Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about the idea of salvation, namely who is saved, who isn’t, and why. Having been raised Calvinist I’m now questioning some points of it more directly than I have in the past, the state of the “unreached heathen” or “reprobate” being one of them. Traditionally Calvinism and many other branches of orthodox Christianity would say that those that never hear are lost based on the passage here in Romans. The teaching is that all of humanity knows something of God which can be inferred from the world around them. However this truth has been suppressed by the idolatry of others, leading all mankind to be in a state of sin. The implication is that all of humanity has been given knowledge of God but that humanity has rejected God from the beginning. Therefore, the species is under righteous judgment.
So the answer to the question of those that never hear the Gospel has been that they have heard, but they rejected it and are therefore lost. This puzzles me.
First, I don’t think creation itself, without the aid of the lens of scripture, points to the God of the Hebrew and Christian Bible. It is clear that creation points to something and that humanity for eons has tried to revere, worship and placate that creative force. However humanity ends up worshiping the created rather than the Creator. However I cannot understand how an ancient Aztec could look at the sky and be led to the monotheistic God we are familiar with in the first place. In the OT there are spare examples of those outside the Abrahamic revelation who apparently believed and worshiped Yahweh, most notably Melchizidek. I therefore find it hard to accept that “they are without excuse” because creation doesn’t point to even a partly complete revelation of God the Father, much less Jesus Christ.
Second I don’t know of anyone who was born with an innate knowledge of God. This idea of innate knowledge or a “divine spark” goes contrary to the notion of total depravity (Romans 3:23 is the general prooftext), that all of humanity is corrupt from inception. We are all sinners from birth, yet we also consciously knew God but rejected Him. The two ideas seem to collide.
Third, it’s clear from Paul that we are not saved merely by knowledge of God or by obedience to the Law, but by the Gospel – the justification of Christ that reconciles us to God the Father. It is a free gift that, again according to classical Calvinism, is given to some and not to others. But I see some problems here with the unreached. There were numerous – even countless – generations who were unable to hear the Gospel because it was impossible to reach them. And by impossible I don’t just mean really really really hard. I mean outside of a special revelation of God, they were not getting the Gospel in any form. The Apostles couldn’t reach the North American and South American continents, great swaths of Europe and Asia, or Australia. So these people could not hear the Gospel apart from special revelation to them.
So there is no way that these people could have been saved. They did not worship the true God, and according to this passage they could not have because of the suppression of the truth which apparently was available to them in some form. According to traditional Christianity, they are lost and condemned to hell. And this is righteous and just, apparently.
This is where I have my biggest difficulty. I don’t have difficulty with the condemnation of those who are presented the Gospel and reject it or fall away from it. Pick your soil on the parable of the sower as an example. But what of the soil that never receives the seed? Typically I’ve heard the argument made that those predestined to hell would have rejected the Gospel anyway if it had been presented to them, so God is still just. To extend the parable of the sower a bit, God doesn’t waste seed on bad soil that He knows won’t receive it. However how could that argument hold to someone in say 1st century South America? And by “someone” I’m really meaning entire people groups. So God predestines entire people groups to condemnations by making it impossible for them to hear the Gospel due to when and where they lived? Were they truly “bad soil” or did the seed just never reach it?
I know the current paradigm for evangelism is that people all over the world need to be reached with the Gospel ere they die eternally. Today we can now go to those places. Two thousand years ago, that was impossible.
Having gone this far, I want to say that I don’t endorse universalism. I don’t believe it’s biblical to say that there is no hell or that absolutely all creation is saved. Neither do I want to affirm that there is some other way to reconciliation to God that through Jesus Christ. But I do have questions.
For example, when Paul uses the word “men” and “them” in this passage, is he referring to all of humanity or to something else? Given the structure of Romans and how he sets up arguments and points he wants to make, I wonder if he is using “them” as a way of referring to those outside the Jewish faith in general. The “unclean masses” or “barbarians” if you will. Perhaps he’s not implying the whole entire world, but the Roman “world”, which would have been as much as he and his contemporaries knew of the world anyway. Unfortunately my commentaries are packed away in a box somewhere. If anyone can dive into the original language here I’d appreciate it.
Anyhow these are just thoughts I have. Any comments or suggestions for further reading please pass them along.