Romans 2:12: Is God Fair to Condemn Those Who Have Never Heard?
The Bible seems to be teaching that those who have not heard the gospel will be condemned. This does not seem fair--after all, they have not heard that they could believe and live.
Obviously the standard of judgment for those who have not heard the message of the Bible is a truly thorny issue, one which Christians have discussed for ages. No short answer to this question is going to be fully satisfactory. However, we can discuss the particular aspects of this issue which are brought up in this verse.
First, Paul's purpose in writing this verse is not to discuss the issue of the judgment on pagans. He is writing to the church in Rome in order to address the issue in his teaching which caused the most controversy, his insistence that both Jews and Gentiles could come to God on the same basis, that of the grace of Jesus. At this point in his argument he is pointing out that Jews who hear and understand the law but do not actually obey it are under the judgment of God. Jewish religious practice will not make one any better off before God if one lives sinfully. Romans 2:13 states, "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous."
This was an important point for Paul to make. The Jews assumed that the pagans were under God's judgment, for they did not observe the commands of God as stated in the law. Paul is arguing that Jews who did not obey all of the law (as none of them could hope to) were also under the judgment of God. Both were equally in need of salvation through Jesus, and thus the Jews' Judaism did not give them any advantage in this respect (later, in chapters 9--11, he will mention some advantages Jews do have). The outcome of this argument is that Gentiles who have come to believe in Jesus will not be any better off if they become Jewish Christians, for they are already in the same state of salvation that Jews have when they believe in Jesus.
Thus we conclude that Paul is not arguing that Gentiles will be judged on the basis of commands that they have never heard about. He is arguing that both Jews and Gentiles will be judged on the basis of their deeds, whether or not they have ever read the Mosaic law.
Second, Paul does know of a source of revelation for all Gentiles, as we read in Romans 2:14-16.
Paul's point is that even the Gentile cultures he knew of taught the main virtues and condemned the main vices mentioned in the Mosaic law. Roman and Greek law condemned murder and theft and adultery just as the Mosaic law did. Likewise care of one's parents, loyalty to one's fellow compatriots and other virtues were commended in both sets of law. Where did these pagans get such ideas, since it is quite unlikely that any of the ancient Greeks or Romans had read the Hebrew Scriptures? Paul's answer is that such principles were written on their hearts. God had revealed such principles to them, making them the standard of their consciences. Of course this does not mean that every regulation in the Mosaic code can be found in all pagan legal institutions. The point is that the main virtues of the Mosaic law can be found in most pagan legal traditions.
Thus, third, Paul is teaching that people will be judged according to the standards that they know, not according to the standards that they do not know. Now this does not mean that it is not important to know the Bible if one can know it. There are two reasons for this conclusion. On the one hand, the law showed one how to live well, so people suffer when they ignore it, whether or not they know about it. Ancient societies would have been a lot less violent and a lot better places to live had the Mosaic law been in force in them. In the end it does not matter whether one knows a cliff is there and purposefully jumps or does not know it is there and accidentally falls.
On the other hand, Paul will go on to point out that only the revelation found in Jesus can deal with the problem of sin, whether one is Jew or Gentile. The problem is not that the Gentiles are not living up to the Mosaic law that they are ignorant of. The problem is that they are not living up to their own laws which they know very well. About 150 years later than Paul the church father Tertullian would point out as part of a defense of the faith that Christians were living the virtues that Greco-Roman pagans taught but did not live up to.
Thus, returning to our question: How fair is God? Paul's answer would be, "Perfectly fair!" Pagans will not be judged on the basis of a law of which they are ignorant. They may suffer the natural consequences of their ignorance, but this is not the basis of guilt before God. Pagans will be judged on the basis of their obedience to the law that they find written in their own hearts, their violations of their own consciences. They will be judged on the basis of their obedience to what they know. And not only pagans will be judged on this basis, but also the Jews. They know the Mosaic law, so they will be judged, not on their knowledge, but on their obedience.
Naturally, there is an extension of this principle for the readers of this volume. God is also fair toward us. We will not be judged on the basis of how much Bible we know or how many theological exams we can pass. The orthodoxy of our minds will not excuse us. We will be judged on how much of that Bible which we know we actually obey. Indeed, if we ignore the rich knowledge that we have, a pagan who obeys the little knowledge that he or she has may be better off than we.