A popular comedian appeared on a talk show a few years back and was discussing current events and politics with the show’s host. The conversation turned to matters of religion, Christianity, and ultimately, T.V. evangelists. When asked by the host how he felt about the Christian Faith being preached on Television, the comedian quipped, “I just don’t agree with the whole idea, I mean, what about all of the people who haven’t had a chance to hear their Message? I refuse to believe that a billion people in China are going to Hell just because they don’t have Cable.”
The dilemma over how God will deal with those who have never had a chance to receive Christ because of the fact that they never heard of Him has been a point of speculation throughout the history of the Church. Many skeptics (such as the comedian mentioned above) have also pointed to this question and have used it as an argument against the reality of the Gospel. How can God send someone to Hell who never had the chance to put their faith in Him?, they ask, What about all of those people living in the wilds of Africa, or Australia, or South America who have never even heard about Jesus?
What Concern Is That To Us?
“Peter seeing [John] saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.” (John 21:21-22)
Before we consider a possible solution to this question, we should understand that the Word of God does not go into great detail concerning how God will handle this, it concerns itself with our fate and destiny, that is, those who have heard the Gospel and have heard about Jesus Christ. The Bible does not spend a lot of time dealing with the what ifs? and speculations that man has come up with. A theme woven throughout Scripture is that God is good, God is fair, and God is just. We are called to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and to trust that He will deal with all people in a fair and appropriate manner. As He told Peter when he asked of Him what would happen to John, “What is that to thee? Follow Me.” The important question for each of us is not What will God do about the man who has never heard about Jesus?, the important question for each of us is What have I done in response to the fact that I HAVE heard of Jesus?
An Answer That Might Seem Harsh
That being said, I would like to offer up what I believe the Word of God does have to say about the matter; but I will warn you ahead of time that you might not like the answer. I personally have not heard a whole lot of Christian leaders address this issue in public, but a preacher under whom I studied was asked in a classroom setting by prospective ministers about this very thing. He drew in a deep breath and, knowing that this can be a touchy topic, even among Christians, said, “Well, it’s hard to give a short answer without a lot of explanation…but if I had to give a short answer, I would say that these people are lost, even those who have never heard the Gospel.” The gasps amongst our group were audible and the tension was palpable. How could a gentle, God-loving pastor say such a thing! Surely he was mistaken. He had wanted to steer away from the subject and keep on the topic at hand, avoiding the lengthy discussion and perhaps debate which would inevitably follow, but even saying what he did, all attention was off the original topic and planted firmly on this peripheral matter. The truth is that when this question is raised, a lot of people who attempt to address it will give some sort of explanation that basically amounts to God giving a free pass to those who have never heard. Entire heretical denominations calling themselves Christian have arisen based on no other principle than the idea that everybody is OK in the eyes of God and everybody is going to make it to Heaven. Concepts like Hell, eternal damnation, and everlasting conscious separation from God are so distasteful and frightening to some people that they would rather create their own Gospel rather than accept them. The idea of God condemning a “noble, innocent” primitive person, disconnected from the rest of the world and ignorant of what the Bible teaches, is appalling to many people and they would rather believe that God will just pat them on the head, tell them they did the best they could, and sneak them in through the back door of Heaven. But Scripture certainly does not seem to support such a position. Let us take a look at what the Bible tells us:
Perishing Without The Law
“For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;” (Romans 2:12)
According to Romans 2:12, there are two kinds of sinners: Those condemned apart from the Law, and those condemned in it. What does that mean exactly? It means that whether or not a person had the revelation of the Law of Moses or not, he was a sinner. Whether the person was an Israelite living under the Mosaic system, or a pagan living under his own moral or ethical system, man is a sinner. Romans 2:15 goes on to explain that those to whom the Law of Moses was never given, that is, those who are wholly ignorant of it, are still guilty of sin and their very consciences bear witness to this fact. They may not have the revelation of God’s specific Law as handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but they are guilty of violating the moral and ethical expectations planted in their own hearts. Those living under the Law of Moses are sinners because they failed to keep that Law; those not living under the Law of Moses are sinners because they have failed to keep the Law written in their heart. Either way, all men have failed to live up to the Light that they have been given. We have all failed to abide by whatever sense of right and wrong we have been given, whether it be the written revelation of the Lord as recorded in His Word, or the sense of right and wrong which He has placed inside each one of us.
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but HE THAT BELIEVETH NOT IS CONDEMNED ALREADY, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18, emphasis added)
Ultimately, people do not go to Hell because they have rejected Christ; people go to Hell because they are sinners and they die in their sins. Those who do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (including those who have never heard) stand condemned already, they do not become condemned because of their rejection of the Gospel. Whether living under the Law of Moses or not, we all stand condemned apart from Christ. A person does not drown in the ocean because they were not thrown a life-line, they drown because they sink in the water and cannot breathe! Indeed, a life-line would have certainly saved them from drowning, but that is not really the cause of their drowning.
