The helicopter rose slowly. Standing at a cautious distance, the whole village watched as we flew away. Some of the more daring kids ran closer to the take-off site, laughing as the chopper’s downdraft whirled a torrent of dust and debris. We pressed close to the windows, waving wildly. The villagers responded with sheepish waves, staring upward as the vehicle mounted higher in the sky. We would not be returning to that primitive village of northern Madagascar. In fact, in less than a week, we would be flying across the Mozambique channel, across the African continent, and back to our homes in the U.S. But we had left something—Bibles. The living Word of God. God’s revelation. And we had told them something—the Good News of Jesus. The God-Man. The One who died to save them from their sins.
However, as we left that village and as the helicopter sped back to our base in Diego Suarez, we saw something that I would never forget.
What we saw was another rural village. Just a little huddle of spindly, little grass-thatched huts. Just a few hundred people, scattering in excitement at the sight of a helicopter—something they had never seen. But we didn’t stop at that village. We didn’t land. We just flew over it. Flying at an altitude of less than 1,000 feet, I could see each individual hut. I could see the villagers as they ran out to watch this bizarre metal bird fly overhead. I could see their frantic gesturing. But we didn’t stop. We had to get back to Diego.
The people in that village had never seen a Bible. They don’t know what the living Word of God is. They’ve never heard of Jesus. All they know is the bondage of ancestor worship, and the life-depriving fear of evil spirits. All they know is the endless cycle of dry season, rainy season; times of food, times of famine; times of birth, times of death…and on it goes. As we flew by, an overwhelming thought struck me. Those people may never hear about Jesus. Since the day we flew over that village in August of 2009, people have died. Disease has struck. Aged people have passed away. And they’ve never heard about Jesus.
But we didn’t stop. We had to go, never knowing if the people would ever hear of Jesus. Ever.
That left me grappling with a massive question: What is going to happen to those people? Having never heard of Jesus Christ, what will be their eternal destiny? Will they just die, return to dust, and that’s the end? Will they go to hell? Will they live in heaven? What will happen to them?
Some people believe that everyone will be saved as long as they acknowledge some concept of god. However, rather than impose our own wistful thoughts or writing emotions upon this heart-wrenching question, we must faithfully submit to God’s revelation about the issue. So, what has God revealed about the issue?
- John 3:18, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
- John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus Himself declared His exclusivity. He was not on an ego-trip. He died, because He is the only one who could accomplish redemption. Because He is God.
- Acts 10. Even though Cornelius was a God-fearing man (Acts 10:2), his knowledge of God wasn’t enough to bring him to saving faith. God sent Peter who preached about Jesus (10:36). At that point, Cornelius and his family understood true salvation and were saved (Acts 10:44-48). Just knowing and even fearing God wasn’t enough. They had to accept Jesus.
- Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” No one can be saved through any other form of revelation, any deity, or any faith system. Jesus alone provides salvation.
- Romans 10:6-17, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” This passage leaves us with no question as to the destiny of those who have never heard. Those who die without Christ will spend a Christless eternity in hell. Although general revelation provides leads to a knowledge of God, that knowledge by itself isn’t enough to accomplish salvation. Only belief ion the word of Christ can accomplish that.
- 1 John 2:23, “Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
- 1 John 5:12, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Case closed. Without Christ–Christ alone–there is no life-giving salvation.
I am no longer grappling with the massive question of their destiny. Instead, my heart is broken and challenged with the urgency of God’s mission. My soul is shaken to the core with the intense need of lost people around the world. My life is changed by a realization of the crying desperateness of the millions of unreached who are living…and dying…never having heard.
If you read this article, and then go throughout the rest of this day feeling sad, I’ve failed to accomplish my goal in writing. Why are you on this earth? Why has God chosen you for salvation? Why has God allowed you to hear His Word and respond in faith? The answer to that question is obvious. So you can tell others. So you can go and tell the people groups who have no knowledge of Jesus. So you can proclaim Christ, share the Good News, and see people born into the family of God. The mind-shaking reality of the status of the unreached should compel us to action, just as it did for Paul (Romans 15:20). It should revolutionize our prayer request lists. It should affect how we spend our money, how we use our time, and how we think of other people.
If you read this article and respond with anger to God or to the Scripture, then perhaps you’ve failed to understand and accept God’s Word. Rather than hurl angry comments and react with spite, take a moment to think and pray. What has God revealed in His Word? Believe it. Set aside preconceived notions and wishful thinking. You are in no position to judge God’s character. Listen to the Word. And accept it. Clear understanding of God’s Word rooted in a heart of compassion for lost and dying souls is crucial. It is the only right method for arriving at an accurate position on this controversial and important issue.
Although I left the northern peninsula of rural Madagascar over a year ago, I want to go back. And thankfully, others are there right now. This morning, I received an email in my inbox. A faithful missionary couple is right now ministering in what may be the very same village that we could not visit in August of last year. They have told these villagers the story of Jesus. And they believe that God is saving people in that rural village. Praise be to God.
As Eric Brown writes, “God’s means of glorifying His Son is by making salvation possible only through Him. Any other suggested means of salvation robs Christ of the glory He earned when He suffered in the stead of humankind, who could never earn their own atonement for sin. This message of the glorious cross of Christ must be declared to the lost all around the globe, ‘so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 26:17-18).”
This has not been an easy article to write. I have been humbled to the point of tears in my brokenness for the destiny of the unevangelized and through my passion for God’s glory among the nations. I pray that you will realize the grand vision for God’s glorious pursuit of the salvation of all humankind. I pray that you will respond to His calling on your life to join Him in this kingdom-advancing mission. I pray that you will strive to make God famous wherever you are and in whatever you do, and that a Christlike love will compel you to reach the lost with the life-giving message of Jesus.
Paradigms in Conflict
By David J. Hesselgrave
What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
By Ronald Nash
Thanks to Eric Brown of Greenville, SC for his helpful insights and the paper, “Restrictivism and inclusivism” that he wrote on this topic.