What Happens to People Who Have Never Heard of Jesus?

Category: Bible 62 7

One of the most asked questions, whether it’s by Christians or non-Christians, is what happens to people who have never heard of Jesus? The Bible teaches that only by believing in Jesus will a person reach heaven (Romans 10:9). What about people who never had a chance to decide whether or not they will accept Christ. Is it right for God to condemn people to hell for something that is not their fault? What about the innocent natives living in Africa or on a remote island in the Pacific?

What does the Bible say about people who have never heard the Gospel?

The first thing to understand is that every person is a sinner (Romans 3:9-20). There is no such thing as an innocent native living in any part of the world. Secondly, those who believe that people who have not heard of Jesus will not be condemned have not read or properly understood Romans 1:18-23.

“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

In this passage we read that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven because of mankind’s persistent rebellion against him. The revelation that God has given to mankind is “plain to them” and is clearly seen, and because of this, humanity is without excuse when it comes to judgment. Mankind continually suppresses the truth about God and creates his own gods in his own image.

Pastor and scholar Sam Storms says, “God has made himself known among people (and thus, in a manner of speaking, to them, in their minds and hearts) in his works of creation and providence.”[1] Paul says that God’s invisible attributes can be seen by man. This, of course, is a contradiction since invisible things cannot be literally seen. Paul is using an oxymoron to make the point that God’s wisdom and power are known by everyone because they are revealed in the world around us. No one is exempt from this (not even African natives who have never heard of Jesus). “That there is a God who is supreme, eternal, infinite in power, personal, wise, independent, and worthy of glory and gratitude is clearly evident in the creation.”[2]

Paul says that God is seen “in the things that have been made.” This shows us that you do not need a Bible to read or a church to attend in order to know that God exists. You can still look at nature – the sun, the moon, the stars, thunderstorms, the human body, the oceans, mountains, and all the diversity of the animal kingdom – to see that there is a powerful creator. One scholar has said, “[T]here is not an atom of the universe in which God’s power and divinity are not revealed.”[3] Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh says it well:

“This knowledge is attainable by observing the handiwork of God in creation. Just as we can learn much of a writer by studying his work, or of a painter by his paintings, so, also, we can learn of God from His handiwork, His creation… Who can look at the raging power of the Niagara Falls and not be struck with the power of the One Who created them? Who can study the power of the atom and not be impressed with the infinite power of the Creator? And who can ponder creation without concluding that someone far greater than mortal man was the originator of it all?”[4]

The point Paul is making is that the evidence from nature is so overwhelming that every single human being is without excuse for their sins. Paul is clear that all people continually suppress this knowledge of God (v. 21-32). They began, not in ignorance, but with the full knowledge of God and fell into idolatry. There is no such thing as an innocent native in the wilderness of Africa or on an isolated Pacific island. “No one will be able to approach the judgment seat of God justly pleading, ‘If only I had known you existed, I would surely have served you.’ That excuse is annihilated. No one can lightly claim ‘insufficient’ evidence for not believing in God.”[5]

Many people think that they can get away with saying that only if they had known of God’s existence then they surely would have believed. Many also think that as long as they are “good” people then they will go to heaven. However, Paul is teaching that all of this is false thinking. Storms notes:

“The problem is not a lack of evidence. The problem is the innate, natural, moral antipathy of mankind to God. The problem is not that the evidence is not open to all humanity. The problem is that humanity is not open to the evidence…The God they truly and really know, they hate and refuse to honor. Their response, however, is borne not of ignorance but of willful rebellion and self-centered sinfulness.”[6]

Paul writing one of his epistles. Source: Wikipedia.org
Paul writing one of his epistles. Source: Wikipedia.org

Does this Revelation in Creation lead to Salvation?

Although this revelation in God’s creation does tell us the basics about God, it does not get a person to heaven. Only believing in Jesus Christ will do that. It gives mankind a general knowledge of God, in that he exists and what kind of God he is, but it does not save anyone.[7] Paul is making it clear that general revelation leads to negative results as people have universally rejected it and have instead made for themselves gods in the image of creation, particularly gods in man’s image.[8] Deffinbaugh elaborates on this:

“The revelation which the heathen rejected was not sufficient for salvation, but it was adequate for condemnation. If I were to ask you for a nickel and you refused, what good would it be to ask for a quarter, a dollar, or $1,000? Our response to God’s revelation in nature is evidence of our response to any amount of revelation. Our Lord said to the rich man in Sheol, concerning his lost relatives, “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31)… Our response to divine revelation reveals the condition of our hearts toward God, and the condition of our hearts determines our response to any revelation we receive. The scribes and Pharisees refused to believe the claims of our Lord in spite of insurmountable evidence.”[9]

