Many wonder about the billions of people who have never heard of Jesus. What is going to happen to them? If Christianity is the only true religion, the only way, is it arrogant to say that those who have not heard are condemned? Is God fair to turn people away from himself after they have died, because they have never heard the gospel message? Is the gospel for those who God personally picks out and the others He just ignores?
To answer these questions we need to understand the nature of man and the basic character and nature of God.
The Bible says man is already in a state of condemnation (Jn.3). We are separated from our maker and we are not actively looking for him to repair this separation.
God is fair toward mankind, He has bestowed common grace extending to the believer and unbeliever alike. Jesus said: He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45).The Psalmist writes, Gracious is the Lord and righteous; yes, our God is merciful (Psalm 116:5). In this life God's grace affects all. After this life only the believer will be the recipient of his grace and goodness.
Paul stated to the pagans in Acts 14: to turn from useless things to the living God who made heaven and earth and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” Nature is living testimony to a God who cares for his creation and people.
The deist position has God as a master “clockmaker.” He made the clock, wound it, then left it to continue to work on its own. As the progressive creationist says that God created the world and started the process called evolution. But the Bible portrays God as much more than a great “clockmaker” who is now on vacation. He is called a loving Father and a comforter, a helper who is personally interested in His children. God desires that humanity would call to Him when they have a need. The psalmist records, "Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify Me" (Psalm 50:15). He is an ever present help in the time of our need.
Paul states, "Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing the goodness of God leads to repentance" (Romans 2:4).
Jer. 9:24: “But let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD, exercising loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD.
B.B. Warfeild said, “It is not difficult to understand why a just God does not save sinners, but how a just God saves any sinners.”
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). What kind of love is this that is demonstrated, to die in the place of your enemies? It is a love that has purpose.
God “wills that all men should be saved,” He is not willing that any should perish. There is no one that he does not want to be saved, He does not want to see anyone reject His salvation. Whether they are of nobility or peasants; of all professions. The learned and unlearned; the healthy and the sick; the intelligent the not so intelligent; the rich or the poor, males or female, children or adolescent, from the young to the very old; of every tongue and nation. He sent His only Son to earth to die on the cross for all of us so no one is without excuse in that they could not have the opportunity to repent.
God also cares for the people who have not heard the gospel. But he has made a certain way to be saved and not just any way and mankind needs to come the way he has asked. No Omni-benevolent God is going to ignore or reject someone who is trying to understand. Did God create those who He knew would not be saved? Of course, but It's better to offer salvation to all knowing that some will refuse, than to not offer it at all. He has demonstrated this by sending His Son to die in their place. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Titus says the grace of God has appeared to all men, not some, but ALL.
The Bible teaches we all have inherited the sin of Adam. Romans 5:12 states that “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Although we all share in the same fallen nature, each of us are held individually guilty of transgressing Gods requirements. We are all personally guilty of falling short, whether we are aware of it or not. But we do know it, because all have guilt for one thing or another. And that guilt is universal, so that we can honestly say the Holy spirit who was sent into the world does this. He was sent to convict the world, (the same world Jesus died for) of sin righteousness and judgment. Sin that we are not living up to the standard of God, and not even our own. Righteousness, that we have no inherent righteousness of our own. Judgment, that we are going to have to answer to somebody about our lives.
How can people be judged for never hearing the gospel. It is the same as people being held accountable for breaking laws which they’re unaware of? The answer is simply that God requires perfection and holiness, and whether we know or don't know we’re violating His standards, the fact is that we’ve transgressed his law. God cannot violate His nature and ignore the sin that we do. He must punish iniquity, for that is what composes righteousness and justice. He cannot deny his nature which demands perfect justice. But he has done all for mankind to advert this judgment.
The Bible teaches consistently that no man sins not (1 Kings 8:46), no one is living righteous (Ps.143:2) no one is pure (Prov.20:9). In Romans 3 Paul quotes the Psalm, “There is none righteous, no not one; There is none who understands. There is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” The Scriptures tell us all have sinned. If all have sinned and there is only one cure for Sin according to God, then we do not have numerous choices in this matter. The Scriptures relates that man is not seeking after God but actually running from Him. “There is none that seeks after God.” Ever since Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8). All of mankind has doing the same since. However, man is not looking for God. But God is actively searching for us, that by His grace to draw us to Himself, he is longsuffering with us in our predicament of sin. So no one is out of reach of his mercy. Therefore, it is not a case of God refusing to get His message to someone who is desperately searching for the truth.
It would be like a doctor saying to someone who is not eating or drinking, if you don't take food or water soon you will die. If they refuse, is it his responsibility? We are dealing with the essence of truth. There is no prejudice on Gods part, God does not pick out any culture or people group to perish, neither does he do this with individuals. The bible makes it clear Christ is the only way to God. That no one is born a Christian, but must be reborn to be one. This gives everyone a level playing field. The Bible is emphatic in the exclusive statement by Jesus that no one can come to God except through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Acts 4:12 tells us there is only one name to be called upon for salvation. The only basis for forgiveness of sin and life everlasting is the way made by Jesus. The Scripture teaches we are all under condemnation. This fact is proposed as the very reason that Jesus died for everyone in the world. There can be no universal preaching, offering the Gospel, if there is no universal provision. In other words if God offers it to all then he must have the resources for all. So he has made the opportunity for all to be saved. Jesus was introduced by John as (Jn.1:29) “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Hebrews 2:9: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”
Romans 1 states that no one has any excuse. “For what can be known about God is manifest plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19–20). The sense of one not measuring up to a standard is universal. There is no culture where people feel they have never failed or transgressed. It is evident within them. Every person of the human race from all time periods, has had the testimony of the creation and the testimony of their own shortcomings to inform them that they do not meet God's requirements. God testifies of Himself through His creation and we are expected to understand that there are absolutes which we violate. This self revelation as well as nature renders all inexcusable. Its not they have not heard, they have!
There is what is called general revelation that comes from nature, God's creation. One can learn about God by observing the world around us. This is why there are so many different religions. Because many stop in nature and say it is nature that is God. But the bible teaches God is transcendent he is beyond nature as its creator. So they rebel against the evidential truths and they go no further in there pursuit.
In Romans 2:12-15 it states, “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law unto themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts ultimately accusing or defending them. In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”
Scripture explains how God has given each man a “natural law”; a general understanding of right and wrong. This is evident in the fact that all men are endowed with a conscience. Every society, culture and person develops some type of a moral code that they judge others and themselves by. The remains of the conscience are marred but not destroyed, it still operates in us. We can know even by instinct what are the standards of truth coming from God. The gentiles or unbeliever is able to know and keep some of the moral law because they are made in the image of God. If they do not sear their conscience it continues to be a moral umpire.
Theissen in his Systematic theology writes “Just as the mirror and the smooth surface of the lake reflect the sun and reveal not only its existence but also to some extent its nature, so conscience in man reveals both the existence of God. That is, it reveals to us not only that he is, but also that he sharply distinguishes between the right and the wrong. He always does what is right and that he holds the rational creature responsible for always doing the right and abstaining from the wrong. It also implies that every transgression will be punished” (p.35).
Romans 1 addresses his eternal power and Godhead (deity). His power is seen as eternal, because it neither began to exist nor will end, it accompanies God himself. The present condition of the world proves His eternal existence. The heavens and the earth prove the deity of their originator. His power, is evident, having neither a beginning nor an end. By His word all things are held together. Even scientists have admitted there is something, some unseen power holding the fabric of the universe together. What kind of power does it take to hold the whole universe together? When we reflect on ourselves and think about how we cannot hold our own lives together that we have direct influence over. Yet there is someone who placed everything in order and keeps it in order.
So how do we reconcile the grace of God which comes from His love and the justice of God which demands punishment for not living up to his commands. Sin cannot go unpunished it would contradict Gods character of righteousness. Would it be fair if a judge said to someone who murdered a loved one, since he has never done this crime before, I will let him go free! You would cry out injustice. It is not loving to allow a murderer to go free, neither is it love to arrest and punish an innocent person. Love protects the innocent and punishes the guilty. There is a law and a standard to uphold within humanity, how much more so with God.
What happens to be who never heard the gospel. Romans teaches that God will judge people on what they know and are capable of knowing. We can know right and wrong and know there is one true God. Job did, Jethro did and many others. All can instinctively know His moral code and know they have sinned. As Paul writes they are without excuse.
Paul establishes the fact that from nature one can know that creation has a creator. He opposes the Atheist, who he mocks in 1 Cor.1 as the wise which God has made foolish in their wisdom. That, from the beginning of the world, there are sufficient proofs of the existence of God. Further, Paul says that man should realize the creator of the universe would be greater than the created objects that we find in the world (“birds, and four-footed animals, and crawling creatures”), but mankind chooses to worship them rather than God, so “man is without excuse.” Man has an innate desire to worship. In ancient Egypt they worshipped all kinds of creatures even insects and bugs like a scarab beetle. Imagine worshipping a cockroach. No matter what creature or portion of nature you worship the creator calls you foolish. But man goes further then this thinking he has wisdom he becomes a fool when he denies that there is a God.
Atheism is the ultimate corruption of mans nature. It is a disowning of God contrary to all reason. For it is not a denial of His existence as much as it is a replacement by one self-governing their own life being answerable to no one. Yet the very air we breathe and the food consumed, is by His generous donation. For even an atheist in his darkest hour will call out to God hoping He hears him, or will curse the one that he convinced himself does not exist. All men have a fear of God, this is not the fear that is the beginning of wisdom that would have one repent. It is the fear that he can judge so they convince themselves there is no punishment, excusing themselves for every guilty thing they have done to their fellow man. Romans 2:6: “God will render to each according to his deeds,” and to those self seeking and do not obey the truth.”
The Apostle Paul said God is understood by the things that are made, while Paul states “From the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen,” quoting Psalm 147:19. But God being made known by the works of creation, is not concealed from men. As Psalm 19:1 declares, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.” We can know there is a God from his accomplishments in nature. Paul includes with the works of creation as those of providence, in the governing of the universe. Psalms 147:4-5, “He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” For man, it is beyond our capability to count the number of the stars. Which is harder? Counting them or creating them? The Scripture stated long before man knew how many stars there could be, God said the stars are like the sand of the sea. He placed each one its place and named them.
It is a fact that all of mankind can tell that a creator does exist, because His creation testifies to this fact. This testimony is universal for all races and all people throughout all time. It's not that the people do not have enough information that God does exist. Scripture says they become willfully ignorant of the things of God because their hearts are evil, that the unbelieving individual is “holding down the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
Mankind suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. The heathen did not hold fast to the truth, but they suppressed or restrained what they knew about God. The expression is that they retained it as in a prison, under a weight (we hinder it from giving us understanding.) They use it to hold themselves in a prison of falsehood being oppressed by their own iniquities. This is done by the way they live. They instinctively know on the inside but suppress this truth by their lifestyle.
There is no insufficient information or revelation where a man on that day will stand before his maker and make this as an excuse. The secrets of the heart will be made known, they will know that they intentionally denied the truth. For God worked in many ways to give evidence of His almighty power, wisdom, and goodness, and other Divine attributes, are sufficiently displayed, in the works of creation, which renders anyone without excuse. The unbeliever, the heathen will not be judged because they did not hear of Christ, but because they have refused the knowledge that was given to them about God and did not pursue it. If they pursued it, it would have led them to a saving knowledge of Christ. If someone truly wants to know God he will be revealed to him. In Romans Paul teaches God will judge people on what they know and what they are capable of knowing. Not on what they do not know.
The Scriptures never teach that those who have not heard will be automatically saved just because they believed in some kind of God. This is a type of universalism. As much as this offends us, where God is silent we cannot speak. Sincerity is not enough for being accepted. If I took an exam in college to get my degree and failed would it be fair to have the professor pass me because I said I studied and was sincere? Even though I did not display the required skill and knowledge. So we can see there must be a standard of justice to be fair. We have this standard in our world through education and government, how much greater is God's standard?
The Bible teaches that God is going to judge the world fairly and righteously. “Because he hath appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). This means that when all the facts are in, God’s name will be vindicated and no one will be able to accuse Him of being unfair.
It just may be best not to know everything. God has not revealed how exactly he is going to deal with people who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Even though we may not know how He is going to deal with these people specifically, we do know that His judgment is going to be absolutely just.
The Scriptures contain examples of individuals who were accepted by God, even though their knowledge of Him was limited. He is not a respecter of persons, but accepts all that come to him. Rahab, the prostitute, had only a small amount of knowledge of God as she heard what he had done. It was enough knowledge to act on it. The Bible refers to her as a woman of faith, and her actions were commended (Joshua 2:9; Hebrews 11:31). Naaman, the Syrian, was granted peace with God because he exercised faith, even though he was living in the midst of a pagan culture (II Kings 5:15–19). Jonah a prophet, was only one man sent to Nineveh, a ruthless pagan society, and they repented at his preaching of judgment (Jonah 3:5).
