Can an elect person die without ever having heard the gospel? Or is this impossible? It’s a question from a listener named Christie. “Hello, Pastor John! Can someone who is elect die without ever hearing the gospel and believing? I suspect not. I understand that people are born elect but they are not born saved, so the hearing will happen — it must happen. And our sharing of the faith is essential because God uses human means to bring people to himself.
“However, if people die without getting the chance to hear and respond to the gospel, I suspect they were never elect. Is that right? I am a seminary student and will be going overseas as a missionary upon graduation. I feel the missionary urgency, and yet I cannot shake this question. If the people who don’t hear were not elected, what is the urgency of sharing the faith? Do you see how that logic would deter the missionary impulse?”
Yes, I do see how that logic would deter the missionary impulse, but it’s faulty logic and it’s unbiblical. Let’s begin by just making sure our listeners know what we’re talking about. Christie is referring to the crucial biblical doctrine of election.
“It is absolutely essential for the sake of the elect that we do evangelism.”
For example, we see it in Ephesians 1:4–6: “Even as he chose [that’s the word where we get election — he elected] us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us.” So there we see election and the destining of the elect. Paul continues, “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”
Here it is again in 1 Corinthians 1:26–29: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose [there’s election] what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
The point of God’s choosing before we existed and choosing against all ordinary human expectation is to prevent us from boasting in anything but God’s free grace. That’s why it’s called unconditional election. God doesn’t look into the future and choose people on the basis of their meeting any conditions.
We see that in Romans 9:11, where Paul describes Jacob’s election over Esau when he says, “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” God’s sovereign choice and call is the basis, not anything we do or perform.
Hear to Believe
Now, Christie is asking why this might not lead to fatalism with regard to missions — specifically since everyone must believe on Jesus in order to be saved. She gets that right. You have to hear and believe the gospel. That’s based on Romans 10:13–14:
“God always correlates, in his eternal decrees, the election of a person and the evangelization of that person.”
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
She’s right to draw out that inference. But then she’s asking, “Since everyone must believe on Jesus in order to be saved, and since there’s no salvation without hearing and believing, then we may assume that anyone who dies without hearing and believing the gospel was not among the elect, because there’s no second chance after death for them to be saved.”
You have to hear the gospel and believe in order to go to heaven. If you don’t hear the gospel and believe, you don’t go to heaven. If you don’t go to heaven, you weren’t among the elect. Christie asks, “If the people who don’t hear were not elected, what’s the urgency of sharing the faith with them?”
I said it’s faulty logic to let this deter aggressive world evangelization. Now, why? Why is it faulty logic? Because the logic contains a mistaken inference. It infers that God did not correlate in eternity his election of a person and our evangelizing of that person.
In fact, God always correlates, in his eternal decrees, the election of a person and the evangelization of that person, just like he correlates events that he has decreed and the necessary prayers for those events. Now, that correlation means that the decreed event won’t happen without our decreed prayers.
“Oh, how I hope that there will be hope-filled, bold, yearning missionaries who follow the Lord into world evangelization.”
“You do not have, because you do not ask,” James says (James 4:2). The elect person won’t be saved without our decreed evangelizing of that person. The correlation is fixed in God’s mind. When we contemplate the urgency of our witness, what we should feel is this: It is absolutely essential for the sake of the elect that I do my evangelism.
Now, if you think that’s an odd way to think, listen to the apostle Paul. Here’s what he said in 2 Timothy 2:10: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).
Isn’t that amazing? He did not say, “Well, they are either not elect or elect, so nothing I do will make any ultimate difference.” That’s totally not the way he thought. Instead, he said, “I do everything I possibly can to get the elect to eternal glory because God has ordained the means as well as the end. Without the means, the end does not happen.” That’s the missing piece in the logic that becomes fatalistic.
Open Their Eyes
Just briefly, I said that letting election deter evangelization is not only bad logic; it’s unbiblical. Now, we’ve already seen that in 2 Timothy 2:10, but there is one other observation.
Paul saw the doctrine of election as not hindering his evangelism but emboldening it. For example, in Acts 18:9–10, Jesus says to him, “Don’t be afraid, . . . for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” In other words, “My elect are here. Keep preaching. My sheep will hear my voice. I will bring them.”
In Acts 13:48, Luke says this when he’s writing about their evangelism: “When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” This was the ground of the success of the preaching of the gospel. “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” If there had been no gospel, there would have been no salvation.
Paul knew that he had been sent to do what only God could do. In Acts 26:17–18, he quotes Jesus as saying, “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Only God can open the eyes of the spiritually blind, but Paul is sent by God to do it. God knows whom he will save. He knows whom he’s chosen. He knows whom he has appointed to be his instrument for the impossible opening of the eyes of the blind. Oh, how I hope that there will be hope-filled, bold, yearning missionaries who follow the Lord into world evangelization.