28. If someone never hears the gospel, can they still go to heaven?

The obligatory opening joke…

A missionary travels to a remote village and tells everyone about Jesus. He tells them, “If you do not accept Jesus, you will burn in hell for all eternity.” Before the missionary leaves, the tribal elder asks, “If we had never heard about this Jesus, would God have sent us all to hell?” The missionary replies, “No, I don’t suppose God would condemn you due to your ignorance,” to which the elder replied “Then why did you tell us about him!?”

The joke pokes fun of a real conundrum: it would obviously be unfair for God to condemn these people for not accepting Jesus when they’d never heard of him, but at the same time, now that they’ve heard of him, their eternal souls are put at risk.

When turning to the Bible for answer to this difficult question, we find the answers seem to contradict one another.

The ignorant are NOT punished

There are several Bible verses that suggest the ignorant are not held accountable for their sins.

If I had not come and spoken to them [the world], they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.
— John 15:22

The Law brings about wrath, but where there is no Law, there also is no violation.
— Romans 4:15 

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
— Acts 17:30

But if the ignorant are excused from sin and wrath, then the first rule of Christianity should be, “Don’t talk about Christianity.” If knowledge brings with it the possibility of condemnation, then it is better to never receive that knowledge.

The ignorant are ARE punished

On the flip side, there are other verses that suggest the ignorant will be punished.

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law …
— Romans 2:12 

He will punish those who do not know God  … They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
— 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 

But if the ignorant will still “perish apart from the law” for their sins, then God comes across as unfair for punishing the ignorant.

The ignorant are are punished on a sliding scale

There are also verses that hint that judgement varies according to how much knowledge you have.

But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.
— Luke 12:48

My brothers and sisters, not many of you should be teachers … we who teach will be judged more strictly than others.
— James 3:1 

But if more knowledge means more potential punishment, then we’re back to the first rule of Christianity: “Don’t talk about Christianity!”

While these verses appear to contradict one another, fundamentalists insist there are no contradictions, and that we should look to the larger Biblical themes to facilitate our understanding of these verses.

So how do most Christians answer this question?

Not all Christians agree, but in researching this question, I found the majority of believers siding with the idea that the ignorant are guilty of sin and are still in need of salvation.

I believe this conclusion is driven by evangelism and salvation being such strong overriding themes in the New Testament. If the ignorant are innocent, then evangelism is rather pointless, since these people will go to heaven either way. It’s only when the ignorant are guilty that evangelism becomes important.

But how can a man be guilty if he’s never heard the law?

How to make an ignorant man guilty

I think most Christians would agree that a man becomes guilty once he breaks one of God’s “natural laws.”

Natural laws are a subset of God’s Law (found in the Bible), and God has made these natural laws instinctive, by writing them on our hearts.

These natural laws speak to us as our conscience — that little Jiminy Cricket voice inside our head that says “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t kill, and stop touching yourself.”

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them…
— Romans 2:14-15 

And naturally, we all are guilty of breaking these natural laws.

… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …
— Romans 3:23 

So the “ignorant” are not truly “ignorant,” because they have God’s law written on their heart, and they are not innocent, because all have fallen short and sinned. And unfortunately, just one sin is enough to get you cast into hell forever, so salvation is of the utmost importance.

If this consensus view is true, there are some major problems with it.

Problem #1: Got makes getting into heaven more difficult for some than others

If a man is born to Christian parents in a Christian culture, and he violates one of God’s Laws, his Christian culture tells him of the consequences and provides him with a way out. He can sin a thousand times, and still be forgiven.

But if a man is born away from any Christian influence, then he is ignorant of how to obtain forgiveness for his sin. When he breaks one of God’s “natural laws,” he remains condemned, because the escape route is not as obvious.

No one comes to the Father except through me.
— John 14:6 

If it’s true that forgiveness only comes though Jesus, then this man is condemned to hell, for committing one sin. Through no fault of his own, he was born into a culture that couldn’t teach him how to obtain forgiveness.

At this point, we might be tempted to argue that God would make some sort of concession in this case, but the more we insist that the ignorant can receive forgiveness, the less urgent evangelism becomes.

Problem #2: God did not write all his laws on our hearts

Presumably, it would be just as easy for God to write his entire message on our hearts as part of it. In the same way newborns instinctively know how to suckle their mothers, or birds know how to build nests, we should instinctively know how to repent through Jesus to his Father in order to receive forgiveness.

Why write a “natural law” on our hearts, and give us the “gifts” of conscience and guilt, and then not tell us exactly how to repent? And to whom? This seems like an important detail to leave out.

Why must the answer be delivered by an external source? Missionaries wouldn’t even be necessary if God would’ve written his entire message on our hearts, and we wouldn’t have the confusion over which missionaries were the ones to believe.

