Is General Revelation Sufficient for Salvation?, Pt. 2: The State of the Unevangelized
In Part 1, I made the case that general revelation, while showing God’s divinity and power, does not tell us who specifically God the Creator is. Only in Christ do we see tangible evidence of the Creator God (John 1). The same God who created the world is the same God who “became flesh, and dwelt among us.”
If the special revelation of Jesus Christ and the gospel (the special revelation the world has today) is required for salvation, what about the unevangelized?
You may not know it, but many Christian theologians struggle with the question, “What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?” (a book title by John Sanders). John Sanders is both an Open Theist and Inclusivist, and believes in many of the things I have discussed here on inclusivism. He is the author of the book “The God Who Risks,” and is a huge proponent of Inclusivism. This view has gained ground within the evangelical movement within the last twenty years, and is more of an opponent to Christocentric salvation than many conservative Christians have estimated.
Believe it or not, there are those who live on the earth who do not have access to human missionaries. There are countries and lands in which missionaries and preachers are killed for preaching the gospel, and Christians are persecuted, tortured, and killed for naming the name of Christ.
In these places, as well as unreached people groups, there are those who have never seen a human missionary before — and have never heard of the name of Jesus. What about those individuals?
Does The Lord desire that they be saved?
He does. After all, did Jesus not die for them? Did He not tell the disciples to “go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15)?
Why would He want the disciples to preach salvation to every creature if He did not want to save them — even the person on the island, or a person in an area where the gospel is not allowed to be proclaimed?
The Italian centurion Cornelius provides the perfect example of someone who surrendered to God long before he received the gospel, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. Acts 10 says that Cornelius “feared God with all his household” and “gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2).
The text tells us that Cornelius was a God-fearer, someone who knew the Creator God through general revelation. Not only did he acknowledge God as Creator, his family did so as well. He also did good for God’s people (the Jews), and prayed to God constantly.
It is interesting that Cornelius did not know God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ, but yet and still he prays to the Creator God and acknowledges Him as Lord.
While he is praying one day, he has a vision of an angel who tells him what to do in order to reach Simon Peter (who later presents the gospel to him and his family). The angel tells Cornelius a remarkable thing: “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).
In other words, the angel told Cornelius that his prayers and alms to the Jews was remembered by God. God coming to Cornelius in a vision was the Lord’s way of letting Cornelius know that the Lord God heard and was pleased with Cornelius’s prayers. Even though Cornelius had not heard the gospel and had yet to receive the Holy Spirit, the Lord still heard his prayers and was pleased with his almsgiving.
Now, I must place a word of caution here. There are many who will say, “Cornelius was an Italian soldier of some rank and gave to the Jews. He must have known about the God of Israel in order to give to the Jews.”
This seems to be true from the text; after all, he was a Gentile; why give alms to the Jews unless he knew something about Israel and Israel’s God?
There is also another fascinating point about Gentiles in Acts: there are some Gentiles present at the Pentecost event called “proselytes” (Acts 2:10), and these “proselytes” from Rome are contrasted to Roman Jews in the same verse.
Perhaps Cornelius and his family were similar to proselytes in the sense that they conformed to the ways of the Jews and accepted the God of the Jews — despite the fact that they were Gentiles and had not yet received salvation. This means that there is a possibility that Cornelius was familiar with the ways of Judaism and the God of the Jews. While he was not yet saved and had not yet heard the gospel, he did pray to the God of Israel and give to the Jews — signs that he was a believer in his heart.
Does God desire the Unreachable People Groups to Know Him?
Some individuals live in areas where they know even less about God and the Jews than Cornelius and his family. They are not devout, nor “God-fearing,” and they do not pray to the God of Israel. “What about them,” some may ask?
God desires that those who know nothing of the God of Israel or Jesus would come to know the one true living God. Solomon prays this in his prayer at the temple dedication:
“Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name” (1 Kings 8:41-43).
When Solomon prays in the temple, he prays for Israel but also the foreigner, the Gentile, who will travel from a place far away to worship the God of Israel. He asks Yahweh to honor the request of the Gentile “in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name.”
The prayer not only pleads with Yahweh to bless His people, but also to bless the foreigner. Jesus calls the temple “a house of prayer,” referencing the Old Testament:
“‘Even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered’” (Isaiah 56:7-8).
While the above passage from Isaiah is from the NASB, other translations state that the temple is called “the house of prayer for all nations.” Both of these translations show that The Lord wants both Jews and Gentiles to worship together in His sanctuary.
One of the Psalms prays that the nations would know of God’s salvation and praise The Lord:
“God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us — that Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You” (Psalm 67: 1-3).
While Solomon prays to God in the Old Testament (1 Kings 8), he also writes a Psalm that praises Yahweh, the King of Kings. In this Psalm, he also ties God’s glory and praise to the nations:
“May he also rule from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust. Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72: 8-11).
Notice that the Psalm shows the desire of the “kings of…the islands” to “bring presents”. This means that The Lord desires that even the islands (tiny masses of land surrounded by large bodies of water, with no neighboring lands) to worship Him. Does this sound like The Lord would forsake the island inhabitants throughout the world? Of course not.
Psalm 98 states that The Lord has revealed Himself through Christ:
“The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 98: 2-3).
As is demonstrated from these few verses, The Lord desires to reach the ends of the earth and have the inhabitants at the ends of the earth to worship Him. This is not the desire of a god who would simply abandon those on the islands and leave them to die in their sins eternally without revealing Himself to them.