What’s the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel?
I received the following questions from a student:
“One thing that I always have had a question about is what happens to people that never had the chance to hear about the gospel and/or weren't God's chosen people. For example, ancient Chinese or American/African Tribes; they never had a chance to hear about Jesus, so how can they be placed on the same scale with someone that rejected Jesus purposefully? Also, what about other cultures during the time of the Israelites? They weren't God's chosen people and couldn't be part of the covenant.”
These are all really good questions and the answers to them may never satisfy us.
The Background to the Questions
These questions are ultimately questioning God’s rationale for condemning sinners to hell. From Scripture we know that it is not God’s desire for humanity to perish in hell. For example, in Ezekiel 33:11 the Lord says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” Peter also writes, “He is slow with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Since this is the heart position and desire of God, it is difficult for us to understand how and why he can then sentence members of humanity to eternal damnation. God must do this because he is not only loving, righteous, and merciful, but also just. These questions come from a knowledge that God has provided a way out from eternal death, and that is through having faith in Jesus Christ. But what about those who have not heard about Jesus to have faith in him? Since they didn’t receive an opportunity to hear the good news of the “way out” do they have a different standard of judgment or a different punishment than the rest?
The Biblical Data
Sin is the cause of death. God did not create sin. He created the world and it was good! God did not tempt Adam and Eve and he has no blame for sin or its effects. Since he is a just God, he must punish sin. We might think that eternal death, or hell, is too strict of a punishment, but we are forgetting who the offense is against. If a person murders someone, and the murder only takes a second to commit, the just punishment lasts for a lifetime, a life for a life. Despite most crimes’ short length of time to commit, the punishments sentenced are far longer. And in some cases, such as rape, many people think the sentences are not long enough, or severe enough. What then about crimes (sin) committed against God, a being of far greater worth than a human being? Consider that the crimes (sin) committed against God are committed for a lifetime. When these considerations are taken into account, eternal punishment becomes more rational. Lifelong crimes against an eternal God, justly bring eternal punishment. (Genesis 1-3, Romans 1-3)
General Revelation is given to everyone. These questions fail to recognize that God has revealed himself to everyone, even those who have not heard the Gospel message. God has revealed himself in two different ways, general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is what God has revealed about himself from what he has created. Romans 1:18-20 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men 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 men are without excuse.” This means that God’s general revelation places everyone in a state of guilt for their sins. Everyone is left without excuse.
Special revelation is required for salvation; general revelation itself is not enough for salvation. Special revelation is God’s direct communication of himself to mankind through his word and through the person of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is explicitly required for salvation, as Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Faith receives the benefits of grace. Scripture teaches that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus directly speaks this truth to Nicodemus in John 3:16, stating, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” A person can only believe the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, which served as a substitionary atonement for the penalty of our sins, if he or she has heard the good news! (Romans 10:12-15)
And that’s the rub!
That’s what burns! We’ve fallen short. We deserve eternal death. God has paved a way for salvation for mankind through the person of Jesus Christ. For us to have that salvation, we have to hear the good news of that salvation and believe it! But not everyone hears, yet they’re still guilty because of general revelation. Everyone is left in a guilty state before God with no excuse and in need of Jesus for salvation.