Perhaps you have heard that trust in Christ is the only way to be right with God and enjoy eternal life. That sounds rather exclusive, particularly if there are many people who have never heard of Christ. Most people think of God as fair and just, and sending people to hell for not believing in someone they have never heard about doesn’t seem to meet that standard. So the question arises: “What about the people who haven’t heard about Christ?” It’s a very good question. Here are a few options in response to that question.
First, we have the option that there are people who haven’t heard of Christ but God doesn’t judge them. In other words, he holds people accountable if they have heard, but he doesn’t hold people accountable who haven’t. But does this option make sense given the evangelistic thrust of Christ himself? Before Jesus left earth, he told his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20) and even promised that when the Holy Spirit came upon them they would do exactly that (Acts 1:8). But here’s the rub: if people don’t have to worry about hell if they have never heard of Christ, wouldn’t it be best for the disciples (and for you and me) to tell no one about Christ? Think of it this way: you trust Christ, but you know not everyone does. When your children are born, you don’t know if they will trust Christ or not. Because you want to insure they are with God in eternity, you make sure they never hear about Christ. That way they can never reject him. I think you have to admit that this kind of scenario—one in which the Christian is encouraged to keep Christianity to herself—is rather odd.
The second option is that there are people who haven’t heard, but God holds them accountable anyway. The Bible declares that all people have sinned and fall short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23) and thus are condemned if they do not trust Christ for forgiveness (John 3:18). But under this option, some get to hear of Christ, some don’t. Those who don’t…well, too bad for them…their fate is set. My guess is this doesn’t settle too well with you. And it doesn’t settle too well, because it doesn’t measure up to the fairness you think is found in God. But can we throw aside this option for reasons better than our own discomfort with it? I think so.
The second option is weakened because it assumes people haven’t heard or can’t hear (as does the first option). This is not the stance the Bible takes. The Bible says that knowledge of God has been given to all people through creation (Romans 1:20) and that knowledge of our personal shortcomings is validated by our God-given conscience (Romans 2:12-16). In other words, if someone has no access to a Bible and no Christians to teach him, he nonetheless has enough evidence to believe God exists and that he falls short of God’s standard. With this information, it would not be unreasonable then for someone to seek the mercy of God, unless, of course, he just doesn’t want to bother.
Add to this, the understanding that the Bible promises when one goes seeking, God makes himself evident to the honest seeker (Proverbs 8:17; Matthew 7:7-8). You might ask, “You mean if someone honestly seeks, God will see she finds out about Christ?” Yes, that is what I am suggesting. The Bible paints the picture that everyone has been given enough information to encourage seeking, and that if one honestly seeks, God will make Christ evident. A great example of this is the biblical story of the Ethiopian seeker. In his search for truth, he gets his hands on some of the Old Testament, but he does not understand it. Because he is an honest seeker, God makes sure that Philip is sent to him to explain. Soon thereafter, the Ethiopian places his faith in Christ (Acts 8:26-40). A more modern example is the vast number of people in the Middle East who have recently reported seeing dreams of Jesus. When a Christian comes along, it isn’t unusual for Muslim seekers to ask, “Can you please tell me about the Jesus I keep having dreams about?” A final example involves use of the internet. Did you know that today one online ministry alone has engaged over 1.6 billion people with the message of Christ in the last 14 years, with tens of thousands choosing to follow Christ everyday as a result? God is a big God, so we should expect he is able to get word about Christ to those who are truly seeking. Is it true then that some people today don’t know about Christ? Yes, but is it also true that they have been given enough to seek God and find Christ? I think Scripture would say yes to the second question as well.
That brings us to the third option which is that people have indeed heard enough and are responsible for what they have heard. You have to admit that today you know more about God and Christ than you have in the past. In fact, by asking the question, “What about those who haven’t heard?” it’s evident you understand the claims of Christianity, namely that everything hinges on one’s belief in Christ. Since this is the case, even if uncertainty remains regarding the standing of others before God, that uncertainty doesn’t apply to you. You know of Christ, and he is asking you to respond to his gift of forgiveness and life.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.