Where will they spend eternity?
For who knows how many thousands of years,
natives in Australia, the Americas, and so on
knew nothing about Jesus or the Bible.
Did the God who wants no one to perish (Scriptures)
leave them without a chance of salvation?
‘Answers’ are easy. It’s being sure that the answer is correct that’s the hard bit! We’ll plunge in where perhaps angels fear to dabble, but first some important orientation:
What makes the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, a particularly difficult question is the fact that it is of no real importance to you and me, who have heard. And God rarely feels constrained to satisfy idle curiosity. (Note 1) We already have an embarrassing abundance of divinely-given knowledge that we are not fully using. Among the things God has told us over and over is that he is good and loving and just, that he is no respecter of persons, his judgments are righteous and that we should trust him. It is largely our failure to accept these revelations that makes the destiny of those who have not heard such a burning issue. Although faith in the revealed character of God should suffice, the sad fact is that many of us have a half-buried fear that God might be callous and unjust, and this makes it hard for us to love God. And some of us actually suspect that God must be callous and unjust, and this tends to make us callous and bigoted. So, as ridiculous as it sounds, instead of simply asking you to trust God’s character, I’ll try to provide additional reasons for believing that God handles the fate of the spiritually ignorant in a trustworthy manner.
Here are some basics that this webpage will never stray from:
* Although Scripture says God is partially revealed outside of the Bible (by creation, for instance) his full revelation to humanity is found only in the Bible. Except for the purpose of evangelism, there is nothing to be gained by Christians studying non-Christian religions.
* There is no hope for those who die having consciously rejected Jesus’ sacrifice as their sole means of salvation. This webpage looks at those who have had no opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel.
* We are commanded to preach the Gospel to all people groups. God would only command this if it were important.
* It would be perfect justice for everyone on this planet to be sent to hell. Our consciences have grown so callous by the corrupting effect of our own sin, that we have no conception of how deserving of hell every one of us is. Not one of us has kept our own moral standards, much less God’s holy standards. No one, whether Christian or pagan, deserves heaven.
There is salvation through no one but Jesus (Acts 4:12) and no one who dies rejecting Jesus can be saved. Nevertheless, this does not imply that everyone must know about Jesus before Jesus can save them. Scripture teaches that Jesus died as much for those who died before his sacrifice, as he died for those who were born after his sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:25-28). Pre-Christian saints like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and so on, will be in heaven (Scriptures) even though they never sought forgiveness through Jesus. As indicated in Hebrews 11, (note especially verse 7; Romans 4:1-24; Galatians 3:6-9) they were saved through faith, not by their animal sacrifices or good living. They trusted that God would somehow forgive them, without knowing the details as to how salvation was possible. At least in these instances, Jesus’ salvation clearly extended to those who had never heard of him. Abel, Enoch and Noah were outside God’s covenant mediated by Moses, and even outside the Abrahamic covenant.
People to whom the gospel has not yet reached would seem, for all practical purposes, to be still in the pre-Christian era (see Note 2). So let’s examine how God treated such people in pre-Christian times.
There were those like the two ancestresses of the Messiah, Rahab and Ruth, who were originally totally outside of God’s covenant and yet became part of God’s people. Both of these women would seem as far from the true God as one could get. Rahab was not only a harlot, but a Canaanite, belonging to the very race and generation that God commanded to be totally wiped out. Ruth was a Moabite, and Deuteronomy 23:3 says that no Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord even down to the tenth generation.
There are many biblical references to people from other nations joining Israel – and hence partaking of God’s blessing – such as the ‘mixed multitude’ that left Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12:38). God’s covenant with Israel applied as much to them as it did to physical descendants of Abraham. The Mosaic law repeatedly speaks of individual Gentiles becoming part of Israel and partaking of all of Israel’s blessings. They were to receive tithes, offer sacrifices, partake of the holy feasts, and so on. The law stipulated there was to be no distinction between these people and those who were Israelites by birth. Scriptures
In Old Testament times, the Israelites were God’s special people, rather like Christians are God’s special people today (1 Peter 2:9-10). It is significant, however, that this does not imply God spiritually abandoned those who remained outside Israel. Even though the focus of the Old Testament is God’s dealings with the Israelites, it is filled with references to God working in the lives and giving revelation to people who remained non-Israelites. For much more on this see God at work.
Consider all the effort the Lord went to in ensuring Jonah did what was needed to save the Ninevites. If God intended to torment each of the Ninevites forever in hell why would he want so much for them to repent so that he could give them a few more years on earth? Surely a God so deeply concerned for their earthly well-being would be even more concerned about their eternal welfare. Matthew 12:41 is interesting: ‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah . . .’ The redeemed will play a role in judging (Scriptures). Is Jesus implying that through their repentance the Ninevites are counted among the redeemed?
In Acts 14, Paul spoke to people who were so pagan that they wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods, and yet Paul declared that even before the gospel reached them, God had ensured they had a witness to himself by showing them kindness, giving them rain and food, filling their hearts with joy (Acts 14:17). Later, speaking to another crowd of similarly ignorant, but much more sophisticated people, Paul declared that God created the nations, assigning their territories and their eras, ‘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’ (Acts 17:27). Does the significance electrify you? God wanted pagans to find him – people who were outside the Abrahamic covenant and (due to the time and/or place in which they lived) without a chance of hearing the Gospel.
