KJV“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:” (Rom. 1:20)
CLT“For His invisible attributes are descried from the creation of the world, being apprehended by His achievements, besides His imperceptible power and divinity, for them to be defenseless,(Rom. 1:20)
Context is so important. We know this and practice recognizing context with most anything we read…except with respect to scripture. In fact, among Christians, the student of scripture is a rare thing. Although I don’t attend “church” every Sunday or even most Sundays, I marvel at some of the sermons I do hear. So many times, it seems like a pastor determines a topic and then proceeds to take a verse here, passage there, a smear of this, and a dash of that, regardless of the truths which are being spoken by the passages in context; the teachings of the sermon, notwithstanding.
The verse cited above from Romans 1 is no exception and is spoken of a lot by Christians; especially when it comes to the topic of atheists. Whenever a celebrity dies, it seems that many Christians use the occasion of the death of a celebrity unbeliever, as an opportunity to “evangelize”.
In the case of wealthy celebrities who die as a professed atheist, or agnostic, or Pagan, very little sympathy is shown (in my experience) by Christians who believe that at the celebrity’s moment of death, that recently deceased celebrity is now stoking on the fires of “hell”. That attitude alone tells me two things. First, it tells me that many (certainly not all) Christians have a callused heart and un-Christ-like attitude toward the deceased’s perceived, current and future condition. Secondly, it makes me wonder if any of these folks have ever actually sat and contemplated eternal torment, or allowed their thoughts to consider one of their loved ones being in that condition forever; to which I conclude that they have likely never contemplated it.
Sometimes, genuinely concerned and soft-hearted people will ask about those who not only never heard of the God of the scriptures, but of His Son, and salvation. “What about thosepeople?”, many will sincerely ask. In my experience, the clergy of mainstream Christianity (much less the non-clergy) have any confident answers; and certainly no answers which offer a sense of confidence in God and His Son, as it pertains to salvation.
So, what happens (according to mainstream Christian teaching) to those who have never heard the gospel, and die? Below are some of the answers I have heard over the years:
“God judges them based on the light they had.”
“God judges them based on their works.”
“We don’t know but we know God is righteous.”
“If they never heard of God, they will go to Heaven.”
“Everyone is given an “opportunity” before they die.”
You may be aware of more answers than these, but the above answers are what I have run across most often when the question of how God handles those who die, never having heard of Him or the gospel.
Once, a few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was telling me all about his recent missions trip to a third world country. He was talking about helping build houses and I told him I thought that was great. Then…I asked my friend (he believes in salvation by free will and he believes in eternal torment) some pointed questions as it pertained to his evangelism part of the mission trip. The latter part of my questioning went a little like this:
Me: “So Jim, what happens to the nice sun-worshipper if dies, having rejected this strange God, that this strange foreigner just told him about?”
Jim: “Unfortunately, he would go to hell forever.”
Me: “Well, if you or anyone else never shared the gospel and Jesus with that guy, what would have happened to him??”
Jim: “…Well…if he had never heard the gospel…he didn’t reject Jesus…so, in that case, he would go to Heaven.”
Me: “Well Jim, I have to ask, “Why in the world would you ever risk telling these poor people about Jesus Christ and the “good news” if they would go to hell by rejecting it, but go to heaven by never hearing it?!”
Jim: “Because we are COMMANDED to!!”
Me: “It sounds like to me that God is really stacking the deck against people who He says that He wants to save!”
As you can probably imagine, Jim was really angry with me because I pointed out what seemed to be a very fundamental flaw with his evangelistic endeavors. Oh well, the religious seem not to see the glaring contradictions that are created by their theology.
There is another answer I have heard given for the question of the fate of those who die never having heard the gospel, and it comes from Romans 1. I have heard said:
“Romans 1:20 says that everyone can see that there is a God. They are without excuse!”
At the beginning of this article, I pasted a couple of versions of this verse and if the verse is read in isolation (which people who are interested in the truth, should never do), it certainly sounds like we just received a plausible and scriptural answer to this often asked question.
It sounds plausible…until you stop to think about it and until you read not only the entirety of Romans 1, but also Romans 2 and 3. Before we take a look at the context of Romans 1 (which will settle for us, who is “without excuse”), let’s think over this theory logically.
