What About Those Who’ve Never Heard of Jesus?
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).
This is huge, especially in the Muslim world. There are many stories I encourage you to read about it if you have not. You can begin here, here and here.
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. ↩
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12 thoughts on “What About Those Who’ve Never Heard of Jesus?”
Hey Gowdy. I enjoyed reading your take on this question. I agree that the best we can do is to rely on what we know is true from the scripture and trust that is always just. A writer for Focus on the Family recently grappled with the same question you dealt with. His final conclusion was: “God’s Way is Wide Enough. We know that God will deal fairly with those who have not received a direct presentation of the gospel, just as He will deal fairly with those who have.” I think we all can agree with that truth.
Thank you, Mr. Rett for your comment, and especially making it on site! We appreciate all comments but want to foster discussion on the website itself.
Out of context I may wonder about the quote you gave but since it’s Focus on the Family there is a good chance I agree in large part with the author. Normally in American things like “God’s way is wide enough” lead to universalism or other similar heresies. In this topic I very much lean that people who have not heard are not without resources and more often than not they could get the Gospel if they were not hard hearted. But again, I am a guy who has been in a solid church in America since I was 4 days old, so I won’t speak too much to what I don’t know. And I only speak some because I think the BIble does.
One thing that helped me in wrestling with this years ago was the explanation-realization that every human being without a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is condemned, not only because they have not received Christ (essential), but because they are sinners by birth and choice. Romans 1 & 2 deal with that, and chapter 3 drives it home by stating that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” I believe that babies, small children, and those mentally deficient are protected and aren’t guilty of personal, conscious sin. Jesus’ death took care of their racial sin. But humans are lost because they are sinners, not only because they haven’t trusted Christ. Your point about God reaching out to the seeker is excellent.
That is an excellent point. I should tweak the first point to include the “sinners are condemned based on sin” as the other side of the coin that says, “Only Jesus can free a person from the condemnation of sin”. I’ll have to check but I think your son Mike made this point to me once during a discussion about this. It’s the same point but as with faith and repentance, it’s two distinct ways to say it to me. I will make that adjustment next time I present this in public. Thanks, Steve.
I had a thought similar to Steve’s above. I think it’s critical that we realize that all men are born in the same condemned state, whether they’re born in the Amazon rain forest or in the Bible belt. Our condemnation is not based on a conscious rejection of Christ; it’s because we’re sinners alienated from God by our very fallen nature as humans. While our hearts should break for the lost, especially those who’ve never heard, we should marvel at the goodness of God that any are saved more than we should scoff at his justice because among those who are condemned (everyone outside of Christ) some haven’t heard. When it’s all said and done, no one will question God’s goodness, mercy, or justice. We should also awaken as Christians, too, because those who hoard the gospel may have blood on their hands. What that will mean, we don’t know, so too many of us are callous and apathetic to this reality.
As with Steve I appreciate the point to be made and I’m halfway tempted to edit the article to reflect that distinction. I will add that I think the rejection of Jesus and the born as sinners point really are not that far apart. In Acts 17 as I point out above it says God demands that all people everywhere repent. Since there is no repentance apart from Jesus Christ I think people in some sense are responsible for the rejection even if they never hear. That is where I was going towards the end. All people reject God, so they are in essence rejecting Christ even if they do not know the name. It reminds me a little bit of how Jesus told the Pharisees in several chapters in John that they rejected him because they had already rejected the Father before his arrival. It was a logical follow through since they are the Triune God. Similarly now. People who are not rejecting God, God is getting Jesus to them. But most reject. Their path is broad. So I’m a little different on the issue of what condemns a person. It is being a sinner by birth and choice AND rejection of Christ (God). I do not think they are separable.
I heard a preacher adamantly claim that “A person who would have repented and accepted Christ may be in Hell because you (a Christian) did not obey God’s command to ____” (I think the context was a call to go overseas as a missionary, but you could fill in the blank with any time a Christian misses an opportunity to share the gospel with the lost.) I think his text was from Romans 10, “how can they hear without preaching.” His message almost made me turn to Calvinism!
That aside, I have this conversation yearly with my middle school Bible students. I usually share with them most of the passages you used here, and I’m convinced that an authentic truth-seeker will find it, or, more accurately, find Him.
That’s awesome to hear, your second paragraph. As far as the first, that is wild. I’m definitely not with that guy. I have not used the words Arminianism and Calvinism but they are nearly impossible to avoid in this discussion for obvious reasons. And yet again, it reminds me of how my view when understood correctly, is more balanced than some of what is out there. I have no doubt that God gives people a choice. But I also have no doubt that God has some things he will get done regardless of human free will. The fact dreams and vision are a part of this discussion is proof of that.
How would you interpret Ezekiel 3:16-21? This seems to indicate that it is our obligation to warn unbelievers of the error of their ways. It says that if we have an opportunity to warn a sinner against his or her sin, don’t take it, and they never choose to turn away from sin, their blood will be on our heads. But it also says that if we do warn them and they still don’t turn away, we will not be held accountable for that. I know that this was speaking to a specific O.T. context, but the principle is there.
My thoughts on that I suppose would be that it fits well with the Romans 3 and Acts 17 verses that say that God overlooked times of ignorance but now commands all people everywhere to repent (second phrase only appears in Acts 17). It sounds like before Jesus God held his messengers acceptable for not going or preaching. Now he does not.
One of the most convincing passages, to me, is Romans 10:13-16–
~For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the gospel of good things!~ [HCSB]
The answer may be important theologically but pointless in practice. It should make no difference–the call is still to go and make disciples. If it is true that those who have not hard go to hell, then a holy fire should burn beneath our feet to get the message to them as soon as possible. If they were fine without hearing, then God forbid we tell them, lest they reject the message! If there is some complex method in which God determines their innocence, well, I suppose it is safest we tell them, just in case. But the answer is simple: we were called to go preach the Gospel to the world, to be Jesus to people. And if we’re doing that, then our hands are clean. In the end, the answer is so simple we miss it sometimes: Love them like Jesus, carry them to Him, and live a life saturated with eternity. As you go, wherever that may be, make disciples, proclaim the Gospel, and follow Christ.
For what it’s worth….
Much love in Christ, and grace be with
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