What will God do with people who have never heard about Jesus?

I'm baby octopus, and I approve this message
I’m baby octopus, and I approve this message

The baby octopus is there for no particular reason, because this is a theology post. Still, he is quite cute, don’t you think?

One of the most difficult questions for Christians to answer, especially when posed by adherents of other religions, is the question of what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus? In this post, I will explain how progress in the field of philosophy of religion has given us a possible (and Biblical) solution to this thorny question.

First, Christianity teaches that humans are in a natural state of rebellion against God. We don’t want to know about him, and we don’t want him to have any say in what we are doing. We just want to appropriate all the gifts he’s given us, do whatever we want with them, and then have eternal bliss after we die. We want to do whatever we want and then be forgiven, later.

Along comes Jesus, who, through his sinless life and his death on the cross, heals that rift of rebellion between an all-good God and rebellious man. Now we have a real understanding of the fact that God is real, that he has power over death, and that he has very specific ideas on what we should be doing. If we accept Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and follow his teachings, we can avoid the penalty of our rebellion.

The only problem is that in order to appropriate that free gift of reconciliation, people need to actually know about Jesus. And there are some people in the world who have not even heard of him. Is it fair that these other people will be eternally separated from God, just because they happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Enter famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig to save the day. His solution is that God orders the world in such a way that anyone who would freely choose to acknowledge Jesus and appropriate his teachings in their decision-making will be given eternal life. God knows in advance who would respond, and chooses their time and place of birth, and he supplies them with the amount of evidence they need.

And this agrees with what the Bible teaches. The apostle Paul says this in his apologetic on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31:

22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.
23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘ N D ‘ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;
25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things;
26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,
27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’
29 “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent,
31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

This passage is not difficult to understand, although some may find it difficult to accept. According to the Bible, God puts us in the best possible place for us to respond to him, and if we don’t, we are responsible. We decide how to respond to God’s efforts to make himself known to us. We would never find him ourselves, but he takes the initiative to reveal himself, without being coercive. It falls to us to investigate and find the clues, and re-prioritize our lives according to what we find.

In this research paper, Craig explains in detail how God foreknows how people will choose in every set of circumstances, and how God uses that knowledge to get everyone where they need to be without violating their free will. God wants the best for everybody, and has ordered to whole universe in order to give each of us our best opportunity for eternal life.

Here is a summary of the what is in his paper:

The conviction of the New Testament writers was that there is no salvation apart from Jesus. This orthodox doctrine is widely rejected today because God’s condemnation of persons in other world religions seems incompatible with various attributes of God.

Analysis reveals the real problem to involve certain counterfactuals of freedom, e.g., why did not God create a world in which all people would freely believe in Christ and be saved? Such questions presuppose that God possesses middle knowledge. But it can be shown that no inconsistency exists between God’s having middle knowledge and certain persons’ being damned; on the contrary, it can be positively shown that these two notions are compatible.

Go read this paper and equip yourself to answer this common question!

9 thoughts on “What will God do with people who have never heard about Jesus?”

  1. “One of the most difficult questions for Christians to answer, especially when posed by adherents of other religions, is the question of what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus? ”

    A good response was offered. But we don’t even need to get that complicated. According to Christian theology, the standard for heaven is moral perfection. So, if there is a person somewhere in the world who has lived a morally perfect life, they will go to heaven. Now, we as Christians know there’s no one like that. But you can allow non Christians to think about it.

    You can also use the angle that the Bible teaches we will be judged according to what we have done. You can ask them if you think there’s a person in the world who has never, ever, not once done, said, or even thought one wrong thing. Let them chew on that.

    The important thing to do in these situations is to always bring it back to the person:

    “We’ve been talking in the abstract about other people who have not heard about Jesus. Let’s leave that aside just for a moment. You have heard of Jesus. What are you going to do about THAT?”

    People love to bring up hypothetical situations like this. Yes, sometimes it is a genuine question and difficulty for them. Sometimes, giving a response to it helps someone move closer to considering the gospel for themselves. I think that’s especially true when it’s a younger person asking it.

    But let’s face it – a lot of the time, it’s just avoidance so they don’t have to deal with the Jesus question as it applies to them.

  2. Agreed, Mo, that it often changing the subject away from themselves. Craig’s solution has an elegance and the Scripture is a possible backing for it. Nothing wrong there.

    But what about also God judging them as he judged all those before Christ? Scripture tells us that the laws of God are written on our hearts, so we are all equipped with moral knowledge. However the perfect Judge chose to judge those before Christ could certainly be another possible way he would choose those who have truly never heard of Christ or the Gospel.

    1. @ rodthomson

      “Scripture tells us that the laws of God are written on our hearts, so we are all equipped with moral knowledge.”