I tried to sit and imagine what I might think about God, if I were a boy, who grew up in a Pagan land or in an undeveloped country. The thing is, there is no way to know, or even guess what your conception of God might be, having grown up in a completely different environment, time, place, and under different circumstances and influences. I have heard many Christians (who are really only cultural Christians because God chose to plant them at a certain place, a certain time, and in a certain set of circumstances) say, “Well, you can look around and tell that God made all this; that there is a Creator.” Maybe, maybe not. But, that isn’t the issue. When it comes to both Calvinistic and Arminian theology, both will tell you that it is vitally important, not only that one believes there is a God. One must believe in the only, true God, before one dies. One must believe that God’s Son died for their sins, was entombed, and was raised the third day, too!!
Let me ask you, how is it reasonable or even remotely possible, that someone who has never heard of, read about, or been told of the one, true God, would discern this one, true God, simply by looking at the creation? Is it even remotely possible, that one would discern from nature that the Creator of the earth and the heavens was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, much less that He had a Son, Jesus Christ, Who was sinless and died for everyone’s sins, and was raised to immortality?
It would be an absurdity to imagine that anyone would simply come to this realization through nature. How do the scriptures say men become acquainted with the truth?
“For, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved:— 14 How, then, shall men call upon one in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without one to proclaim? 15 And how shall they proclaim, except they be sent? Even as it is written—How beautiful the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things” (Rom. 10:13-15)
People learn the good news from people telling them about it; not by discerning it from intuitively understanding that a Creator must have spoken the palm tree into existence.
When we read Romans 1:20, like everything else we read, we must ask ourselves, the “who, what, when, where, and why” which identifies and gives us context to understand correctly, what we are reading. Sermons and devotional type studies have completely killed context when it comes to scriptural studies. Also, chapter and verse numberings are good and bad. They are good from the perspective of helping to locate a particular passage, but they can be a hindrance to learning as well. Chapter and verse numberings, are not inspired. Sometimes, a single thought may be split not only between chapters, but between verses. Some will read a verse and stop, not realizing that you have to read the continued thought into the next verse or otherwise, you will walk away with a different understanding than what was being conveyed.
When considering Romans 1, we should really at least, read through chapter 3 to obtain the context of what Paul is speaking of. Beyond the first section of Romans 1, which includes the signature (Paul identifying himself as the writer), who he is sent from, and identifying his audience (the saints in Rome), we note that Paul thanks God for them, and wants to visit them. Let’s look at our first section, beginning at Romans 1, verse 16, through Romans 2, verse 10:
“For I am not ashamed of the joyful message; for it is God’s power unto salvation, to every one that believeth, both to Jew [first] and to Greek; 17 For, a righteousness of God, is therein revealed,—by faith unto faith: even as it is written—But, he that is righteous, by faith, shall live. 18 For there is being revealed an anger of God from heaven—against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who, the truth, in unrighteousness, do hold down;— 19 Inasmuch as, what may be known of God, is manifest among them, for, God, unto them, hath made it manifest,— 20 For, the unseen things of him, from a world’s creation, by the things made, being perceived, are clearly seen, even his eternal power and divinity,—to the end they should be without excuse; 21 Inasmuch as, having come to know God, not, as God, did they glorify him, or give him thanks, but were made fruitless in their reasonings, and darkened was their undiscerning heart, 22 Professing to be wise, they were made foolish, 23 And, exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God, for the likeness of an image of a corruptible man, and of birds and fourfooted beasts and reptiles: 24 Wherefore God gave them up in the covetings of their hearts unto impurity, so as to be dishonouring their bodies among them,— 25 Who, indeed, exchanged away the truth of God for the falsehood, and rendered worship and service unto the creature rather than unto the Creator,—who is blessed unto the ages. Amen! 26 For this cause, God gave them up unto dishonourable passions; for, even their females, exchanged away the natural use into that which is against nature,— 27 In like manner also, even the males, leaving the natural use of the female, flamed out in their eager desire one for another, males with males, the indecency, effecting,—and, the necessary recompence of their error, within themselves, duly receiving;— 28 And, even as they did not approve to be holding, God, in acknowledgment, God gave them up unto a disapproved mind to be doing the things that are not becoming, 29 Filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, baseness, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil disposition, 30 Whisperers, detractors, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, vain boasters, inventors of vices, unto parents unyielding, 31 Without discernment, regardless of covenants, without natural affection, unmerciful:— 32 Who, indeed, having acknowledged the righteous sentence of God,—that, they who such things as these do practise, are worthy of death, not only, the same things, are doing, but are even delighting together with them who are practising [them] . 