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What happens to those who never hear the gospel?

There are two possible answers to this question, that is, aside from the pat answer, based on Romans 2:12, that people who are without the law are judged outside the law. That never seems to satisfy anyone, because it doesn’t really address the problem that there is only one Name under heaven by which we can be saved, and that is Jesus Christ.

There are two theoretical possibilities, neither of which is affirmed by Scripture. They are:

The First Possibility

The first possibility is that those who never get to hear the gospel will be okay. The problem with this possibility  is the criterion that God uses to decide who goes to heaven. If we affirm this possibility, we fall quickly into Pelagianism and salvation by works. (I notice that the old controversy between salvation by faith and salvation by works is dead; in practice, most people today really believe in salvation by marriage and parenthood. You’ve heard people say about the recently deceased, “He was a nice guy, he was faithful to his wife—except for that time in Las Vegas—and he’s raised two good kids, so he’ll be okay.” )

But the real problem is that if we knew this to be the answer, we would hesitate to send missionaries or to spread the word. Suppose that someone would have been saved, except that when we tried to evangelize them, our amateurish, klutzy approach turned them off and caused them to reject Jesus. Then our evangelism would spoil everything, causing people to go to hell rather than heaven, and we’d be better off staying home and keeping our mouths shut! We would end up disobedient to the commandment to go into all the world and preach the gospel. So to prevent our disobedience, Scripture does not give us this as the answer.

The Second Possibility

The second possibility is that those who never get to hear the gospel will go to hell. The problem with this possibility is that we would rebel against God’s arbitrary unfairness. And in doing so, we would only demonstrate that we mastered the lesson that God is righteous and just. We would get mad at God for sending people to hell for what amounts to bad luck, and we would rebel against more than just the commandment to evangelize, we’d break off our fellowship with God. So to prevent us from this sin, Scripture does not give us this as the the answer either. It would imply that God delights in sending people to hell, but Scripture says:

[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
—2 Peter 3:9b, NIV

In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
—Matthew 18:14, NIV

So we stand reproved for attributing human passions and imperfections to God. We jump with glee and clap our hands when the jury consigns a mass murderer to the electric chair, but God does not. To God our delight is a sickening stench, it is like a riot in cell block nine, in which a band of murderers arrogantly cheer their fellow inmate’s demise.

The Question Again

But let’s go back and examine this question again. It assumes that there is a place that does not belong to God and that there are events beyond God’s control—but that is not true. All things are the Lord’s, and all people are the work of His hands. If God went to all the trouble to die on the cross to save sinners, and if it is His will that no one will perish, then we can certainly trust God to do the right thing. If we have a problem with this one, then imagine how big a problem God has with this, since He’s the one who died on the cross. It’s no armchair speculation for Him! So I’m sure He’s worked out a solution. But God is under no obligation to tell us all His secrets. There are many things we do not know on this side of the veil:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part
—1 Corinthians 13:9, NIV

God has a number of tricks up His sleeve that we do not know about:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
—John 10:16, NIV

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
—John 21:25, NIV

The Answer—for Now

So the real answer to this question is that there are more possibilities. Or the answer is another question, namely, “Where is your faith? Do you not trust God with His own creatures?” In human courts, people are sometimes condemned or set free on a technicality—but are we really so daft to think such a thing is possible with God?

It is true that there is only one Name under heaven by which we can be saved, and that is Jesus Christ. However, that salvation is not based on our discernment of who is a Christian, but on Jesus’ discernment of who belongs to Him. This not a call to disobey Jesus’ commandment to preach the gospel; it is a consolation that equips us to persevere when our efforts seem to fail.

When we meet our Lord, whether we go to Him in death or He comes to us upon the clouds—when the perfect comes and all the secrets are shouted from the housetops—we will spend a lot of time in glory, slapping our foreheads and rejoicing, “Oh, so that’s it! I get it now! Oh, I see! How could I have missed that one! Oh, so that’s how it all worked out!”

Until then, we have our faith to sustain us and Jesus’ commandments to keep us busy. Idle speculation saves no souls and perfects no one’s obedience.