What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

By Michael R. Licona, Ph.D.

Many years ago I had a conversation with a gentleman about religion who made it abundantly clear that he abhorred Christians, Muslims, and Jews who claimed that their particular belief system provides the only way to knowing the true God. After several minutes of listening to an impassioned monologue against exclusivist positions, he paused for a breath. So, I chimed in saying, “I want to be certain that I understand you clearly. You’re saying that it’s wrong for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to claim they are correct and others are mistaken.” He agreed. So, I asked him, “Then why do you believe it’s okay for you to claim you’re correct and the others are all mistaken?” There was a long pause. So I continued, “It seems to me that the intolerance in them you find distasteful is equally present in your view. So, the issue is not tolerance but truth. In other words, the most important question to ask is which worldview is true?”

As I discussed in an earlier article, the New Testament is clear that Jesus believed the only way to God is through him. However, one may ask whether this is fair to those who have never heard the gospel? Will they be condemned to be separated from God eternally when they were unable to embrace a message they never had presented to them? And what is the fate of babies and the mentally handicapped who have died without embracing the gospel of Christ? Will they be eternally separated from God for their failure to embrace a message they were unable to understand?

These are difficult questions deserving thoughtful replies. Since the Bible does not address these issues directly, we will have to engage in speculation. In the end, we can provide plausible solutions to these difficult questions by recognizing two divine principles.

We’ll start by addressing the question pertaining to the fate of those who die without ever having heard the gospel. Let’s suppose that a friend telephones me and tells me he has just received two free tickets to a musical and wants to know if I would like to go. Since musicals do not interest me, I decline his kind offer. Now since I did not respond to his general invitation, he is under no obligation to give me specifics pertaining to which musical is in town. For example, it would not have made any difference to me whether it was Cats, Wicked, or A Chorus Line.

Now let’s suppose instead that my friend had told me he had just received two free tickets to see a baseball game and wants to know if I would like to go. Since I’m a baseball fan, I may ask him who’s playing before accepting. In this case, since I responded to his general invitation, he will provide the specific details concerning the event.

According to Romans chapter one, God has made some of his invisible attributes known through the world in which we live. The stars, the sun, the moon, the ocean, and many other wonders of nature were not the work of a bull, a horse, a calf, or a man. These are the products of a cosmic designer of immense intelligence. In Romans chapter 2, Paul tells us that God has instilled basic knowledge of his moral laws in our conscience, so that, instinctively, we know that actions such as rape, murder, stealing, and falsehood are immoral. We all are accountable to God for immoral actions we have committed of varying degrees. Theologians refer to this type of knowledge as general revelation. In other words, given our universe and our conscience, we should be aware that a God of some sort exists and that we have failed to live up to his moral law.

Unfortunately, it is the sad testimony of history that most people are indifferent when it comes to God. It’s as though he has offered us a ticket to see a musical and we have declined. Solomon is known as a man who had possessed extraordinary wisdom. He estimated that less than one in a thousand people truly care about God (Ecc. 7:27-29). Whether he meant this literally or exaggerated for effect is difficult to tell. But most would agree with his general conclusion: The large majority of people don’t genuinely care about God. That’s not to say they are evil. It is to say they are at least indifferent toward God. And for these, God is under no moral obligation to provide them with what theologians refer to as special revelation, that is, specific information pertaining to God’s identity. Those who are indifferent toward God in general would not respond to the specific message about his Son Jesus, even had they heard it. So, they will be without an excuse when they stand before God’s judgment.

This places our quagmire in a different light. It is daunting when we consider the world’s population whom have never heard the gospel. However, when we also consider that the vast majority of them are indifferent toward God, it is difficult to regard God as being unfair for not revealing them the specifics of who he is, since he is under no moral obligation to provide details to those who are indifferent about him.

