What happens to those who never hear the Gospel? What if someone lives in a remote area and never learns about Jesus? Does God automatically send them to hell?
This is certainly one of the most troubling questions Christians can face. The fate of those who never hear the Gospel is both a difficult and emotional issue to face. I think it becomes an even tougher question because it touches us on a personal level. We may know, or know of someone in this particular situation. We all have friends, neighbors, family, or loved ones who seem utterly resistant to any kind of talk regarding spiritual things. They never come to church, they never read the Bible, and show zero interest in learning more about Jesus.
What about those who have zero opportunities to learn about Jesus? People who will never have the possibility of rejecting the Gospel message? It’s terrifying to think that all of these people would go to eternal damnation when they’ve never even heard about the saving grace that comes through Jesus Christ.
How could God do such a thing? Why would He do such a thing? It’s an issue that makes us uneasy and causes us to squirm when someone brings it up. The truth of the matter is, the Bible doesn’t really address this question specifically. The only thing we can really do is speculate on an answer. Really? Will the speculations of man be sufficient to address a question that has eternal consequences? Doesn’t the Bible provide us of some idea of an answer to this issue? What really happens to the people who die without ever hearing the gospel? Where do they go? How does God judge them?
Some Ideas from Scripture
Let’s take a look at a particular verse in which Paul was addressing the Roman church:
Romans 2:12 (NIV) All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.
Paul divides the entire human race into two categories:
1. Those who live under the law
2. Those who live apart from the law
Think of the whole world as being inside one of two circles. The first circle is very small and is labeled “Under the Law.” Paul says you can find the Jewish people in this circle. The law was given to them, they live under the law, they are judged by the law, and the law finds them guilty before God. The second circle is much, much larger because it contains everyone who is not in the smaller circle. Label this circle “Apart From the Law.” Those in this circle live and die without the knowledge of God’s law.
Note that Paul says that they also “perish” apart from the law. But how can that be? On what basis does God judge us if we do not know his law?
Verse 15 of this same chapter speaks of the law written in the heart of every person:
Romans 2:15 (NIV) since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
Paul means that because the image of God is found in every person born on planet earth, the moral principles of God’s law are written in every heart. We know by nature that it is wrong to kill innocent life. We know by nature that it is wrong to steal. We know by nature that we should not covet. We know by nature that we should tell the truth. We know by nature that we should be faithful. We know by nature that we ought to honor our parents. We know by nature that God created us and we should honor Him.
But we suppress the truth about God that we know, and that suppression leads to rebellion, moral blindness, idolatry and every sort of degrading sin. Romans 1:18-32 describes this in detail.
Paul’s point is that every person knows these things because God has written it inside every heart. We each have a conscience that helps us make moral judgments about ourselves and about others. Even without the written law, our conscience either excuses us when we do right or accuses us when we do wrong.
But just because we all know right from wrong, and just because we understand that we’ve all done wrong, does this warrant eternal damnation if we never knew the truth of Jesus’ saving grace?
The Himalayan Buckwheat Farmer
Let’s look at an analogy that might help us to sort things out a little bit:
Suppose there was a buckwheat farmer who lived in a remote, isolated region of the Himalayan mountain range. For generations this man’s family farmed buckwheat. All he really knows about is buckwheat farming. He was raised Buddhist, but his family never really practiced their faith. The only thing this farmer knows about Jesus is that He is the God of the Christians.
Now supposed that this farmer contracted a rare disease. This disease will certainly kill him. He had visited the local medic in a neighboring village, but to no avail. Eventually he made the long journey to one of the larger cities in Nepal for expert medical care. The doctors were able to diagnose his disease, but it was a very rare illness with no known cure. The farmer returned to his village and lived out his few remaining years on the farm before the disease took his life.
What the farmer didn’t know was that six months prior to his death, a cure for the very disease he had was discovered in Canada. Unfortunately, since he lived in such a remote area, he never heard about the cure.
Now answer this question: Did the farmer die because of the disease or because he didn’t know about the cure? He died from the disease, not from his lack of knowledge about the cure.
Everyone suffers from a spiritual disease called, sin. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is what causes death, not a lack of knowledge of Jesus Christ.
So What, Then?
So what does this mean? If we are all dying from the disease of sin and Jesus is the only cure for the disease, does this mean those who never hear about the cure will die in their sins and face an eternity in hell? Possibly, but not necessarily.
God established salvation for all of humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Would God be unjust for condemning those who never even heard about Jesus? Not really. If we look at it from the perspective that God is the Author and Creator of all life and that He has the final say concerning His creation, we cannot fault Him for whatever He chooses to do. God is perfectly just, and perfectly wise, and perfectly loving. We must trust that He will make the “right” decision when it comes to an issue such as this.
God is well within His rights to choose to save or condemn those who have never heard the Gospel message. The Bible tells us that God knows the hearts and the intentions of every man. If someone had never heard of Jesus Christ, but earnestly sought after God with all of their heart, then God is well within His right to forgive that person of their transgressions against Him.
The truth of the matter is, we cannot know what God does or will do in these situations. The only thing we can do in trust Him in His sovereignty and holiness.