So How Is It Fair For God To Deny Some People The Chance To Be Saved?
All right, so I realize that the analogy of a person drowning in the ocean is not completely fitting to the topic at hand. After all, we would expect an omnipotent God to at least offer a life-line to every one of us before we do “drown in the ocean”, wouldn’t we? At least then we would agree that everyone has had a fair chance to either receive or reject the Gospel. I believe that the solution to this question is found in the fact that, not only is God certainly omnipotent and able to offer Salvation to every single person, He is omniscient and aware of who will receive it and who will not. God is not limited in His knowledge; He does not need to wait and see if a particular individual will accept Christ or not. He knows ahead of time what decision each of us will make. If God were as limited in His knowledge as we are, then His justice might be questioned concerning those who were never given the chance. But since God already knows (and has known since the foundation of the world) whether or not every single person to ever live upon the face of the Earth would or would not accept Christ, His justice remains indisputable. God knows the hearts and minds of every man and it is not necessary for the Gospel to actually be presented to us in order for Him to know what our response to it would be.
God Has Set “The Bounds Of Our Habitation”
“And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;” (Acts 17:26)
If we truly believe that God is in control of all things, then we must realize that the time and place into which each of us is born is no accident. God has not arbitrarily determined where and when each person would live, but has appointed a time and place to every man. He has set the bounds of our habitation for His own purposes. I do not believe that God would have caused a person to be born in 8th Century South America if that person would have ever been willing to receive the Gospel. Skeptics have painted the picture of a poor, noble, and good native living in a far off land beyond the reach of missionaries who will be condemned to Hell because he never had the chance to hear about Jesus. But this is not the case. God knew every one of us before He ever even made us and has placed each of us who would ultimately accept Christ in the historical and geographical context wherein we live so that we would be presented with the Gospel and introduced to Christ.
There are, in fact, many instances in Scripture where God reached His hand across boundaries that would otherwise prohibit a person to being exposed to the Gospel, simply because that person did have a ready-heart. They had responded to all of the Light that God had given them thus far, and the Lord was willing to give them more. God sent the Roman Centurion Cornelius to Peter to learn of Christ because he was a “devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:1-2). The Lord sent Philip to the Ethiopian Treasurer because he was a man who sincerely desired to understand the Word of God and have someone explain it to him (Acts 8:30-31). God caused the Apostle Paul and Silas to spend a night in a jail in Philippi for no other reason than the fact that the jailer working there had a ready-heart to say unto them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Time and space are not obstacles to God getting the Gospel through to people, the hardness of man’s heart is. If there were a single, willing person living in the most remote section of the world who would come to Christ if only he knew of Him, we can be certain that God would move Heaven and Earth to make it happen.
If They Be Not Lost, Then Why Do We Look For Them?
In the discussion I mentioned above about the pastor giving us his viewpoint in the classroom, he finally concluded his remarks by what was the most crucial reason, in his opinion, for believing the way he did: “If the people who have never heard the Gospel are not lost, then what is the point in going to them?” When we look at all of the missionaries throughout Church history who sacrificed so much to travel at great expense and in great peril to the uttermost parts of the Earth so that they might preach Christ to ears who had never heard of Him, to think that their efforts were in vain is a tragedy of the highest order. For not only would their efforts have been unnecessary if those ignorant of the Gospel are not truly perishing, their efforts would have actually been damaging to the very ones they sought to help! If ignorance alleviates responsibility, then woe to the one who teaches! Would it not be in everyone’s best interest for missionaries to stay home if their prospective converts are Heaven-bound already?
God Is Fair
I recognize that there are other viewpoints and opinions about this topic and that it is certainly controversial. I believe the viewpoint I have given because, to me, it seems to best fit with the record of Scripture. I realize that many people find it offensive and appalling to suggest that there will be those condemned to an eternity in Hell who never even heard the Gospel preached, but this is what the Word of God tells us. I pray that as we ponder this reality it gives us all the greater sense of urgency to get the Message of Christ to as many people as we can. In the end, God is fair and God is just. If He never offered His grace to a single living soul He would still be justified in condemning every last one of us. But praise God, He does offer His grace to as many as will accept it. For those who, like the comedian on the talk show that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, would rely on the objection of what God will do with those who have never heard as a reason for their own unbelief, we should understand that God’s only question to all of us is: “What did YOU do with the Light I gave you?” The question of how God dealt with everyone else will be totally irrelevant when we stand before Him, for each of us will stand alone before Him someday. The only thing that will matter is how WE responded to the grace of God and the Message of the Gospel.