But what about those individuals who truly care about serving and pleasing God but who die without ever hearing the gospel? In Acts 17, Paul is speaking before a group of philosophers in ancient Athens. He notices an alter with the inscription, “To an unknown god” and uses it as a springboard into a discussion of the gospel. The God who made the universe and everything in it determined that all should seek God, perhaps even grope around for him before finding him. Since we are God’s offspring and are not made of gold or stone, God is not made of gold or stone. He has been willing to overlook human ignorance concerning himself. However, the epoch of ignorance has passed and the time to repent is now, since God has revealed himself through Jesus, has provided evidence of this fact via Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and has ordained that this specific revelation be spread throughout the entire world.

Those who have not heard of God’s revelation of himself to mankind in the person of Jesus and his resurrection remain in a sort of era of ignorance. In this case, God will apparently judge them according to how they responded to the knowledge they received, the general revelation. So, those who die without ever having heard the gospel and who had responded in a positive manner to the testimony of nature and their conscience that they stand accountable to a Creator for their moral failures and seek his mercy will be spared from God’s judgment. So, we have our first divine principle that provides an answer to the question pertaining to the fate of those who die without ever having heard the gospel: God will judge us according to our response to the knowledge we received.

Although the answer just provided is the one which I presently embrace, other reasonable answers have been proposed. Some hold that God knew before he even created the world who would respond to the gospel and caused them to be born in a location where they would one day hear it. Still others hold that, since God is able to communicate the gospel to those truly seeking truth by sending missionaries and by communicating the gospel through dreams and visions. In fact, there are many stories of those who came to know Christ by these means. In this view, no one who genuinely seeks to know the truth with a sincere heart will die without hearing the gospel.

This leaves us with the question pertaining to God’s response to babies and the mentally handicapped who die without having accepted the gospel. The Bible does not specifically address this question. So, we will need to speculate based on how God responded to other situations in which we get a glimpse into his character. In other words, we will seek examples that identify principles that may be used to suggest God will respond in a similar manner in other situations.

God had delivered Israel from her captivity in Egypt and had provided for her needs while in the wilderness. When she finally came to the land God had promised her, twelve spies were sent in order to report if the land was as God had promised. All twelve reported that it was. However, ten warned that its present inhabitants were much larger than the Israelites and that an attempt to take the land would be met with certain destruction. The other two spies encouraged the Israelites to proceed, reminding them that the God who had promised to give them the land would cause them to be victorious. After deliberation, the Israelites refused to take the land and, as a result, God rebuked them and commanded them to turn back into the wilderness where everyone would die except the families of the two obedient spies and “your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it” (Deut 1:39 NASB). This gives us a glimpse into the character of God and provides us with our second divine principle: God does not hold accountable those who lack the mental capacity to choose between good and evil.

Let’s summarize. We’ve faced the difficult questions pertaining to the fate of those who die without ever having heard the gospel as well as that of babies and the mentally handicapped who lack the mental capacity to understand the gospel. Since the Bible does not directly address either of these questions, speculation pertaining to possible solutions is our only course of action. However, we may look at other situations in which God has acted and get a glimpse into his character. We observed two divine principles: (1) God judges us according to our response to the knowledge about him we are given. At minimal, this knowledge consists of the fact that there is a Creator to whom we will stand accountable for our moral failures. (2) God does not hold accountable those who lack the mental capacity to choose between good and evil.

The gentleman whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article did not stick around long enough to have a meaningful discussion once I challenged his view. This is not uncommon. Many, though by no means all, non-Christians simply have an animus toward Jesus and enjoy expressing their dissent. Once they discover that the particular argument they’re presenting has failed, they prefer to go find another argument they can use or even use the same failed argument on another Christian who may not have given the matter careful thought.

What we have observed here is that God does not act unreasonably toward those who die without receiving the specific message of the gospel of Jesus and toward those who are mentally incapable of understanding the gospel.  The other side of this answer, however, is that God does hold us accountable for what we have received and understand. In most cases, this is a full knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, the remaining issue is not the other person, but you. What are you going to do about Jesus?