AN INSIGHTFUL ANSWER TO AN AGE-OLD QUESTION
by Dr. George Murray, OneWay board member and former President and Chancellor of Columbia International University
A thoughtful teen named Sarah recently asked me an age-old question: What about all the people who have never heard of Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection? What will happen to them when they die? How will or can they be saved? Here is what I wrote to her:
To help answer your question, I would like to first back up and review some foundational truths:
1. The most reliable source for answers to questions like these is the Bible, the inspired Word of God (II Tim. 3:16). It's not what you think, or what I think. It's not what you hope, or what I hope. It's what the Bible says.
2. God's Word tells us that since Adam and Eve, all people are born in sin (Rom. 3:23). Even babies are born in sin. Babies don't become sinners when they first sin; babies first sin because they are born in sin (Ps. 51:5).
3. The only way a righteous, holy God could adequately deal with the sin problem of all mankind was to send God the Son to become the sinless God/man who lived, died and rose again to pay the full penalty for mankind's sin (Rom. 6:23).
4. No one has ever been saved, or born again, without putting his/her faith in Jesus Christ and what He did when He died on the cross and rose again (Rom. 10:9).
Having said the above things, let’s begin to answer the original question: What about those who have never heard?
There are four types of people who fit into this "never heard" category:
1) Babies who die in infancy
2) Infantile people with severe mental deficiencies
3) All the people who lived before Jesus ever came, lived, died and rose again (e.g., Old Testament people)
4) All the "unreached" people living today who still have never heard of Jesus and the salvation that He purchased through His death and resurrection (2.35 billion who are "unreached" right now).
For the sake of time, I'm not going to address the first three categories of people mentioned above, but would be happy to do that with you on another occasion. Instead, let's just talk about the "unreached.”
People often ask me: "Will the unreached be lost/condemned when they die?" The fact of the matter is that the unreached are lost/condemned when they are born, and they will continue in that condition when they die, apart from hearing and responding positively to the message of Jesus/the gospel.
People ask me: "But is it fair for God to allow the unreached to be lost/condemned when they die, since they never had a chance to hear and respond to the gospel?"
The answer to that question is "yes" because:
• God does not wrongly condemn them when they die for having rejected the gospel. (How can they be guilty of rejecting something that they have never heard about?)
• God does rightly condemn them, however, for rejecting the clear knowledge of Him that He has given all people via creation and via conscience. God has given every person (past, present, and future) in the world two clear evidences of His perfect and powerful existence. One of those evidences is external (creation, see Rom.1:18-20), and the other evidence is internal (conscience, see Rom. 2:14-16).
So, everyone knows there is a God. The question is: What do people do with that knowledge? They reject it, and on that basis God condemns them. On that basis, they are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20).
Interestingly, just as the Bible says there are degrees of reward in heaven for every saved person (I Cor. 3:10-15), so the Bible teaches that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Rom. 2:5) for every lost person. Although hell in itself is horrible, some people will suffer more in hell than others. When Jesus was here on earth, He said to the people of His day that in hell it will be "more tolerable" for the Old Testament people of Sodom and Gomorrah (who never saw Jesus or heard the gospel that He preached) than it will be for the people who saw Jesus, heard Him, and still rejected Him (See Luke 10:8-14).
The only way people living anywhere in the world can be saved is if they hear, understand, and respond positively to (i.e., believe) the gospel of Jesus (His life, death, and resurrection). No one is ever saved by doing good works (Eph. 2:8,9), or by performing sacrifices (like the people did in the Old Testament - see Heb. 10:4).
This is why Jesus has told us, His saved children, to go into all the world and preach the gospel to everyone, everywhere (Mark 16:15).
No one has ever been saved through creation or conscience, even though God uses both of those things to draw people to Himself (see Romans 1,2).
I believe there is evidence in the Bible that if lost people respond positively to the revelation that God has given about Himself through creation and conscience, He will bring someone to those positive seekers with the actual message of the gospel (through which they then can be saved). Three examples of that are in the book of Acts: Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (who was seeking God, but didn't know the gospel, Acts 8:26-40); Peter and Cornelius (who was seeking God, but didn't know the gospel, Acts 10:1-48); and Paul and Lydia (who was seeking God, but didn't know the gospel, Acts 16:11-15). In each case they were seeking God, but they were only saved after they heard the gospel presented to them by the "missionaries" Philip, Peter and Paul.
Well, Sarah, there is lots more I could say, but I'll just send the above for now. There are many other Scripture references I could have mentioned, but hopefully the ones above will be helpful. I would encourage you to especially study the first three chapters of the New Testament book of Romans. And don't forget that our final authority for answering this important question about the "unreached" must always be the Bible, God's Word.