There is a common question that has been asked for centuries, “What about the heathen - those who have never heard the Gospel?” The question implies that a heathen is a person in some remote part of the world, cut off from any form of “civilization” and will never have the opportunity to hear the Gospel message. It implies that the heathen are ignorant of God or even a concept of a “higher power.”
The Greek word for wrath is “orge,” which means justified anger. In this case it is divine justified anger, which is an expression of God’s righteousness and justice. This Greek word suggests a less sudden outburst of anger, a more settled or lasting condition. There are instances in Scriptures (mostly in the book of Revelation) where there is an outburst of anger from God and in that case anger should be translated wrath.
The Greek word for revealed means to uncover, to bring to light or to bring out of hiding. The tense of this verb tells us that God’s just anger is always revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of mankind. Ungodliness and unrighteousness is the condition of all unbelievers.
Mankind is guilty of suppressing the truth from God in a state of unrighteousness. Suppress is the Greek word “katecho,” which means to hold down, to restrain, to hold back, to imprison or to check. A person can suppress the truth only if he knows the truth. Therefore, the question is, “what truth does this refer to?”
Truth is the Greek word “aletheia,” which is a noun. Therefore, truth in this verse is a reference to the body of truth that has its source in God (Bible doctrine). Since we are dealing with the unbelieving world (heathenism), this is the truth about God at God-consciousness or the truth of salvation at Gospel hearing.
The Bible tells us that God has revealed Himself in several different ways, so that mankind is without excuse when it comes to knowing that God exists. God has designed man with a conscience with which to reach God-consciousness. There are several ways for mankind to reach God-consciousness and everyone, except for infants and the mentally handicapped, will reach a point at which they are aware that there is a God. The Greek word for made it plain or revealed is “paneros” meaning conspicuous, well-known or clear. It refers to what is clear to the sensory perception. It means that if a person has a normal mind he/she would have already reached God-consciousness. (John 1:9; 6:44-45)
Here are five ways that a person can reach God-consciousness:
1) Religious Approach – Man, regardless of how “uncivilized,” uneducated or remote geographically he may be, normally worships something. He may worship the sun, the moon, the trees, a rock, an animal, etc. This tells us that it is instinctive for man to worship a “higher” power than himself. This is obviously recognition of God on some level.
2) Anthropological Approach – Man has a conscience with an innate urge to choose between right and wrong. If there is no God, then there is no good and evil, no right or wrong. Man innately knows that there is a higher standard for behavior, which logically demands a “standard maker” - God.
3) Cosmological Approach – When man looks at the universe and reasons that there must be a cause and an effect to its design and operation, the conclusion must be reached, it had a designer - God.
4) Ontological Approach – The human mind possesses the concept of the perfect, the absolute and should therefore conclude that there must be an absolute being - God.
5) Teleological Approach – Man looks at the structure of things; a snowflake, a fingerprint, the universe, etc. and can only reach the logical conclusion that some intelligence, a master planner accomplished this - God.
Upon reaching God-consciousness, what is the responsibility of man and what is the responsibility of God? We must always remember that God does not want anyone to perish. However, He will never violate man’s freewill. With that in mind, let’s discuss man’s responsibility. It is clear from Scripture that there is a certain group of people that will refuse the “light” they are given, regardless of which “approach” is used to bring them the “light.”
If a person, after reaching God-consciousness, does not desire further truth, God is no longer obligated to get the truth to that person. This, however, does not mean that God gives up on that person, though that person may give up on God. (II Peter 3:9; I Timothy 2:4; Romans 1:18-32; Isaiah 40:17-22; John 1:3-9; 9:41)
When a person does reach God-consciousness and makes a positive decision that he wants to know God, He (God) then obligates Himself to get truth to that person. This person will be kept alive until truth can reach him/her. It may be weeks, months or years, but God is always faithful to bring the truth. (Deuteronomy 4:29; Psalms 9:10, 10:4; Jeremiah 29:13; John 7:17; Acts 17:22-31)
God is revealed in nature according to Psalms 19:1-4 and Romans 1:20. An organized design indicates a designer. The universe with its stars, sun, and moon is evidence of an intelligent creator. The trees and plants, the changing seasons, the science involved in growth, etc. all point to an intelligent designer and creator - God. A good analogy is a painting or work of art – it too must have an artist, a designer or a creator.
With regard to this subject we must always remember that God the Holy Spirit is constantly at work convicting and convincing the world “of sin, righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit will never fail in this ministry toward mankind, though the truth He reveals may be rejected time and again. The Holy Spirit uses many means and methods to reveal truth. He is always at work convincing mankind that they are sinners, that they lack the righteousness necessary for Heaven and that there is a judgment coming if they fail to appropriate the divine solution, Jesus Christ. (John 16:8)
Do not think for a moment that the Gospel is an Anglo-Saxon message and has never been heard in other parts of the world. The Gospel has been preached to the entire world in the past. There are many regions, of which we are not even aware, that have heard the Gospel. For centuries missionaries have taken the Gospel message to the most remote parts of the earth and continue to do so. For example, China and Africa, places normally associated with heathenism, are perhaps two of the most evangelized areas in the world. (Acts 2:5, 17:6; Romans 10:18; I Timothy 3:16; Titus 2:11)
It is not the absence of the knowledge of God that makes a person a heathen, but rather the rejection of truth at either God-consciousness or Gospel hearing. This means that heathenism can exist anywhere, even in the United States of America, when people reject truth. Heathenism is not confined to a specific geographical location. Heathenism is negative volition towards God and His Word, and can be found anywhere, even in churches!
Romans 1:18-19 tells us that a heathen is someone who suppresses truth and that God will pour out His wrath against that person (rejection of truth means a person has condemned himself). In verses 20 and 21 we are told that the heathen is a person who rejects truth at God-consciousness, “For the invisible things of Him….are clearly seen…” And some reject truth upon Gospel hearing, “Because when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God…” The result of this rejection of God’s truth is emptiness (vacuum) and darkness (blackout) in the soul. The next few verses of this passage tell us where this leads and it is not a pretty picture: idol worship of man and animals, perversion of all kinds and unrighteousness in every aspect of life.
We see the spirit of heathenism prevalent throughout our society today. We see it in the breakdown of the family unit, the disobedience of children, in the lack of respect for authority, in the rise of sexual sins, in the corruption of business, the arrogance and lack of character in the political realm, in the sins of the religious community, in the greed of pseudo-Christianity, in the rise of emotionalism in the church and in the lack of doctrinal content from the pulpit.