What Happens To The Person Who Has Never Heard of Christ?
By Kevin Haag
In the technological world in which we live, it is hard to imagine that a person has never heard of Christ. Sadly, some people have never read the Bible or heard the Gospel message. Christians have hope of eternal life in heaven because they heard (Romans 10:13-14) the Gospel message, and by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), they believed (Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 Peter 1:3-4, 8-9). It is with great concern and compassion that we contemplate the fate of those who never have an opportunity to hear.
The Christian doctrine of salvation teaches that if a person wants to enter into a right relationship with God and have eternal life in heaven, they must receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In the Gospel of John, Thomas asked Jesus “how can we know the way?” (14:5b), Jesus replied to him in John 14:6, “Jesus answered, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In John 5:24, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
What if a person lives in a remote part of the earth and never reads a single word of the Bible? What if they have no modern means of communication – internet, TV, phone, etc. – and they have never heard of Christ? Where does that person stand with God? If Jesus is the only way to God (heaven), are they going to hell?
These questions are asked frequently by Christians, skeptics (who oppose Christianity), and “religious” people (who believe there are many roads to heaven; failing to understand the unique importance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection). What is the answer? Before we can respond, we must first look at sin and God’s justice.
Sin is Universal
God created mankind in His own image to be a reflection of His holy character (Genesis 1:27). God’s purpose for mankind is that we honor, serve, and fellowship with Him (Revelation 4:11). Adam and Eve were the first man and woman that God created. God commanded Adam and Eve not to “eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). When they disobeyed God and ate from the tree (Genesis 3:1-7), sin entered the world (Romans 5:12). Adam and Eve’s sin passed to the entire human race, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Every person is guilty (John 16:8) before a holy, just, and righteous God – even a person living in the remote area of our world. It would be easy for us to think that a person who has never heard of Christ or never read the Bible is innocent, but God’s Word is clear, we are all sinners, “Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin” (Proverbs 20:9). “As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11).
Jesus came to earth to die on the cross for sinners, not for innocent people, “On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:12-13).
God looks at a Christian’s sin through the cross of Jesus Christ; we are justified in His sight. “Justification is a judicial act of God pardoning sinners (wicked and ungodly persons, Rom. 4:5; 3:9-24), accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself. This justifying sentence is God’s gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:15-17), his bestowal of a status of acceptance for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 5:21)” (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology).
God is Just
God is our Creator, Sustainer of life, and Judge. His justice is perfect. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14).
“The justice of God is the justice of One who is both omniscient and omnipotent, so that it is impossible we should conceal from Him our offenses or escape from the execution of His sentence. God is possessed of both infinitely complete knowledge of every detail of our lives and of the most absolute power to enforce His verdicts…In human affairs justice is simply the giving to everyone his due: but such a rule cannot possibly be applied to the Most High, for the simple reason that He owes His creatures nothing” (A.W. Pink, The Justice of God).
God’s holiness and justice demands a penalty for man’s sin, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Eternal death separates a person, both soul and body, from God forever in Hell (Revelation 20:15). When Jesus died on the cross, He provided a way for mankind to have a right relationship with God here on earth and in heaven. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
"Though nothing contrary to holiness and righteousness can ever emanate from God, yet he has, for his own wise ends, ordained his creatures to fall into sin. Had sin never been permitted, how could the justice of God have been displayed in punishing it? How could the wisdom of God have been manifested in so wondrously overruling it? How could the grace of God have been exhibited in pardoning it? How could the power of God have been exercised in subduing it" (A.W. Pink, The Justice of God)
Is a person punished eternally by God for not believing in a Christ of whom he never heard?
The answer is NO! “If God is just, that cannot be the case. If God were to punish a person for not responding to a message he had no possibility of hearing, that would be a gross injustice; it would be radically inconsistent with God’s own revealed justice. We can rest assured that no one is ever punished for rejecting Christ if they’ve never heard of Him” (R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe, p. 49-50).
As Sproul has stated, we can answer the question in view of the perfect justice of God that He has revealed to us in His Word. However…we still have a dilemma; because all have sinned (Romans 3:23), the person who has never heard of Christ still stands condemned before a holy and righteous God (Romans 6:23). Since God is holy and His justice is perfect, He cannot ignore or excuse sin.
When taking into account the sin of mankind, we must ask the question: what if a person rejects God? Is the rejection of God the Father as serious as rejection of God the Son? The biblical response to this question is found in Romans 1:18-21. However, before we answer, we must first understand general revelation.
General revelation (or natural revelation) is God making Himself known through His creation. From the beginning (Genesis 1:1) of creation, and throughout history, God has revealed Himself to man.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.
The revelation of God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth is general in the sense that it is available to all people, everywhere, all the time (notice verses 3 and 4). (General revelation - additional references: Romans 1:18-21; Romans 2:14-15; Acts 14:15-17; Acts 17:22-31)
General revelation concerning God is less specific than special revelation. Special revelation is God revealing himself purposely through extraordinary acts (miracles and signs) or in His Word. The scriptures are special revelation from God; the writers were led by the Holy Spirit to communicate precisely what God intended, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
If a person has never heard of Christ, he/she will not be punished for that. Are they off the hook? "The unspoken assumption at this point is that the only damnable offense against God is rejection of Christ." (R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe, p. 50). What if a person who has never heard of Christ rejects God the Father?
