Salvation of the Heathen

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©1999, from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House
The fate of those who have never heard the Gospel poses a problem for the benevolence of God. If God is all-loving, then how can He send people to hell who have never heard about Jesus and how to be saved?


The fate of those who have never heard the Gospel, traditionally called “heathen” by missiologists and apologists, poses a problem for the benevolence of God. If God is all-loving, then how can he send people to hell who have never heard about Jesus and how to be saved? Some estimate that at the end of the twentieth century about one-half of the more than 5 billion people alive had never heard the Gospel. Many more had technically “heard” the Gospel but not really been taught about Christ in any meaningful way.

Two answers to this problem have been offered. Some believe the heathen can be saved apart from the Gospel if they respond to the light of general revelation. Others believe that God provides the truth of the Gospel by special revelation to those who truly seek him.

Salvation in General Revelation

Those who believe a sinner can be saved apart from hearing that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-5) reason in the following manner:

The Love and Justice of God

The Bible affirms that God is just (Ps. 33:5). He is no respecter of persons. For “God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11). Abraham declared: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Further, God is all-loving. He loves the whole world and sent his only Son to die for it (John 3:16). For “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Arguing from the attributes of love and justice, some Christian apologists insist that such a God would not condemn those who have never heard the Gospel of Christ. They offer some Scriptures in support for their belief:

Acts 10:35. Peter told Cornelius, the Gentile who had never heard the Gospel, that God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:35). The text indicates that he had “feared God” (vs. 2) and was accepted by him, even though he had not yet heard the Christian message.

Acts 19:2-6. Acts 19:2-6 tells of believers who were saved many years after the time of Christ, even though they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul declared the truth to them and “On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). But they were called “disciples” (believers) even before Paul preached to them (vs. 1).

Romans 2:6-7. Paul declared that “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:6-7). This is in the context of “Gentiles who have not the law” (2:14), that is, heathen. But this would mean that heathen can receive “eternal life” apart from special revelation through God’s law.

Galatians 3:8. According to Paul, “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you (Gal. 3:8). But the “Gospel” Abraham heard did not have the explicit content that Christ, the Son of God, died and rose from the dead. For when Abraham believed, the text simply says that, “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be”’ (Gen. 15:5).

Hebrews 11:6. According to this verse, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). This would seem to include those who have never heard the Gospel as well.

Revelation 14:6. John the apostle said: “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6). If the Gospel by which they were saved is eternal, then it was the same one proclaimed in the Old Testament. The next text indicates that this text did not have the same content as the New Testament Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-5). Yet people were saved by believing the good news that God is gracious.

Jonah 3:1-5. The Old Testament relates an explicit story as to how the heathen were saved—at least from physical destruction. The Jewish prophet Jonah was told to go to Nineveh (Assyria) and proclaim: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” And “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:4-5). And “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). Jonah later said of their conversion, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

There is no indication whatsoever that the content they believed was any more than belief in a gracious God who forgives those who turn from their sins to him in faith.

Psalm 19:1-4. The very heavens proclaim the Gospel, according to Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” This passage appears to teach that everyone everywhere has heard the “Gospel” of creation by which they can be saved. Interestingly, this is the very passage referred to by the apostle Paul when he says no one can hear without a preacher (Rom. 10:14, 18).

An Important Distinction

All evangelicals believe it is necessary that Christ died and rose in order for anyone to be saved. Those who hold that salvation can be obtained through general revelation insist, however, that it is not necessary to know about this fact. They point out that one could receive a gift of new shoes from an unknown benefactor without knowing what animal died to provide the leather or who gave them the shoes. Hence, all verses that indicate Christ’s death and resurrection were necessary for salvation are taken to refer to the fact of Christ’s death, not to explicit knowledge of that fact.

Salvation through Christ

The standard orthodox position of Martin Luther and John Calvin and their disciples was that salvation is not possible apart from belief in the death and resurrection of Christ, at least not since the time of Christ.

Salvation by Knowledge of Christ

The standard orthodox position that salvation comes only through knowledge of Christ raises an even more serious problem about God’s justice and benevolence with regard to the destiny of those who have never heard. Nonetheless, there are many Scriptures that point in this direction.

Acts 4:12. The apostles in Acts 4:12 declared that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Since there is explicit reference to the name of Christ, it is difficult to believe that explicit knowledge of Christ is not demanded as a condition of salvation. It is not simply the fact of Christ but the name of Christ that is necessary for salvation.

Romans 10:9. Paul insists that “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9 would seem to demand that confession of the very name of Jesus is necessary for salvation.

Romans 10:13-14. The apostle follows up by adding in 10:13-14: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” The emphasis on the fact that the unbeliever must “call” on Christ and that they must “hear” the Gospel by someone who is “preaching” to them would seem to eliminate the possibility that anyone can be saved today apart from hearing the Gospel of Christ.

