I had an interesting conversation with my friend on Saturday which centered around the most asked but least answered question in Christian witness to an unbeliever. How would those who have never heard the gospel be judged? Will they go to hell?
We talked about this subject peripherally among other topics, but on later reflection I felt I needed to collect my thoughts together on this subject. The Bible is clear on some related issues: Jesus is the only way to inherit eternal life. Thus other worldviews are not ways to salvation. Anyone who enters heaven does so on the basis of his salvific death and resurrection. The way to receive Jesus is through faith in him. Those who reject Him will not inherit the kingdom and will receive punishment which is referred to as hell, interpreted by Christians variously as eternal banishment from God's presence, as a place of suffering for the wicked and as the place where Satan himself is punished eternally. To have faith one must have heard. For one to hear, another must be sent to proclaim the good news.
Romans 10:14 asks these questions rhetorically: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?"
The emphasis is on the one who is sent. What does this tell us? Almost every answer to the question on the fate of the unbelievers who have not heard or understood the gospel (in order to be able to accept or reject it) is almost always centered on this fact- that the ones who have heard have a great responsibility to preach to those who have not heard. But this answer does leave the listener with a sense of incompleteness. To me as well it does not achieve closure.
This link from Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry sums up the dilemma:
There are two possible responses. First, it could be that those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ will go to hell. Second, it could be that those who have never heard of Jesus Christ and the gospel will be judged in a different way than those who have heard of Jesus.
The Bible does not tell us specifically about what happens to those who have never heard. But it does say that Jesus is the only way to salvation (Acts 4:12). If it is possible that someone who has not heard the gospel can be saved, it must be through Jesus Christ and him alone (John 14:6). But, it could not be that a person who is not heard of Jesus can make it to heaven based upon being good since that would violate the scriptural teaching that no one is good (Rom. 3:10-12).
If all people who have never heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ end up in hell, then that would be right because God would never do anything that is improper. On the other hand, if any of them end up in heaven, then it would be the right thing to do for the same reason.
But, if righteousness before God can be achieved through being good, or sincere, or by following various laws, then Jesus died needlessly: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly," (Gal. 2:21).
Because the Scripture does not specifically address this issue, we cannot make an absolute statement concerning it. However, since the Bible does state that salvation is only through Jesus and that a person must receive Christ, then logically we conclude that those who have not heard the gospel are lost. This is all the more reason to preach the gospel to everyone.
"for Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" (Rom. 10:13-14).
Following are some verses that relate to this topic:
John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
John 14:6, Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.
Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.”
Rom. 10:12-15 "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; 13 for “WHOEVER WILL CALL UPON THE NAME OF THE LORD will be saved.” 14 How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GLAD TIDINGS OF GOOD THINGS!”
1 Tim. 2:5-6, "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time."
1 John 5:11-12, "And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life."
Rev. 20:15, "And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Charles Spurgeon said this in answer to a student’s question, (Will the heathen who have not heard the Gospel be saved?),"It is more a question with me whether we, who have the Gospel and fail to give it to those who have not, can be saved.”
I remember reading somewhere that Spurgeon believed in the 'age of accountability' for children, that is, a child who died before this age could not possibly be held accountable for sin as he/she had no real knowledge of sin and personal responsibility. He did not specify what this age may be. Logically one must assume that this differs from child to child.
If that is indeed the case, how are these children granted eternal life? Surely it could not be apart from Jesus' propitiation for their sin (which by birth is their nature). In some mysterious way Jesus' payment for sin is imparted to cover their souls as well. This concept is not from the Bible but from logic and our sense of fairness and justice. Similarly I think the case would hold good for mentally disabled persons as well. If that were so, would not the same situation apply to those who have not heard the gospel? Let's take it a step further. Would the same situation not apply to those who may have heard but not understood the gospel? This was my case prior to my conversion experience. I had heard that Jesus died for my sins, but I could not understand how. I thought his death meant that the world would somehow be made a better, less evil place. His personal gift of salvation through faith I did not yet understand.
None of these situations are explained in the Bible. The best we could conclude is what we may have said several times in the past about God's justice, that he is perfectly just and that our understanding of justice and mercy is no match for it. When the would-be executors of Mary Magdalene wanted to stone her and brought her before Jesus, the Lord effectively convicted them of their own sin and therefore their ineligibility to judge her. Later when he asked her where her accusers were, she said noone had condemned her. Jesus' response is revealing, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."
His justice and mercy are perfect and we must trust the destiny of the unbelieving in his hands- our kids, those in our family who have not heard or understood the gospel, the mentally disabled, everyone. Does that make our sharing the gospel a crime? Doesn't it then make everyone accountable to believe? Yes it does for those who understand it. But this also provides for their certain salvation. Those who reject the gospel are not saved, but if the gospel is not preached, there simply is no certain salvation. This is what we must do.
I have my theory as to why the Bible leaves these issues out. Certainly the Bible does discuss with sharp focus very thorny issues apart from these. So I do not think that the Lord left these issues out because we cannot understand them at least to a degree. I think the Lord wants to preserve the tension that arises from the non-closure of these questions. He does not want us to arrive at a happy conclusion, except simply to trust his goodness. This tension prompts us not only to witness with urgency but to examine our own lives and "work out" our own salvation with fear and trembling. And if God wants to preserve that tension it behooves us to preserve it in ourselves as well. The Bible is a complete book and we need to keep its unresolved issues as such.
This is why every answer eventually comes around to the Christian's responsibility to witness, rather than a direct response to the destiny of the unbeliever. Let's live with that tension. Every great missionary endeavour has risen out of this. Who can deny that this was what motivated the apostle to apostles, Paul, when he wrote, "3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race..." Our salvation enables us to extend it to others and to take part in the sacrifical nature of bringing salvation to others that Jesus himself demonstrated. If the Bible leaves out these issues, I think it is safe to assume that it speaks to us who believe through its silence than it does to unbelievers. We are the ones to whom this silence demands to go out and preach.