What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?

Q. The Bible says no one can get to the Father except through the Son. Does this mean if someone living say in some remote place in the Himalayas, never met missionaries; dies they will be sent to hell?

The possibility you’re asking about—that someone who would have received Christ if they had heard the good news might be lost if they never heard—underscores the importance of making sure that everyone in the world is able to hear about Christ, in terms and language that they can understand. We need to make every effort towards that end.

But the possibility you’re asking about also raises questions about the character of God. Would it really be fair for God to condemn someone to hell simply because they did not get a chance to hear about Christ, if they would have accepted him if they had gotten the chance? Knowing what we do about the character God from the Bible, it is hard to believe that this would be the case. The Bible itself says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the answer is, of course he will.

So while the Bible does not give us a direct answer to your question, my personal feeling is that in a case such as you describe, God would judge a person based on what they had done with the light they had. The apostle Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that every person has at least two witnesses to the reality and goodness of God: nature and conscience. He says about nature, “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.” And about conscience he says, “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

This does not mean, however, that anyone could follow their conscience and the light of nature sufficiently to earn God’s approval and acceptance. Rather, nature and conscience would lead them to recognize that they could never be good enough to do that, and that they needed to trust in God ‘s love and forgiveness as the basis of their acceptance.

This also does not mean that they would be saved by any other means than the death of Jesus Christ for them on the cross. Never having heard the gospel, they would not realize in this life that this was the expression of God’s love and the basis for God’s forgiveness that saved them, but nevertheless it would be. And they would make the glorious discovery, once they did come into the presence of God, whom they had dimly but genuinely trusted for salvation, that God had sent his own Son to be their Savior and the sacrifice for their sin.

Let me say again that this is my own personal belief about something that the Bible does not spell out for us clearly. What the Bible does spell out clearly is the loving, forgiving, and just character of God, and I have tried to suggest something that would be consistent with that. Nevertheless, it would likely be difficult for someone to do even what I have tentatively described, and so, as I said earlier, we need to make every effort to reach everyone in the world with the good news about Jesus.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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