John 3:18. Jesus himself said emphatically in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe [in him] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Explicit belief “in the name of God’s one and only Son” is laid down as the condition of salvation.

John 3:36. John 3:36 makes it clear that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” This seems to point clearly to knowledge of the “Son” (Christ) as necessary for salvation.

John 10:9, 11, 14. Jesus said in John 10:9-14, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved…. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” The fact that the sheep (believers) must “know” Christ and “enter” the gate indicates that an explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary for salvation.

1 John 5:10-13. John repeats the same truth in 1 John 5:10b-13: “Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The emphasized words make clear that John is teaching that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary for salvation.

A Response to General Revelationists

Proponents of salvation only through special revelation are well aware of proof texts used by those who believe salvation of the heathen is possible through general revelation alone.

Acts 10:35. Two things are often mentioned about the case of Cornelius. First, Cornelius is a proof that those who seek God in view of the light they have will be given special revelation by which they can come to know Christ. After all, the whole point of the story is that God sent Peter with a special revelation and that Cornelius did not become a Christian until after he heard and believed this special revelation. Second, some point out that the book of Acts is a transitional period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, during which those who were saved on Old Testament grounds were provided with the light of Christ by which they could become Christians. Cornelius may fit this category.

Acts 19:2-6. This passage is about disciples of John the Baptist who had not yet heard about the coming of the Holy Spirit. It has nothing to do with those who have never heard the Gospel. The episode illustrates the transitional nature of the time, during which those who had not yet heard the Christian message (or the full message) were saved on the grounds of the special revelation they had received.

Hebrews 11:6. According to Hebrews 11:6, anyone who comes to him [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” While the reference is to knowledge of God, not of Christ, one includes the other. Since the context is Old Testament saints, not New Testament believers, it is understandable why the broader statement about explicit knowledge of Christ was not included. This is a statement of the minimal requirement to be saved in any age. It does not exclude belief in Christ as an explicit requirement of salvation.

Galatians 3:8. Proponents of special revelation respond in two ways to Galatians 3:8. Some hold that even in Old Testament times believers did have an explicit knowledge of the coming Christ. Paul said the “seed” of Abraham was Christ (Gal. 3:16). Jesus said to the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). This may indicate that Abraham knew Christ personally (perhaps as the Angel of the Lord). Other proponents simply take Galatians 3:8 to describe the more minimal content (exclusive of explicit knowledge of Christ’s death and resurrection) necessary for salvation in the Old Testament. The content of what Abraham believed was clearly spelled out in the Old Testament (Gen. 15:5-6) and it said nothing about Christ’s death and resurrection, only that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

Revelation 14:6. John’s reference to the “eternal gospel,” whatever it may mean, does not support the view that salvation of the “heathen” is based on only general revelation. This message came to them by special revelation. God sent an angel to preach it. Further, the content of this Gospel was about those who believed in the “lamb of God” who “redeemed” them by his blood (14:1, 4). That the Gospel is everlasting may mean no more than that Christ was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). There is certainly no indication John is speaking about an eternal Gospel known only by general revelation.

Jonah 3:1-5. Old Testament saints did not necessarily have the same content knowledge required for salvation in the New Testament. The doctrine of progressive revelation indicates that God progressively unfolded his plan on earth by giving more and more revelation until the full and final revelation in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2).

Psalm 19:1-2. The psalmist is not speaking of God’s special revelation but of general revelations through the “heavens” which are the “work of his [creative] hands.” He is not speaking of the cross, which is the work of God’s redemptive love (Rom. 10:14, 18). According to Romans, general revelation informs us about God’s “eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:20). It is sufficient for condemnation, since it finds all men “without excuse” (ibid.) but not for salvation.

Romans 2:6-7. This text does not affirm that heathen are saved by general revelation, but only those who “seek… for immortality.” Later Paul said it is only Christ “who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). General revelation and other means are part of the “goodness of God that leads… to repentance” (vs. 4). Those who respond to the light of general revelation are given special revelation by which they can be saved.

A Vindication of God’s Justice

Is it fair for God to send people to hell who have never heard the only Gospel by which they can be saved? This question is really several questions in one. They will be broken down and analyzed one by one.

Are The Heathen Lost?

The biblical answer to this question is clear: All human beings are born in sin (Ps. 51:5 KJV) and are “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3 KJV). For “… just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned [in Adam]” (Rom. 5:12). Addressing explicitly the heathen who have only general revelation, the apostle Paul declared, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Likewise, he adds, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Then, summing up his conclusion from the whole section, Paul pronounces, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23). Yes, sinful rebels from God remain lost apart from knowing about Christ.

Is There Salvation Apart from Christ?

