By Tony Garland
Q. This is very commonly asked question, but my concern is with the people who have never had the chance to hear the gospel. Take, for instance, China, 40 A.D. The gospel had barely circulated within the Roman Empire let alone outside the country (as far as I know). Every person living in China at that time perished without any hope of salvation. Needless to say, this was not just true for China, but for most places in the world. Why does God let people perish without a chance?
A. Your question, which is indeed very common, engenders a world view which assumes that God has not revealed Himself adequately to mankind. This, in turn, is often due to embracing an unbiblical view of history which assumes that different people groups “evolved” independently, with many never having had the knowledge of God at any time.
Yet the Biblical view of history is that there were two times in the past where every person living knew God personally: at creation and after the global flood. Thereafter, how is it that offspring of these people no longer know of God? The simple answer is that their forebears knowingly walked away from God.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man - and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 1:18-25, emphasis added)Here Paul tells us that general revelation, which is available to all peoples in all places at all times in history, is sufficient to cause people to seek after God if it were not for their predisposition to reject Him. Notice it says that they suppressed the truth. They know He exists, but choose to reject Him.
The universal evidence of God is also the subject in many Psalms of the Old Testament, but especially Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge. [There is] no speech nor language [Where] their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their words to the end of the world. In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun, Which [is] like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, [And] rejoices like a strong man to run its race. Its rising [is] from one end of heaven, And its circuit to the other end; And there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Ps 19:1-6)The remainder of Psalm 19 discusses God’s Word: the Bible. In contrast to general revelation, this is known as special revelation because it provides additional information about the character of God and His will which is unavailable otherwise. General revelation is available to all people at all times whereas special revelation would never be known except that God has chosen to reveal additional information to those who seek Him. These two forms of revelation, first general and then special, work hand-in-hand. The first points to the undeniable existence of God. The second provides information about God which cannot be known by general revelation. Lost people groups once had access to both kinds of revelation, but their forebears having actively turned away from God, the offspring are now left with only general revelation.
Although general revelation can can never be obstructed, it can be and is ignored. This is precisely the situation with evolutionists today who are surrounded with undeniable evidence of God - such as the complexity of biological systems - but refuse to acknowledge the evidence of a Creator.
As the Bible also reveals, there is a connection between the sins of an ancestor and where we find ourselves when we are born. Take, for example, the second commandment:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me (Ex 20:4-5)This is not to say that God condemns the children of ungodly people without recourse (see Ezekiel 18). But it recognizes the plain fact that our children typically follow in our own footsteps and are negatively affected by our ungodly actions. Notice too, that the prohibition of idol worship is found in association with this generational emphasis. It seems to be God’s purpose to recognize that those who do turn away to idol worship will plunge their offspring into a place of disadvantage.
For the ultimate example of this, consider that all men die even though only Adam - as federal and seminal head of the race - fell into sin (Rom. 5:14). From man’s limited and fallen perspective, this will undoubtedly seem “unfair.” But it is God’s truth nonetheless.
Those who are born into a culture far removed from the knowledge of God are obviously at a disadvantage. At the same time, we also know that God promises to reveal Himself to those who seek Him. Evidence of His existence - general revelation - is available to all people at all times in history (Ps. 19; Rom. 1). This is why it is called “general.” (This differs, incidentally from “natural revelation” which may not be available to all people at all times - for example the evidence of the complexity of the cell which has only become evident relatively recently in history.)
There are many passages which make it clear that if an individual responds to general revelation and seeks God, then God responds with further revelation (Deu. 4:29; 1Chr. 28:9; 2Chr. 15:2; Ps. 9:10; Pr. 28:5; Isa. 55:6; Jer. 29:13; Acts 10:2-4; Acts 17:27; Heb. 11:6).
In the New Testament, several examples among others, are the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10). Both of these men were Gentiles, outside of the line of Jewish promise, who were actively seeking God - and God responded by giving them further revelation. We have no idea how many times similar responses have occurred throughout history. So the assumption that everybody outside of the Roman Empire was lost is problematic in itself since there have always been people who have sought God to whom He has revealed Himself. Job and Melchizedek in the Old Testament come to mind here. Neither appears to have been in the line of promise or in people groups who were blessed with the special revelation of the Law (the Torah, given to Israel).
There are also transitional periods (like the one you allude to - as also exemplified in Acts 19:3-4) where we don't know all the details, but if God is perfectly just, then we accept that He has handled revelation and man’s ongoing rejection of it justly.
So the situation is similar to that of a cocaine baby: the mother is hooked on drugs and the baby, through no apparent involvement of its own, suffers for it. In the case of humanity, our distant parents, Adam and Eve, fell into sin with the result that we are born in sin (our position and our nature). Although God has explicitly revealed Himself to every person alive on at least two occasions and continues to reveal Himself in nature, man has consciously chosen to reject God and walk away into darkness - leaving countless offspring in a less favored position. So the fault is with us and not God.
From our limited vantage point, we judge God for that which is in reality a reflection of the sinful condition of our race. It’s as if we raise our fist at God and say, show Yourself if You are truly righteous and just! And He responds, I already have and you chose to reject Me. We keep saying, prove yourself - show us another sign and then we’ll truly believe to which He responds, I've already given you adequate signs in your surroundings and in history. Your continued ignorance of Me cannot be excused for lack of evidence. It isn't about evidence, it’s because you continue to willfully reject me resulting in a darkened heart (Luke 16:27-30).
Lost people groups are not lost because they have passively been unaware of God. They are lost because their forebears actively rejected God - as people in our own country do today. Consider this: if current trends continue, given enough time, our own offspring will likely be another “lost people group” without knowledge of the gospel. Is it accurate to blame God for this result?
We can be sure that those who respond to God’s general revelation will be given further revelation and each individual will ultimately be responsible for his or her own sin and response to God (Ezekiel 18; Revelation 20:12).
From our limited perspective we tend to consider Gods sovereign handling of salvation as unjust (Romans 9:19-20). This is simply lack of perspective coupled with a sinful predilection to accuse God for a situation which came about as a result of our own dark hearts.
What happens to those who have never heard about Jesus? - GotQuestions.org
Wonders of God's Creation - Moody Video (DVD)
The Foundations Of Faith: General Revelation (Part 1) - Renald Showers
Signature in the Cell / Darwin's Dilemma - Stephen Meyer (Book & DVD)
What If You've Never Heard of Jesus? - The Berean Call (Radio)