Problem #3: How can we obey God’s natural laws when we’re not sure what they are?

If God has written a subset of his laws on our hearts, what exactly are they?

According to Romans 2:14-15, God’s laws are an instinctive part of our conscience that accuse us when we do wrong. So if we desired to make a list of God’s Natural Laws, we might start by looking for “instinctive” morals that most humans seem to share. Also, violating these morals should result in a guilty conscience.

Let’s imagine we performed such a study and found several behaviors that were universally viewed as immoral, things like:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Injuring others
  • Lying
  • Cheating
  • Stealing
  • Torture
  • Infidelity
  • Slavery
  • and downloading movies and music illegally.

If we then began promoting this list as “God’s List of Natural Laws,” I can think of a few objections we might encounter.

Firstly, did these rules need to originate with a God, or are they self-evident? All of these behaviors have observable negative consequences, or we can easily reason that we wouldn’t want others to do these things to us. If any reasonable person can understand why such behaviors would be undesirable, do we really need God to write them on our hearts?

Secondly, God’s Laws (according to the Bible) sometimes contradict God’s Natural Laws.

For example:

  • Natural law tells us that killing healthy babies is wrong, but God’s Law says it’s sometimes okay (Gen. 7:21, Exodus 12:12, Psalm 137:9).
  • Natural law tells us that owning and beating slaves is wrong, but God’s Law provides us with a how-to manual (Exodus 21).
  • Natural law tells us it’s wrong to steal and rape, but God’s Law says he may personally send men to steal from you and rape you (Zechariah 14:2).
  • Natural law also tells us it’s always wrong for a man to rape a woman, and then to force her to marry her rapist; but God’s Law says this is totally permissible (Duet. 22:28-29).

Third, feelings of guilt are often unreliable measures of right and wrong.

For example, an anorexic girl may feel guilty about eating a sandwich, but is she right? Is God using guilt as a natural way of condemning her for inappropriate behavior? Or does she feel guilty only because she did something she believed was wrong? And her mind is now wrestling with the logical contradiction? Guilt seems to stem from what we believe is wrong, and not what God says is wrong, but if God’s Natural Law really exists, should’t we only feel guilty for doing things that are actually violations of God’s law?

And finally, with regards to conscience, many early cultures once independently reached the rather natural conclusion that sun was a god. How did they all “just know” this? Did God write this message on the hearts of the Aztecs, Incas, Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Persians, West Africans, Celtics and others? Did God guide their conscience to this conclusion?

How can we obey God’s “natural laws” when these laws can be so misleading?

Conclusion

There is ultimately no truly satisfying Christian answer to the question of how God might deal with those who have never heard the gospel.

  • If we assume more “reached” enter heaven than “unreached,” then God is unfair for having given the unreached a more difficult test.
  • If we assume that more unreached enter heaven, then God is unfair for giving the reached a more difficult test. And evangelism becomes futile, because it results in fewer people entering heaven!
  • If we assume the exact same percentage of both will enter heaven, then evangelism is technically unnecessary (we get the same result either way), and the Bible is wrong to stress it.
  • And if we assume that everyone goes to heaven, once again, evangelism is pretty pointless, and the Bible is wrong to stress it.

But if we dare to assume that the logical conundrum only exists because Christianity is a flawed human creation, then the problem goes away. But I suspect Christians will have a problem with that solution.

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206 Responses to 28. If someone never hears the gospel, can they still go to heaven?

  1. Anuther Pilgrim says:

    I offer some food for thought on this topic in a short study paper on my webpage at http://www.anutherpilgrim.com. I don’t claim to know it all about this topic. What I have learned I’ve tried to put into words as helpfully as possible. I can’t help thinking the resolution to this question is brighter and more positive than many might expect.

  2. there is a remote chance once judge if a person ask God for forgiveness he will be forgiven example of the bandit on the cross he admit he deserve to be punished not Jesus an he hask Jesus to inter his kingdom

  3. Mason Baker says:

    Your argument seems sound, but is flawed because of your lack of biblical understanding. I’m not trying to offend and I don’t have time to address all points. You however took your biblical references out of context and culture. They don’t actually support what you’re saying. You can email me for clarification if you like (please reference your argument and corresponding biblical “proof”). Now the major piece you missed was how our free will is related to God’s omniscience and his Love. Maybe a man never heard of Jesus because God knows he will reject Him, and God in his love and mercy, doesn’t allow him to hear so as to reduce the punishment. What I’m saying is that trying to fully comprehend the justice, love, holiness, goodness, mercy, and grace of an infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient being with a finite mind is unwise.

    • Hi Mason,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      “You however took your biblical references out of context and culture. “

      I’m sure the same is said by all Christian denominations about all other Christian denominations, but who is correct?

