What About Those Who’ve Never Heard of Jesus?Adrian Holloway on June 28, 2011 with 0 Comments
“You say Jesus is the only way to heaven, but what about people who’ve never even heard of him? Surely it’s unfair that they can’t go to heaven, because they didn’t even hear of Jesus!”
With the question ‘What about those who’ve never heard the good news about Jesus?’ it’s important to work from the clear to the unclear. Here are five clear principles that affect my attempt to answer it:
(a) We often ask this question because we’re worried that such people might suffer an eternal injustice. So let’s just consider the worst case scenario: someone goes to hell that we don’t think should go to hell. But before we condemn God as unfair, there’s got to be a chance that I don’t know the full story and God does.
My first principle therefore is that when answering a difficult question like this one, it’s going to be important to remember that my perspective is a bit more limited than God’s.
(b) There’s nothing in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus is ultimately going to turn out to be a ‘nasty piece of work’ in the way he judges people. The whole Bible affirms that everyone will be judged absolutely fairly and without favouritism (Romans 2:11).
(c) There’s no way that anyone can ever earn their way into heaven by being good enough. Jesus is the only person who has ever lived a perfect life, and therefore we need the covering of his unique perfection if we’re ever going to get into heaven. There’s no other way in (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Otherwise heaven would become polluted (Revelation 21:27).
(d) No one can offer the excuse that they never knew about God, because God has clearly revealed himself in nature (Romans 1:19–20) and through our conscience (Romans 2:15–16). And no one will be able to offer the excuse that they happened to be born in the ‘wrong’ place. Acts 17:26–27 makes it clear that it doesn’t matter where you live. God still reaches out to you in order for you to be saved.
(e) But the amount of information you need to know about Jesus in order to be ‘saved’ may vary widely. Some Muslims, for example, are converted without ever having met a Christian. They tell of how they encountered Jesus through dreams. Islam has an amazing doctrine of angels, dreams and visions, and God seems to use this to reveal Jesus to people living in some countries where there are relatively few Christians. In fact, one of India’s most famous Christians, Sundar Singh, was converted from Sikhism in this way.
Beyond this we cannot say anything for definite because the Bible goes no further. Perhaps when people respond to the truth they have received (even through a different religion), God gives them more, and if they continue to respond, he will eventually send them the good news about Jesus. Some have speculated that because some people in the Old Testament were saved even without hearing Jesus’ name, huge numbers of people who’ve never heard of Jesus will be saved anyway.
But this idea seems to be at odds with the clear thrust of the New Testament, which is that everyone without a conscious commitment to Christ is in danger of perishing and that’s why Christians are so urgently commanded to tell others (e.g. Jude 23). It also leads to the ridiculous situation whereby Christians could be making things worse for non-Christians by telling them the good news about Jesus (i.e. because if they then reject Jesus they’re definitely lost, whereas previously they were likely to go to heaven because they’d ‘never heard’ the good news). If we’re unhappy with this answer, we may have to suspend judgement on this question for the time being, and have another crack at it later, when some of the related issues have become clearer. Remember, becoming a Christian is about starting a relationship with Jesus, not about understanding every single bit of Christianity on day one.