A first-century Jew is living very far from Jerusalem and never heard of Jesus during his living ministry. Jesus died for the sins of the world and was raised from the dead, and this particular Jew did not even hear that message. Jesus tells us that if one does put their trust in him, they will die in their sins (John 3:18). Does that include that man? What about his children, who never hear about Jesus? Suppose they immigrate somewhere even further away, and an entire generation of people never heard the gospel. What about the Native Americans, who were not exposed to Christian theology? What happens to those who have never heard about Jesus?
Some have reconciled this just by saying that those who never hear the gospel, and never have a chance to deny it, will never be condemned. Of course that puts us in the awkward position with regard to the Great Commission. We are to preach the gospel to everybody (Matthew 28:19). But if a person hears the gospel and rejects it, he would have been better off if he never heard it. He would have just been annihilated at death. But by preaching the gospel to him, we sentence him to Hell. As such, on this view, it turns out that we do a disservice to a man by preaching the gospel to him.
But does God do a disservice to men by condeming them? After all, how can they be charged with wrong, when they were simply born in the wrong time and at the wrong place? I think we need to be careful when tempted to call God unfair. After all, God is the standard by which all righteousness and fairness is measured. We need to trust him to do what is right, because he is more righteous than we are. We do not hold back his hand or ask him, “what have you done?” (Daniel 4:34-35). However this is still not a small issue and is something that we can wrestle with. So, what happens to those who have never heard about Jesus?
People are condemned for their sins. The question, ‘what happens to those who have never heard about Jesus?’ has an implication that people are condemned for their lack of belief. The truth is that they are condemned for the sins that they have committed. They lived a life in which they lied, stole things, blasphemed the name of God, and committed all sorts of immorality. God requires absolute moral perfection in thought, word, and deed, a feat that no man can accomplish (Matthew 19:26). Like any good judge, he cannot turn a blind eye to sin. He must punish the guilty.
Now we may say that there are people who live pretty decent lives, who are generally nice people. I am sure that they are. But here is the problem. Our moral standard is very low. God’s moral standard is very high. When I see a nice person, I see someone who is just like me, that is, a fallen creature in a fallen world who is in desperate need of God’s grace. When God sees man, he sees a guilty criminal standing in the courtroom. This person is condemned for the crimes that they committed.
But it is not God’s will that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). He wants all men to put their trust in Christ and be born again. So he cries out that he has longed to gather the people into himself, but that they were not willing (Matthew 23:37). It is often the case that even those who hear the gospel are not willing to respond to it. But still, God wants everybody to come in to saving grace.
Therefore, if a person really is seeking God, God will make his existence evident to them. He will make his truth evident to those who are seeking. The Bible tells us that if you draw near to God, God will draw near to you (James 4:8). In fact, the early patriarchs were prime examples of this. Abraham lived in a Pagan nation engulfed in the tradition of his father. But God told him to leave everything behind and follow him (Genesis 12:1). Job lived in a Pagan nation and was called by God as well. God is not limited by our culture. He can dive into the deepest recesses of human filth and retrieve his people.
Those who would respond, are offered the gospel. God is not doing anybody a disservice by not presenting a gospel message to them. Why? Those who have never heard the gospel, would not have replied to it anyway. Of course, God may sometimes tell us to preach it anyway (as he tells us to preach without reservation), like he did with Ezekiel. But the point is that those who do not hear it, would not have replied. God provides for those who would have replied.
The problem of the unevangelized is a philosophical quagmire, more than it is a biblical one. But this reconcilation seems to solve the problem. Doctor Bill Craig rightly points out here, “I suggest that it’s possible that God, desiring that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (I Tim. 2.4), has so providentially ordered the world that anyone who would believe in the Gospel if he heard it is born at a time and place in history where he does in fact hear it. In that case, no one could stand before God on the Judgement Day and complain that, while he may not have responded to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience and so finds himself condemned, he would have responded to the Gospel if only he had had the chance.”
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