What about Those Who Have Never Heard?
One of the most frequent objections to the Christian faith I hear from nontheists is “How could an all-loving, all-powerful God condemn people to hell for failing to submit their life to Jesus Christ if they never heard of him and had no access to the Bible?” I also hear Christian evangelists express anxiety about all the people going to hell because of Christians’ failure to preach the gospel of salvation through Christ to all the peoples of the world who have no Bible and have never heard of Christ.
First, my study of the Bible persuades me that “God condemning people to hell” is a mistaken emphasis. Rather, God grants to every human being the choice of with whom they wish to spend eternity. If they so desire, humans can spend eternity in a fully submitted relationship with God where they enjoy fellowship with God and all others fully submitted to him. Alternately, if they want nothing to do with God or with any of his followers, God grants them the desires of their hearts and allows them to spend eternity with like-minded beings. (I explain in my book Beyond the Cosmos, why, out of love for the individuals who choose to be apart from him, God imposes torment or restraint upon humans in proportion to the degree of evil they have committed during their lives on Earth.1)
Second, every human being has heard the gospel message of salvation through Christ. There is no such thing as someone who has never heard. While not all people have access to a Bible or know a Christian, everyone has been exposed to the gospel message revealed in creation. As Paul explains in Romans 1:19–20,
. . . since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 people are without excuse.
And as David points out in Psalm 19:1–4,
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
Before any Scripture existed, Job—just through his observation of the natural realm—deduced the following:
- A Creator exists (Job 9:8, 10:8, 12:10).
- The Creator possesses unlimited power and wisdom (Job 9:4, 10).
- The Creator loves us (Job 10:12).
- The Creator is perfectly good and moral perfection is his standard (Job 7:18, 10:14, 23:10).
- We fall far short of the Creator’s goodness and morality (Job 9:2, 14, 28–29, 14:4, 15:14).
- The Creator’s power, wisdom, and love imply that he formed a plan to redeem willing humans (Job 14:14–15, 16:19–21).
- The Creator is our Advocate and Intercessor (Job 16:19–21).
- If we entrust our lives to the Redeemer, we will be rescued by him (Job 9:15, 13:15, 14:17, 17:3).
- If we receive the Creator’s offer of redemption, our rescue will be guaranteed (Job 19:25–27, 23:10).
- If we reject the Creator’s redemptive offer, our condemnation will be assured (Job 19:28–29).
Therefore, no one can blame God for the lack of sufficient revelation of his existence, his character attributes, or his offer of salvation from sin and eternal fellowship with him.
Third, it can be a mistake to measure one’s responsibility to understand and respond to God’s offer of salvation by how much revelation of the gospel message one has received. It is not so much the quantity of revelation as it is the response of an individual to whatever revelation that person has received.
The first part of 1 Chronicles 28:9 declares, “For the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought.” There is not a single thought, motive, or desire expressed or experienced by any being that God does not see and comprehend. He knows whether any human desires fellowship with him or not. The second part of 1 Chronicles 28:9 states a promise, “If you seek him [God], he will be found by you.” This promise is affirmed in Joel 2:32, “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Thus, we can be assured that salvation will be bestowed on anyone who seeks after God.
This assurance answers the nontheists’ objections about those who have “never heard.”2 It also relieves Christian evangelists of anxiety over the nonbelievers they are unable to reach with reasons to believe. According to 1 Peter 3:15, it does not, however, relieve them of the responsibility to provide such reasons to whomever they meet who will listen.
God often works through his followers to find and save people who seek after him. God uses such means not only to reach and save seekers but also to shower both his followers and the seekers with beauty and joy. Isaiah 52:7–8 states,
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.
- Hugh Ross, Beyond the Cosmos, 3rd ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2017): 177–84.
- My colleague Kenneth Samples describes several types of Christian exclusivism, one of which I hold, in his book God among Sages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017): 225–27.