One common objection to the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is the question of what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus Christ or the gospel message? So, what does happen to those who die having never heard of Jesus Christ? This is a question that is often raised to counter Jesus’ claim that ONLY those who believe in Him will inherit an eternity in heaven. Surely it is unfair that those who never hear the gospel message should be condemned to eternal separation from God for something they did not even know about? This is not an easy question to answer but there are a number of clues in the Bible that will help us deal with this question.
Creation bears indisputable evidence of God’s existence
We are told that the evidence of Creation itself leaves us with no excuse. The Bible makes it very clear that non-belief in God is inexcusable as God’s creative attributes are clearly evident in the world around us. Every person can take a look at the world around them and common sense should be enough to convince a reasonable person that this is the result of a creator. If you look at the world today and go back in history, an overwhelming majority of the world population have always believed in some form of God. It is logical, reasonable, and instinctive to reach the conclusion that we are the result of a creator – in fact, it is the only plausible explanation for the world around us. Romans 1 makes this very clear:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:20-23 NIV, emphasis added)
The book of Job deals with the issue of suffering in great detail. After much discussion among the characters in Job about the cause of suffering it is very revealing to read God’s response between chapters 38-42. Basically, God simply points to the unfathomable immensity of creation in an awesome dialogue that is very inspiring to read. We are supposed to look at the world around us and the heavens above and simply be in awe of the God who clearly created it all. This should draw all people towards God.
In the secular culture of the UK, it is unfashionable to question “molecule-to-man” evolution and the hostility this attracts appears to have rocked the church which is often very wishy-washy over the ‘evolution v creation’ issue. The existence of the creator God is the most plausible explanation of the world around us – everyone has the ability to arrive at that conclusion whether or not they have heard the name of Jesus.
Furthermore, we would suggest that God gives everyone a chance to respond to Him – everyone receives that ‘tap on the shoulder’ at some point with God offering the chance for a response. In fact, there are many accounts of people having a direct encounter with Jesus Christ who had never seen a Bible or heard His name before the encounter – especially in places where the name of Jesus is banned and Bible are not permitted.
What about our conscience?
The Bible states that every human has an imprint of God’s law and standards written in their heart:
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. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:13-16 NIV, emphasis added)
We ALL have a conscience and instinctively know what is right and wrong. There is obvious variation across cultures but humanity intuitively has a moral standard imprinted inside that is unique to the human race that bears witness of being made “in the image of God”. No matter how hard we try to suppress this, our conscience teaches us what is right or wrong. For there to be a moral standard, there has to be a ‘giver’ of morality through whom these moral standards come – it obviously follows that we are accountable to this judge of morality.
What about those born in countries where there is no gospel message?
There appear to be many locations or time periods in history where the name of Jesus Christ is never heard. Many ask about the Eskimos who have no contact with other cultures or those who live in countries governed by oppressive Islamic regimes or strict communist governments where possession of a Bible or the Christian faith is banned. What will happen to these people – surely it would be unfair to judge them?
There are some amazing accounts of people converting to faith in Jesus Christ with NO contact whatsoever from any Christian and without any access to Christian literature. In places where the Christian faith is banned and even possession of a Bible incur brutal punishment, there are inspiring accounts of Jesus Christ appearing to people in their dreams. These dreams and visions are often so real and vivid, these people wake up, confess their sins and submit their lives to Christ and then experience terrible persecution on account of their conversion and often execution. It seems no human effort can prevent the gospel from spreading to places that it would seem impossible for people to hear of Jesus.
Bizarrely, faith in Jesus Christ often increases at a far greater pace in parts of the world where the message of Christ is banned – this is amazing. How can this be possible? We believe that where people genuinely look for God – he WILL find them. People who are trapped in oppressive environments often do look for the true God and there are many spectacular accounts of Jesus reaching people where it seems humanly impossible!
We believe that most people in our modern world today (particularly in the Western world) who really want to learn the truth about Jesus Christ are able to. An open and enquiring mind WILL look for God.
Incidentally, the fact that the gospel has been virtually preached worldwide is another reason to believe we are nearing the second coming of Jesus Christ:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 NIV)
God wants people to look for and turn to him – there is plenty of reasons to look for God in our broken world. He WILL meet people where they need to be met if they are genuinely looking for the true God. He will either send Christians to them, send Bibles to them or appear to them directly!
What happens to babies and small children that tragically die?
There is very good evidence in the Bible that in tragic circumstances where children die before an age of accountability, they are granted safe passage to heaven. However, it is not possible for us to be certain what this age is as it is not clearly stated in the Bible and we imagine it would differ from child to child depending on the rate of maturity. In various places the Bible refers to children as those who do not know the difference between good and evil:
for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. (Isaiah 7:16 NIV)
Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. (Romans 7:9 NIV)
It seems logical to conclude that every child reaches a point of maturity where he/she instinctively knows boundaries between right and wrong. It is at this point that awareness of “sin” is apparent to the child – it exists within all of us no matter how hard we try to suppress it. We suspect that when a child becomes aware of their own sinful nature, it is at this moment that the child is accountable for his/her own actions before God.