2 1 Wherefore, inexcusable, thou art, O man, whoever judgest; for, wherein thou judgest some one else, thyself, thou dost condemn,—for, the very things, thou dost practise, who art judging: 2 We know, however, that, the sentence of God, is according to truth against them who, such things as these, do practise. 3 And reckonest thou this, O man—who dost judge them who such things do practise, and yet art doing the same, that, thou, shalt escape the sentence of God? 4 Or, the riches of his kindness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, dost thou despise,—not knowing that, the kindness of God, unto repentance, is leading thee? 5 But, according to thy hardness, and [thine] impenitent heart, art treasuring up for thyself anger, in a day of anger and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,— 6 Who will render unto each one according to his works:— 7 Unto them, on the one hand, who, by way of endurance in good work, are seeking, glory, honour and incorruption, life age-abiding, 8 Unto them, on the other hand, who are of contention, and are not yielding unto the truth, but are yielding unto unrighteousness, anger and wrath, 9 tribulation and anguish—against every soul of man who worketh out what is base, both of Jew first and of Greek,— 10 But glory and honour and peace—unto every one who worketh what is good, both unto Jew first and unto Greek:” (Rom. 1:16-2:10)
Who is Paul talking about here? Maybe more importantly, when was he talking about here? Verse 20 states that “…fromthe creation of the world…”. In verse 21 we read, “..becausethat when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God…”. This is obviously not talking about Charles Hitchens, Anthony Bourdain, Stephen Hawking, the young man who died in India twenty years before the death of Christ Jesus, or the idol worshipping hunter on the plains of the Serengeti who died yesterday.
No, Paul was giving us a history here, not commentary on the state of the world in our day. Remember, before God washed His hands of the nations and called a man out of idolatry, Abram, to be the father of a new people, the nations/gentiles, KNEW GOD. They knew Who God was. But, as we read in verses 21-23, they did not worship Him as God, but “…exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God, for the likeness of an image of a corruptible man, and of birds and fourfooted beasts and reptiles…” . In our history, do we not know of cultures which did exactly that? Think about Norse, Greek, and Roman mythology which had men as gods, and of course, we have the Egyptians whose Pharaohs were believed to be gods, and who made images of gods with animal heads. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs worshipped crocodiles. The list goes on and on and on. The point is, that unlike Pagans of the 21st century, these cultures knew the real God and then turned from Him.
In the next verses, we read that “…for this cause, God gave them up unto dishonorable passions…”. Go back to the pasted text and read verses 21-32. We can now see why God gave them up and what He gave them over to. It is beyond the scope of this article (which is long enough as it is) to get into the obvious implications of verses 26-27, specifically, but will leave that to the reader.
For some reason though, many Christian fundamentalists latch onto the sexual sins of verses 26-27 and miss the sins that all of us have committed or still commit in verses 31-32 which are all said (and are) “…to be worthy of death…”. Is that not the sentence we are placed under for any and all sin; death? While many Christians who are disobedient to their parents, are boasters, or arrogant and envious, look down their holier than thou noses at certain sins, completely exonerate themselves.
We (yes, “we”) fail to see that in this passage, Paul is bringing all under the same sentence. All have sinned, all are worthy of death, all are without excuse.
Let’s continue and pay very close attention to verses 3-10 of chapter 2. While many look down on other’s sins, and state that “those people” are going to have God’s wrath brought upon them and be tormented endlessly, are in hardness of heart themselves not going to “…escape the sentence of God? 4 Or, the riches of his kindness, and forbearance, and long-suffering,…”. Did you notice that?! None are going to escape His sentence…or the riches of His kindness, and forbearance, and long-suffering. Because, why?? Because the “kindness of God, unto repentance is leading us.”
In the remaining verses in that section we see that our hardness and impenitent hearts are storing up anger against us. This is deep, spiritual truth. God will render each (those seeking the truth, and life “age-abiding” and those who are not seeking truth, but instead, anger and wrath) will be paid according to those works. This section was Paul bringing the nations/Gentiles all under condemnation. None are exempt. But, before the Jews (who were given the law can act too proudly, he addresses them next).
