Does everyone worldwide have to hear the gospel of Christ before his return?
Many scholars have discussed and debated this question for a very long time. The idea comes from two issues in the New Testament. The first is the standard that everyone must hear about Jesus and be saved through him to enter heaven (John 14:6).
This exclusivity to the gospel makes many Christians wonder if anyone can be saved without hearing and accepting the name and work of Christ. But then questions begin about how Old Testament saints can be in heaven without hearing the name of Jesus.
Jesus clearly teaches that he is the only way to the Father (heaven). In this case, how do we square that with the Old Testament? Old Testament saints didn’t know the name of Jesus. The best I can understand passages that talk about Jesus going to the spirits in prison and proclaiming himself to them (1 Peter 3:18-20) may have been the way that Old Testament saints heard about him.
The testimony of the Old Testament is that everyone who died went to a place called Sheol, the grave or the pit. It is here that many of them “slept with their fathers” or understood this to be the afterlife where they would be reunited with them.
If this is the place Jesus went to when he went to the spirits in prison, then Jesus would have proclaimed himself to be the promised Son from the times of Abraham and the perfect sacrifice in the law for Israel.
The other opinion is that everyone in the Old Testament was given the opportunity to know God through the means that he provided. This would have been through sacrifice from the Garden of Eden to the beginning of the sacrificial system in Israel. In Abraham’s time, he trusted in God’s promise through faith. Then from the sacrificial system to the end of the Old Testament times.
Even in the sacrificial system, the person had to have faith that this sacrifice appeased God’s wrath against their sin. The standard from beginning to end has always been faith. But the method may have been different. Because Jesus fulfills the whole Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-20), each one of these methods would have worked as long as the person trusted in God by faith.
The second issue comes from when Christ described the end of the age and included the gospel being preached throughout the whole world before the end would come (Matthew 24:14). I’ve actually had professors say that this had to happen for the end to come.
The problem with that theory, with interpreting the Scripture that way, is that Jesus then must wait for everyone in the whole world to hear about him before he can return. But the Bible teaches that his return is imminent. This means that he can come back at any time, no holds barred no questions asked.
The key is in the language of the verse. The word for “whole world” can better be translated, “inhabited or known world.” This makes a huge difference because it’s not about the whole world but about the world known to the people at that time.
This would have encapsulated the Roman Empire and perhaps the outskirts of the Roman Empire. So this Scripture has been fulfilled within the pages of the Bible. When Paul arrived in Rome and spoke to the Roman Caesar, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, he fulfilled this Scripture.
To speak to the head of the house is to give direction to the whole house. That’s why a lot of times in the book of Acts when the head of the household believes, the whole household believes. Of course, they must also individually accept, but the general rule of thumb was that as goes the leader so does the house.
If we apply this to the entire Roman Empire, if the Roman Emperor believes in Christ, or at least hears about him, then the whole empire would have gone the same way. Beyond this, there are many credible scholars who believe that Paul did not die in Rome after sharing the gospel with Caesar.
They believe he then sent out toward Spain, which was beyond the edge of the Roman Empire. This of me that Paul also would have reached beyond the inhabited, known world, to the uninhabited or unknown world, the barbarians.
And this is not the first time in history that the known world has heard the gospel. Jesus’ return is still imminent. As the book of Revelation concludes, he is ready to come at any time. He is only waiting for the Father to give the word to send him.