Study Guide: What About Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

Sunday October 9, 2022 | Jim Beilby

Brief Summary:

In this sermon, Jim Beilby addresses the question about the destiny of the un-evangelized, proposing that people are given the opportunity to receive Christ’s true revelation of himself after death. 

Extended Summary:

Jim Beilby, a professor at Bethel University, seeks to help us process the eternal destiny of those who do not have the opportunity to hear the gospel. He poses this question by reciting a part of a letter he wrote when he was a senior in high school. During this time, he had walked away from the Christian faith and he penned, ”If Christ is the only way and if there are millions who never hear of him, then any being worthy of the title ‘God’ must have known this fact when he chose to create. And if he did know that millions would never even have an opportunity to be saved, it is impossible to think of God as perfectly loving. As such, even though I am lucky to be among those who hears the gospel, I cannot believe in a God who makes the opportunity to be saved a matter of temporal and geographical luck.” In his journey back to God, he had to replace pictures of God that were angry and judgmental with pictures that centered around the the life of Jesus Christ. This led him to rethink the destiny of the un-evangelized in a way that is rooted in the centrality of Jesus.

To understand the answer that Jim proposes, it is first helpful to understand the nature of the question. Who are the un-evangelized? Jim imagines three groups. First there is the “un-evangelized” person he calls George, the man from upper Mongolia from the ninth century B.C., who would not have had any opportunity to hear of Jesus or anything about the faith of the Israelites. The second is “pseudo-evangelized” which is illustrated by Kunta Kinte, the character from Alex Haley’s, Roots. He is taken as a slave in the 18th century from Gambia and brought to America. He hears about Jesus from slave owners who tell him that God has ordained the way that the slaves are treated. Kunta Kinte rejects this God, as the good news that he heard was not actually good news at all. The third group is called the “deeply wounded,” illustrated by a youth who has been physically abused to the point that they cannot trust anyone, and thus they cannot trust God.

In response to the question of the un-evangelized, there are three typical answers that are inadequate. The first response is found in conservative circles. It basically discounts the question altogether. They say something like, “Who are you to ask God this question?” The second inadequate response states, “There are no un-evangelized people,” a claim based on Romans 1 which states that people are without excuse because of the glory of creation. However, this is not pointing to the revelation of Jesus, but to the general fact that there is some kind of divine existence. The third inadequate response argues that we do not need Jesus, that we can simply say that God saves all without the knowledge of Jesus because God is love. Yet if Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, then leaving Jesus out is problematic.

Jim proposes a solution that he calls post-mortem opportunity. This means, “If God truly desires all to saved, and some do not have an opportunity to hear the gospel in this life, then he will provide a post-mortem opportunity to respond to the gospel.”

While the Bible does not directly speak to the details of what will occur after death, it is possible to argue that a post-mortem opportunity is quite possible. First, we need to see that God loves the lost. The Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15 demonstrates this most clearly. Secondly, in 1 Peter 3:19-20, we read that Jesus made proclamation to the spirits who were dead during the three days in the tomb. This is the harrowing of hades where Jesus defeats death. Also in 1 Peter 4:6, we are told that Jesus preached to those who are dead.

  1. In response to this proposal, there are typically four questions:
    Who receives this? Who needs to have an opportunity to have a post-mortem opportunity? In response to this, only God knows who needs to see the true picture of God that would give them an opportunity to make a choice.
  2. What would this look like? There will be a day of judgment and during this judgment there will be some form of purgatorial clarifying, a refining fire. This will be a process where the untruth is burned away and what is left is pure.
  3. Who could say no to Jesus? After all, would’t everyone choose Jesus if they realized that rejecting him would mean going to hell? But this is not really the question at all. Instead, the question that we will face is: Do you want to reign in hell or serve in heaven? Those who don’t want to bow a knee to anyone else will reject Jesus’ true revelation.
  4. Does this not take away the need to spread the gospel now? This question assumes that evangelizing is only about getting people to punch their ticket to heaven. The point of our relationship with God is not a future thing: It is a now thing.

Whatever the exact nature of the future and how the final destiny of the un-evangelized plays out, we need to understand that God is on a mission to reconcile himself to all of creation. His aim is to overcome sin and make possible a relationship with him. We get to participate in this with him. He does not just care about the end, he cares about the process. We can join him in his mission of doing this.

Reflection Questions: