What About Those Who Never Hear?
On one occasion I received the following question:
“Abu was a Hindu man who always tried to live a good life. He was kind and loving, a good family man, a good neighbor, etc. etc. He died, never having heard of Jesus. How could a just and loving God send him (and millions like him) to hell?”
I am sure there are many theologians and Bible scholars who can give a better answer than I can. Still, I will do my best to give some answers.
In order to understand God’s treatment of a man such as Abu, we must understand some things about God, man, and sin. We must also understand some things about Jesus and the Gospel. I will include many Bible verse references along the way, and I encourage you to look up in your own Bible those that I do not quote here in full.
First, let’s talk about God. We learn from the Bible many things about God.
(Let me also make the point here, that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity. It is not merely a book written by human beings. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. This means that the Bible is the very message that God wanted to give to humans. It contains no mistakes. It has no errors. It is trustworthy. It carries the weight of the authority of God and should be believed and obeyed. Matthew 5:18; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21)
The Bible teaches us many things about God. One of the wonderful things we learn about God is that he loves his creation. It is part of his very nature to love. The Bible even makes the statement that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) This does not mean that God is literally the same thing as love, but that God is a God who loves. God’s personality is characterized by love. It also does not mean that love is God’s only characteristic, but that it is an important part of his character. There are also other important aspects to God’s character. We see God’s love demonstrated in many ways. He sends the rains and allows the crops to grow. He has placed within this world many wonderful things for us to enjoy. The ultimate expression of his love was when he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) So we see the importance of God’s love.
Another thing the Bible teaches us about God is that he is just. He is righteous. He is good. (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 7:11; Isaiah 30:18; Romans 2:5) Righteousness can be defined as the characteristic of being completely good, perfect, and right. God has never made a mistake and never will. God sets the standard of righteousness. His perfection is a standard that no one on earth lives up to. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Because of God’s characteristic of justice and righteousness, we can rest assured that any decision God makes is the right decision. Human judges can make mistakes, but not God. We can trust that God will do the right thing; he will treat people fairly.
The Bible teaches many other things about the characteristics of God. For example, he knows everything. There is no fact which he will not take into account on the Day of Judgment. Nothing will escape his notice. He is all-powerful. The task of fairly judging the world is no challenge to him at all. From the character of God, we can rest assured that what God does will always be the most just and loving thing he could do.
For a moment, we will turn our attention to man. Men and women are the capstone of God’s creation in this universe. He created them last and with a distinction shared by no other living creature. Man and woman were created in God’s image. They were created to serve as his representatives on the earth. God charged them to watch over this world and take care of it. They were also created with the capacity for a relationship with God. They also share many of God’s characteristics, although to a much smaller degree. For example, people, too, have the capacity to love. They have the freedom to make decisions and the ability to create. They are aware of their own existence (self-aware). In particular, we are interested in man’s freedom to make decisions. This freedom included the ability to disobey God. God gave man the freedom to choose, and man chose to use that freedom to rebel against God. This rebellion against God is called sin.
The words used for sin in the Bible convey several ideas. Sin is falling short of a standard. It is missing the mark. It is straying from the right path. It is breaking the law of God. It is rebellion. It is choosing to do things our own way instead of God’s way. Sin is like a cancer that is eating away at the world. It is like a layer of dirt and grime that coats our existence. We see examples of sin and consequences of sin in our world every day. Simply switch on the news and you will see stories of murder, robbery, and corruption. This is sin. Lay out a rule for your children to follow. They disobey. This is sin. Go against the little voice you hear inside that we call conscience. This is sin. Everyone must admit that there are times we have done something we knew to be wrong. We, too, have fallen short of God’s standard. The Bible characterizes our situation as dire. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12) Even when we try to do something good, it falls short of God’s standard of perfection. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isaiah 64:6)
From the Bible we learn just how serious sin is. “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) The just penalty determined by God for sin is death. The definition of death in this context is eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire. Is this fair?
This penalty is fair for many reasons. First, God warned of this penalty for sin before man ever sinned. (Genesis 2:17) The man and woman knew what they were getting themselves into.
Second, this penalty for sin is inherent in the very nature of God and the nature of sin. God is perfect. He is like pure light without any hint of darkness. Heaven is where God’s throne is. It too is a perfect place without any hint of darkness. Therefore, God cannot allow any darkness into his presence; that is, God cannot allow sin to enter heaven, ever. The alternative is eternal separation from God.
But you may say, “Surely one little white lie should not merit eternal separation from God!” Here we must examine another truth about sin. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10) What does this verse mean? It does not mean that telling a white lie is just as bad as killing someone. What it does mean is that whether you’ve told a lie or killed someone, you’ve still broken God’s law; you are still a lawbreaker. Imagine a chain with many links, some big and some small. It doesn’t matter which link you break; the chain is still broken. So it is with God’s law. Whether you’ve broken a major command or a minor command, you are still guilty of breaking the law. You are still a sinner.
Let us return for a moment to the topic of God’s justice. God has decreed that the penalty for sin is death. We have learned that all are sinners regardless of which law we have broken. We have learned that sin cannot enter heaven. At this point many interject, “But surely a loving God can simply overlook a person’s sin and let him or her into heaven anyway.” But is this really the case? Actually this is not the case at all. Imagine, if you will, a serial killer who is brought before a judge. The killer is guilty without question and has already been convicted by a jury on the basis of irrefutable evidence. It is up to the judge to determine the sentence for the crime. If the judge were to say, “Well, I’m in a good mood today, so I guess you can go free. Just don’t let it happen again,” what would we think of such a judge? Obviously, we would think that he was a terrible judge and that justice had not been served at all.
It is the same with God. His justice demands that he punish sin. He cannot turn a blind eye to sin. Justice demands that the penalty be paid. However, in his love, God chose to intervene in another way. He needed to provide a way of salvation that could satisfy both his justice and his love at the same time. To do this, he sent his only Son, Jesus, to take the penalty that we deserved. The Bible teaches that when Jesus died on the cross, he paid the penalty for our sins. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Now, sinners such as ourselves can be declared righteous before God and gain admittance to heaven on the basis of what Jesus has done. He has taken our sin and given us his perfect righteousness if we have trusted in him. Herein we find the Gospel.
The Gospel is the “Good News” that sinners can have their sins forgiven and come into a right relationship with God on the basis of what Christ has done. Here we come back to poor Abu, who is trying the best he can to live a good life, but has never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What will become of him? He is sinner. He has broken God’s law. No amount of good that he does can ever erase the bad he has done. His only hope is the Gospel.
Can he be saved by another religion? The Bible teaches us that he cannot. “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) The Gospel of Jesus is the only way of salvation.
Can he be saved by doing good works? No he cannot. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” (Titus 3:5) A person cannot earn his or her way to heaven by doing good works.
Can he be saved by Jesus even if he never hears the Gospel? The answer again is no. “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:13-17) The progression given here is that a preacher is sent, the preacher shares the Gospel, the people hear, the people believe, and the people are saved. Faith comes through hearing. A person must hear the Gospel in order to believe it and be saved.
Therefore, there remain three possibilities for Abu. First, he may never hear the Gospel, and he will be condemned to eternal separation for God. Second, he may eventually hear the Gospel and then reject it and still be condemned to eternal separation from God. Finally, he may eventually hear the Gospel, accept it, and be granted eternal life in heaven.
Let’s examine each of these possibilities in turn.
What if Abu hears the Gospel one day but rejects it? He will be justly condemned. He had the opportunity to believe, but chose not to. I doubt many people would question this verdict, so I will move along to the final possibility.
What if Abu hears the Gospel and accepts it? He will be saved. He will spend eternity in heaven. Again, this outcome is not likely to raise many questions. Let us turn to more controversial matters.
What if Abu never hears the Gospel? He will be condemned. Is this fair? Yes, it is. Why is this fair? It is fair because Abu, just like everyone else, has sinned against God. The penalty for sin is eternal separation from God. But you object, “But Abu never even had a chance to believe and be saved. It’s not fair for one person to hear the Gospel and another person to never hear it. Surely a person can’t be condemned for not believing something they never heard.” The Bible answers this objection. In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul describes the judgment of people who have never heard the Gospel. Paul makes the point that even people who have never heard the Gospel are justly condemned, and he gives a few reasons.
First, God has revealed aspects of his nature within creation; yet, people rebel against this knowledge. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20) Scholars call this form of revelation, general revelation. It is available to everyone, everywhere.
Second, God has placed within each person a conscience. This conscience tells people when they are doing something wrong. There is not a person who has not gone against his or her conscience at one time or another. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” (Romans 2:15) Conscience can be considered another form of general revelation available to everyone.
Third, God has given another form of revelation to the world called special revelation. This form of revelation was delivered through the prophets and the Bible. Jesus himself is the culmination of God’s special revelation to humanity. This is where the Gospel comes into play. This revelation is called special revelation because not everyone has access to it. Though not everyone has access to this special revelation from God, everyone has received the first two forms: creation and conscience. The Bible teaches that people are justly condemned on the basis of their violation of general revelation alone. It is only by God’s special grace that anyone at all receives the final form of revelation, the Gospel of Christ.
Is God obligated to provide the special revelation of the Gospel to everyone? The answer is no. It is only by grace and mercy that God delivers the Gospel to anyone. The definition of “grace” is when God gives something to someone that they do not deserve. The definition of “mercy” is when God withholds something that people do deserve. In this case, in his grace, God gives people the Gospel. In his mercy, God withholds his judgment. God is not obligated to do either. He would be perfectly just condemning everyone to hell.
However, this does not mean that God wants people to go to hell. The Bible teaches that God’s desire is that no one should perish. (2 Peter 3:9) It teaches that God does not take delight in the death of anyone. (Ezekiel 18:32) God loves everyone (John 3:16), and sent Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Because God loves everyone and wants all people to come to salvation, he has commissioned his church to take the Gospel to the whole world. (Matthew 28:18-20) Today, the Gospel has spread farther than ever before. The Bible also makes the promise “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) Perhaps, there are those in the world today such as Abu who are seeking after God. He promises that they will find him. Perhaps God will send a missionary to them. Perhaps they will come across a Bible in a bookstore or a Gospel message on the Internet.
Now that we have examined all these facts and come to better understand both the justice and love of God, what would God have us to understand? First, we can rest assured that God is both just and loving, and he will certainly do what is right.
Second, we need to examine our own lives. If you are reading this, you are not like Abu, isolated from the Gospel. You have heard the Gospel, and you have been given the opportunity to believe and be saved. On the Day of Judgment, you will have to answer for no one but yourself. The fate of Abu will not even be an issue as you stand before the Lord. The only question will be, “How did you respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” Did you repent of your sin and put your faith in him, or did you seek out rationalizations and justifications for your unwillingness to believe?
In Luke 13:22-30, a man approached Jesus with a question similar to that addressed in this message. He asked, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Jesus’ response is instructive. He turned the tables on the young man and made it personal. He said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “It is well and good to wonder about the fate of others, but first make sure your own salvation is taken care of. Make sure you are right with God first, and then you can deal with the more difficult issues of the fate of others.”
I encourage you today, if you have not put your trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, do so now. Cast aside your reservations and trust him. He paid the penalty for your sin. He defeated the power of death by rising from the dead. He alone can save you. He alone can give you eternal life and make your life everything God intended it to be. At the end of this age, it will be hard to gauge which tragedy will be greater: those who never heard the Gospel, or those who heard it and refused to believe.
Perhaps you have already trusted Jesus. You are already his follower. The fate of the unreached should spur you on to do all that is in your power to bring the Gospel to them. Pray. Give. Go. Until all have heard.