Q: If a person does not have the opportunity to hear about Christ in his lifetime, is such a person automatically lost?”
A: The clearest answer to this question is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he discusses the importance of having missionaries and pastors and teachers sent out to the nations. Of the heathen (those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior for whatever reason), the Apostle states: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
Yes, the Apostle Paul says that those who do not hear about the Savior are to be regarded as eternally lost, so that we who have been privileged to hear the Word see the urgency in sending out missionaries. Very plainly the Bible describes faith as coming through the use of the Word and the Sacrament of Baptism (Rom. 10:17, I Thess. 1:5, Rom. 1:16, Titus 3:5-8). If a person does not come into contact with God’s Word, then we are bound to conclude that this individual has not been connected by faith to the benefits of Christ’s cross, which alone saves. Mark 16:16 leaves no room for what today is known as universalism (the idea that all will eventually make it to heaven, regardless of circumstance): “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Some from the Reformed persuasion do not agree that those who never hear are lost. For example, the popular author Josh McDowell says: “No one will be condemned for not ever hearing of Jesus Christ” (Answers, p. 131). This is to be expected, since the Reformed take issue with our Lutheran stand on the Means of Grace, claiming that faith can be worked outside the Word.
In answering this question, there are some pertinent thoughts that also need to be kept in mind: 1) God wants everyone “to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). 2) If anyone is ever lost, it is not God’s fault but sinful mankind’s. In fact, Scripture informs us that God may often allow unbelief to fall upon succeeding generations of people as judgment for rejection (Ex. 20:5). 3) There are different degrees of punishment in hell; those who reject after ample opportunities suffer the greater extent (Luke 12:47, 48; II Pet. 2:21). 4) We who by God’s mercy have been able to hear the Word and believe are now to devote much time and energy and prayer and money to bringing the Savior to “fields white unto harvest,” before the night comes when no one can work.