Quite often in evangelical quarters the question arises, “What is the status of those who have never heard the gospel of Christ?” Among the usual answers given to the question, two seem to rise to the top: 1.) They are hopelessly lost because they have never heard the gospel, 2.) We may hold out hope; since they have never heard the gospel they cannot be held responsible for their failure to believe it. I would submit that both of these popular options are predicated upon the same faulty assumption, namely, that the witness of Christ has not made it to the farthest reaches of humanity.
At this point, my brothers who (rightly) champion the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ turn to the tenth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans:
“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? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-17)
From the verses cited above, it is usually asserted that Paul is presenting a tight argument in question form:
A. How will they call on Jesus if they haven’t believed on Jesus?
B. How will they believe on Jesus if they have not heard of Jesus?
C. How will they hear of Jesus without a preacher?
D. How will a preacher preach unless the preacher is sent to preach?
Then, in a swift move, they skip the rest of the relevant data and move immediately to the closing statement in verse seventeen: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” One should commend compassionate brethren for their evangelistic zeal. But one must be careful here. Evangelistic zeal ceases to be a virtue if it is grounded upon exegetical laziness.
What many seem to gloss over is that the questions posed by Paul are, in fact, rhetorical questions. His assumption is not that Israel (and by extension, the rest of the world) have not heard the witness, but just the opposite. Implicit in the first seventeen verses of the chapter is the fact that Christ has made himself known in the world. Indeed, the construction of verse seventeen suggests that Christ is the very one doing the preaching. It seems most probable that the “sent one,” the “preacher,” is none other than Jesus. The statement in seventeen follows two quotations from Isaiah 52 and 53, both of which find their fullness in the Messianic Servant who would proclaim the “good news” of the victory of God to the world.
But what was implicit in the first half of the chapter, is made explicit in the second half. There is little wonder why most end their proof-texting at the end of verse sixteen. Everything which follows it contradicts their proposed interpretation. Paul continues his rhetorical argument in verse seventeen, but this time he answers his own question definitively:
“But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’
His argument? They have heard Christ! They have heard him loud and clear. By quoting Psalm 19, Paul is reminding his readers that Christ testified to the world through the medium of the whole created order. To situate his quotation, consider the full text of David’s Psalm:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night after night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the earth.” (Ps. 19:1-4)
Turning again to Romans 10, we might ask Paul, “Whose voice has gone out into all the earth? Whose words have traveled to the ends of the world?” To which the obvious reply comes, “The voice and words of Christ through the medium of the created order.” This can be the only reasonable interpretation of Paul’s use of this Psalm in this particular argument.
This is not a novel approach, neither is it foreign to Paul’s arguments elsewhere in the letter. He made much the same point in the first chapter:
“For the wrath of God is reveled from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So that they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:18-21)
Those who reject the gospel of which Paul speaks are not ignorant, they are insolent. The message has been plain but it is just not palatable for them, so they bury the truth through their unrighteousness.
Paul continues his Q&A in Romans 10:19-20:
“But I say, surely Israel did not know, did they? First Moses says,‘I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, by a nation without understanding will I anger you.’ And Isaiah is very bold and says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.’”
While we may still enjoy lively debates concerning the destiny of those who have not openly named the known name of Christ, we seem exegetically constrained to say that the Scriptures do not admit of a category of people who have not heard the voice of Christ.