"The Fate of the Heathen"

John H. Gerstner

Baker's Dictionary of Theology, ed. Everett F Harrison (Baker, 1960)

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By "heathen" in this article we refer to adults who have not heard the gospel of Christ. Whatever their culture or country, their unbelief in Christ is circumstantial; that is, they have had no opportunity to believe. This fact raises the question about their "fate." If Christ is the only way of salvation and these persons do not so much as know of the existence of Christ, are we to conclude that they cannot possibly have salvation, being necessarily lost or damned? If they are damned, is that not unfair and unjust of God inasmuch as they have no opportunity to be saved?

Let us meet the question right where it emerges: Is it not unjust of God to damn a person who has had no opportunity to be saved? Why is it? Assuming that God does damn such persons, why is it unjust of him to do so simply because they have no opportunity to be saved? If these persons are damned they are damned because they are sinners; they are not damned because they have had opportunity to be saved and have not utilized it. Their opportunity, or the lack of it, has nothing to do with their being damned; they are damned because they are sinners. What is unfair in God's damning sinners? If God damned them because they did not believe the gospel, they could legitimately protest that they had no opportunity to believe the gospel; but, if God damns them for other sins, what does the fact that they did not commit this sin of unbelief in the gospel have to do with it?

Some will say: Granted that God could damn men for the sins they have committed even though they did not hear the gospel and there would be no injustice in that as such. But, does God not have an obligation to offer a way of salvation to everyone? But, we ask, why? Why does God have any obligation to offer salvation to any sinner? Grace, by definition, is undeserved. If it were deserved, it would not be a gospel; it would not be grace. If it is a gospel of grace it must be undeserved. If it is undeserved how can it be said that God owes it to anyone?

All right, some will reply, but inasmuch as God (who did not owe the gospel to anyone) did give it to many, is he not under obligation to offer it [to] everyone? But why? If a person who does not deserve it receives a gift, does another person who does not deserve it thereby gain a right to a gift? If he does gain a right to it, is it still a "gift" or a "gospel"? But, it is further urged, this makes God a respecter of persons. Indeed it does; but the respecter of persons which the Bible condemns is an unfair respecter of persons. God is not an unfair respecter of persons and this is no instance of an unfair discrimination. He gives a gift which he does not owe; that puts him under no obligation to give a gift, the same gift, to everyone to whom he does not owe it. Being a respecter of persons, if it is a fair discrimination, is not evil. Cf. the Parable of The Laborers, Matt. 20:1 ff., which speaks to this very point: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" (vs. 15).

All of the above is by way of facing the objections which are commonly made to the doctrine that the "heathen" are lost. Such, we believe, is the teaching of the word of God. "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" is the teaching of Rom. 10:17 in which context the necessity of missionaries is being argued. The world by wisdom knew not God but it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to make his wisdom known (I Cor. 1:21). The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness, but the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth (Rom. 1:17). Christ is the light of the world. All the world is in darkness until he shines into it (John 8:12; 9:5). There is none other name given under heaven whereby men must be saved but the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12). He is the way, the truth and the life, no man coming to God but by him (John 14:6).

Christ in teaching this doctrine himself, brings out an aspect of the truth which has not yet been mentioned in this article. In Luke 12:47-48 he tells us that the disobedient man who does not know will be beaten with fewer stripes than the disobedient man who does know. That is to say, that those who do not know the gospel are guilty because of the light which they have and which they have transgressed (cf. especially Rom. 1), but they are not so guilty as those who have had the light of the gospel as well as the light of nature and have sinned against that also. Their light having been so much greater their hardness of heart was so much more developed in resisting it and their guilt is much the more grievous. Therefore, according to Matt. 10:15; 11:22, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah (who are in hell though they sinned only against the light of nature) than for Capernaum and Chorazin (who are in hell with far greater condemnation because they have violated a light so vastly greater than the heathen transgressed).

In conclusion, it may be well to cite the remark of the great Baptist theologian, A. H. Strong: "The question whether the heathen will ever be saved if we do not give them the gospel, is not so serious a one for us as the other question whether we ourselves will ever be saved if we do not give them the gospel." That is to say: Christians have an obligation to evangelize the world. If they do not participate in that duty, although some persons may be lost through their negligence, they will perish with them and with far greater punishment because they have themselves sinned against the far greater light which they have had. In other words, the "fate" of the "heathen" is inextricably connected with the "fate" of "Christians" in this era.

The view of this article is the general view of the church except that there have always been Christian theologians such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Wesley, who have hoped (more often than they have affirmed) that Christ, the only Saviour of the world, may sometimes, admittedly rarely, work independently of the means of grace. Neo-orthodoxy inclines to a universalistic position which teaches the salvation of the heathen.

(1) Karl Barth, Christ and Adam, p. 22 f; 87 f;
(2) W. G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man, pp. 78 ff;
(3) John Wesley, Works, New York ed., Vol. II, pp. 485 f.

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