Added to this, we have the clear teaching of Scripture that it is not God’s desire for any to perish, but that they all turn in repentance to God (2 Peter 3:9). Moved by the Spirit of God, Paul writes that it is God’s wish that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). This does not mean that everyone will be saved – we know from the clear teaching of Scripture that many will reject God’s salvation (Scriptures) – but that cannot negate the fact that it is God’s wish that all be saved.
Although justice would be fully met if God sent us all to hell, he is the good Shepherd. He does not desert the lost even if it is their fault that they wandered off. On the contrary, he seeks the lost, giving them priority over those who are secure (Luke 15:3-7). This is the heart of my Lord. He is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but longs for them to repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11).
Please permit me to for a moment express a personal feeling, not intended to in any way reflect on wonderful Christians who do not share my view. If I believed God would let millions slip into eternal torment without offering them so much as a possibility of finding forgiveness, I would be devastated if I were to see my loving Lord face to face and hear him say with tears in his eyes, ‘How could you think that I could be so heartless?’
The depraved inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon were repeatedly singled out for condemnation by Old Testament prophets (eg Isaiah 23; Jeremiah 25:22; 47:4; Ezekiel 26:3-7; 28:12-22; Amos 1:9-10). Yet Jesus said that these pagans would have repented if Jesus had visited them, preaching and performing miracles like he did in first century Galilee. Is this just a hypothetical of no eternal consequence to the citizens of Tyre and Sidon? Must these heathen face the final judgment with no allowance made for the fact that Jesus never visited them? Apparently not. Jesus said it will be more tolerable for them than for the first century Jews who rejected him (Matthew 11:20-22). Jesus doesn’t specify where these heathen will spend eternity. We know, however, that the fact that they would not have rejected Jesus’ ministry makes their future somehow more bearable than for those Jews who failed to repent when Jesus ministered to them.
Jesus was here declaring a principle applicable to all heathen, not something peculiar to Tyre and Sidon. This is evident from the fact that he immediately proceeded to speak in a similar way about Sodom (Matthew 11:23-24, 10:15), a city belonging to a quite different culture and era. Jesus said that had he preached and performed his mighty works in that wicked city, they, too, would have repented. The people of Sodom knew they were acting wickedly. Moreover, they had the living witness of righteous Lot. Even so, Jesus held them less accountable, and declared their judgment will be less severe because they would have acted differently had Jesus been there in person.
It seems safe to conclude from this passage that in the final judgment of people who never knew Jesus, full consideration is given to how they would have responded if Jesus had personally appeared to them, teaching and working miracles in their midst.
Jesus noticed people giving temple donations. A woman tossed in the smallest available coin and then another. It was pathetic. It totaled a measly one sixty-fourth of a laborer’s daily wage. And yet Jesus heaped praise upon this impoverished widow, declaring she had out-given everyone else. (Mark 12:41-44) This is most significant because the Person who praised that woman is our Judge. (Scriptures) It clearly demonstrates what we would expect from a good, loving, all-knowing God: he is fully aware of how much or little we each have been given, and he judges us according to our faithfulness with whatever we have, not on the basis of what we have not been given. On the other hand, for the person to whom much is given, taught Jesus, much is required. He told a parable in which the degree of punishment reflected the extent to which the person was aware that he was doing wrong. (Luke 12:47-48)
God has distributed his gifts unevenly, whether it be abilities, wealth, intelligence, availability of spiritual knowledge, or whatever. Regardless of how much or how little people have in the way of gifts and spiritual opportunities, however, we all have equal opportunities to be faithful with whatever is entrusted to us. And it is faithfulness that impresses God, not how much he has given us. To us, the spiritual achievements of the one given little might seem as useless as that woman’s insignificant offering, but it could thrill the heart of Jesus, the Judge of all the world. Nevertheless, Paul proves that even on the basis of this generous assessment, everyone stands condemned.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul says that the heathen who have never read a word of Scripture, have a rudimentary knowledge of the Creator. They themselves and everything they see and touch and eat, are God’s handiwork. He says God judges them, not because they reject a Gospel they have never heard of, but because they are unfaithful to the small revelation they have been given. Their earthly judgment for disregarding this revelation is a darkened mind, bondage to false religion and depraved behavior. Significantly, Scripture says these heathen sin, and approve of others sinning, ‘although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death’ (Romans 1:32). Paul was referring to people who knew not a fragment of the Bible, (Romans 2:11-16) and yet, he declared, they inwardly ‘know God’s righteous decree.’ This does not, of course, imply they know all of God’s requirements but, like us, they have enough understanding to deserve hell.
Paul preached that in previous generations God permitted the non-Jewish nations to walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16). What is meant by ‘permitted?’ It cannot merely mean that God did not prevent these things from happening, because the implication is strong (and in Acts 17:30-31 it is spelt out) that this era of divine tolerance had come to an end. And we know that even today God does not make it impossible for people to reject the Gospel and participate in false religion. Acts 17:30-31 says, ‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (31) For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.’ A degree of divine mystery clouds these Scriptures. They seem to imply God would not hold such people accountable for at least some of their actions. (Note 3) It is hard to be certain what this involves, since Paul proves early in Romans that everyone stands guilty before God, even those who have not heard God’s law. Yet still there is hope . . .