Romans 1:19–20—Are the heathen lost?
Problem: Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me” (John 14:6). Also, Acts 4:12 says of Christ, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (nasb). But what if someone has never heard the Gospel of Christ, will he be eternally lost? Paul seems to answer this in the affirmative. But is it fair to condemn people who have never even heard about Christ?
Solution: Paul’s answer is clear. He said that the heathen are “without excuse” (1:20) 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” (1:19–20). So, the heathen are justly condemned for several reasons. First, Romans 2:12 states, “For as many as have sinned without Law will also perish without Law, and as many as have sinned in the Law will be judged by the Law.” This passage teaches that the Jew is judged by the Law, the Hebrew Scriptures, but the Gentile is condemned by “the Law written in their hearts.” “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom. 2:14–15, nasb).
Second, the question assumes innocence on the part of the saved man who hasn’t heard the Gospel. But the Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In addition, Romans 1:18–20 says that God clearly reveals Himself through natural revelation “so that they are without excuse.” Human beings are not innocent regarding God’s natural revelation.
Third, if a person who has not heard the Gospel lives his life to the best of his ability he simply is doing works for salvation. But salvation is by grace, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Not in any way, shape, or form can anybody do anything to gain access into heaven. If there was such a way, then the work of Christ on the Cross was a futile act.
Finally, the Bible says in essence, “seek and you will find.” That is, those who seek the light they have through nature, which is not sufficient for salvation, will get the light they need for salvation. Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Acts 10:35 adds, “But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” God has many ways to get the truth about salvation through Christ to those who seek Him. He can send a missionary (Acts 10), or a Bible (Ps. 119:130), give them a vision (Dan. 2; 7), or send an angel (Rev. 14). But those who turn their back on the light they have (through nature) and find themselves lost in darkness, have no one to blame but themselves. For “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.