Non-Christians ask two questions more than any others. The first is, How can a good and loving God allow innocent people to suffer? This deals with the problem of evil, which I address in Chapter 13. The second question is, Does the poor, innocent native who has never heard of Jesus Christ go to hell when he dies? This question concerns the eternal fate of the heathen—people who do not acknowledge or have never heard of the God of the Bible. That’s the issue we’ll focus on here.
In the following pages, I will not attempt to set forth the undisputed biblical teaching on the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus. Some theological positions state categorically that there is no salvation for anyone who has not had a direct personal encounter with Jesus Christ. However, it is important from an apologetic perspective, as we attempt to answer this weighty and vexing question for non-Christians, that we point out there is another view equally supported by Scripture. This view provides for the possibility of salvation for people who have never had the opportunity to make a faith decision for Christ. Just as God called Abraham and Melchizedek out of paganism and into the true knowledge of the living God, so He can reveal Himself, as Clark Pinnock states, to those “who are chronologically a.d. but spiritually b.c. ”1
Christians believe that salvation is through Christ alone, but they also believe that not all people have an equal opportunity to hear Jesus’ message of salvation and to receive Him as personal Savior. And, of course, we also have to deal with the countless millions of people who lived and died centuries before Christ. How could they have avoided hell?
I believe that the heathen do have the opportunity to receive salvation through Jesus Christ, even if they never had the opportunity to hear His message. I realize not all Christians accept this, but I believe it has biblical warrant. So we will move through it carefully and methodically, first by exploring four principles, then by addressing two objections.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE HEATHEN IS UNCLEAR
Although I will present a strong biblical argument supporting the idea that the heathen have the opportunity to be saved even apart from ever meeting Jesus, the point still needs to be made that we do not know for certain how God will deal with these people. Only He has the complete answer. As C. S. Lewis remarks, “The truth is God hasn’t told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we don’t know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” Then he adds this important thought:
But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him [Jesus] to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who can help them.2
In other words, if you really want to help the heathen, you first need to become a Christian yourself, and then you will be in a position to share the gospel message with them, thereby providing them a sure opportunity of salvation.
GOD WILL JUDGE RIGHTEOUSLY
Having established the fact that we do not know exactly what will happen to the heathen, we can rest assured that God will judge all human beings fairly. This is the clear teaching of Scripture (see Gen. 18:25; Ps. 145:17). Moreover, as Peter states, the Lord “is patient… not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9, nasv). God wants everyone saved (1 Tim. 2:4; Ezek. 33:11), and what He does with those who never heard of Jesus Christ will be just. (This is not to say, however, that all people will be saved. The Bible is equally clear that all who reject Christ will be lost.)
For many Christians, the above two principles are an adequate answer to the question of what happens to the heathen. However, unbelievers tend to have a problem harmonizing the Christian portrayal of a good and loving God with a God who may refuse salvation to someone. Most non-Christians feel that a truly loving God should ultimately save all people. This brings us to the third principle.
GOD HAS PROVIDED A WAY OF SALVATION TO THE HEATHEN
At this point we need to reflect on the question, What happens to the poor, innocent natives who have never heard of Jesus Christ? Can they be saved? The answer is yes, they can. However, this is not the same as saying they will be saved or even it is very likely that they will be saved. Let me explain.
Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill.…I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13, nasv). In other words, if a heathen (or anyone else for that matter) is innocent—free of sin—he does not have to worry about salvation; he is saved. God will not send innocent people to hell. The wrath of God is “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). God will punish the ungodly and unrighteous, not the sinless.
So the question becomes one of innocence. Can it be said that the heathen (or anyone else) are innocent in a biblical sense? No. It contradicts what the Bible reveals about man’s sin nature. In Romans 3:23, Paul states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There are no “innocent” people. The apostle John adds this sobering thought, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him [Jesus] a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
The Bible teaches that sin is both a condition and an action. Man possesses an innate sin nature (condition) due to his rebellion against God, and it is because of his sin nature that he tends to perform sinful acts (action) (see Matt. 15:18–20; John 3:19; Rom. 7:18–23). Although some religions claim man is basically good and thus sin is either an illusion or ignorance, it is extremely difficult to deny rationally the presence of sin in man. People are far from perfect. We do not always behave in the manner we know we should. In fact, we frequently sin on purpose. A look at today’s world, or for that matter at any era of human history, shows the presence of evil in all human beings. This fact is so self-evident that examples are unnecessary. So the bottom line is all humans, including Christians, are worthy of punishment and in need of a Savior.