The wrath of God
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
God’s wrath is in the present, it is happening now, and is constantly being revealed. His wrath is being revealed “from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v.18). Since we have all have sinned, we are “by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). By our sin, we have suppressed the truth and provoked the wrath of God and “the judgment followed one sin (Adam) and brought condemnation” (Romans 5:16). The end result of God’s judgment and condemnation of sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23).
How can God judge people if no one ever told them about the truth? If they have never heard of Christ or never read the Bible, how can God hold them responsible?
19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
God has made Himself known
God has made himself known (general revelation); man has knowledge of God – His eternal power and divine nature - is evident to all. Why is the knowledge of God clear to every living creature? Paul tells us the reason in verse 19, “because God has made it plain to them.” God has revealed Himself to man since the foundation of the world and the revelation continues every single day.
God has revealed Himself in creation
How does God reveal His invisible qualities? God’s eternal power and divine nature, “what may be known about God” (v. 19), have always been “understood from what has been made” (v. 20). Out of nothing, God made the universe and everything in it (Genesis 1:1), and it is by His creation He has made himself known to man (Psalm 19:1-6), “so that men are without excuse” (v. 20).
Men are without excuse...for knowing God exists
Since God has clearly made himself known to all, no man can plead ignorance; he is without excuse. “None will ever be able to say to God, “I’m sorry I didn’t worship you. I didn’t know you existed. If only I had known I most certainly would have been your obedient servant. I wasn’t a militant atheist; I was an agnostic. I didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to affirm your existence” (R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe, p. 52).
All people everywhere know the truth of God’s existence.
- "Since what may be known about God is plain to them" (19a).
- "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen" (20a).
- "For although they knew God" (21a)
Not only has God revealed the work of His hands in creation, in Romans 2:14-15, Paul says that God has written His law on all people’s hearts. God has put in all people an understanding of right from wrong; of what is good and what is evil. “(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them)” (Romans 2:14-15).
"Let me tell you how God has made every human being: built into every human being is a sense of right or wrong. It’s there like hearing, and smelling, and seeing, and touching, and all of that. There is built into the fabric of human life, every individual, the knowledge of right and wrong. There is a sense of right and wrong in the heart. There is an intrinsic moral law" (John MacArthur, The Reality of God’s Wrath).
"These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in" (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 7).
"That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
"Human beings cannot entirely suppress their sense of God and his present and future judgment; God himself will not let them do that. Some sense of right and wrong, as well as of being accountable to a holy divine Judge, always remains. In our fallen world all whose minds are not in some way impaired have a conscience that at some points directs them and from time to time condemns them, telling them that they ought to suffer for wrongs they have done (Rom. 2:14ff.); and when conscience speaks in these terms it is in truth the voice of God" (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology).
What truth is being suppressed?
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).
The truth we suppress…
- What is known about God – “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (verse 19).
- The revelation of God in creation – “being understood from what has been made” (verse 20).
- God’s eternal power and deity – “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen” (verse 20)
Application...man’s response to the truth
In verse 21, we find the importance and application of the apostle Paul’s teaching on the general revelation of God in Romans 1:18-21.
Men are without excuse...for glorifying God and giving Him thanks
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).
The truth we suppress is our response to the knowledge we have about God, which is evident to all. God has revealed Himself, His eternal power and deity, to mankind through His creation of the heavens and the earth. In Romans 1:19-21, “we learn that the knowledge “gets through” and finds its mark. God does not merely provide an available objective revelation of Himself that may or may not be subjectively received. We read, “They knew God.” Man’s problem is not that he doesn’t know God but that he refuses to acknowledge what he knows to be true” (R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe, p. 52).
In response to our Creator, we should bow down and worship Him, “Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness” (Psalm 150:1-2). Each day, we should thank God for the very breath in our lungs He has given us to live another day. We should praise God and thank Him for providing for our every need (Matthew 6:33).
"So here is the truth: God exists. God is eternal and infinitely powerful. God is the giver of every good gift. And therefore our reason for being - our chief duty, the end for which we were created, and the commandment written on every heart - is to display the glory of this great God every day, hour by hour, as we live in the exultation over his bounty to us" (John Piper, The Wrath of God Against Ungodliness and Unrighteousness).
Instead, how do we respond? We suppress the truth by our wickedness; by sinning against our Creator...Paul explains how
Romans 1:25, 28-32:
25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen”
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
What happens to the person who has never heard of Christ? Because He is just, God will not punish a person for not responding to a message they have never heard. What happens to the person who rejects God? They will be punished for the rejection of the Father; they are without excuse, and “those who do such things deserve death” (Romans 1:32). Everyone is guilty and deserves the wrath of God. God is the Creator of life, Sustainer of life, and Judge of life. God has revealed Himself to man clearly by His creation and the requirements of His law have been written in man’s heart (Romans 1:18-21; Romans 2:14-15).
The Mission of the church
As Christians, it is with a sincere heart that we answer the question of the destiny of those who have never heard of Christ. It is out of obedience to our Lord and Savior that we should respond to this question by our actions, and not just words, “Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).
The mission of the church is to preach the Gospel to all people in every nation. We need to support our missionaries, pray for them, and visit them (short term missions). We need to be praying for the lost, that they would hear the Gospel and respond in faith – to the glory of God. Amen.
for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" – Romans 10:13-15
Listen to John Piper talk about the justice of God in judging those who have never heard the gospel.
© New Testament Christian
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy:
By Kevin Haag. © New Testament Christian. Website: new-testament-christian.com.
Reason to Believe
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