Q & A Series: What About All the People Who Have Never Heard?

[originally posted on my old blog (1/26/09)]

Question:
If God cares about the people he created, how could he send so many of them to an eternity in hell just because they didn’t believe certain things about him or the bible? And what about the people who have never heard of him, are they destined to an eternity in hell? This is and has always been a big question for me.

Answer:
I apologize for the length of this first answer, but it is an important question that requires a thorough response.

Let me focus on the second question first (Are all the people who have never heard of him destined for an eternity in hell?) This is a very common and very important question. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t sorted this out yet because many people struggle with it. I want to share the conclusion I have reached, but before that, here are a list of possible answers (assuming that God exists – the materialist or naturalist would claim that we just cease to exist and our bodies rot in the ground).

1) God will let everyone go to heaven (either right away or after a period of suffering).
2) God will send all those who have not heard of Him to an eternity of suffering in the lake of fire.
3) God will hold people accountable for the “light” they have received.

I’ll deal with each of these in order.

I believe the first one directly contradicts a great deal of Scripture. The idea that everyone will go to heaven is known as universalism and is clearly unbiblical. Revelation 20:11-15 makes it clear that many people will be sentenced to the lake of fire and Rev. 14:11 is clear that their torment will last for eternity. So I do not believe the first answer is the solution nor does it fit God’s character. Yes, God is love (1 John 4:8) and loves everyone (John 3:16), but just as He is perfect in His love, He is also perfect in His justice. As the righteous Judge, He cannot overlook sin, but must punish it. If He did not, then He would not be just and would not be worthy of worship. If that was the end of the story, we would all suffer for eternity because we have all violated His law and deserve death. But the Bible tells us that our Judge also became our Savior. He became a man and paid the price for our sins on the cross. Those who accept His sacrifice by faith will have their sins forgiven and His righteousness accredited to them. All who reject this free gift will get what they deserve – eternal punishment. Why eternal? Isn’t that way too harsh? Not when you consider that each sin is a sin against the infinite God and therefore carries an infinite punishment. Not only that, the price that was paid for those sins was the death of Christ Himself – an infinite payment.

Many Christians hold to the second view. I held it for several years. It is based on John 14:6 (one of my favorite verses) and other similar verses. Jesus made it quite clear that He is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one would go to heaven except through Him. At first glance, this seems to confirm the second response, but I don’t think it does. I absolutely believe Jesus’ statement was true, but it’s what He did not say here that is important. He did not say that those who never heard of Him or have no knowledge of Him would go to hell. Why not? Because there is no such thing as a person who has not heard of Him or has no knowledge of Him. John 1:9 tells us that Jesus is the true light which gives light to every man. Romans 1:20 makes it clear that everyone knows there is an all-powerful Creator based on the world around us. This is known as general revelation of God and although it supplies enough information to condemn a person for unbelief, it does not necessarily provide a person with sufficient knowledge of the Gospel.

This leads us to the third response, which I believe is the biblical solution. This view states that God will hold each person accountable for the light (read: knowledge, insight, etc.) that He has provided them with. Since all people know God exists (those who claim not to know or reject this are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” – Rom. 1:18), then all people have a chance to respond to Him. There are numerous stories from missionaries who have preached the Gospel in a previously unreached area only to be told afterward by one of the listeners that they already knew most of the message but just didn’t know Jesus’ name. There are many reports of people in Islamic countries in our day who are coming to believe in Jesus because, they claim, He revealed Himself to them in a dream, vision, etc. Salvation was made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. Therefore, the only way a person can be saved is through Christ’s sacrifice. Some of us have had numerous opportunities to respond to a clear presentation of this message. Others have only had glimpses of this message through general revelation. I believe we will be held accountable for what we have been given (see also the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30).

So is this position supported by other passages of Scripture? I believe it is. In Matthew 11:20 – 24, Jesus indicated that certain peoples (those of Korazin and Bethsaida) would be judged more severely than those of the wicked cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. Why? Because Korazin and Bethsaida had the opportunity to see the ultimate revelation of God, Jesus Christ walking and talking in their midst and they still rejected Him. The others (Tyre, Sidon, Sodom) rejected Him, but were not given as much light, if you will. This view makes sense of God’s perfect love and His perfect justice.

