Sunday, 1 July 2012

What happens to those who have never heard the Gospel?

In short, we do not know! 'The secret things belong to the Lord our God' (Dt 29:29). Certainly we cannot speak for any individual. However, the Bible does not leave us totally in the dark and various approaches towards an answer can be made.

We are not here considering the fate of those who openly reject Jesus. The Bible has much to say on that score (eg 2 Thes 1:8-10). Rather we are considering the fate of those who through no fault of their own have never heard of Jesus. We only need to think of all those who died before Jesus was ever born to realise the scale of the problem. What then can we say?

The Justice of God

If Christianity is true, then God is a morally perfect and just being. He also knows everything and his very nature is love. The idea that on the Day of Judgment there will be a massive miscarriage of justice, either because God didn't know or didn't care is inconceivable. Such a God would be an evil tyrant, not the merciful Lord revealed by Jesus. So whatever does happen would leave any moral observer entirely satisfied that the God of all the earth has done right (Gn 18:25).

General Revelation

No-one is totally ignorant about the true and living God. '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' (Rom 1:20). This includes the moral character of God as evidenced by our consciences (Rom 2).

The Old Testament Heroes

The Old Testament heroes of faith had little knowledge of Jesus yet found God's mercy. Jesus described Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as feasting in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 8:11) while heaven itself is described as being at Abraham's side (Lk 16:23). Christ's sacrificial death on the cross hundreds of years later seems to have acted retrospectively for them (Rom 3:25, Heb 9:15). Is it not possible then for others who have not heard of Jesus to respond to the knowledge of God they do have in the way those heroes did?

We needn't conclude from this that such an admission would be to undermine the church's missionary task. After all, those men were the shining exceptions, not the rule. Moses descended from his encounter with God on the Mount to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf! The lament of the Psalmist was that God looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek God, only to find 'Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no-one who does good, not even one' (Ps 53:1-3). Rather, it is the preaching of the Gospel that is God's chosen means of disturbing the complacent, bringing conviction of sin and calling men to himself. Those who hear his call begin to seek after God for mercy and forgiveness.

The Honest Seeker

Jesus promises that those who do seek after God will find him (Mt 7:7).This may mean that they will come to hear the good news about Jesus in this life. But clearly that wasn't the case for the Old Testament characters. It may therefore mean that such people can live without any assurance of forgiveness and yet are forgiven by God through the atoning death of Jesus, after casting themselves on God for his mercy. The Gospel then would bring such seekers not so much forgiveness itself as the assurance of being forgiven.


Only God knows how individuals will fare on the day of Judgment. Such matters are no proper concern of ours. 'Vengeance is mine, ' says the Lord, 'I will repay' (Rom 12:19). Yet we have every reason to believe that God will do what is right. Everyone has enough knowledge of God in order to seek after him but the general situation is that men do not, even though their consciences condemn them. Hence we are called to proclaim the Gospel and urge that men and women be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20). Certainly, those who have heard the Gospel and rejected God's offer of forgiveness will be judged on a totally different basis from those who while remaining in substantial darkness earnestly seek the truth, confess their sins and cast themselves on the mercy of God.

(From CMF's Confident Christianity Course)


  1. This is excellent.
    One only has to think of Enoch in Genesis to realise that there is provision for those who have never heard the gospel.
    One reason we don't know is so that we don't slack on preaching the gospel.
    Also, I believe we also should all be assured of our salvation - confident that God has forgiven us. Without the gospel being preached, and our acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice, we cannot know that assurance.

  2. What happens to those like Judas Escariot who god needed to be able to set up the crucifixion of his son that god wanted to take place?

    Surely, Judas was operating on behalf of god when he betrayed Jesus, was he not?

    He was doing him a favour!

    Let's hope Judas got his just rewards.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Interesting concept. Here's my view on the arguments:

    1.There’s so much suffering in the world
    A big argument, with the emphasis on “so much”. And pointing out that God, if He exists, does not just allow suffering but causes it. He causes suffering beyond the extent that could have any value and in opposition to any reasonable meta-ethics.

    2.Jesus can’t be the only way to God
    Not this one: alleged “narrow-mindedness” and “arrogance” have nothing to do with truth.

    3.Christian faith is just psychological
    Not really an argument against Christianity. But it does, somewhat, undermine arguments for Christianity.

    4.Miracles can’t happen
    Not so much that they can’t happen, but that they haven’t. Hume’s argument that miracles cannot happen may be mistaken, his crack about the virgin birth is still spot on.

    5.A good God wouldn’t send people to Hell
    Yes. As written. I find the counter-arguments not only unpersuasive but also indicative of a wholly moribund ethics. (eg parking on a double yellow line is bad. Invading Poland is worse. The demand for perfection in Christian ethics denies that invading Poland is worse than parking on a double yellow line. Christian ethics is, therefore, wrong).

    6.The problem of those who have never heard
    Well, combined with John 14:6 this is a pretty powerful argument.

    7.The Bible is full of errors
    Not an argument against the truth of God, nor an argument against Christianity per se but an argument against literalist/inerrantist interpretations of the Bible.

    8.Christianity may be true for you but it isn’t true for me
    No, no, no! Relativism, ugh.

    9.The God of the Bible is a moral monster and restricts human freedom
    Not an argument against the truth of God, nor an argument against Christianity per se but an argument against literalist/inerrantist interpretations of the Bible.

    10.It is no longer necessary to invoke God as an explanation for anything
    Sort of. Not from holding that “science explains it all” but denying that God explains anything. Not so much “I have no need of that hypothesis” but “that hypothesis is no use”

    11.The church is full of hypocrites
    Not a good argument against the truth of God, but a good argument as to the pointlessness of Christian practice. Some who have committed quite appalling crimes were priests. Priests have the religious education, the prayers, the full advantages of the religious life and it did not help them avoid terrible acts. What is the point of religion if it does not make you a better person?

    12.Christians cherry-pick what they want out of the Bible
    Not an argument against the truth of God, nor an argument against Christianity per se but an argument against literalist/inerrantist interpretations of the Bible.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.