“For there is no partiality with God, 12 for whoever sinned without the law, without law also shall perish, and whoever sinned in law, through law will be judged." 13 For not the listeners to law are just with God, but the doers of law shall be justified." 14 For whenever they of the nations that have no law, by nature may be doing that which the law demands, these, having no law, are a law to themselves, 15 who are displaying the action of the law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying together and their reckonings between one another, accusing or defending them, 16 in the day when God will be judging the hidden things of humanity, according to my evangel, through Jesus Christ." 17 Lo! youare being denominated a Jew, and are resting on law, and are boasting in God, 18 and know the will, and are testing what things are of consequence, being instructed out of the law." 19 Besides, you have confidence in yourself to be a guide of the blind, a light of those in darkness, 20 a discipliner of the imprudent, a teacher of minors, having the form of knowledge and the truth in the law." 21 You, then, who are teaching another, you are not teaching yourself! who are heralding not to be stealing, you are stealing!" 22 who are saying not to be committing adultery, you are committing adultery! who are abominating idols, you are despoiling the sanctuary!" 23 who are boasting in a law, through the transgression of the law you are dishonoring God!" 24 For because of you the name of God is being blasphemed among the nations, according as it is written." 25 For circumcision, indeed, is benefiting if you should be putting law into practice, yet if you should be a transgressor of law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision." 26 If the Uncircumcision, then, should be maintaining the just requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision? 27 And the Uncircumcision who, by nature, are discharging the law's demands, shall be judging you, who through letter and circumcision, are a transgressor of law." 28 For not that which is apparent is the Jew, nor yet that which is apparent in flesh is circumcision;" 29 but that which is hidden is the Jew, and circumcision is of the heart, in spirit, not in letter, whose applause is not of men, but of God." 3 1 What, then, is the prerogative of the Jew, or what the benefit of circumcision? 2 Much in every manner. For first, indeed, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God." 3 For what if some disbelieve? Will not their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 May it not be coming to that! Now let God be true, yet every man a liar, even as it is written: "That so Thou shouldstbe justified in Thy sayings, And shalt be conquering when Thou art being judged." 5 Now if our injustice is commending God's righteousness, what shall we declare? Not that God Whois bringing on indignation is unjust! (As a man am I saying it.)" 6 May it not be coming to that! Else how shall God be judging the world? 7 Yet if the truth of God superabounds in my lie, for His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner, 8 and why not say, according as we are calumniated and according as some are averring that we are saying, that "We should be doing evil that good may be coming"? - whose judgment is fair." 9 What, then? Are we privileged? Undoubtedly not, for we previously charge both Jews and Greeks to be all under sin, 10 according as it is written, that "Not one is just- not even one." 11 Not one is understanding. Not one is seeking out God. 12 All avoid Him: at the same time they were useless. Not one is doing kindness: there is not even one!" 13 A sepulcher opened is their throat. With their tongues they defraud."The venom of asps is under their lips." 14 Whose mouth with imprecation and bitterness is crammed. 15 Sharp are their feet to shed blood. 16 Bruises and wretchedness are in their ways, 17 And the way of peace they do not know." 18 There is no fear of God in front of their eyes. 19 Now we are aware that, whatever the law is saying, it is speaking to those under the law, that every mouth may be barred, and the entire world may become subject to the just verdict of God, 20 because, by works of law, no flesh at all shall be justified in His sight, for through law is the recognition of sin." 21 Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifest (being attested by the law and the prophets), 22 yet a righteousness of God through Jesus Christ's faith, for all, and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction, 23 for all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God. 24 Being justified gratuitously in His grace, through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus" 25 (Whom God purposed for a Propitiatory shelter, through faith in His blood, for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God), 26 toward the display of His righteousness in the current era, for Him to be just and a Justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus." 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is debarred! Through what law? 28 Of works? No! But through faith's law. For we are reckoning a man to be justified by faith apart from works of law. 29 Or is He the god of the Jews only? Is He not of the nations also? 30 Yes, of the nations also, if so be that God is One, Who will be justifying the Circumcision out of faith and the Uncircumcision through faith." 31 Are we, then, nullifying law through faith? May it not be coming to that! Nay, we are sustaining law."