Regarding your first question, does God send billions of people to hell just because they don’t believe certain things about Him or the Bible? Yes and no. The Bible is clear that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and the He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). There are certain things that must be believed or accepted. But the Bible does not teach that a person must hold all the right beliefs about God and the Bible in order to be saved. If that were true, then a person would be saved by works rather than by God’s grace alone received through faith alone. For example, I have a sharp disagreement with those who believe that God created everything over the course of billions of years. I am confident that they are being unbiblical and are actually severely undermining the Bible and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, I believe that many of these individuals are truly saved and will be in heaven someday because they have accepted Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf.

So, the reason that a person will go to hell is not because they failed to have a proper understanding of a great deal of Christian doctrine or of God Himself, but because they refused to accept His free offer of salvation. Instead, they choose to foolishly try to save themselves. They want to do it their own way, rather than God’s way, which is the ONLY way. The reason this is foolish is because as sinners, they already face God’s judgment. No amount of good works can cover the infractions that have already been committed. Consider the following analogy (I realize that all analogies are limited so don’t press this further than it is intended):

Imagine that you were ticketed for driving 55 mph in a blind child area with a posted 15 mph speed limit. You broke the law. As you stand before the judge, (if he is just) he will not let you off the hook because this is the only time you have ever broken this law. There is a price that must be paid (whether it is a fine or jail time). If he let you off the hook because he liked you or because you were normally a good driver or because you vowed never to do it again, he would not be a just judge. Justice must be served. Either you will pay the fine or someone else will take care of it for you.

Now, in the case of Jesus, He is our Judge. He decided to pay the penalty for us. We deserve eternal punishment, but He took our punishment and offered salvation to all who would trust in Him. If a person rejects that amazing love and grace, then they will get precisely what they (and all of us) deserve and what they think they want – life without God. If you think that your good deeds will outweigh your bad, then you are deceiving yourself because justice must still be carried out for the sins you have committed. They are not erased or balanced by your good deeds. They can only be removed by the blood of Christ, which is only applied to your “account” if you accept His offer of salvation.

I hope and pray this response helps you as you wrestle with some of the more difficult questions in the Christian faith. Feel free to ask for clarification or respond to something I have written. Please note: I intentionally did not discuss the doctrine of election in this response because it would require twice the length of an answer, and whether one believes in conditional or unconditional election, the third option can still apply.

If you have a question you want me to answer, please leave it as a comment to this article, and I will try to address it in the near future.

“But you just gestured to all of me.”

Movie poster from How to Train Your Dragon

Last weekend I watched How to Train Your Dragon with my family and some friends. I thought it was a delightful, hilarious, and entertaining film—one of the best to come out in years. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. As a Christian I have a problem with someone saying “Thor almighty” in reference to a Norse god (Thor is a false god and isn’t even considered to be almighty, but I don’t expect Hollywood to excel in theology or mythology). But beyond that, I really enjoyed the movie.

A certain line was spoken three times in the movie. Hiccup, the boy who trains a dragon, said, “But you just gestured to all of me.” (One time the word “gestured” was replaced with “pointed”). Two of the times Hiccup was being ridiculed for messing up, but the other time He was being praised for saving the day.

This line got me thinking about what God expects of us. When God calls us to serve Him, He is not asking for a half-hearted commitment. He doesn’t want lukewarm. When He saved me, He “gestured to all of me.” He wants me to commit everything to Him.

Too many professing Christians think that they can give God one morning a week or perhaps one day a week, but fail to live for Him the rest of the time. Some don’t even go that far, thinking that they fulfilled their commitments to Him by going through some sort of catechism as a kid. Too often we compartmentalize our faith, by thinking that we can give God an hour of our time, but the rest belongs to us. But God gestures to our entire being.

Jesus talked about the level of commitment that is required to be His follower. In Luke 9:23 He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let Him deny Himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” In other words, our commitment level to God should be so strong that we must deny ourselves and be willing to live and die for Him.

When God called Isaiah to serve Him, the prophet responded by saying, “Here am I. Send me.” He didn’t say, “Well God, I’ll give you one day out of seven, but you gotta let me live how I want to live.” That’s because God gestured to all of him.

The same is true for believers today. God desires for us to follow Him wholeheartedly. Some people are afraid to make that type of commitment because they cling to the things of this world. I must admit that I struggle with it at times too. However, I have learned that things go much smoother when we deny ourselves and give Him control.

Psalm 37:4 tells us what happens when we make this commitment. “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” When we live for Him instead of ourselves, then He will bless us with the joy, peace, and comfort that we all long for. He gestured to all of me and He wants you to give Him your whole life too.