“You’re in some remote part of the earth and you never heard the name of Jesus, you cannot get to Heaven, you think?” [Oprah Winfrey]
According the Joshua Project, there are about 3,000 people groups in the world that have essentially zero Christian contact. It is nearly impossible to determine the exact number, but based on this we can safely assume there are millions, and perhaps billions, of people who have never heard the name of Jesus.
When you juxtapose this with what the Bible teaches about how a person is saved from eternal damnation, it can cause cognitive dissonance to the Christian mind.
And trying to reconcile basic New Testament theology with the practical realty of where the Gospel hasn’t been preached makes for intense discussion and debate. The quote from Oprah above happened during her former show in a lively conversation between her, her guest speaker and a woman in the audience. Oprah presents a “fair” view of those who’ve never heard, that God cares more about their heart than if they’ve heard of Jesus. This is a popular view, even within the evangelical church. But is it correct?
I want to tackle this issue, but not in a “Here is the final and authoritative answer to problem” way. The Bible speaks to this, but not in an expositional manner. In other words, I can’t give you an interpretation of one passage that clears it all up.
No, I think this mystery is better viewed as a puzzle of about ten pieces that have to be seen together in order to see a more complete image. Yet even with the truths I present below, I am still not advocating an answer that ends the discussion. This issue is far too complex. But these truths do help me relieve the dissonance to a great level and help start the discussion. They may leave you with more questions than answers. That will not offend me. I hope it encourages you to add to the dialogue.
But to at least get it started, I offer these as things that I am absolutely convinced the Bible teaches. If I can’t have a final authoritative answer to this issue, I can at least focus on things that are clear and go from there. Here are the ten:
1. Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
2. Those who do not follow Jesus end up in Hell (John 3:36).
These two are the basis for why the question of “What about those who’ve never heard?” exists. Without them there is no issue.
3. God is just (Deuteronomy 4:32; Romans 3:5b-6).
Whatever the answer to the question is, I think we have to believe that God is fair. This matters because the issue at its heart is that it is unfair to condemn someone for knowledge they do not have. But the Bible describes God as a just judge.
4. God is not far from anyone (Acts 17:26-27).
This matters because with this topic it appears we are dealing with people who are far from the truth about God, when in reality no one is actually far from God. Note that Paul in these verses is dealing precisely with where people live geographically.
5. God can be known through the created world so men are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).
Even without the Bible and a Christian witness, every person that lives now is accountable to God in some sense because they can see him through creation.
6. God can be known from human morality (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 2:14-15).
Similarly, because we know right from wrong and that a general sense of justice transcends culture and time, we know there has to be a standard of right and wrong we are all accountable to. We know there is a God because His law is ingrained within us.
7. God desires that everyone be saved (2 Peter 3:9).
8. God demands repentance from everyone to be saved (Acts 17:30).
These two are crucial because the first one teaches us about God’s heart on this issue and the second, at least in theory, eliminates exceptions. Like those who’ve never heard. If there is an exception there better be a clear explanation in the Bible.1
9. God can get a missionary to a searching person (Acts 10:1-48).
If a person is living a God-fearing life with no knowledge of Jesus, God can get a missionary to them. It is true that sometimes people groups do not have missionaries because people do not go, but sometimes they do not because they are hostile to Christianity.
10. God can reveal himself in dreams to lost people (Genesis 41; Daniel 2).
So again, without presuming that these ten things tie the issue into a nice little bow, I present them as giving us at least a picture of how we can begin reconciling the tensions of God’s fairness, the necessity of confessing Christ, and the lack of Gospel witness in thousands of people groups. I doubt I will ever feel completely confident in any answer to the question and I confess we may be asking the wrong question here. But at least it catapults us to search the Scriptures to learn more about who God is and what he is like, and fosters discussion on a complex topic that exercises the mind. That is rarely a bad thing.
- A shout out here to the students at a leadership conference I helped lead in 2014 for asking tough questions in a Q&A after this presentation. This event caused me to add an addendum, footnoted here, to this presentation on the concept of an age of accountability. Logically it is hard to believe God demands repentance from a 3-month old baby. Biblically, we can see in Isaiah God acknowledging that a particular child is not old enough to know right from wrong; we see Nathan telling David he will see his deceased newborn in Heaven one day and that Jesus loved children with qualification. Does this mean, biblically, that there is an age of accountability? I am not 100% convinced this is so. Yet I believe it has to exist for God to be fair. This opens up a can of worms of course about what the age is and I only bring it up here because if it exists, I would guess it is at least possible that children are accountable at a younger age in a culture where they hear the Gospel more often than in a place where Jesus’ name is never even spoken. ↩