We’ve been thinking about difficult questions your friends might ask as you talk to them about Jesus. This week Will helps is consider the question: What about those who have never heard about Jesus? Read through, look up the Bible references, and be ready to answer the question next time it comes up!
Will someone go to hell because they’ve never heard about Jesus? It’s an understandably emotional, high-stakes question. Millions of people live lives oblivious to the fact that there is a God who made them and who became flesh in order to save them.
A biblical answer to this question is vital if, like me, you have friends who find this question a barrier to Christianity and also for Christians engaging in God’s mission to make his name known among the nations. Let me give you my answer from the outset: People go to hell, not primarily because of their rejection of the gospel, but because of their rejection of God.
When Paul begins his exposition of the gospel in Romans, he describes the message of Jesus Christ as the ‘power of God for salvation’ (Romans 1:16). What makes the gospel powerful? Paul says that every human begin finds themselves under the wrath of God because of their suppression of the truth (Romans 1:18). The truth is that God’s fingerprints are all over his creation, and therefore, we know deep down that he exists and is to be praised. We are without excuse (Romans 1:20). As R.C. Sproul says, ‘No-one can lightly claim “insufficient” evidence for not believing in God’*. By ourselves, we are unable to escape from the downward spiral of God’s condemnation. The gospel therefore holds forth the offer of right relationship with God through Jesus’ wrath-bearing death on the cross (cf. Romans 1:1-4, 17, 3:21-26). The gospel of Jesus is not a bonus for morally neutral people, but God’s unique solution to humanity’s ultimate problem.
So what do we say to someone who asks about the innocent tribesman’s eternal fate? Paul answers unswervingly: “No innocent tribesman!” Whether someone rejects the gospel solution of Jesus Christ or not, the fact still stands that each human being is guilty before God whether they grew up in Christian Britain or pagan Papua New Guinea. This shifts our categories hugely.
The fact remains, however, that many people around the world do not know anything of Christ. How should we respond?
With those who wrestle with this question, we might want to gently and lovingly challenge their thinking. In other words, the fact that someone is asking this question shows they recognise the stakes. So why not suggest that, rather than worrying about the plight of those who haven’t heard, they come to Christ themselves? We want to lovingly show them that they too are rejecting God and are in need of rescue. Of course, becoming a Christian doesn’t answer all our tricky questions immediately, but it does mean we are brought into relationship with the One who knows all the answers, and that is greatly comforting.
Secondly, if this question burns away at you as a Christian, then something good is happening. It shows you care! Paul reminds us later in Romans that the only way to be saved is through hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). People need to hear about Jesus! Why not pray for one country per day, asking God to send workers to that place to preach the gospel? Or go on a mission trip with church? Or perhaps you have been, and after prayerful consideration, the best option is to book tickets to the ‘ends of the earth’ for yourself!
*R.C. Sproul, Arthur Lindsey, and John Gerstner, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p.46