The Christian message in the New Testament is very clear: only those who put their faith in Jesus can be sure of salvation and the life to come. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And his three parables in Matthew 25 make it very clear that those who reject him and his message will one day find themselves rejected by his heavenly Father.
So where does that leave people who have never heard the gospel (the good news about Jesus)? Is there really no hope for them?
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”
Let’s start by being honest
We need to start by being honest and say that the Bible doesn’t really address this issue. The early Christians didn’t think in theoretical terms about those who might not have heard; they were too passionate to get out into the known world of their day and make sure that everyone did hear and got a chance to make a decision—surely, a challenge to Christians today.
The only place where the Bible seems to touch on this issue is in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome where the great theme of the letter is the gospel: what it is, how it works, and why God’s historic people the Jews weren’t responding to it as one might have expected them to if it were really true.
What the Apostle Paul says
In chapter 2 of Romans, Paul seems to say that people who genuinely have never heard the gospel will be judged in the light of what they have heard, not what they haven’t (Romans 2:12-15). He says that the Gentiles (non-Jews) won’t be condemned for failing to keep God’s Law, because God gave that Law to Israel through Moses and the Gentiles didn’t have it. However, the Jews will certainly be condemned for not keeping that Law, because they did have it and so can’t plead ignorance of it or say they didn’t know what God was looking for.
So, can we really trust our conscience to always guide us to choose what’s right?
Paul then goes on to say that sometimes Gentiles end up doing the right things that are required by God’s Law without even knowing it, simply because they live in light of their conscience, which he sees as God’s Law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). And so, this will be their judge at the end: did they live up to what they knew God required, as prompted by their God-given conscience?
However, Paul then immediately goes on to say that our conscience is as likely to accuse us as to excuse us (Romans 2:15), because who of us can claim to have always followed our conscience? (Think about your own life – have you always done what your conscience said you ought to do?) The reason for this is that our consciences are tarnished by sin (that innate pull to do what we want rather than what God wants). Paul made this plain in chapter one of his letter where he showed that, despite God’s presence being evident in the world around us, people still deliberately turn away from God and make selfish and wrong choices at times (Romans 1:18-25). So, can we really trust our conscience to always guide us to choose what’s right? Paul highly doubts it. In fact, where his whole argument is heading—that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23)—suggests that this is extremely unlikely.
So where does that leave us?
His mercy and justice will no doubt end up reaching many that we ourselves didn’t expect to see in heaven, and excluding many that we did.
Paul probably doesn’t answer our question as clearly as we would like him to—though he certainly points us in the right direction. But we should always remember that God and only God—who alone knows all things and alone is full of both justice and mercy—knows what is truly in someone’s heart. His mercy and justice will no doubt end up reaching many that we ourselves didn’t expect to see in heaven, and excluding many that we did. What we can be sure of is that God, because he is righteous and just, will always make the right decision about every person who genuinely hasn’t heard.
In the meantime, the challenge to those of us who are Christians is to share the gospel with everyone that we can, whenever we can.
And the challenge to those of us who aren’t Christians is to ensure that this question about those who haven’t heard doesn’t become a distraction to avoid us having to make a decision ourselves about what we have heard about Jesus.