A few years back one of my friends was trying to share the gospel with a guy who, after a while, started almost screaming at him, “What about the pygmies?? What about the pygmies??” My friend let the guy calm down for a second and then he asked him a simple question:
“Are you a pygmy?”
His point was, on the day of judgment it’s not going to be about those who may have never heard the gospel in general, but about you in particular. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If you are worried about the people on the outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.”
That said, the question of what happens to those who supposedly never hear the gospel is something worth exploring and getting to the bottom of.
What do we know?
In approaching the question, it’s helpful to revisit some core biblical facts that aren’t up for dispute. The first is that an all-powerful, good, and all-knowing God exists who isn’t handicapped in any way when it comes to a person’s salvation: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save” (Is. 59:1).
Next, Scripture makes it clear that, because of general revelation, and what John Calvin called the “sensus divinitatis”, everyone knows God exists and we are all without excuse when it comes to a basic knowledge of the Creator (Rom. 1:18-20).
Third, the Bible is unequivocal in its stance that salvation is obtained only through the work of Jesus Christ (Act 4:12) and that humanity is fallen and will not seek God on their own (Rom. 3). It doesn’t matter when or where a person is born, they will not come to God in and of themselves and instead must first be sought by God (John 6:44).
Lastly, God’s plan of salvation is one where not everyone is saved, but in fact only few are saved and most are lost.
What are the options?
There are at least four positions put forward when it comes to answering the question of those who’ve never heard the gospel. The first is universalism, which says that Jesus died for everyone on the cross and therefore all are saved whether they have heard of Him or not. The biblical evidence against universalism is very weighty and, because of that, it’s not a view to be embraced.
The second is an obscure stance called post-mortem evangelism. Based on 1 Peter 4:6, it asserts that after death those who don’t know about God/Jesus will be presented with the gospel and given a chance to accept it. There are myriads of problems with this stance (e.g. one should never use obscure passages in Scripture instead of clear ones to interpret key doctrines) and so it’s also one not held by the Church at large.
A third stance is called inclusivism and is the first of two positions that are held by the majority in Christendom. It teaches that people don’t need to directly hear the gospel, but instead are educated about God via nature and will be judged by the moral law inside everyone and what information they do possess. C. S. Lewis was one who held to this position, writing: “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religions which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”
The last majority position is called exclusivism (or restrictivism) and says that today a person must be presented with and accept the gospel in order to be saved.
Which is it?
The Bible’s plan of progressive revelation is best summed up by Charles Ryrie: “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various ages.”
Before Christ, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness” (Acts 14:16). We’re told the faith of those in the Old Testament was sufficient for salvation just like the writer of Hebrews says: “For by it [faith] the men of old gained approval” (Heb. 11:2). The raising of some Old Testament saints after Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 27:52) serves as one proving point of this as Calvin says: "At the moment when He rose again, he deigned to make many of the saints partakers of his resurrection, and allow them to be seen in the city; thus giving a sure earnest, that everything which he did and suffered in the purchase of eternal salvation belonged to believers under the Old Testament, just as much as to us."
Another good example is in the gospels and involves the tax collector spoken about by Jesus who, after confessing his sin, “went to his house justified” (the same word used elsewhere in the New Testament for salvation; Luke 18:14).
But today? We’re told: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15–16).
Paul says, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. . . .How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:8-10, 14).
One of my favorite salvation stories told in this vein comes from a dean at Oxford who supported a missionary couple in Iran. The couple was driving in a desolate place, needed gas and stopped at a market. Outside was a heavily armed man in the Iranian military.
Before the man got out of the car, his wife said he should give the soldier a Bible and tucked one into his coat. When the man went inside to pay, the solider followed him in. Keep in mind that Christian evangelism in Iran can get you killed.
The man came out, got in the car, and drove off. “You didn’t give him the Bible did you?”, the wife asked. The husband reminded her about the penalty for evangelism, after which a wonderful argument ensued between the two, which resulted in him making a U-turn and going back to the market.
He got out of his car and, in great fear, approached the soldier and handed him the Bible. The soldier stood there silent for what seemed like forever, but then first he began to quiver and then started to cry. He looked up at the missionary and said, “Three days ago I had a dream where I was told to make a journey to this market and wait until a man came who would give me the book of life. Thank you.”
So, what about the pygmies? The reality is, because we are all born blind and deaf to God’s call, there is no difference between a native in a distant land who’s never seen a Bible or heard the gospel and someone dead in sin who is surrounded by Bibles and hears the gospel every week.
God saves those He saves regardless of where they currently are through His efficacious call and gospel message because, “Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jer. 32:17).
 Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 285.
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.