“My Bible class was studying Acts 17:30 and some wondered if those who never hear the gospel will be saved due to their ignorance. Is this true?”
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17:29 – 31 (New International Version)
The Bible text clearly states that everyone must repent. It doesn’t offer any alternative to anyone, including those who might never hear the gospel message. There is not one promised blessing to one who does not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:7 – 9). The apostle Paul puts it this way, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? … Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:13, 14, 17). This shows that knowledge of the word of God, which leads to faith in Christ, is necessary to salvation.
However, the premise that one will be lost because of ignorance is not correct. Not hearing the gospel does not cause one to be lost, for the person is already lost. Sin condemns people and causes them to be lost (notice Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 6:23, Romans 3:10, 23). The reason people are lost is because of their sinfulness and nothing else. Hearing the gospel is necessary for the lost to be saved.
The apostle Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16). As Jesus said, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17). The world was already judged and under condemnation when He got here. He came to offer the only way out of sin and death.
If we contend that people who never heard of Jesus Christ and His gospel can (or will be) saved, then we would have to contend that some people could be saved IN their sins and without the blood of Jesus. They could live in total depravity and error, never having one sin forgiven and still sit at the feet of God. The fact is, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). If you are outside of Christ, you are condemned now, because of your sin, not because you haven’t heard of Jesus.
This might offend our sense of justice to think that it is unfair that people die spiritually without the chance to be saved. But we wouldn’t apply that reasoning anywhere else in life. You might not know that cigarettes are harmful, but you will still get cancer and maybe die, in spite of your ignorance. You might trust your neighborhood and leave your doors unlocked, never realizing one neighbor is a thief. Your ignorance will not protect you from being robbed. Ignorance will not protect us in school or the workplace, and we should not be surprised that it will not save us from our sin.
Finally, if ignorance of the grace of God could bring salvation, why send Jesus to die a horrible, painful, sin-filled death? If you and I could be right with God just by staying ignorant, why not just let us stay ignorant and let Jesus stay in heaven where He belongs? Jesus came and died, precisely because He didn’t want us to be ignorant and He didn’t want us to stay lost.