Q: #19. What happens to those people who have never heard of Jesus?
A: This Biblical question is probably one of the most often asked by both Christians and non-Christians. Many non-Christians bring up this question simply to condemn Christianity for teaching that Jesus is the only way to Heaven, or to condemn God as being unfair, unjust, or to assign some other blasphemous attribute to God. Most are not even concerned with the eternal destiny of those who may not have heard of Jesus. However, many Christians and some non-Christians do have a true concern for the souls of the lost. How should we respond to this question?
Most importantly, we must clearly understand that God desires for ALL men to be saved and go to Heaven (1 Tim 2:3-4)(2 Pet 3:9)(Mt 18:14).
We become saved (or born again) by trusting (Eph 1:12-13), receiving and believing (Jn 1:12-13) in Jesus Christ to save us by faith (1 Pet 1:9), through hearing the word (Col 1:6) and calling (Rom 10:13) upon Him in prayer; confessing He is Lord and arose from the dead (Rom 10:9-10), and repenting of our sins (Acts 3:19).
Does everyone have this opportunity?
First, I think we need to look at (Acts 17:26-27).
(Acts 17:26-27) and (God) hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: (27) that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
These verses tell us two important things. First, God has determined exactly when and where each person would live. Second, He is not far from ANY person, and it is His desire that all men seek to find Him.
The Bible tells us that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6). (Jer 29:13) says, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye search for me with all your heart. (Also see: Deut 4:29)
Second, we need to realize that God has made His presence known to all men through the testimony and light of creation and conscience. Let’s look at verses showing each of these.
(Rom 1:18-20) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; (19) because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. (20) For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
(Ps 19:1-2) The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament sheweth his handiwork. (2) Day unto day uttereth speech, And night unto night sheweth knowledge.
(Rom 2:12-16) For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (13) (for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. (14) For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature (do instinctively some versions) the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: (15) which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) (16) in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
So, what we know so far, is that God has determined when and where each person would live, and regardless of where a person lives, God has given each person proof of His existence through creation and our consciences. And, our consciences instinctively know the difference between right and wrong because God has “written this on our heart.”
We also need to keep a few other Bible verses in mind as well.
Our lives will never be complete (Col 2:10), or perfected (Heb 10:14), without the Lord. Each person has a void in their lives that only God can fill. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes:
(Eccl 2:25)(NASB) For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?
(Eccl 12:13) tells us that the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep His commandments.
(Eccl 3:11) tells us God has set eternity in the hearts of men.
In addition, the Bible says that without Christ in our lives, we can never experience:
fullness of joy (Jn 16:24)(1 Jn 1:4)(Jn 15:11-12)
peace (Rom 15:13)(Jn 14:27)(Jn 16:33)(Acts 10:36)(Rom 5:1)
abundant life (Jn 10:10)
We are told in (Rev 4:11), “… for thou (O Lord) hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (also see: Heb 2:10, Col 1:16, Rom 11:36, Prov 16:4) In other words, we were created by God and for God. When we don’t seek to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives, our lives will be unfulfilled. We will always be searching to fill this void with different pleasures and things of this world. However, worldly pleasure ALWAYS fades eventually (see Ecc 1 & 2), and then we are left with an empty feeling again. Each person experiences this in their lives at some point.
I remember hearing a preacher some time back saying to ask an atheist when they became an atheist, and they will inevitably have an answer. I tried this and found it to be true. Nearly everyone will point to a conscious decision they made at some point in life, that God wasn’t real, for one reason or another. This is quite telling, because it does indeed show us that people make a conscious decision to suppress that which God has placed in all men, the truth of His existence.
The Bible also says that some have “their conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim 4:2). People so love their sinful lifestyle, that they refuse to acknowledge God. (Rom 1:21-22) says, “because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (22) Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” The following verses in Romans 1 say that, because they did this, God “gave them up.”
However, when a person DOES seek after God, and responds to the light he has been given, and the drawing of Jesus (who said He would draw ALL men: Jn 12:32), the Bible says God will reward that, and those who seek Him will find Him (verses above). God knows each man’s heart (1 Sam 16:7)(1 Chr 28:9)(1 Kin 8:39)(Acts 1:24). He knows those who are seeking to fulfill that longing in their heart. It is also quite obvious that an all knowing God, who knows the past, present, and future of all men, knows who will respond to Jesus and who will not. Based on the testimonies of thousands all around the world, we can see over and over that God does provide a way to hear the good news of the gospel if they are seeking Him based on what they know. God may send someone to share the gospel with them. Many, in other countries, also claim to have come to accept Jesus in response to a vision or dream given to them about the reality of Jesus.
*** Note: I do not put much stock in the claims of people who have said they came to Jesus because of a dream or vision given to them, when they had the opportunity to come to Jesus previously and rejected it. However, if this is the only way God could reach a person with the truth who has never heard it before, this seems plausible. God may give signs to those who are sincerely seeking the truth, but don’t know what it is, but, I think the Bible is quite clear that God is not going to give signs to those who already have heard the truth, but want proof before they believe. Jesus spoke of this in (Mt 12:38-39) saying, “Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. (39) But he (Jesus) answered and said to them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: (Also see: Mt 16:1-4, Mk 8:11-12, Lk 11:29-30)
God can most certainly find any number of supernatural ways to reach those who might never have any other way to hear the Gospel.
Sadly… though, I do believe it is clear from the Bible that the vast majority of some cultures may end up condemned. One of the hardest things for many to accept in the Old Testament is how God ordered the killing of all the men, women, and children of certain cities. How could God do this, especially to the children? Well… in short, I believe that God saw the wickedness of the people’s hearts, and He knew the future of each person, including the children, and He knew that they would continue to reject Him and follow evil for their whole lives. Therefore, He ordered their destruction, and consequently the condemnation of those who refused to follow Him (this likely did not include the children: see below).
I am not going to get into the whole predestination argument here :-), but I believe that this is also what the Bible means when it says some are predestined to life with God and some are not. It isn’t that God randomly picks and chooses, but rather, people are predestined based on the foreknowledge (1 Pet 1:2)(Rom 8:29) (2 Th 2:13-14) God has had from the beginning of time about who will accept Him and who will reject Him.
Let us keep in mind, however, this wonderful verse in the book of Revelation:
(Rev 5:9) … saying, Thou (Jesus) art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by the blood OUT OF EVERY KINDRED, AND TONGUE, AND PEOPLE, AND NATION; (caps emphasis mine) (Also see: Rev 21:24)
In other words, there will be people in Heaven out of every kindred (tribe), tongue, and nation, who were redeemed by the blood of Jesus! What good news!
Will there be people in Heaven who didn’t ever accept Jesus as their Savior? As we previously mentioned in question #6 on the Age Of Accountability, I believe a case can be made for children or the mentally handicapped. Is it also possible for other groups of people? I am not so confident we can say that. However, we do know that God’s decisions are true and righteous (Rev 16:7)(Rev 19:2)(Ps 19:9). He WILL judge each person fairly. We need to trust He will do so. Let us not worry about how God will judge others, but instead, how will God judge YOU based on what you have done with the knowledge you have been given?