What happens to a person who dies without hearing the gospel? Do they go to Heaven? Do they go to Hell? That question is being discussed in our Sunday School classes, pulpits and in the local coffee shop more often than we may realize. Does the Bible teach the exclusivity of Christianity? Is Jesus the only way to be reconciled to God? The troubling reality is evident by the wide variety of answers that are given to these questions. With an often watered down gospel message preached on the television and radio, coupled with a soft message of God’s judgment, the result is staggering and may be the cause for so much controversy over this old debate. In order to fully address this question, it is important that we examine several key issues surrounding this question.
What Does the Bible Teach About Sin?
The Bible is clear about sin. Everyone on planet earth (past, present, and future) has sinned against God (Romans 3:23). However, many church going evangelicals understand that man deserves the wrath of God, but they fail to understand that God is required to judge all sinners who have sinned against Him.
What Does the Bible Teach About Salvation?
The Bible teaches us about the love of God (John 3:16). Much like the subject of sin, many good church going evangelicals believe in the love of God, also stated as the “good news” of the gospel. However, many of those same people overlook the clear doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ. In fact, that doctrine, although clearly taught in the Bible, is one of the most divisive doctrines in our present day. Ronald Nash notes, evangelical objections to the exclusivity of the gospel often serve as a “romantic” comfort for those who “could sleep better if there were less urgency or no urgency in getting the gospel to the unevangelized.”1
The exclusivity of Christ is taught in Acts 4:12).
What Does the Bible Teach About Man?
While the Bible teaches that all people have sinned, it goes beyond that to teach that all of mankind is without excuse. In Romans 1, Paul points out that all people have witnessed God in His marvelous creation and that all of mankind is without excuse. Not only is man a sinner who deserves the wrath of God, but he is also unable to deny that God exists. The creation of God declares that there is a God and that He is eternal. Only the fool tries to deny that (Psalm 14:1).
What Does the Bible Teach About Missions?
The heart of the church is missions. Any church that refuses to engage in missions is hardly a New Testament church by any biblical definition. Christians are missional people by God’s design. After being saved by Grace, it is the plan of God to send His people out into the world as witnesses for His name’s sake. The people of God have been called by God (Romans 8:28-30). It’s God’s plan to send us out on a saving mission to reach the nations with the good news of Jesus Christ.
If the man on the island who has never heard the gospel recognizes the general revelation of God in creation and throws himself down under the mercy of God and calls out for salvation, will he be saved? A better question may be, “Does this ever occur or has this ever occurred?” The fact is, that is a hypothetical situation that does not exist.2 The individual who never hears the gospel will never desire to repent because it is through the special revelation of God’s Word that mankind is given the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and comes to the realization of his own sinfulness. In other words, what Paul asked to his readers remains true today—“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher” (Romans 10:14)? Certainly Jim Elliot understood this truth as he devoted his life to reach the unreached Auca Indians in the South American jungle. We can likewise be certain that Lottie Moon understood the urgency of this truth as she gave her life reaching the people of China with the gospel. If ignorance leads to Heaven, why would people be called to such great sacrifices?
Those who are emotionally driven to a conclusion of Grace without Christ in this debate should reconsider based on the Word of God. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that Sodom and Gomorrah likely never heard the gospel, and they all perished under the judgment of God and remain in Hell today. Is that fair? On another note, Nineveh should have received the same judgment, but under the rich mercy of God, they received a warning from a disobedient prophet named Jonah and they repented. Rather than perishing under the judgment of God, they received mercy and forgiveness. Is that fair? Jonah certainly didn’t think so. At the end of this debate is the stark reality of our own salvation. We were saved by the rich mercy of our great God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:18-20). That simply isn’t fair. That’s amazing Grace—how sweet the sound.
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What Are Some Popular Opinions on This Subject:
1. If people who never hear the gospel die and go to Hell, that is not fair and God would never do that to anyone.
Response: The Scripture has clearly revealed that all people have sinned against God (Romans 3:23). The fact is, Grace is not fair—it’s Grace. Judgment and wrath is fair because it is what we all deserve. Furthermore, God is not responsible for our sin. Therefore, He did not merely send undeserving people to Hell. Anyone who goes to Hell deserves it.
2. If a person never hears the gospel, they are spared from the wrath of God because they never rejected Jesus.
Response: People do not go to Hell on the basis of rejecting Jesus alone, they go to Hell because they are sinners who have broken the righteous Law of God. It is their transgression against God that requires the wrath of God.
3. God loves the sinner and hates the sin.
Response: Does God judge sinners or just their sin? The rich man from Luke 16:19-31). Therefore, we must conclude that God both loves and hates at the same time, but He is committed to judging the sinner.
1. Ronald H. Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994): 163.
3. Carl F. H. Henry, “Is It Fair?” Through No Fault of Their Own?: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, ed. William V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991): 245-56.
4. Mark Dever, The Message of the New Testament: Promises Kept. Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.
5. Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
6. William Carey, An Enquiry. Dallas: Criswell Publications, 1987 (1792 edition).
7. John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
8. John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus. rev. anv. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
9. D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspective In Tension. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002.
10. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
11. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.