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

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

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.

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.


Q & A Series: What About All the People Who Have Never Heard? — 12 Comments

  1. Tim,

    I’ve enjoyed reading through your post. I actually found you because I have an interest in apologetics and was looking up the whole “ancient alien” bit.

    In any case, I feel you still didn’t answer the question fully on what happens to those who have never heard the gospel. I agree with a lot of what you are saying (God judging by the light received), but what is the final consequence? Are you saying there will be people in heaven who didn’t understand the blood atonement of Christ for their sin?

    If it is true that Jesus has revealed himself in a dream ( I actually just recently heard this from a missionary), and some people understand the blood atonement without knowing the name Jesus until the missionary came, that acutally argues for the case of election from the reformed perspective, as a small few receive such a dream and we know most heathen nations are just that-peoples who worship created things not God.

    We also have histories of peoples like the american indian who lived for years and years with no gospel and while they were very spiritual, they worshiped the created not the creator.

    While I do believe in a less harshness to judgment, ultimately we have to deny a lot of scripture if we don’t believe those in heaven have to know Jesus.

    I think David Platt gives a good explanation in that their are no innocent people as we are all fallen in Adam. The Bible clearly teaches salvation by grace through faith in Christ. If someone lives up to all they know, but that isn’t Christ I can see a less harsh punishment (separated from God still), but eternal life?

    Love your stuff, and appreciate how you conduct yourself. A true mark of Christian fruit.


    • Hi Darin,
      Thanks for the kind words about the post. To clarify my point, I would ask you to consider folks in the Old Testament. I think one could build a case that many of the OT saints did not understand that the Messiah would be the One who would atone for their sins, yet they remained faithful to do what God called them to do. I’m willing to grant that OT saints knew more about God than the limited amount we are told about them in Scripture, but I don’t think they had as full of a picture of the atoning work of Christ as many covenant theology guys would claim. To put it another way, the object of the faith of the OT saint was the same as believers since the time of Christ (both trust in the light God has revealed to them), but the content of that faith is different (we have a fuller revelation of who God is since that is one of the reasons Jesus came–to reveal the Father). I do not believe it was required of people before the time of Christ to believe that God would take on human flesh being born of a virgin, live a sinless life, die on the Cross for our sins, and then rise again the third day. I truly doubt that they understood the Messiah had to die (even though there are a couple of clear statements about that in Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9), but we don’t see any indication of anyone during Jesus’ day who expected the Messiah to die. We clearly cannot say they were all condemned.
      I think it is similar for those who have never heard. I would agree with David Platt that there are no innocent people. We are all fallen in Adam. However, I think I have a different view than he does about what that means. Yes, because of one man’s sin, all are made sinners (Romans 5) and therefore all face the wages of sin–death. I don’t believe that all people are condemned to the lake of fire because of Adam’s sin. Those who are sent there are judged according to their own works (Revelation 20). So what happens to the child aborted by the morning after pill just hours after fertilization? Could you really think that they will be condemned for their own works? They never did any works yet they could still die because they inherited Adam’s sin. While that’s another issue that could be addressed, it is relevant to this discussion. If the proverbial native inherently knows about God through his conscience and by looking at creation, and then he desires to serve the God he knows exists, I believe that they can be saved–whether or not they ever understand the blood atonement of Christ. All of this is made possible by Christ’s salvific work, but do they have to a good understanding of the gospel message to be saved? Or could they be like some people prior to Christ who did not understand the gospel, yet they trusted God and remained faithful to what they knew about Him.
      I hope that clarifies what I stated earlier. May God bless you as you serve Him.

      • Tim,

        Thank-you for replying so quickly. I do think there are tough issues, issues in which we simply do not have full revelation. You mention infants. We could go on an mention those who are so disabled their capacity for reason isn’t there and so on. I certainly have a heart and a concern for anyone who doesn’t know Christ. The apostle Paul himself could wish him self accursed because of his brethren who didn’t know Christ…

        Since I am reformed in my thought as it concerns the scriptures, these issues while bothersome are all placed under the divine election of God, therefore those that are His will indeed come to Him. I know that Christ shall not loose one of His elect and all that the Father gives Him will come.

