“What about those,” asks a reader, “who, through no fault of their own, never hear the gospel during this life? Must we assume that all such people will finally perish?”
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It is absolutely true that no one will be saved except through the atonement which Jesus has accomplished (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5-6). It is also true that many people will be saved by Jesus’ atonement who, in this life, never understood that Jesus’ atonement had taken place. Christians historically place in that category all faithful people who lived before Jesus, both Jew and Gentile (Rom. 3:23-30). Many Christians would also consider saved all who die in infancy whether before Christ or after. Who are we to deny that God, if he sees fit, might also by the atonement of Jesus Christ save adults who are “A.D.” in birthdate but “B.C.” in their ignorance of Jesus?
Whatever God might do in showing mercy, we may be quite sure that all who are finally saved: (1) will be saved by the undeserved favor and kindness of God; (2) based on the atonement which Jesus has accomplished; (3) to the glory of God’s grace and the praise of his beloved Son; and (4) through saving faith — reverencing God and trusting him in response to whatever knowledge of God they might possess. (See Rom. 4:9-12; Eph. 1:7-10; 2:8-10.)
It is our responsibility to proclaim the Good News to every person. It is not our place to pronounce judgment on anyone. We may promise salvation and eternal life to all who trust in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Mk. 16:15-16). For a thorough biblical study of the question of God’s judgment of those who never hear the gospel, I recommend “No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized,” by John Sanders (Eerdmans, 1992) of which my review is available. See also my article “What Calvinism and Arminianism Have in Common.”