In my roles as pastor and professor, I am often asked about the fate of those who never have a chance to hear the gospel. The answer to that question has profound implications, not only for our Christian apologetic, but for our urgency in taking the gospel to the nations. While many will try to find answers we find more palatable, I believe we have enough explicit teaching in the Bible to recognize that those without Christ are under the wrath of God and that knowledge ought to inspire an urgency in us to take the gospel to those who have never heard.
This is hard teaching, and whenever it comes up, many Christians seek ways to soften or work around the idea that the person without Christ remains under the wrath of God. I understand that there is a great deal of emotion behind this issue because no one likes to think of people being condemned without a chance to be saved. We wrestle with the idea of a loving God sending people to hell at all, much less those who do not even hear the gospel and have a chance to accept Jesus and the forgiveness he offers through his death and resurrection. Still, I believe that to go beyond the Scripture and philosophize about these “what if” ideas, is not helpful but actually hurts the cause of missions. While such ideas might help to resolve our own anxiety about the issue, they also result in a lack of urgency and a searing of our conscience concerning our lack of taking the Great Commission seriously and seeing that the gospel is preached to all creation. I believe that we should avoid reliance on the “what if” scenarios that make the Bible’s teaching more palatable and the reality of God’s coming judgment less severe.
One common objection is that the Bible does not explicitly say what is the fate of those who never hear. I disagree with this assertion. For example, in John 3, Jesus states that those who have not believed are “condemned already” because they have not believed (cf. John 3:36; 1 John 5:12). Romans 1:18-19, likewise makes clear that the wrath of God is revealed against all people and, even though they have not received the full revelation of Christ, unbelievers are justly condemned for suppressing the truth and rejecting even the revelation they have been given. The Bible is clear that we are all sinners and that our hearts are desperately wicked. Apart from Christ, we stand under God’s righteous judgment.
One of the things that helps me is to realize that there are no “innocent” persons out there that are condemned for the ill fortune of not hearing about Jesus. The Bible is clear that “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23) and that all have rejected even the truth that has been revealed to them so that they are “without excuse”(Rom 1:20). Further, if anyone is condemned apart from hearing and receiving the gospel, they are not condemned for not hearing the gospel. They are condemned for their sin and rebellion against a holy God in thought, word, and deed. In fact, there are no innocents out there who are seeking God and cannot find Him. The Bible is clear that all people are “under sin” and no one is seeking God (Rom 3:9-18).
Others hold out hope that God will come to people by some other way, or that there is a second chance after death. However, there is no indication in the Scripture that this is the case. Rather, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). Holding out a false hope for a second chance goes beyond the Scripture while lessening the urgency of our task to take the true hope of the gospel to those who have not heard. Still others hold out for a judgment that is not eternal, or a salvation that extends to all without the necessity of faith in Jesus. All of these positions go beyond what the Scripture teaches and, in doing so, weaken our resolve to be ambassadors for Christ, pleading with people to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Does it sit well with me that there remain unreached peoples who have yet to hear the gospel message? No – and that’s precisely the point. My prayer is that this perennial question concerning the fate of those who do not hear does not compel us to find new ways to explain away God’s righteous judgment but that it would compel us to be part of an all-out effort to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all who will believe on the name of Jesus.