What Happens To Those Who Never Hear The Gospel?

This is a question that people frequently pose to Christians and one that Christians themselves often have? What happens to people who die without ever hearing the gospel message preached? The Bible teaches that belief in Jesus Christ is the only way to get into Heaven John 3:16-18 says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son. Whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through Him. Everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but whoever doesn’t believe is condemned already because he has refused to believe in the only son of God.” At the last supper, Jesus says in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” And the apostle Peter preached in Acts 4:12 that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Given that Jesus is the only way to be saved from one’s sins, the question immediately arises; what happens to those who never even heard of Jesus much less chose to believe in Him? Is their eternal fate governed by simply being born at the wrong place at the wrong time?

First, we must realize that God’s existence can be known throughout everything that He has created. This is what theologians call God’s “general revelation”. Sometimes it’s called “natural revelation”. Because it’s God’s way of revealing himself to us through the created order. Romans 1:18-20 says “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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.” This passage says that people can know God exists through everything that has been made, and that this evidence from nature is so powerful that people are completely without excuse in saying God does not exist (Romans 1:20). It says that God has made this truth very evident to mankind (verse 19), and this is why people essentially have to talk themselves out of believing that the appearance of design isn’t actually designed. They have to suppress this intuition in order to be legitimate atheists (verse 18). It reminds me of when Francis Crick said that “biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see is not designed, but evolved”

Psalm 19:1-4 says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."

Scripture also teaches that people intuitively know good from evil because God has programmed this knowledge into them (see Romans 2:14-15).

In fact, this is why we shouldn’t be surprised if scientific evidence for creation and design pops up through the course of scientific discovery (e.g The Big Bang theory and The Fine Tuning Of The Universe, and The Local Fine Tuning, and biological evidence such as that from DNA and Irreducibly Complex machines). After all, The Bible says that God’s handiwork can be seen through the natural created world. Science is the study of the natural world. Therefore, if God really did create and design our universe, we shouldn’t be surprised if the study of our universe uncovers hallmarks of such design. Notice that Paul said this back in the first century when not much was known about science. But now we have very powerful evidence that the whole universe just popped into being out of nothing, that the odds of it’s being life permitting is 1 chance in 10 to the power of 300 to the power of 300! And much more! If men were without excuse in the first century, what can we say of men of the 21st century?! But this is getting off on a tangent.

The point is; even if a man never gets his hands on a Bible, he can look around at the natural order and know that a creator was behind it. The following illustration was inspired by what I read in chapter 10 of William Lane Craig’s “On Guard”.

Imagine someone living in North America before Christians arrived. Imagine that a native American was walking through the woods one night and he looks up at the night sky. When he sees the beauty of the stars, the way the sun and the moon orbit around it, suppose he looks at the bodies of his friends and family and sees how complex they are, how every body part sticks together to create proper function. And suppose on this basis, he concludes that everything must be made by “The Great Spirit” and that “The Great Spirit” deserves to be worshiped for everything good that He has given him and those around him. He also looks into his own heart and realizes there, the moral law. He realizes he needs to live in kindness and compassion towards his fellow man, and he also realizes that he hasn’t done that to the extent that he needed to. He recalls past actions that weren’t so good. He throws himself at the mercy of The Great Spirit and says “Oh Great Spirit, spare me from your wrath! Have mercy on me! I don’t know who you are, but please spare me from your wrath for my past deeds!” On this basis, I believe God might have mercy on this person. He begs him for salvation and God might grant it to him. Perhaps. Perhaps.

This isn’t to say that people are saved apart from Christ. But it could be the case that people can be judged based on the light of the revelation that they do have.

The offer of Romans 2:7 "to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life" is a bona fide offer of salvation. This is not to say that people can be saved apart from Christ. Rather it is to say that the benefits of Christ's atoning death could be applied to people without their conscious knowledge of Christ. Such persons would be similar to certain people mentioned in the Old Testament like Job and Melchizedek, who had no conscious knowledge of Christ and were not even members of the covenant family of Israel and yet clearly enjoyed a personal relationship with God. Similarly, there could be modern-day Jobs living among that percentage of the world's population which has yet to hear the Gospel of Christ.