However, this does not mean there is no hope for people who do not come into contact with the gospel. One of my favorite passages in Scripture tells us something about how God reaches out to the unsaved. Acts 17:16-34 tells us of Paul’s interactions with the city of Athens. When Paul arrives in Athens he begins sharing the gospel and finds himself speaking at a meeting of the Areopagus (the Court in Athens). Here Paul gives an amazing speech that reveals much about God (v. 22-28):

“22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. 24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’’” (emphasis mine)

Notice what Paul is saying here! He says that God wants each one of us to seek him and reach out for him because he is not far from any one of us. If any unbeliever truly wants to know God in a saving way, God will reach out to him or her.[10] Whether it is by sending a missionary, using Christian books or online articles, or even having Bibles literally come down from the sky, God will reach out to those people who truly want to know him. God will find a way to give them the gospel.

Conclusion

No person will be able to say at judgment day that only if he had heard of Jesus then he would have believed. No one will be able to make that excuse. God has revealed himself in his creation and everyone knows in their heart that he exists and that they will be held accountable to him. God will reveal himself to anyone who truly wants to have a relationship with him. For those Christians who don’t like this think about it this way – will not God, who is all-powerful and knows all things, do what is right (Genesis 18:25)?

What do you think about the topic? Share your opinion below.


[1] Sam Storms. Tough Topics. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 115. See also, Douglas J. Moo. The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 105.

[2] Storms, 115.

[3] Herman Bavinck. The Doctrine of God, trans. and ed. William Hendriksen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 63. Quoted in Storms, 116.

[4] Bob Deffinbaugh. “No Excuse for the Heathen (Romans 1:18-32).” https://bible.org/seriespage/no-excuse-heathen-romans-118-32. Accessed December 15, 2013.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Arthur Lindsley, and John Gerstner. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional  Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 46. Quoted in Storms, 116.

[6] Storms, 116-117. Deffinbaugh says the same thing: “The pagan’s problem is not the sparsity of revelation, but the suppression of it.”

[7] Storms, 118; Moo, 106-107.

[8] Moo, 105-106.

[9] Deffinbaugh.

[10] Storms, 118. See also Deffinbaugh.

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7 thoughts on “What Happens to People Who Have Never Heard of Jesus?

  1. web page

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  2. Tim C

    IN your conclusion you say “God will reveal himself to anyone who truly wants to have a relationship with him”
    Really! Is that what scripture teaches

    If salvation is dependant on my “wanting to have a relationship with God” then, according to my reckoning it becomes a work of man.

    Shall I now boast that I have saved myself according to my own righteousness. Shall I steal the glory of the Lord?

    If in fact I do as you say “want to have a relationship with God” it can only ever be according to the measure of faith that He has granted me. It is faith that worketh in me.

    I know that it seems like I’m nit picking but it’s important for us to remember that salvation is of the Lord and nothing of myself.

    Remember that you did not choose me, but I chose you. John 15:16

    When our understanding is based on this foundation we will be far less judgmental towards those who do not believe, knowing that it is the work of God and not a man.

    No man cometh to the father unless the father draw Him. John 6:44.

    For God has CHOSEN the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom with those who love Him. James 2:5

    When we understand the judgment of God in the context of the gospel, the judgment is manifest in that “they do not believe” for God has not granted them to do so. This is His judgment at work.

    Look at the brilliant scientists of this generation who have minds far brighter than perhaps you or I, yet they see the creation as some accident of nature. The brightest of a generation completely destitute of any truth; Why?

    Because God CHOOSES the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.

    Salvation is of the Lord, let us remember this and Glorify Him according to His ways.

    Reply
    1. Not a calvinist.

      That is a typical Calvinist argument. God has called all to salvation, it is those who choose to respond. As far as ” I chose you, you did not choose me”, he is referring to his apostles, whom he handpicked. Thank you.

      Reply
  3. mmcclellan2

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about being elected by God and that salvation comes only from God. In regards to my comment on someone wanting to have a relationship with God think about it like this: what if those people who want that relationship are the elect? Also, I do not think that wanting to have a relationship with God should be considered works. I never said that at all. Would you think that accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and believing in his resurrection should be considered a work? If someone wanting a relationship with God should be considered works, then someone making a decision about Christ should be as well. By the way, I do not think either of these is works. The point I was making was that no one is outside God’s reach. That’s all.

    Reply

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