In 1843, Robert Moffat preached at the Barbican Chapel a sermon that raised the searching question of the eternal destination of those in foreign lands. He asked,
“Who can look to the East Indies now, and to China now; who can look to those interesting portions of the glove, because of the most populous, the most dense, without yeaning with compassion over the teeming millions that are there moving onward every day like some vast funeral procession; onward and downward, sadly and slowly, but certainly to the regions of woe? ‘Oh, you are a hard man,’ some might say; ‘do you think they will go to hell?’ Where do they go to? Do they go to heaven? All idolaters, we are told, have their portion in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone. I wish that someone would enlighten my mind, if it wants light on this subject, and tell me whether or not all the heathen have perished, all idolaters have perished. But we know that nothing that is unclean, or that loveth and maketh a lie, can enter the holy place. Where do they go to?”
Moffat’s intention, as interpreted by Brian Stanley in The BIble and the Flag, was to stir up a passion for missions amongst British Christians. Who better to stir up this interest than Moffat, who had already served for approximately nineteen years in South Africa amongst the Batswana people and would later become the father-in-law of David Livingstone. Yet this nagging question of where the “perishing heathen” shall go has haunted many missionaries and theologians. You can consider the contributions in Zondervan’s Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World for an example of the differing opinions on the subject (the kindle version is only $5.98).
Stanley suggests that Moffat was seriously wrestling with the reasonable difficulty of how unbelievers who had not heard the gospel could be sent to hell (i.e., eternal punishment). In fact, he suggests that even Livingstone struggled with this question until the death of Chief Sebituane of the Makololo people. Livingstone is quoted as saying, “The deep dark question of what is to become of such as he, must, however, be lef where we find it, believing that, assuredly, the “Judge of all the earth will do right”.’ The author of The BIble and the Flag also points us to Henry Venn, an early missiologist, who stated that he could not reach “any firm conclusion in my own judgment either from scripture or reason” as to the final state of the “heathen.”
Any opinion on this subject is going to be, I think, complex. Reflection often turns to the Pauline instruction in Romans 1:20 along with 2:13-16. On one hand, it seems as if Paul says that no one has an excuse. But on the other hand, some exegete him to suggest that some fulfill the requirements of the Law and are excused.
Your participation encouraged: I’m curious what you think and why you believe what you believe. What do you think happens to the countless thousands of people who die without ever hearing about the gospel of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, and overall Christian message. Where do they go? Why are they held accountable or not? If you are a Christian, what Scriptures do you look to and how do you understand the texts that seem to oppose your view? If you are not a Christian, why are you on this blog? Just kidding! If you aren’t a Christian I’d love your opinion too! If you are of a different faith, how does your tradition answer this question?
For the record, I’m using the word “heathen” in the historical sense. I prefer to use the word “people” or “non-Christian” or “unbeliever” rather than “pagan” or “heathen.” I find it’s a little more helpful in dialoging with people. Yet in this context, it’s simply an acknowledgement of how Evangelical missiologists, missionaries, theologians, and Christians tended to use the term.
So, what do you think?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.