There is an example of a man who was in a situation much like the scenario we are discussing. His name was Cornelius. He was a very religious man who was constantly praying to God. He was a gentile who had not heard of Jesus Christ, but he was honestly asking God to reveal Himself to him.
God answered the prayer of Cornelius, and sent the apostle Peter to him to give him the gospel. He did it then and he will do it today. This example demonstrates that anyone who is sincerely desiring to know God will hear about Jesus.
There are people today, like Cornelius, who are praying the same prayer to know the true and living God, and they are being reached no matter where they might live. Simon Peter stated, “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted by him” (Acts 10:34–35). God says if you seek me with all your heart you will find me. Paul stated God is not hidden but is as close to you as your breath.
Many have testified of missionaries going into remote parts of the world and God was already preparing a person or people to receive the message. They would recognize the story of the bible as they had fragments of it or it was put into their culture for them to understand.
For example the Isaiah 1:18 Scripture “though your sins be a scarlet they will be as white as snow.” In one tribe they never saw snow, so the missionary used another substitute. We need to be careful not to too integrate Christ's commands to repent and call on him only with other beliefs in the culture or other religions. We can change the method to reach a certain culture, but it is disastrous to change the message. Scripture does teach that every person has an opportunity to repent, and God does not exclude anyone because he happened to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time. He is not a respecter of persons. If we propose that people will be saved by not hearing the gospel, because they are too far away, then we need to cease all evangelistic efforts, so that they can be saved. The Bible says there is salvation in no other so how can anyone be saved apart from Christ? This is why it is imperative that we go and tell them.
God will judge according to the light they have been given. The Scriptural principle if someone lives up to the revealed truth God has already given, no matter how small, he will give them more to pursue until they come to a saving knowledge of him. Light obeyed increases more light. Obey what you know and he will give you understanding of what you don't know. God's grace is great and he does use a supernatural means to rescue people, whether it is an angel or by a missionary sent or directly by Himself. The purpose is to bring people to a saving faith for their sins to be forgiven
Mt.13:12: “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but to whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” If we are teachable, it is profitable, “more will be given.” The condition of increase is by our hearts openness. If you do not respond correctly what light you have been given will be taken away. He who lays hold of truth and uses it will receive more enlightenment, but he who refuses to appropriate truth will lose even the understanding of truth he once had been given. But if someone does not live up to the light given there will be enough to judge them. When they have rejected the light already given, they will not receive any more light instead blindness sets in. John 12:46-48: “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness.” And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him-- the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” They who have rejected God's salvation message have made themselves objects of God’s wrath by refusing the truth, they loved a lie in its place.
What you think might happen or might not happen to someone else does not relieve your responsibility on Judgment Day. Although we might not be able to answer the question about those who haven’t heard to the satisfaction of everyone, there are certain things that the Bible has made clear.
People who have never heard the gospel will not be judged by God because of the gospel, they will be judged because they are sinful. The gospel is there to cure their sin. It can be seen that God will fairly judge all mankind and that no one can claim that he or she received an unfair hearing. Therefore, the people who ask this question should be very careful not to use this as an excuse for themselves not coming to Christ. It is a fact that people willfully blind themselves.
One person put it this way, “Many things in the Bible I cannot understand; many things in the Bible I only think I understand; but there are many things in the Bible I cannot misunderstand” (Anonymous). Mark Twain said, “Its not the things that I don't understand in the Bible that concerns me, but the things I do understand.” We will not be judged on what we do not know as much as we will be judged on what we do know. James 4:17: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” We are held accountable for what we do know by what we have seen in nature, His creation.
So, what of the question of those who have not heard? Are they any less responsible than those who have heard? This cannot be used to relieve the individual of any personal responsibility to God and place it on someone else. When one understands there own true position, then the objection falls beyond debate. The writer to the Hebrews remarks, “How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:3) Rom. 10:17-21: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: “Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
But I say, did Israel not know? First Moses says: “I will provoke you to jealousy by those who are not a nation, I will move you to anger by a foolish nation.” But Isaiah is very bold and says: “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.” But to Israel he says: “All day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” Israel who was given the oracles, the prophets will be held to a higher standard than those on a remote island. To whom much is given much is required.
Deut.29:29 says, “The secret things belong to God but those things revealed belong to us and our children.” 2 Cor.2:10-11: “But God has revealed them to us by his spirit, for the spirit searches all things, yes the deep things of God…Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.”
Again, God has not revealed all but we can trust His judgment completely because it is founded on mercy and motivated by love. Whatever He does will be perfect and just.