What about people who never hear about Jesus?
People often ask me - what happens to people who never hear about Jesus? Do they just go straight to hell? Is there any hope for them? I think it’s an interesting question and I like it best when it is rooted in compassion for other people and a sense that God will do the “right thing.” I am admittedly less interested when it comes as a supposed intellectual challenge to the gospel. There really is no bad answer, just base level, deserved justice and the possibility for grace. The truth is, the Bible does not say much about this category of person. It really focuses its attention on those who know full well and yet DENY Jesus because they would rather choose themselves. For them there is a very definite, self-willed, and heartbreaking separation from God. However, I believe the little that it does say about this “other category” gives us some decent clues into their fate. First, it must be admitted that I do not know this for sure, this is my reasonable deduction of Scripture and many people will disagree with me. Second, the Bible is very clear that God can do whatever He wants (Romans 9) and that judging and punishing ALL humanity would be both just and understandable. Romans 1-3 make it very clear that all people are really, genuinely guilty and judgment (even eternal) makes perfect sense. My problem with just ending it there is that everything he has ever done is a screaming declaration that judgment is not his first cause. The Bible resounds with his incredible love for human beings, his long-suffering kindness, his compassion, willingness and desire to reconcile people back to himself (Psalm 103, esp. v. 8; John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9). Indeed, the central story of the Bible is reconciliation at his expense to his satisfaction. So what will he do about those mysterious, mostly hypothetical, lost islanders or anyone else who cannot or will not hear the name of Jesus Christ? Well, we know what he CAN do - he can fairly judge everyone one of them for denying HIM by evidence of everything and the conscience written on their hearts (Rom 2:18-32). But the really interesting questions are what will he do? And what COULD he do? We know he WILL do what is right. Because his character is perfect; His actions and decisions are flawless. (Dt. 32:4 Psalm 145, Prov. 11 and 35). So there is not a debate over fairness. I guess the really gritty question is what COULD he do without jeopardizing his character and commitment to justice? (I mean he can’t just forget their sins outright - just because they did not have the opportunity to hear about Jesus?) Well, no, of course not. He does not do that with anybody. He submits everyone’s sin to the only sacrifice that can bear the weight - that of his son, Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that all forgiveness, even that received before Jesus (Old Testament) was not forgotten sin, but rather the application of Jesus work to come (or was already completed from God’s perspective, 1 Pt. 1:20, Hebrews 11, Rev 13:8). To be very clear, Jesus’ atonement is the only way anyone is saved (John 14:6). That is why most scholars agree that babies and the mentally disabled receive forgiveness as provided by Jesus even though they are unable to make that choice. Wait…their pass is that they are unable to make that choice? Then, is it feasible to consider that God could rightfully judge everyone for failing to honor him ,even babies born in sin (Gen 3, I Kings 8:46, Psalm 51, Rom 3), but could also apply the sacrifice of his son to those who are unable to make the choice? Consider that you cannot reason Jesus out of what is revealed by nature or by matter of conscience. You must be told (Rom 10:14). If you are not told - then you are unable to make that choice. I think it means he COULD, without changing anything about his character or judgment, apply the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on those he would because they were unable to hear the name of Jesus on earth. It does raise some questions and the following practical retort - why then evangelize at all? Wouldn’t it be better if we just left them alone and then God could apply Jesus’ sacrifice to them? Well…no. Because that is not our mission. God could simply send angels to tell everybody about Jesus tomorrow, but he has not. He has sent us. It is OUR mission to fill in the gaps in general revelation and to reveal the full revelation of Jesus Christ and the hope of life. Jesus sent us on a mission of compassion because we supposedly love our salvation and want others to have the same gift! Hello! Gut check! Salvation is not just a matter of who gets into heaven but also a matter of life right now. We are called to take the message out immediately. The other may reply, “Wouldn’t more be ‘saved’ (i.e. go to heaven) if we just left them alone?” Well, this is where we get into interesting territory and honestly, I am only hypothesizing here. It could be that God judges them as Romans 2 suggests “by the light they have been shown.” It could also be that the sovereign God of the universe knows how they would respond given the chance. Or perhaps those who die without being introduced to Jesus by us somehow get introduced to him by the Father before having to make a choice. I really don’t know. I simply want to suggest that God could spare the completely uninformed in the same way he spares babies and the mentally disabled - oh, and in the same way he saved YOU - by GRACE achieved in sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:21-31