Will they all go to hell?
(Back to the beginning)
Early in Romans the apostle Paul emphasized that those who have not heard the Gospel are not only guilty in God’s eyes, but in their own eyes. That consciousness of sin opens up the possibility of repentance. And Paul stressed that not only are they guilty of worshipping false gods, they have some knowledge of the true God. That opens the possibility of crying out to the true God for mercy and forgiveness. Yes, their understanding is very limited. They are certainly ignorant of Jesus. Most of them could not even define God as being the God of Abraham. But this is genuine ignorance, as contrasted with the willful ignorance referred to in John 3:19 as loving darkness rather than light. This genuine ignorance seems most likely to be the type that Paul preached that God would overlook. And indeed we have already mentioned Scriptural examples of people who have called out to God and been accepted by him despite having such an ignorance. This, as we have noted, is because the saving power of Jesus’ sacrifice has extended even to them.
Addressing heathens, Paul preached that whereas in the past God overlooked their ignorance, he ‘now’ commands them to repent (Acts 17:30). When is the ‘now’ that Paul is referring to? Now that Jesus has died, or now that they are hearing the gospel for the first time? I suggest that in practical terms it refers to the time when they first heard God’s command to repent the time when they had more revelation to respond to.
There are not quite the vast numbers who have not heard the gospel as you might think. In fact, the number coming to the Lord Jesus throughout the world is phenomenal. I think you’ll be amazed at the statistics.
A huge majority (perhaps 95%) of folk religions throughout the world acknowledge that there is but one great Spirit who is creator. There is strong evidence that this is their most ancient belief and that spirit-appeasement and belief in a multiplicity of gods is a more recent aberration (these findings are consistent with Romans 1:19-25).
Missionaries have frequently discovered that God has placed in heathen religions and traditions, seed truths that prepare them for the Gospel. Don Richardson provides fascinating insights into this. You will be deeply moved by these astounding examples of God at work in heathen people.
It is groundless presumption to imagine that people have received no Christian revelation merely because they have had no contact with the Bible or with Christians. We have no way of knowing what God has revealed to people by such means as dreams and visions. People could mentally suppress such revelations or refuse to admit to having had these experiences. Moreover, we do not know how much more God would have revealed to them had they acted on the little they had been given. God, who knows each person’s heart, is unlikely to squander additional revelation on people who refuse to respond to the revelation they have already been given. And yet even the little we do know of this subject is astounding.
In Muslim Encounters with Jesus we find examples of God supernaturally revealing himself to Muslims living in countries where to varying degrees the Gospel is suppressed. These are just a few of the stories that reach our ears about those who risk their lives to become Christians. There are no doubt very many incidents that we never get to hear of because the people receiving revelations prefer to reject them and never mention them to a living soul. This is just the tiniest indication of the enormous work that God does within the hearts and minds of people around the world whom we imagine to be cut off from the Christian message.
Revelation 7:9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb . . . (10) And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’
What a stirring Scripture! Yet it would seem undeniable that many tribes and languages died out before the Gospel could reach them. Did some of that multitude gain access to heaven through Jesus by their earthly repentance and faith, without having heard of Jesus?
Those who know nothing of Jesus still have the divinely-given testimony of creation, and God’s dealings through natural events. Next, they have their own conscience and the fact that as Ecclesiastes 3:11 puts it, God has put eternity in their hearts. In addition, first through Adam and then through Noah, all racial groups are descended from people who knew the true God. Somewhere in their traditions and culture is likely to be a dim memory of this, reinforced, perhaps, by some contact in the less distant past with other people groups whose religious beliefs were more pure (see, if you haven’t already, Astounding Examples). The Jews, for instance, were scattered far and wide. (See Evidence) In pre-Christian times Jews influenced and converted Gentiles far more than is commonly realized. (See Ancient Jewish Missionary Activity) Then there are those like the Queen of Sheba in Solomon’s reign and the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth, in whom God puts the yearning to travel to a place where they could increase their spiritual understanding and then return to their own people with a story to tell. Other possibilities include divine visions and dreams given to pagans (Biblical examples) and answers to prayer, such as given to the sailors in Jonah’s ship (Scripture). Astounding examples contains extra-biblical accounts of such occurrences. Finally, despite the fact that they have not lived up to the light available to them, and so (like all of us) deserve God’s judgment, if they repent and trust God for forgiveness, there is apparently a sense in which God overlooks certain practices and/or ignorance until they become fully accountable by coming into contact with the gospel. Even in Israel, Christ’s coming brought about the rising and falling of many (Luke 2:34). Perhaps this is even more pronounced with the coming of the Gospel to heathen peoples, (cf 2 Corinthians 2:15-16) with those accepting the message soaring to new spiritual realms and those rejecting it plunging into deeper accountability. (Note 4)
(For confirmation from Strong’s Systematic Theology of the above views, see Quote.)