The question, then, is not, What happens to people innocent of sin? But, What happens to those guilty of sin who have not had the opportunity to meet Jesus and ask and receive forgiveness for their sins?3 The answer to this appears to be that those who have never heard the gospel message will be judged according to the information about God they do have (1 Tim. 1:13; Rom. 2:13–16; 5:15; Acts 17:30). God will judge according to what we know, not according to what we do not know. This implies, of course, that those of us who have heard the gospel message and reject it are far more deserving of punishment than those who have never heard of Jesus at all (Luke 12:47–48; Matt. 10:11–15; John 9:41).
Have Christians painted themselves into a paradoxical corner? On the one hand, God will not punish the heathen for not responding to Jesus if they have never heard of Him. On the other hand, the Bible makes it clear that a holy and righteous God will not tolerate sin. It will be punished. Christians are set free from this punishment because they have accepted Jesus as Savior. His sacrificial death on the cross paid the price for us. But what about the heathen? They too are sinners. Will they get off unpunished?
Although the heathen have never had the opportunity of hearing the gospel message and therefore of knowing Jesus Christ personally, they nevertheless have had the opportunity of knowing God. The heathen will be judged, not according to how they respond to Jesus, but how they respond to God the Father. Upon hearing the gospel message, people can choose or reject God the Son. Without that opportunity, however, people can still choose or reject God the Father with the knowledge they have.
If God’s judgment of us is based on how much we know about Him and how we respond to what we know, then the question becomes, In what way has God revealed Himself to the heathen? Acts 14:17 states that God has given everyone a witness of Himself. This witness is general revelation through nature and our moral conscience. Hence, the heathen who have never heard of Jesus will be judged according to how they respond to this general revelation. Because God the Father and God the Son are one in essence, members in the triune Godhead, rejecting the Father is tantamount to rejecting the Son. Both Father and Son are one God.
THE HEATHEN ARE JUDGED ACCORDING TO THEIR RESPONSE TO GENERAL REVELATION
What follows is, to some degree, speculative. I think it’s based on sound biblical teaching, but, as I admitted earlier, we do not know for certain just how God will ultimately deal with the heathen.
To understand how the heathen will be judged, we must understand something about the nature of sin. James 2:10 states that “whoever shall keep the whole law [God’s requirements of man], and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” Even one sin, regardless of how small it is, causes a person to fall under divine condemnation and require a savior. Why? Because God is not only love but also holy. A holy God cannot tolerate any sin, and He must punish it. Jesus, as God’s only acceptable sacrifice, took the punishment in our place, thereby providing the only path to salvation. But His work must be appropriated individually by faith—it is not automatically given to all.
Now, this does not entail the idea that all sins are of equal gravity. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus mentions the “weightier matters of the law,” and in John 19:11, He talks of a “greater sin” (see Luke 12:42–48; 1 Cor. 11:27–30; Matt. 12:31–32). The implication of these passages is that there are degrees of sin and probably degrees of punishment.
If it is true that some sins are greater than others and deserving greater punishment, we have a basis for assuming that sins done in ignorance are less blameworthy than sins done in the full knowledge of God’s disapproval. If we apply this principle to the problem at hand, we can conclude that the heathen’s failure to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, when they never had the opportunity of meeting Him, is deserving of less condemnation than those who have heard the gospel message and have rejected it. The following passages seem to support this conclusion.
This passage reflects a key biblical principle that to those who have been given much, much will be required. In theological terms, the parable explaining this concept plainly states that the person who knows God’s will and fails to do it will receive greater punishment than the one who does not know God’s will.
This passage is the clearest biblical presentation of general revelation in nature. It states that God considers the heathen “without excuse” if they do not accept His revelation in nature and respond to it. If God will punish the heathen for this, it seems logical that those who do respond to Him in light of general revelation will be less blameworthy than those who do not.
