Does Rom. 10: 17 prove that the un–evangelised heathen are lost because they have never heard of Christ?
The passage reads: "So faith then [is] by a report, but the report by God’s Word" (Rom. 10: 17). The objector is presumably of the view that without the Scriptures there is no report to be believed, and no speaking by God. This is refuted by 1 Pet. 3: 1, where we read that the unconverted "may be gained without [the] word by the conversation of the wives" (my emphasis). The Christian in himself is to be an epistle of Christ "known and read of all men" (2 Cor. 3: 2).
God has also issued a report concerning Himself in the things that He has made. We see this in the verse that follows Rom. 10: 17: "their voice has gone out into all the earth" (v18). This is a quote from Psalm 19, where we learn that the "voice" referred to (at least in the context of the Psalm), is the testimony of creation: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the expanse sheweth the work of his hands. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech and there are no words, yet their voice is heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their language to the extremity of the world" (Ps. 19: 1–4). Thus Rom. 10: 17, while written in the context of Christianity, does not exclude the more general light of creation. It is that testimony, since it is universal, which is the basis on which all men can be judged, irrespective of whether they have heard the Gospel of Christ or not. All have received light, and all, therefore, are responsible. As the apostle tells us, "the invisible things of him are perceived, being apprehended by the mind through the things that are made, both his eternal power and divinity—so as to render them inexcusable" (Rom. 1: 20).
It must be emphasised, however, that a man is never judged for not responding to light he has never received. Thus "that bondman who knew his own lord’s will, and had not prepared [himself] nor done his will, shall be beaten with many [stripes]; but he who knew [it] not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few. And to every one to whom much has been given, much shall be required from him" (Luke 12: 47, 48). Again, "it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in judgment–day" (Matt. 11: 22) than Bethsaida, in which the Lord’s works of power took place. Men will only be judged according to the level of light from God that they have received. It would be unjust for God to condemn a man for indifference to a revelation which actually never reached him. As Abram asked long ago "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18: 25). Again, take John 3: 18: "He that believes on him is not judged: but he that believes not has been already judged, because he has not believed on the name of the only–begotten Son of God". Are we to suppose that a man who has never heard the name of the Son of God is to be condemned for not believing on that name? Scripture must be read in context, and the context here is "that light is come into the world" (v19). John is clearly talking about a testimony brought to man, not by creation, but by Christ, "the true light" (John 1: 9). The heathen know nothing of that. Yes, this light as "coming into the world, lightens every man" (v9), but that does not mean that every man on the earth has been shone upon. It is every man in the sphere of the testimony; the ignorant heathen outside that sphere are simply not part of John’s presentation.
The ignorant heathen have, however, received light, and are therefore responsible. If all they knew of God was His creatorial power, then that alone would demand a response, for man is to "Fear God and give him glory … and do homage to him who has made the heaven and the earth and the sea and fountains of waters" (Rev. 14: 7). Sadly, instead of answering to that light, they have fallen "into folly in their thoughts" (Rom. 1: 21) and have been characterised by changing "the glory of the incorruptible God into [the] likeness of an image of corruptible man and of birds and quadrupeds and reptiles" (v23). As a class, they have failed to give God the glory and will therefore be subject to judgment. Thus the Athenians in Paul’s day did not deny creation, but such belief had not led them to the God "who has made the world and all things which are in it" (Acts 17: 24). He was "unknown" (v23). In 2 Thess. 1: 8, the judgment falls upon two categories of unbeliever: "on those who know not God" (the heathen) "and those who do not obey the glad tidings of our Lord Jesus Christ". No doubt there have been bright exceptions among the heathen and such, when they came into contact with the greater light of redemption, would be amenable to its claims. When God begins a work, He completes it (see Phil. 1: 6)—as with Cornelius (see Acts 10: 2, 44).