Sooner or later (and especially if you’re trying to guilt people on to the mission field) we all are asked that all-important question: What about those who never had the chance to hear about Jesus?
Let’s look together at some basic principles found in the Bible and see if we can find out what it says about the destiny of those who’ve never heard about Jesus.
First, in Genesis, the patriarch Abraham faces some challenges he can’t easily reconcile with God’s promises. He arrives at a conclusion through his experience (one that has been reached by all those who have trusted God): “Will not the God of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).
Abraham was fully prepared to say without qualification that whatever happens on this earth, God will have done what is right and just. This fact is what we can fall back upon whenever faced with something we don’t fully understand. This is a faith we arrive at after many rescues or years of experiencing God’s trustworthiness.
The psalmist David was in no doubt that whatever happened in life (plenty of bad news came his way), God could be relied upon to be both righteous and loving in all that he does (Ps. 145:17).
The New Testament writers also shared this confidence in God. Jesus affirmed that God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish (Lk. 6:35) and that the rain was made to fall upon the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:43–45). The apostle Paul asserted that God’s kindness was meant to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
With these convictions as our beginning assumption, we may now ask what happens to those who have never heard the name of Jesus and be at rest knowing that God has always been, and always will be, in every situation both just and kind.
There is no fairer or more just Being in all the universe than God, for righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne (i.e., the basic pillars and principles of God’s rule and reign [Ps. 89:14]).
There are still a few more hints in the New Testament we can factor in to our thinking. For example, in 1 Peter 3, there is a mysterious passage that forms the basis for the statement in the Apostles’ Creed that, after his crucifixion and before his resurrection, Jesus descended into hell (1 Pet. 3:18–20).
In every century since it was first penned, commentators have tried to figure out what Jesus was doing in the short period between his death and resurrection. One theory is that Jesus descended into hell to proclaim the knowledge of salvation to all who lived prior to his saving work. No other references suggest to us what occurred in these critical hours.
While we don’t know exactly what occurred—our fallen natures tend to distort what we see so we aren’t really in the best position to judge the actions or decisions of our Creator. However, we can trust that God was accomplishing his good plans and purposes completely unknown to us. The statement that Jesus went to preach to the spirits in prison before his resurrection does give us reason to think that the issue of fairness and justice to those who lived prior to Jesus was in God’s mind before it was in ours.
Our questions of right and wrong don’t catch God off guard. In fact, we may assume that if the matter of justice is to be raised at all, it originates with God, the Creator of justice.
Also, it makes sense to think that if Jesus did preach the Gospel of salvation to those who had no opportunity to hear it, there may be a great variety of other ways of declaring the Gospel to such people that God never needs to share with us. What we’re told clearly is to do everything in our power to make the Gospel known to all those of our generation (Mt. 28:19–20). Only God can fill the role of God. We can’t.
Ultimately, if Jesus is the only way to God, there will always be people in situations and in regions of the world we can’t easily categorize. For all those dwelling on the earth for whom an answer isn’t immediately evident, we may fall back upon the ultimate wisdom and justice of God. Whatever else we may guess or think, we may say confidently about them, “Last seen in the hands of God.”