Being born into a people group that does not have the gospel is a key factor in people not hearing the gospel. It is inevitable that children suffer for the sins of their parents, whether it be such things as newborn babies affected by their mother’s sexually transmitted disease, or children descended from people who have rejected knowledge of the true God. We are tempted to think it unfair that children should suffer because of their parents’ sins, but consider the alternative: had their ancestors been prevented from having children, these people would not merely have not suffered, they would not even exist. Nevertheless, it takes divine wisdom to balance tolerance (which gives people the chance to repent – Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) and the devastation that people can cause by abusing that tolerance. So there are people, like the tribes in Canaan at a certain point in their history, (Genesis 15:16) whose sins against the light they have becomes so great that they fall under the judgment of God and are destroyed, thus preventing them for having children and spreading their evil.
The sad fact is that people miss out on hearing the gospel because of the disobedience of others. We’ve mentioned the role of ancestors. The other factor is the disobedience of Christians who have failed to spread the Gospel. Like it or not, God has given humans immense dignity by entrusting to them huge responsibilities. (Acts 20:26-27; 1 Corinthians 9:16)
Human speculation (and mine in particular) is fallible. Nevertheless, you can relax. God is perfectly good, wise, fair, merciful, and so on. He really is. Do you think he needs lessons from us on how to love? You don’t have to work it all out, nor figure God out. He is so trustworthy that you can just hand the whole matter over to him and not worry about it again. After all, judging the world is God’s responsibility, not ours. No one else is marginally qualified to judge the world. He alone knows all the facts and has all the answers. The Lord is more loving, wiser, more fair and compassionate than you and I could ever hope to be. There’s no need to wring our hands wondering whether he is up to the task!
The bottom line is that God is God. He is our judge, not vice versa. His love, justice and goodness are above reproach. His morality is not on trial, ours is. It is not for us to worry about the judging of those who haven’t heard; it’s for us to concern ourselves with the fact that we have heard and we will therefore face the Judge fully accountable. (If this concerns you, see You can find love.) We are commanded to have no other gods. We are commanded to preach the Gospel to the ends – of the world. Woe to us if we disregard these commands.
In southwest Africa, long before the arrival of missionaries, many Camaroons were caught in a storm while fishing. When his canoe capsized, the chief was in a quandary as to whom he should cry for help. Reasoning that the god of the hills could not help, and that the evil spirit would not help, he prayed to the ‘Great Father’ to save him. Immediately his feet touched the beach. He was one of the few in the party who survived. He gathered his people together and recounted the story, concluding, ‘Now let all my people honor the Great Father, and let no one speak a word against him, for he can save us.’ Thereafter he became renowned as a man of peace, making every effort to prevent strife and bloodshed.
His son related the story to missionary Alfred Saker, saying, ‘Why did you not come sooner? My father thirsted for the knowledge of God.’ (Reference)
We might not have all the details as to how God will judge the Gospel-ignorant, but we know it will be good, just, wise, compassionate and perfect, because that is the very nature of God. And judgment will be made with full knowledge of every fact. In stark contrast to human guesses, humanity’s Judge is fully trustworthy. I urge you to read a carefully chosen selection of Scriptures that underlines this point. It is appropriate to end with the Word of God because God will indeed have the last word on this and every other matter. And that’s reassuring. It is also the best part of this webpage. Our Perfect Judge: Scriptures
Revelation 5:9 . . . ‘You are worthy, because you were slain, and with your
blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
(10) You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’
1 Timothy 2:3 . . . God our Savior, (4) who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Revelation 5:9 . . . ‘You are worthy, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (10) You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’
Not to be sold. © Copyright, 1998, Grantley Morris. Not to be copied in whole or in part without citing this entire paragraph. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings by Grantley Morris available free at the following internet site www.net-burst.net Freely you have received, freely give.
Special Scriptures Gentiles in pre-Christian times could enjoy the full benefits of God’s people
God at work OT accounts of God revealing himself to people who did not join them themselves to Israel
Astounding Examples God’s revelation to heathen before missionary contact
Muslim Encounters with Jesus Muslims converted to Christianity through supernatural dreams or visions
Our Perfect Judge Inspiring Scriptures
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version
© Copyright, 1978 by New York International Bible Society