Paul’s railings against the Gentiles in chapters 1 through 2 was just a sound check for what he unleashes on his brothers according to the flesh. And, he should have. Relatively speaking, Israel was given every advantage. Absolutely speaking, their advantage was an extreme disadvantage when it comes to the flesh. The flesh is at enmity with God. God gave Israel the law to prove that.
In verse 14 (chp. 2), Paul points out that the nations knew (inherently) that it is wrong to murder, commit adultery, etc. without being given the law. He then takes up the gauntlet, based on what Israel’s role was to be (a royal priest) a teacher of the law to the nations. However, Paul points out that they claim to have the law, to teach the law, instructing in it, but what do they do? Verse 23 asks if while boasting in the law; while transgressing it, are they not dishonoring God? They preach circumcision but the nations see them robbing, committing adultery, etc. Paul begins in verse 27 that those uncircumcised were by nature keeping the law are by rights judging the circumcised (sign of being under the law) for transgressing it.
Paul was pointing out that the one is circumcised (spiritually) who is doing what the law commands and is thus having a “circumcision which is of the heart”; a “Jew”, inwardly.
The coup de grace is coming. In Romans 3, beginning in verse 9 and continuing on down, Paul condemns all, both Jew and Greek, under the law. “All are unprofitable”, “no one discerns”, “none are seeking after God”, “all have turned aside”, “none do good, no not one”. None, none, none. All, all, all.
Are any left to be excluded? Just who does “all” not include??
In verses 19 through 20, we learn the reason for the law. It was so that “…every mouth, may be stopped and all the world come, under penal sentence, unto God. 20 Inasmuch as, by works of law, shall no flesh be declared righteous before him,—through law, in fact, is discovery of sin.” The law, to one extent or another, was to bring all to the point of failure before God.
In verse 22, we have Paul speaking of God, through Jesus Christ’s faith (did you know that Jesus Christ had faith?), a righteousness of God, “…for all and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction…”. And, continuing on to the end of chapter 3, Paul speaks of faith being the Justifier, and this righteousness is apart from works of the law, so that there is no boasting. And why is there not even boasting in having faith? Although we don’t read it here in Romans, we learn in Ephesians 2:8-9, that faith does not come from us. Faith is not something that we well up within ourselves and offer to God. If that were the case, could not a believer boast? In fact, that is what we really see when many who believe in salvation by a free will decision for Christ are backed into a corner on this issue. They believe they are saved due to their belief; their faith. And the man who isn’t a believer is condemned because he wasn’t smart enough to make this wise decision. This is boasting! God must give faith.
“For in grace, through faith, are you saved, and this is not out of you; it is God's approach present, 9 not of works, lest anyone should be boasting." (Eph. 2:8-9)
While it does take some time to do, it is very helpful to read (in one sitting) Romans, chapters 1 through 5 in one sitting. What you find is that in chapter 1, Paul gives the history of the Gentile nations, how they once knew the true God, but refused later to worship Him as God, and how God judged them in this. Then, in chapter 2 we see that Israel was given every advantage, having been given the law and the oracles of God. But, rather than live up to the law, they behaved worse than the nations who had no written law of God. In chapter 3, Paul brings both groups under condemnation and shows how all Jew and Gentile are all brought to naught before God. In chapter 4, Paul relates the story of Abraham and how being the father of the circumcision (Israel) but also of those who walk by faith, as Abraham did yet uncircumcised (Gentiles) whosebelieving God was counted to him as righteousness, apart from works.
In Romans 5, we have one of the most profound chapters in all of scripture. We learn that Jesus Christ died for the ungodly (v. 6), not the “righteous”, because as we learned in chapter 3, none are righteous. We also learn how Adam’s disobedience brought all (there’s that word again) under condemnation of death, but how the obedience of Jesus Christ will bring justification unto life to the same “all”.
So, while Romans 1 isn’t saying that the aboriginal man is “without excuse” for personally not knowing the One, True God and His Christ, the aboriginal man, and the educated atheist, and the studied Orthdodox Jew, and the Southern Baptist, are all in the same boat. It’s a sinking ship and all of mankind is in it. God has us all where He wants us. Few are given faith and belief now. But, all will become acquainted with and gladly acclaim the truth; even if it does not come until the resurrection, and like Thomas, many are not made acquainted with their Savior until standing face to face.