What happens to the people who have never heard of Christ?

If Jesus is the only way to heaven, what happens to those innocent people who never get to hear about him? These people live and die without hearing a single word of the biblical message. Where do these people stand with God? If Christ is unique and is necessary for redemption, how can one avail himself of this redemption if he has no knowledge of it? How can a good God send someone who hasn’t heard the gospel to hell?

Many times this question is asked not to express a deep concern for the person who dwells in remote parts of the earth, far removed from the exposure of modern media of communication, but to challenge the Word of God, and to relieve oneself from any personal responsibility to God. The way the question is phrased will affect the answer given. When we ask, “What happens to the innocent person who has never heard?”, we are loading the question with significant assumptions. The answer is easy and is obvious. The innocent tribesman who never hears of Christ is in excellent shape, and we need not be anxious about his redemption. The innocent person doesn’t need to hear of Christ. He has no need of redemption. God never punishes innocent people. The innocent person needs no Savior; he can save himself by his innocence.

The assumption of innocence
Are there really innocent people in the world? When the question is framed this way, what is often meant is not a perfect innocence, but a relative innocence. We observe that some people are more wicked than others. Not everyone is a Hitler, not everyone is a Stalin, yet everyone is far from perfect. The Bible says there is no one on earth who could be found perfectly innocent. (Roman 3:10-12) “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” So, if the remote native is not innocent, where is his guilt? Does God punish him for not believing in Christ of whom he never heard?

If God were to punish a person for not responding to a message he had no possibility of hearing, that would be a gross injustice; it would be radically inconsistent with God’s own revealed justice. God never promises that he will make sure that everyone will hear the Gospel. Many have died before without hearing the Gospel and many will die without hearing the gospel too. We can rest assured that no one is ever punished for rejecting Christ if they’ve never heard of Him.

Before we sigh too deep a breath of relief, let us keep in mind that the native is still not off the hook. The unspoken assumption at this point is that the only damnable offense against God, is rejection of Christ. Since the native is not guilty of this we ought to let him alone. In fact letting him alone would be the most helpful and redemptive thing we could do for him. If we go to the native and inform him of Christ, we place his soul in eternal jeopardy. For now he knows of Christ, and if he refuses to respond to Him, he can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse. Hence, the best service we can render is silence – don’t tell him about Jesus.

But what if the above assumption is incorrect? What if there are other damnable offenses against God? What if the person who has never heard of Christ has heard of God the Father and has rejected Him? Is rejection of God the Father as serious as rejection of God the Son?

It is precisely at this point that the New Testament points to the universal guilt of man. The New Testament announces the coming of Christ to a world that had already rejected God the Father. Christ Himself said, “I came not to call the righteous, but the sinner to repentance. Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Matt. 9: 12-13). “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47). Save from what? From the divine wrath!

The biblical response to the question of the person who never heard of Christ is found in Romans 1, beginning with verse 18. This text begins with an awesome announcement of the revelation of the wrath of God: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. Notice that God’s wrath is revealed not against innocence or ignorance but against ungodliness and wickedness. What kind of wickedness? Both the word “ungodliness” and the word “wickedness” are generic terms describing general classes of activity. What is the specific act that is provoking the divine wrath? The answer is clear, the suppressing of truth. What truth is being suppressed?

The rest of the text provides the answer: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (Rom. 1: 19-21). Here the apostle Paul gives us a description of what theologians call “general revelation.” This means simply that God has revealed something generally. The “general” character of the revelation refers to two things, content and audience. The content is general in that it does not provide a detailed description of God. God reveals that He exists, that He has eternal power and deity. The audience is general in that all men receive this revelation. God does not reveal Himself only to a small elite group of scholars or priests but to all mankind.

Five specific things this text teaches about general revelation:

  • It is clear and unambiguous: This knowledge is said to be plain (manifest) to them; that God has shown it to them; that it has been clearly perceived. Thus, this knowledge is not unclear.
  • The knowledge “gets through” and finds its mark: God does not merely provide an available objective revelation of Himself that may or may not be subjectively received. We read, “They knew God.” Man’s problem is not that he doesn’t know God exists, but that he refuses to acknowledge what he knows to be true.
  • This revelation has been going on since the foundation of the world: It is not a once-for-all event but continues in a constant way.
  • The revelation comes by way of creation: God’s invisible nature is revealed “through the things that are made.” The whole creation is a glorious theater which gives a magnificent display of its creator.
  • The revelation is sufficient to render man inexcusable: The passage says, “So they are without excuse.”

None will ever be able to say to God, “I’m sorry I didn’t know you existed. If only I had known I would have worshiped you. I didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to affirm your existence.” – If God has in fact clearly revealed Himself to all men, no man can plead ignorance as an excuse for not worshiping Him. The person who has never heard of Christ can plead ignorance at that point but cannot plead ignorance with respect to God the Father.

But aren’t the people who live in remote areas of the world religious?
Perhaps they worship totem poles, cows, or bee trees. But at least they are sincerely trying and doing the best they can. They surely don’t know any better. If they are born and raised in a culture that worships cows, how can they be expected to do any differently? Aren’t they worshiping the same God without knowing?

The practice of religion does not excuse the pagan but in fact compounds his guilt. How can that be? Rom. 1:22-25 – “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” Pagan religions are distortions of the truth. They worship created images rather than the creator. That’s idolatry. Idolatry represents the ultimate insult to God. God is never pleased with them. To reduce God to the level of the creature is to strip God of His deity. This is particularly hateful to God in light of the fact that all men have received enough revelation about Him to know that He is not a creature. Pagan religion is viewed then not as growing out of an honest attempt to search for God, but out of a fundamental rejection of God’s self-revelation.

How Are the Pagans Judged?
(Read Rom. 2: 15)… The Bible makes it clear that people will be judged according to the light they have received. We read that they do have a law “written on their hearts”. No one keeps the ethic he has, even if he invents it himself. The pagan in a remote African jungle has an ethic. But even that ethic is violated. Thus, he remains exposed to the judgment of God. If a person in a remote area has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father of whom he has heard and for the disobedience to the law that is written in his heart.

If all men have heard of the Father but naturally reject Him, then it follows that all men need to know of the redemption offered in Christ. To have no knowledge of Christ is to be in jeopardy because of the prior rejection of the revelation of the Father. But to hear of Christ and reject Him is to be in a state of double jeopardy. Now not only has the Father been rejected but the Son as well. Thus every time the gospel is proclaimed it bears a two-edged sword. To those who believe, it is the savor of glory. To those who reject, it is death.

Scripture teaches that condemnation is based on the clear rejection of God’s revelation–whether general or specific. General revelation was sent so that all may acknowledge God as God, whereas special revelation (gospel proclamation) was sent so that all may believe in Christ for eternal life (John 20:31). We are saved by grace through faith which comes through the revelation of the word (Rom 10:17-18). And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one” (Acts 17). God is faithful to bring His word (special revelation/gospel proclamation) to all who acknowledge Him as God through the light they have been given.

Dr. R. C. Sproul – Various teaching