell. They shared in the sin of Adam by residing "in his loins" as it were (ref. Hebrews 7:9-10 for further illustration of this concept.) Because we were a part of Adam's body, we directly took part in his sin. We are condemned by the sin he committed because that curse covered all of Adam. This imputation of sin links us to Adam not through our fathers and their fathers, but immediately. The Bible looks at each of us as residing independently in some small part of Adam. You may look at it as our entire DNA code was residing in Adam at the moment he sinned. If all of Adam sinned, then his fingers sinned, his hair had sinned and each of us had a direct part in that sin in the exact same way.
The first two ways humanity is considered sinful are theologically derived, but the last way we are considered sinful is self-evident. Each of us is personally sinful, meaning each of us transgresses God's laws repeatedly. We do it willfully as well as unknowingly. Nevertheless, we are individually guilty of transgressing the righteousness God requires. Remember, I said that we can only know good from evil by God's standard. If we do something even unknowingly that violates His laws, we are guilty of falling short.
A common objection that may be raised here is "How can people be held accountable for breaking laws which they're unaware of?" The answer is simply that God requires perfection and holiness, and even if we don't know we're violating His will, the fact that we've transgressed remains. In "Answering an Atheist", I used the analogy of water to demonstrate the necessity of God's purity. In order for Him to be considered holy (something which is His nature, and cannot be abrogated), He must separate Himself from all that has been corrupted by sin. Even a glass of distilled water with one drop of sewage is still contaminated, and therefore unfit. God cannot violate His nature and ignore the sin that contaminates us. He must punish iniquity, for that is what constitutes righteousness.
So, we see that man is condemned by sin in at least three ways. Because of this, all of humanity, regardless of their age or life experience, stands guilty before God. At this point it all seems pretty bleak- and so it should. I don't think people realize the dire position mankind finds itself if left to its own merits. Paul tries to emphasize this point in Romans 3 when quoting the Psalms he writes,
"There is none righteous, no not one; There is none who understands. There is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one."
In other words, since the fall in the Garden, all of mankind has need of a Savior, because no man is capable of saving himself. No one is capable of even keeping themselves from sin, because it is as much a human trait as is our desire for survival. If all of mankind is in need of a savior, and God has provided but one Savior for mankind, then all of mankind will be judged by their response to that Savior's mission.
Now, most of the discussion until this point has been academic. The reasoning above is based on the premise that the person who asks your question believes in the Bible for his theology. What is usually required, though, is a strong answer to the skeptic who does not see man's condition as so desperate.
Let's look at how mankind looks upon sin in the "real world". All of mankind, whether they are aware of Christianity or not, must concede that evil is the biggest problem of humanity. Every culture in every time has lamented the never ceasing examples of man's evil deeds. Even in a primitive society where a man is expected to have many wives, it is never accepted that a man may take another's wife. All of humanity recognizes this, and also that there is a Law outside of themselves to which we all must adhere. People may differ as to the finer points of that law, but all people understand there is a "good" and an "evil" in the world. It just seems to make sense. It is self-evident. (For more on this idea, please see my page entitled "The Problem of Evil" )
So, we realize that we don't measure up to perfection. This is universal. I know of no culture where people feel they have never erred. We even use the expression "You're only human" to show that perfection cannot be attained by the human race. What makes this so condemning is that all of mankind has the means necessary to know there is a God and that they fall short of His plan. Romans 1 states this when it says "that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so they are without excuse." Paul argues here that every person of the human race has the testimony of the creation and the testimony of their own shortcomings to inform them that they do not meet God's requirements for them. Further, Paul says that man should realize the creator of the universe would be larger than the created items we find in the world ("birds, and four-footed animals, and crawling creatures"), but he chooses to worship them rather than Him, so "man is without excuse."
So, because God testifies of Himself through His creation we are expected to understand that there are absolutes which we violate. However, we are not left to that attestation only. In Romans 2:12-15 it states,
"For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law unto themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts ultimately accusing or defending them."
This is a fascinating Scripture that explains how God has given each man a "natural law"; a general understanding of right and wrong. This is evident in the fact that all men are endowed with a conscience. Though the remote tribesman may have never heard of the Gospel or the Jewish Law, they all have a strong working knowledge that lying, stealing and murder of others in his tribe is wrong. Further, every person develops some type of a moral code that they judge others against. No one has ever been able to consistently keep even their own moral code without adjusting it or rationalizing their behavior. Thus God says that their thoughts will justify or condemn them.
When one understands each person's true position, then the objection falls beyond debate. A prisoner sentenced to die for a capital offence can be pardoned by the Governor of his state. However, for that criminal to claim the Governor is being "unfair" or "unjust" because he refuses to pardon the felon is ridiculous. A pardon is an action of grace and mercy. Carrying out the sentence given would be justice. This is why the writer to the Hebrews remarks, "How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation(Heb. 2:3)?" This salvation that we're offered is great not only because of the tremendous sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf, but it is also great because of how much we deserve punishment, and how a God who is 100% just can rescue us from His judgment.
I hope this has clarified the issue for you. It is easy to misunderstand justice when one isn't judging it by God's standards, but their own ideas. Many people with whom you may discuss this issue don't realize these things. It is my prayer that well-informed Christians will be equipped to argue for the need of God's grace.
May God richly bless you as you continue to seek Him.