All orthodox Christians agree that there is no salvation apart from Christ’s redemptive work. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The apostle Paul added, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Further, the writer of Hebrews agreed, affirming that “Christ… has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). And “this priest [Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:12, 14). Literally, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Is It Fair to Condemn Those Who Have Not Heard?

Yes, it is just to condemn those who have never received God’s special revelation. First, through general revelation they know about his “eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:20). They are aware that he “made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15). They are aware that God “has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons (Acts 14:17). Although they do not have the Law of Moses, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law…. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law [of Moses], since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:12-15).

Even though God has revealed himself to the heathen in creation and in conscience, fallen humanity has universally rejected that light. Hence, God is not obligated to give them any more light, since they have turned from the light they have. In fact, although they have the truth, “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who sup-press the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). Someone lost in the darkness of a dense jungle who sees one speck of light should go toward it. If that person turns away from the little light and becomes forever lost in darkness, there is only one person to blame. The Scriptures say, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

If any unbeliever truly sought God through the general revelation, God would provide the special revelation sufficient for salvation. After God led Peter to the Gentile Cornelius, Peter declared: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:35). The writer of Hebrews tells us that those who seek, find. “He rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).

God has many ways at his disposal through which he can get the truth of the Gospel to lost souls. The normative way is through preachers of the Gospel (Rom. 10:14-15), whether in person or on radio, TV, or some recording. On one occasion God will use an angel to preach the Gospel “to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6). Many people have been given a Bible, read it, and been saved. Others have been saved through Gospel literature. We have no way of knowing whether God has conveyed special revelation through visions, dreams, and in other miraculous ways. The truth is that God is more willing that all be saved than we are. For “the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God’s justice demands that he condemns all sinners, but his love compels him to provide salvation for all who by his grace will believe. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).

One thing is important to keep in mind. To send people to hell who have never heard is not unjust. To think so is like claiming that it is not right for someone to die of a disease for which there is a cure of which he or she has not yet heard. The crucial question is how one got the disease, not whether he or she has heard of a cure. What is more, if one desires neither to know there is a cure nor to do what is necessary to get cured, then he or she is most certainly culpable.

Will There Be People Saved from Every Nation?

Those who reject the view that special revelation is necessary for salvation generally point to those in non-Christian lands. What about China, India, Africa, and many formerly Communist countries? Surely it is not fair to have so many in heaven from Western countries and so few from Eastern lands.

There is no reason why the percentage of people saved must be the same from all countries. Who is saved will depend on who believes, and that will vary from place to place. Just as in farming and fishing, some areas are more fruitful than others. The Scriptures assure us that there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9a). Indeed, while the percentage may understandably vary, it would seem strange if there were no one from one country that desired to be saved (just as it would if everyone from another country wanted to be saved). People have free choice, and free choice is exercised freely. Some will believe and some will not.

There are ways by which people might go to heaven, even where the Gospel has not gone out. Perhaps all (or at least some) children who die in infancy are saved. Others may come into contact with the Gospel through Christian radio, literature, or recordings. Perhaps God reveals himself in miraculous ways. A window might be opened for the Word. Countries with a large percentage of Christians were once pagan.

Is There a Second Chance?

A few Christian apologists and many cults believe that God will give a second chance after death to those who never heard the Gospel. Orthodox Christians reject this. The Bible declares that “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). The urgency with which Scripture speaks of making one’s decision now in this life (Prov. 29:1; John 8:24; Heb. 3:7-13; 2 Peter 3:9) is strong evidence that there is no second chance. The fact that people immediately go to either heaven or hell (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 19:20) indicates that a decision must be made in this life. Since God has so many ways to reveal himself to unbelievers before death, it is unnecessary that he do so after they die. Belief in a second chance undermines the missionary mandate. Why have the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), if people can be saved apart from receiving Christ in this life?

Interpretations of Scripture used to support second-chance salvation are, to say the least, highly disputed (for example, 1 Peter 3:18-19). Clear texts are unambiguous in teaching that hell awaits the unrepentant. There is no real evidence that God will give anyone a second chance to be saved after death. Jesus said, “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).


M. Bronson, Destiny of the Heathen

J. H. Gerstner, “Heathen” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology

M. Luther and D. Erasmus, Free Will and Salvation

E. D. Osburn, “Those who Have Never Heard: Have They No Hope?” JETS

S. Pfurtner, Luther and Aquinas on Salvation

F. Pieper, Salvation Only by Faith in Christ

C. Pinnock, A Wideness in Gods’ Mercy

I. Ramsey, “History and the Gospels: Some Philosophical Reflections,” SE

J. O. Sanders, How Lost Are the Heathen?

J. Sanders, No Other Name

R. Wolff, The Final Destiny of Heathen

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