I don’t think I’ve ever taught a theology course and made it through the discussion on soteriology (the saving work of Jesus) without a question about those who have never heard about Jesus or who don’t have the mental ability to understand.
This is a heartbreaking question because they might have in mind infants or very young children who may have died before having any ability to know or to “hear” about Jesus, much less to respond. Or perhaps they have in mind people who live in remote corners of the world who may have never been told about Jesus.
As tragic and heartbreaking as the question is, the answer is very simple: Ultimately, this is answered in and through the very character of God. What I mean by that is either God is a good God, a just God, a fair God…or He’s not. If He is, then He’ll do the right thing by everyone based on their ability to hear and understand and respond. So when someone asks if their baby who died is in heaven, I can say: “That is the one thing that you don’t need to be worrying about in this moment. Your child is being cradled, right now, in the arms of God. Absolutely they are in heaven.”
Why can I say that?
Because we have a good God.
And what about those people in parts of the world who have never even heard about Jesus? Someone who was never told about Jesus? That’s a little different. They are still held accountable based on the knowledge available to them through what can be seen through what has been made. Here’s how it’s talked about in the Bible:
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature.
So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23, NLT)
Each of us is held accountable by the raw wonder of creation all around us that is so intricate in its design that it begs for the notion of a Creator-God. So how could this work positively in someone’s life?
Imagine in the darkest recesses of a rainforest, a man is walking along one day and comes upon a tree stump that has died and is rotting. He walks over to it and sees that it’s filled with water. He gazes at his reflection for a few moments, and he thinks to himself: “You know…I didn’t make me. And that totem carving we’ve been worshiping and praying to has never done anything for me. It just seems to be nothing more than any other dead tree.” And then he gazes at the sky and the stars, and says: “Whoever you are, whatever you are, help! I want to know…you.”