CLAIM: Paul writes, “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?” (Rom. 10:14) This verse implies that we need to hear Jesus’ name in order to come to faith. This would mean that billions of people on Earth would go to hell, simply because they have never heard of Jesus. Is this the case?
RESPONSE: If you look at the context, you’ll see that this passage is not primarily referring to those who haven’t heard of Christ, but to those who have. Many interpreters use this passage to describe the “man in the bush,” who is isolated from hearing about Christianity and the gospel. This application is not wrong, because in this passage, Paul explains how important it is for non-Christians to hear the message of Christ (v.14). Certainly, the rest of the Bible teaches this, as well (Mt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 5:19-20). However, world missions is not the focus of this passage.
This entire section of Romans (ch. 9-11) is about how many of the Jewish people have rejected God’s plan of salvation through Christ. While God had formerly worked primarily through Israel, now he has chosen to work primarily through the Gentiles. We might imagine a Jewish person saying, “Why are so many Jews rejecting the message of Christ, if he really is the Jewish messiah?” Here, Paul is retorting, “The problem isn’t with the message or the messengers… The problem is with the hearers! You have rejected God’s message, when it was presented to you clearly.”
For instance, in verse 16, Paul cites Isaiah 53:1 to demonstrate that God predicted how the Jewish people would largely reject the message of Christ. In verse 17, he affirms that people come to faith through hearing. However, in verse 18, he quotes Psalm 19:4 to demonstrate that God has spread his message globally through creation. Therefore, based on God’s general revelation (v.18), Paul claims that the Gentiles have heard of God to some degree. Paul’s point is this: If the Gentiles can understand general revelation about God through creation, then how much more should the Jews understand, when they have passages like Isaiah 53 and messengers like those described in Isaiah 52:7? Finally, in verses 19-21, Paul observes how the OT predicted that Israel would miss out on God’s plan, because of their stubbornness (citing Deut. 32:21; Isa. 65:1-2). In other words, this entire section is an apologetic for the Jews—not for Gentiles who have never heard of Christ.
Again, this passage still affirms and applies to the importance of world missions. Paul explicitly states how important it is to hear a messenger (v.14). However, this was not his primary focus. Therefore, we shouldn’t build an entire theology on the fate of the unreached from this passage. While the preaching of the gospel is the ordinary way for people to come to faith, it isn’t the only way. For more on the subject of the unreached, see our earlier article “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?”