      “Maybe a man never heard of Jesus because God knows he will reject Him, and God in his love and mercy, doesn’t allow him to hear so as to reduce the punishment.”

      If God did NOT want everyone to hear the gospel, I imagine he wouldn’t go around saying things like: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

      If your assumption is correct, we could also ask:

      – Why did God create these people, knowing they would reject him?
      – Why did God create humanity at all, knowing the majority would end up suffering?
      – Why doesn’t God just kill people before they reject him, to spare them from suffering?
      – Why doesn’t God just kill the author of this stupid blog, to keep people from suffering?
      – Why doesn’t God kill more children, to prevent them from rejecting God later in life?

      “…trying to fully comprehend the justice, love, holiness, goodness, mercy, and grace of an infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient being with a finite mind is unwise.”

      If I were to ask you why you do not believe in Islam, or Mormonism, or Scientology, or Hinduism, or Greek and Roman gods, you would probably (hopefully) have some kind of reasons for your disbelief. You might say that they are illogical or unreasonable.

      But I could likewise argue that the reason you perceive these beliefs as illogical or unreasonable is because it is beyond your ability to understand. I know, for example, that Hinduism may seem illogical to you, but you should believe in the Hindu gods, because “trying to fully comprehend them with a finite mind is unwise.”

      It MAY be true that one of the thousands of gods promoted by men IS real, and its intelligence is far greater than our own! However, we must still rely on our “finite minds” to sort fact from crap.

      And how should we do that? We should look for tell-tale signs of quackery, like excuses being offered in place of GOOD evidence, or claims that can neither be proven nor falsified. We should look for logical fallacies being used in place of sound reasoning. And we should look for things like fanciful elements, such as talking animals, or arks filled with all the animals on earth, or people living inside of fish, or anecdotal tales of miracles that can never be consistently validated.

      There are many things about God and the Bible that appear illogical, but to those who want to believe, they will always be able to invent new excuses (or throw up their hands and say, “We simply cannot understand this particular god’s wisdom!”)

      Thanks,
      500Q

      • dustxashes says:

        “However, we must still rely on our “finite minds” to sort fact from crap.”

        I agree. I’m giving a talk on Sunday on the evidence for Christianity, specifically looking at the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

        Now, the difficulties you brought up are valid, and indeed difficult, but conundrums don’t immediately diminish truth.

        There is no worldview free of difficult questions. Fortunately, our finite minds and the senses we have are able to assess evidence, weigh it against experience, and come to conclusions.

        I’m also a science teacher, and scientific knowledge is hugely dependable, and valuable. However, if a scientist accepts a naturalist view of the world, the scientist negates any conclusions he comes to because a mindless universe cannot create a mind. It intrinsically has no truth, so any “truth” to come from it simply is not, rather it’s an amalgamation of atoms firing aimlessly creating the appearance of meaning, and sensing, and knowledge.

        Are you tracking with me? This was the inescapable pitfall of naturalism, and atheism for me. I’ve yet to hear a satisfying response to this issue, and doubt one is possible.

        But to address your issues: I’m beginning to think that God’s good differs in definition than our good. In Romans 9, one of the most difficult passages for me, Paul likens God to a potter, and that as the Potter, He can make pots for honorable use and pots for dishonorable use. I read that and think, “unfair”. Clearly, not to God. So, my conclusion becomes God has full control, I do not, we evangelize because we don’t know who gets to believe and who doesn’t. For that reason, I try to proclaim the gospel as far and wide as God will allow, and love people as much as God puts in me to do.

        That may not be satisfying, but if God exists, our judgements of Him better be put in subjection to His thoughts on us.

        May God bless you, thanks for your blog, and thoughts. I always love deep critical thinking.

        • sklyjd says:

          “There is no worldview free of difficult questions.”

          This maybe true, however we then must ask ourselves what parameters do we use to obtain these answers and if we use the most logical, rational and sensible answers to the difficult questions instead of events, encounters and emotional experiences and we are going to base these answers on current scientific knowledge and evidence it can be believed the answers are as close to the truth as we can possibly get until further evidence comes to light to change this thinking as it often does in the scientific process.

          Science, as a world view uses such parameters as above in speculative areas and has processes to accept new evidence at any time. Straight away the line is drawn in the sand because religions being faith based cannot alter their doctrines.

          The first question must be along the lines of does any god really exist? The compelling evidence for Christians is primarily the Bible that was written by mostly unknown individuals decades after the events.
          If you know anything about the Biblical stories and how they came to be written, the writers of the Bible and the authenticity of the Bible the results following the rules above are that it is a man-made concept just as the many hundreds of previous gods.

          The questions could go on and on, such as are the Biblical stories true, is there a Satan, eternal life etc? The specifics of Christianity or any religion is found to be very limited when these rules are applied to most of the difficult questions.

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