        Concerning the Old Testament saints I agree with your basic premise, but the New Testament-especially when we read the Pauline epistles and the gospels are ripe with the idea that now that Christ is revealed, the mystery they worshiped is no longer a mystery. This is why the Jews after Christ came were commanded to repent and believe the gospel–not stay in their old tradition. But who worshipped this mystery-Was it not mainly Israel?

        It’s important to remember, that while the saints of old didn’t understand Christ completely, who were the saints of old? They were Israel and a few gentiles-Rahab being one of them, who were saved. For the most part though, anyone outside of Israel did not know the God of the Bible. I see no indication of the gentile nations knowing God in the Old Covenant, but instead it was proclaimed they would come to Him later-and of course that is what happened.
        So your argument fits those who were called the same way as Abraham by faith–who worshipped the God of Israel and looked forward to the promises, but God speaks otherwise of the heathen who did not know Him.

        Paul said the gentiles where without hope (concerning their condition before Christ was revealed), but now we have hope in Christ. Eph 2:11-13. Was Paul confused?

        Is there anyone of us who even taking the most vile of sinners believes an eternity in the lake of fire is fair? Of course not. At some point shouldn’t anyone no matter what they did be allowed to repent? But by faith, we understand that God certainly will send the wicked away for all eternity.

        I appreciate your kindness, I love AIG and I wish you well. I kindly urge you however, to be weary of a position that leans toward univeralism and is contrary to what is revealed to us now in the New Testament. There are mysteries and I in now way want to limit God’s mercy, but if we truly believe scripture alone in its context, the heathen today are no different than the heathen outside of Israel back before Christ was revealed.

        John 3:36- He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

        In His name,

        • Hi Darin,
          Thanks again for the kind words and for trying to think through this issue with me. Since I do not agree with every point of Reformed soteriology (or with Arminian soteriology for that matter), then I doubt that we will be in complete agreement on this. I appreciate your thoughts on this, but I would urge you not to build a straw man argument out of a position that is not your own. That is, when you encouraged me “to be weary of a position that leans toward universalism and is contrary to what is revealed to us now in the New Testament” you are not even close to accurately representing my view. I do not in any way, shape, or form lean toward universalism. I have heard many of my Reformed friends attempt to categorize those who disagree with limited atonement (as properly understood according to traditional Calvinistic doctrine) as universalists. This is nonsense and is really a dodge from dealing with the real issue. I truly believe that you are sincere, so I don’t think you are intentionally building a straw man argument, but if you truly understood my position, then you could never think that I have any leanings whatsoever toward universalism.
          There were plenty of saints during OT times who were not Israelites: Abraham, Isaac, Noah, Enoch, and perhaps the other patriarchs prior to Jacob (Israel). Also, many others may well have come to believe in the true God, such as Naaman the Syrian, Nebuchadnezzar (later in life), Job, Cornelius in the NT, etc.
          We know from Romans 1 that the Gentiles know God, but they do not like to retain the knowledge of God in their thinking and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But to think that Paul was saying that this applies to every single Gentile without exception does not match what we read in Scripture.
          I believe that there are good points within Reformed theology and Arminian theology, but I also believe they both have problems. Although they may be internally consistent, I do not believe they are entirely consistent with Scripture, which is why I do not consider myself to belong to either camp.
          The Bible is very clear that many will reject Christ and suffer eternally and it also clear that Christ is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). There are other verses that teach or imply the same thing. I’ve heard the standard Reformed responses to these types of verses and to me they often sound like special pleading–rescuing devices developed to keep Reformed soteriology afloat. I believe Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all, but only efficient for those who believe, and I believe this is consistent with the rest of Scripture.
          I’m not interested in getting into a full-scale debate on Reformed theology here or anywhere on my blog, I just want you to have a better understanding of where I’m coming from. Although at some point I may do a series on difficult passages for Arminians and difficult passages for Calvinists.
          You are right that there are difficult issues, but I don’t think it is right to simply throw them in the “divine election” category if one’s understanding of divine election portrays God as someone that He isn’t. You may be interested in my blog on Romans 9:13 (http://midwestapologetics.org/blog/?p=926). While I don’t dive into election much at that point, I do attempt to show how the verse is often misused or misunderstood by my Calvinist friends.