But suppose that instead of worshipping “The Great Spirit”, that this native American decides that instead of worshipping The Great Spirit, he makes totem poles and statues of creatures (gods of his own making) and decides to worship them. And let’s suppose also that instead of treating his friends and family with love and kindness, He disregards the moral law written on his heart and instead decides to live in selfishness and cruelty towards his fellow man. He kills people from other tribes to steal their goods and what not.

Now, on this basis, God would be just in condemning this person to Hell since he worshipped idols and treated his fellow humans in cruelty. God could justly condemn this sinner to Hell. He had rejected God’s general revelation to him and lived in sin. But suppose this man would have lived quite differently if only He had Christian evangelists come to him and preach the gospel to him. Suppose he would have repented and lived for God if only he had heard the gospel. In that case his salvation or damnation seems to be the result of bad luck. Through no fault of his own he just happened to be born at a time and place in history when the Gospel was as yet unavailable. His condemnation is just; but would an all-loving God allow people's eternal destiny to hinge on historical and geographical accident? I mean, He does want everyone saved after all (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4).

This is where Molinism really comes in handy. For God knows what we would do or would not do under a given circumstance. Given that this is the case, God knows that if this hypothetical native American would have been saved if only he had heard the gospel, then God makes sure that he is born at a time in place where he has the opportunity to hear it, and consequently would have been saved.

Since God desires that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9), we can trust that he has providentially ordered the world that anyone who would believe in the gospel if he heard it is born at a time and place in history where he does in fact hear it. In that case, no one can stand before God on the Judgment Day and complain that he would have responded to the gospel if only he had had the chance. God would say to that person “No, I know that even if you had heard the gospel, you still would have lived in rebellion against me. Therefore, I condemn you on the basis of rejecting the revelation that I did give you. Therefore, my condemnation of you is neither unfair nor unloving.”

Salvation is universally accessible because every human being is given sufficient grace for salvation (see John 1:4, John 1:7, John 1:9, John 12:32), even the unevangelized. No one is disregarded in God’s creation. Scripture teaches that God made every nation of men and he determined the exact times and places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one (Acts 17:26-27). This illustrates three very important points, First, God determined the exact times and places for every human being, so there are no accidents. Second, God expects people to seek him. Third, they will find him because he is not far from them.

God is too loving to allow people to be damned simply due to historical and geographical accident. He places those who would respond to the gospel if they heard it at times and places in history where they do hear it.

He isn’t in any way being unfair to those unevangelized human beings who reject the light of God’s general revelation and are lost to the fires of Hell because God knows that they would not have responded to the gospel anyway even if they had been born in a time and place where they could hear it.

God therefore gives specific knowledge about himself and salvation to people who respond to the general knowledge they already have. Unfortunately, the language of Romans does not give us very much optimism that there are very many people like Job and Melchizidek who respond to God’s general revelation. The language of Romans 1 seems to be that most people suppress the truth in unrighteousness (verse 18) and go off and worship gods of their own making (verses 21-22). This is why both preaching the gospel and doing apologetics is so vital. Most people seem to repent by having both of God’s revelations, not just one. God’s primary way in bringing salvation to people is through Christian evangelism and missions. He has commanded His people to take the gospel to every corner of the world (Matthew 28:19).

People might object that this leaves the fate of the unevangelized in the hands of frequently disobedient or ineffective Christians. Yes, this is true. This gives us all the more reason that we should obey the Great Commission that Christ has given us.

However, we also know stories—both in the Bible and in our contemporary experience—of how God has revealed Himself personally to sincere seekers through dreams and visions and then sent them to Christians who shared the gospel with them (e.g. Cornelius in Acts 10 and modern-day Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists). God desires that none shall perish and he provides numerous opportunities and ways for people to believe.

In any case, we know that God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and would do anything with the exception of overriding free will to keep people out of Hell (as evident from His being tortured in human form on our behalf) and that He wants no man to to experience Hell (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4, Ezekiel 18). So given these pieces of biblical truth, we can have confidence that no matter how we answer this question, God will do what it takes to save human souls. We also have confidence that God will deal with rebellious sinners justly and fairly.