EPISODE 1: What about those who haven't heard?

What about those who have never heard of Jesus?  Will God send them to hell?

If you have been in church at any point in your life, you probably have heard the phrase “God is love.”  I remember sitting in my first Sunday School class and trying to sit still through the story so that I could get juice and cookies.  Even at that age, the message of God’s love was coming through to my little ears.  Over the years, I didn’t just hear that He was loving, but that the very definition of love itself can be found in Him.  But there was always a clarifying statement:  His love can only be experienced in His Son, Jesus Christ.  If you want to know God Himself, you have to know His Son Jesus.  More specifically, you must know Him through His perfect life, death and resurrection.

That clarifying point, and the exclusivity of Jesus, is where many people find offense.  They have (or have lost) friends  and family who were “good” people.  They didn’t necessarily “know” Jesus.  How could God draw such a thin line to His presence?  Why would He allow “innocent” people around the world and throughout history to miss out on God’s love?  Solely because they were born in the wrong time and place of history?  Because they didn’t say or believe in the name “Jesus”?  Isn’t that more characteristic of a God who is a bit harsh and narrow-minded?

With any tough question, we approach the Bible as God’s authoritative Truth. They are His words and though we may not understand all of them, we believe all of them in faith.  It’s not that we can’t learn from things such as science or the humanities, but that our first and, in the end, only absolute source of truth and wisdom is found in God’s Word.  As we approach His Word to find an answer, we won’t find an answer that is exhaustive, but we hope to get you thinking about Jesus and His words on this topic.  Not just the red letters in your Bible, but every word of Scripture and God’s redemptive story.  With any tough question, what Jesus thinks is the most important thing to consider.

The first thing to consider is the notion of “innocent” or “good” people who haven’t  had a chance to hear.  In a letter to a Roman church, the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of Jesus, penned these words to help us:  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Romans 1:18-23

This is Jesus speaking through Paul and He tells us that everyone knows about God.  It’s plain to them and they have seen it in his creation.  And we don’t just have a cursory knowledge, but His eternal power and divine nature are clearly perceived, leaving us without an excuse to say that we had no idea.  From this knowledge of God’s glory and power, we said “no thanks” and decided to go with our own wisdom and our own gods.  

So, what does this say to the idea of “good and innocent people”?  According to Jesus, no one is innocent.  We are guilty because we have heard and rejected it.   Other passages of Scripture give us the same story.  (Isaiah 59:2, Romans 3:23; 6:23). We are separated from God because of our fallen, sinful nature that has rejected Him.  It is this condition and our choice that would send us to hell.  C.S. Lewis said that hell is the greatest monument to human freedom.  God is essentially giving us over to what we truly want (Romans 1:24).  The bottom line is that all who are in hell choose it.

What God did choose for us (without our help) was to provide a way to know Him and escape the just punishment for our sins through His Son Jesus.  But what about those who were alive before Jesus lived on the earth?  Isn’t that unfair?  What about the individual who lives on the other side of the world that hasn’t heard yet?  Even if God was right in giving them over to their choice of hell, wouldn’t He first give them an opportunity to receive His free gift in Jesus?  If we simplified it, it might be phrased:  “Will a just God be fair?”  In short, yes He will.  But believing that will require a little faith and a lot of Jesus.

Revelation 19 paints a picture of the future when God will finally judge all of history.  One day we will stand before His throne and our words will be shouting of His perfect salvation, glory, and power.  We will declare with all of history that his judgments are true and just.  We won’t look around heaven and say:  “Lord, I think you are missing a few people here.”  We will bow our knees at his perfect justice.  He will be proven to be fair, good ,loving, just and righteous.   

But there is one other thing that is clear from this vision of the future.  There is One Name that is honored above all: Jesus Christ, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  No other name will stand in heaven as worthy of all praise and honor.  So when we hear Him (and his disciples) tell us that He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him, we should believe Him.  (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12; 16:30-31, 1 Tim. 2:5, Luke 10:16, John 3:18)

Still, the thought of anyone going to hell is hard to think about.  It helps to know that God’s heart toward the world is abundant, unconditional love. He loves us even when we are at our worst. He also tells us that His desire is that all would be saved and that none should perish.  His provision for that salvation is definitively found in Jesus alone. Thus, our need to fulfill His great mission in telling others about His love and Gospel. 

One final thought deals with how Jesus sees time and space.  C.S. Lewis says that He sees the past, present and the future as the “Eternal Now”.  They aren’t separate.  He doesn’t look at history and think: “Oops, I missed an opportunity there.”  It wasn’t a cruel, unfair deal for those born before Jesus lived on the earth because God isn’t bound by our time or space.  His ways are higher than our ways.  We can read that Abraham looked forward to the promise of Christ and believed by grace through faith, even though his story happened well before 33 A.D.  We can trust that as Jesus led the Israelites in the wilderness, or stood outside the city of Jericho with Joshua, or stood by the tree as He promised a boy to an aging Abraham and Sarah, He knew what He was doing and there’s a 100% chance you will hang out with these Old Testament folks in heaven. From His Word, it is clear that He can draw people to himself through dreams, visions, Sunday School cookies or nervous coffee shop conversations.  And from these Old Testament stories of faith in a yet to be revealed Messiah, He most assuredly saves them through Christ alone before He was born (Hebrews 11).

 The Cross and resurrection of Jesus was the defining moment for humanity’s timeline, but maybe God sees time as a circle and not a line.  We believe that this event  was a watershed moment in history. But maybe the cross was also a rose stuck in the middle of a garden that was dead, but has now sprung to life.  

We don’t know how He will handle those who didn’t get the perfect one hour Gospel presentation, or how He can and does save those near, far, pre and post cross and resurrection.  But what we do know is that He does insist that He is the only way to be saved.  And he asks us to continue to preach His Gospel as if it all depended on our words to others.  But He also wants you to sleep like it all depends on Him, because it does.  Much of this will be a mystery until we see Him face to face, but rest assured, His words and His Name will stand in the end.

My own reason for thinking about this question doesn’t involve the person on the other side of the world or history.  I wonder where my loved one or friend, who had not quite made a solid profession of faith, ended up?  I see and hear this question in others as well.  You can see it in the looks on their faces at funerals or hear it in  the whispers of hushed conversations.  Will God be fair?  Can we trust everyone to His care.  Can we leave the eternal future of these people in His hands?  In faith and trust, we believe His Word assures us: we can. 

Heaps of Grace. 

Chad Ellenburg