          • Tim,

            Thanks again for the quick response. I’m sorry, but I think you misunderstood why I used the “univeralism” term as I actually wasn’t relating it to Limited Atonement at all. My concern had more to do with what seems to be a denial of very clear scriptural teachings on what one must do or possess to be saved, namely believing in Christ. I apologize if you took it another way. I think sola scriptura points us so much to the person of Christ and having to understand our redemption, it’s dangerous ground to think of people being redeemed without this knowledge. Keep in mind I make that statement with full understanding of your position that the old testament saints only had a brief glimpse of this-including the gentiles who were intervened with by God’s grace in those times. I think we can both agree that it was certainly the exception and not the rule-at least as to what has been revealed to us.

            So I do agree Paul was not talking about “all gentiles” as some you mentioned did know the Lord, but all of those you mentioned were divinely intervened with by the Lord, including Nebuchadnezzar. My point is, that they all had a relationship with the God of Israel.

            I’ll let this be the last of my replies, as I know you are very busy and to be honest as I said before, my original intent was to do more research on the whole “ancient alien” bit, for my own interest in apologetics.

            It’s true the debate will go on. It’s a “camp fire” debate though for many of us who understand that this isn’t an essential separation issue.

            I’m glad you can see that. I am sure there are some at AIG who are reformed or at least what I would call Calminians :), and you probably all get a long just fine, which is a great testimony to the love of Christ which should be our main essential outside of the gospel itself.

            Thanks for your time and keep up the apologetics!

            In Christ,

            • Thanks for the clarification Darin. I’m sorry I misunderstood you. I guess I assumed you were going where I’ve heard others go far too often and I was wrong. We have had some good lunch-time discussions on the subject. There are times that we need to talk about these issues during normal hours. Part of my job is to make sure the articles I check don’t seem to favor particular denominational views.
              I hope you find what you’re looking for with the ancient aliens research. Did you check out http://www.ancientaliensdebunked.com ? It’s a three-hour video refuting that program.

              God bless!

  2. Hi John,

    Great question. I plan on doing a response this weekend, so check back soon.
    (Update) The response to your question has now been posted as of 11/7.

  3. Do you know the titles of any books where missionaries tell of unreached people groups that know about God? I would like to read them. Thanks!

  4. Tim, I think you would agree that the deity of Christ is an essential of the faith. “Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

    What about the Trinity? I do believe in the Trinity. But is belief in the Trinity an essential of the faith? What if you believe in the deity of Christ, but not the Trinity (as Oneness Pentecostals do)?

    FYI, I am a Presbyterian, not a Oneness Pentecostal. However, a Presbyterian friend of mine has married into a family of Oneness Pentecostals. He does not see the Trinity as an essential, as long as you affirm the deity of Christ. (Of course, if he did say that the Trinity was an essential, he would be in the doghouse with his inlaws. So he is in a tough spot. His wife is now Presbyterian and Trinitarian, but many in her family are still in the Oneness Pentecostal church.)

    Oneness Pentecostals also have other issues, such as legalism, requiring speaking in tongues for salvation, and baptism as a requirement for salvation. But what if all those other issues were stripped away, and the Trinity was the only issue?

  5. Great question Maureen! I’m pretty sure the sacrifices stopped in AD 70 when the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. I’ll plan on doing a full response as a post in the near future. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  6. I have a question about modern orthodox Jews in regard to the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifices. If it’s correct that orthodox Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah–the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God–do they still believe that a blood sacrifice is needed to cover sin? In the history of Judaism, when and by what justification did they stop conducting animal sacrifices?

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