Apologetic Wednesday: What About Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?
One question that has been repeatedly asked deals with the fate of those who have never heard about Christ. The question has been posed many different ways, but it usually takes the form of the following, “What about the people in the recesses of dark jungles that have never been exposed to the Gospel? Will they go to hell?”
Many will leverage this question against God or God’s sending people to hell by proposing that an all loving and all powerful God cannot be compatible with some people never hearing the Gospel and spending an eternity in hell. To fully address this question one must consider what is meant by the word “love” and how free will factors into the question. This topic has been addressed previously, and will not be dealt with in depth at present. For now, let’s stay focused on the question about those who have never heard of Christ.
When it comes to addressing this question, I do not find that there is a single, concise answer that squarely deals with the question and wraps it up in a neatly dressed package. I do, however, believe that there are many things to consider when this question is evoked, and that we can arrive at a meaningful answer.
One should take notice of the fact that man is a deeply religious creature. Throughout the ages man has sought to connect with God through various means. Why is this? Why does man feel the need to reach out toward God? Romans 1:19-20 answers this question. “They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” Through creation and the longing in man’s heart, God has revealed himself to mankind. This is called “general revelation”.
The difficulty is, man is wicked and seeks to turn from the truth. As Romans 1:18 mentions, “But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Due to man’s natural inclination to turn from God and embrace wickedness, history is replete with example after example of man finding other objects or gods to worship. It is important to understand that those who are estranged from God and distanced from His teachings have been placed there by the suppression of truth, either directly by themselves or indirectly by their ancestors. Had mankind not embraced sin, no one would be without the direct knowledge of God.
So what happens to those that have never received the special revelation of God that we have in scripture? What happens to those who have not heard about Jesus Christ? One option is that people are only responsible for the “light that they have received.” That is, they will be judged based on what they had knowledge of. Those that understand there is a God will be judged on whether or not they sought after God. This sounds somewhat feasible, but what how does one then deal with passages like Acts 4:12 that state people can only be saved through the name of Jesus Christ? Passages like these pose somewhat of a problem for this view, although it is still tenable. Perhaps they are saved through what Christ did on the cross and by acting on what limited knowledge they have, though not knowing about Christ or fully understand what He did.
It has also been proposed that perhaps those who have not heard the Gospel message of Christ are not culpable. They are viewed as not being accountable in the same way that children or mentally ill people are seen as not being accountable. The difficulty with this view is that, unlike children or the mentally ill, people who have never heard the gospel are still able to reason and are thus “without excuse”.
Another solution that has been proposed states that God knows in advance who will and will not accept His offer of salvation when they are presented with the Gospel. Those who never hear the Gospel that would have been willing to accept it if they had will be considered saved, and those that would have rejected it if given the opportunity will be counted as lost. This argument is strongly appealing, but it has limited scriptural integrity and is more of a philosophical argument.
The aforementioned solutions to this question or very beneficial to understand and each contributes to formulating an answer to this difficult question. There is one more response to this question that is extremely meaningful and cuts to the core of the inquiry.
Based on scripture, it can be understood that God loves people, as is evidenced by passages like the familiar John 3:16. One can also know that God “does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9) and He “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). God could not create a world in which both everyone was free to accept or reject Him and everyone would be saved and spend an eternity with Him, but it is reasonable to assume that God ordered the world in such a way that those who would accept His offer of salvation would be given the opportunity to do so. In other words, God created the best possible world given the fact that man is free to choose and “suppress the truth” and gives opportunity for those who will accept Him to do so.
It is also reasonable to assume that if a person truly desires to know the God who reveals Himself through nature, God will send that person a way to do so. There have been multitudes of stories reported by people living in remote villages that made inquiry to God and were given a means to hear the Gospel message of Christ. An example of this can be seen in the book I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh, in which she recounts her experience as a Muslim woman who became dissatisfied with the answers found in Islam. As she reached out to God, she was sent a way to come to the saving knowledge of Christ.
While this is a difficult question, there are reasonable answers. Due to our understanding of God through scripture, we can know that God is good, just, and loving. He desires that all should be saved and will make a way for the most people to come to know Him through the parameters that operate in a world of free will.
Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.