David and Bathsheba suffered the bereavement of the death of their baby son soon after birth. David statement below reveals that he expected to see his son again at a future time. This implies he believed his son was in heaven.
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23 NIV, emphasis added)
There is also a strong clue in the book of Job. The book goes into great detail to list how many animals and children Job had at the beginning of the book:
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East. (Job 1:1-3 NIV)
After all the incredible trials of Job, God promises Job a double blessing and then we have listed all of his animals and children:
The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. (Job 42:12-13 NIV)
The curious detail here is that the number of sons and daughters was not doubled but the numbers of all the animals were. The reason for this is that Job’s children that perished at the beginning of the book were never permanently lost (whereas the animals were). They went safely to be with God in heaven and Job was to see them again when he arrives – therefore the number of sons and daughters he had was ALSO doubled!
We believe this all suggests that children who are unable to make a reasonable assessment of God’s existence will not be judged in the same way as an adult. Only God knows this “age of accountability” and we can be sure to trust the fairness and integrity of God in this.
We imagine the same principle would apply to those who are unable to understand the gospel message due a mental disability or learning difficulty. Again, we must stress that God is fair and will meet people where they need to be met for them to have a chance to respond.
The Genuine Seeker of the Truth
Those who genuinely seek the truth will be found by God. It is clear that the world around us is broken and corrupted – God is the answer to the world’s problems and He wants us to seek Him. However, God does NOT force us to turn to him and will never violate our free-will – he invites us to Him:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8 NIV)
We believe that anyone who honestly looks at the world around them will be convinced in the existence of a creator God – although the world is clearly broken, it was also clearly created. We live in a country where most people can access a Bible and investigate the claims of Jesus Christ. Have you investigated the claims of Jesus Christ? The gospels describe the life of a blameless, perfect man performing an array of miracles to be then executed only to rise from the dead, never to die again. IF this is all true, Jesus Christ certainly authenticated His message to humanity – it definitely deserves at least an open-minded investigation on our part.
Ideas that are NOT Biblical
It has often been suggested to us that its OK for Christians to believe in heaven and hell and the teachings of Jesus as long as they do not tell anyone else. We think this is unbelievably selfish! Can you imagine knowing a cure for cancer that could save millions of lives and then keeping it to yourself? Or, could you imagine seeing a house with its roof on fire and inhabitants oblivious to the danger they are in and then NOT telling them to get out? This is unimaginable! Yet, Christians, who believe that those who do not come to faith in Jesus Christ will be sent to hell, but can be rescued in Christ are supposed to keep this a “secret” and not tell anyone? Keeping this to yourself clearly cannot be the right approach – unfortunately, our world of political correctness has made sharing the critical news of the gospel fraught with danger.
Others have come to the conclusion that anyone who does not hear the gospel will automatically go to heaven. This presents a big problem as anyone who believes this would have a strong motivation NOT to tell anyone the gospel message. Why tell someone the gospel message and risk them rejecting it if they could be guaranteed heaven by not hearing the gospel in the first place?
Jesus clearly strongly commissioned believers to preach the gospel to everyone:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)
In fact, Jesus’ very last words were a commission to preach the gospel worldwide:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1:8-9 NIV)
There is surely no excuse for keeping the gospel message from anyone and although the message should not be diluted or changed, it can be delivered with genuine care and compassion.
We believe that God WILL reach anyone who wants to be reached with the truth and will meet each person where they need to be reached.
What about YOU?
The most important thing is that YOU do know the gospel message – this is the only thing that should concern you! Having read this article, you DO know the gospel and therefore cannot claim ignorance on judgment day. The gospel message has been delivered to you! We believe that God “taps the shoulder” of those looking for answers inviting a response. If you feel God “tapping” your shoulder – please be sure to respond and don’t leave it for another time!
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself. (Ezekiel 3:17-19 NIV)
What will you do with the gospel message? Will you protest your perception of unfairness and injustice and refuse salvation in Christ because you feel this question is not sufficiently answered. Surely this makes no sense. What a tragedy it would be to take this question with you on judgment day, find out that there was a simple explanation that was fair for all and finds yourself excluded from heaven because you did not trust in the goodness of God. Why consign yourself to an eternity away from God on a “matter of principle”?
We are confident any questions like these will be answered in a satisfactory and fair manner – would not it be better to find good answers to these questions on the “right side” of God’s judgment, than get it all wrong?!
Have you looked at the life of Jesus Christ? Surely you would agree that the description of Jesus in the gospels is that of a fair and reasonable person? The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ will be our judge! Whatever happens to those that never heard of Jesus Christ is impossible to be completely sure about, but we do know of the loving, just and fair character of God. The best approach with this is certainly to concern ourselves with what we do know, rather than what we don’t know.
We urge you to look into the life and claims of Jesus Christ for yourself – you can at least then be sure and thankful that you have heard the gospel message.
- GotQuestions.org – What happens to those who have never heard about Jesus?