This text teaches that God’s moral law is written on the hearts of all human beings, and they are judged according to how they respond to it because a proper response to the moral law is a proper response to the moral Lawgiver. On the other hand, rejecting this moral law is tantamount to rejecting God. Verses 12–13 state that those who do not respond appropriately to their moral conscience will certainly be punished whether or not they have heard of Jesus.
Acts 17:30–31; Romans 3:25
These passages seem to imply that, before the coming of Jesus, God was not judging heathen peoples for worshiping false gods out of ignorance because salvation through Christ alone had not yet been revealed. I am not saying these people were innocent of idolatry and would not be punished. They too will be judged through the work of Christ (Acts 17:31) because His judgment includes both past and present sins (Rom. 3:25). They were guilty, yes. But their guilt lay in the fact that they rejected the God of general revelation and willfully sought after false gods. Their punishment lies not in rejecting Jesus but rather in rejecting God the Father. They had an opportunity to receive salvation prior to the first advent of Christ.
Before concluding, we need to consider two common arguments against the position I’ve outlined. Both are attempts to usher the heathen into heaven independent of Jesus Christ.
The first argument goes like this: If the heathen are not given the chance of hearing the gospel message, they can’t reject it, so then they stand a better chance of getting into heaven because they will be judged on the limited knowledge they have.
This sounds logical except for one crucial misconception. General revelation is only a general pointer to God. It may be satisfactory to tell us that God exists, that He is the creator of the universe, and that He judges man for his failure to acknowledge Him, But general revelation does not give a clear plan of salvation. The fact is, heathens without the gospel message have a much more difficult time responding favorably to God than those who receive a clear presentation of salvation through Jesus Christ. This is illustrated in Romans 1. Starting in verse 21, Paul writes that even though the heathen
knew God [through general revelation], they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.… For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature [creation] rather than the Creator. (vv. 21–23, 25, nasv).
In short, although the heathen receive through general revelation a picture of God clear enough for them to acknowledge and seek Him, the sad fact is they usually reject God. In mankind’s sinful state, in his rebellion against his creator, he continually attempts to suppress God’s truth. So most heathen people turn from God and worship God’s creation. Thus God instructs Christians to evangelize the heathen (Matt. 28:19). The apostle Paul puts it well in Romans 10:14–15: “How then shall they call on Him [Jesus] in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!’”
We may not know how God will ultimately deal with the heathen, but it is still our responsibility to bring them the word about Christ. In spite of the fact that the heathen may receive salvation through Christ if they respond to God the Father through general revelation, it is far more difficult for them to do so independent of a clear gospel presentation.
The second argument claims that although the heathen reject the Christian God, the fact they respond to general revelation at all, even if incorrectly, shows they are seeking God, and consequently God will honor their individual religious practices.
However, as we saw in the previous chapter, non-Christian religions are not attempts to find God but demonstration of rebellion against Him. Instead of responding to general revelation in a positive fashion, most heathens voluntarily reject God and seek after false gods. Ephesians 4:17–19 says that people do this because of willful “ignorance” and “the blindness of their heart.” Similarly, Romans 1:21–23 teaches that heathens “knew God” but “did not glorify Him as God” and willfully exchanged the glory of God for idols.
Therefore, it cannot be denied that the heathen are guilty of sin and deserve punishment. However, in His mercy, it appears that God will judge the heathen according to the degree of information about God available to them, the opportunities they had to acquire this knowledge, and how they chose to respond to this knowledge. All people have had the opportunity to know God either through general revelation or through the Christian message. Rejection of either of these revelations will result in damnation. People will be denied entrance into heaven, not because of what they have not heard, but because of what they have heard and rejected.
In light of this, it is clear that those who have had the opportunity to hear the gospel message and refused to accept it, or refused to hear it when offered, deserve hell even more than those who never heard it at all. The Bible makes it plain that those who have had the opportunity to hear the gospel message and turned their backs on it will not be saved (John 14:6; 1 John 5:11–12).
Finding God is not difficult. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “you will seek Me [God] and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). And Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door. I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). All we need to do is open the door.
1 Clark H. Pinnock, REASON ENOUGH (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy, 1980), 10.
2 Lewis, THE CASE FOR CHRISTIANITY, 55.
3 R. C. Sproul, REASONS TO BELIEVE (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), chap. 3.
Story, D. (1997). Defending your faith. Originally published: Nashville : T. Nelson, c1992. (121). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.