      Yes, that is true. That’s why we are judged on what we have done. Deep inside we KNOW when we do wrong, even if we don’t want to admit it!

  3. There is another view point of this topic.

    In his book ‘New Wine for the End Times’, Philip B. Brown advocates the following position (http://newwine.org/Articles/ProblemsSolved.htm#Heard):

    ‘Those Who Die Having Never Heard about Christ’

    ‘Would a loving God have a merciful plan for our loved ones who have died having never heard or understood about Jesus Christ? This basic question has given rise to Unitarian Universalism churches as well as Christian Universalism. The New Wine System shows how everyone will have the opportunity to learn about Christ during the millennium, and will have the opportunity to mature in Christ to receive eternal life. This includes Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. But unlike Christian Universalism, the New Wine System recognizes that many people will deliberately and knowingly reject Christ as Savior, and will be eternally punished. This major Church divider is solved by applying Old Testament Jewish eschatology to the New Testament Church.’

    ‘With the millennium as a free-grace alternative to purgatory, and with the resurrection of both the just and the unjust a thousand years prior to the final judgment, the millennium provides an opportunity to mature in Christ for even those who have never heard about Christ. God is a God of second chances. But traditional doctrines of election have forced the conclusion that God is a God of no chance for most people who have died over the centuries. Would not a perfect God have a perfect plan that shows no favoritism towards anyone? Would not a perfect God, who let his Son Jesus Christ die as an atonement for all our sins, provide some way for everyone in the world to benefit from that sacrifice? The Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement says no. But our hearts say that was not God’s plan. That is not the Father’s heart.’

    I will fast forward to his next point(s):

    ‘But the New Wine System is not trapped by this idea that everyone goes to heaven or hell when we die. The New Wine System literally applies Old Testament Jewish eschatology to the New Testament Church. Therefore, like Old Testament Jewish teaching, everyone awaits the resurrection in Hades (the grave) when we die.’

    ‘An ancient Jew who is trained in Old Testament teaching would not see these verses as talking about a future salvation. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). From the Jewish perspective, you are forgiven when the sacrifice is made. Thus, an ancient Jewish person reading these verses would say that everyone is already saved because Christ already died for all of us.’

    ‘Without salvation election, there is no basis for the Reformed Protestant position of “once saved always saved.” If you deliberately and knowingly reject Christ’s salvation, you will forfeit your salvation, and you can’t get it back again. This is the unpardonable sin, like blasphemy of the Holy Spirit or taking the mark of the beast.’

    ‘Hebrews 6:4-6 ESV For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, (5) and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, (6) and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt’.

    ‘This verse cannot be talking about those who were never saved, because it’s about those who “have shared in the Holy Spirit.” And it’s not talking about a weak moment of sin for which you can repent. No, this verse says it’s impossible to restore again to repentance because it would require the crucifixion of Christ all over again. The only possible conclusion to all these verses is that everyone is saved already, but that you can forfeit your salvation. In other words, God has saved everybody. Everyone can be resurrected from that grave, which is salvation. But everybody must eventually mature in Christ to overcome all our sinful habits before we can receive eternal life. Eventually, everyone will hear Christ’s voice be drawn to Christ by the Holy Spirit. But some will reject Christ’s salvation and lose it.’

    ‘Salvation is not a one-time decision. Salvation is a journey that everybody is on. But at some point in that journey, you will hear God’s voice. Those whose hearts are hardened and are unwilling to change will eventually reject God’s voice and will lose their salvation. But death is not the end of this journey. The final great white throne judgment is not until a thousand years after the resurrection of both the just and the unjust.’

    ‘The Messianic reign of Christ is a climatic and necessary part of God’s plan. And without it, one’s understanding of Scripture becomes vastly distorted. But once we place the New Testament Church in the role of Old Testament Israel, it all comes together. All the problems of Scripture are solved. No verse of Scripture is difficult to understand. No verse of Scripture requires elaborate explanations.’

  4. Molinism appears to be an answer to the Calvinist position of determinism. I’ll read the paper as I’m still getting my head around the middle knowledge part but i think it does make sense.

  5. Craig (obviously) is dependent on the Molinist view. How, therefore, is this a useful argument for the many, many Xians who reject Molinism? This includes not just our Calvinist and Arminian brothers and sisters but even guys like Geisler who posit a moderate Calvinist position and would likewise be pretty comfortable with a moderate Arminian position.

    While I believe that I may be pretty comfortable with Molinism myself, I’m not sure that I see how this argument works well as an apologetic tool when so many people would reject the underlying presuppositions.

  6. Doesn’t Calvinism supply an answer to this? You are not saved by your choice – you are saved by God’s choice. God chooses to save who He will and our choices are irrelevant. This means that a person who has never heard of Jesus could be saved and not know it yet.

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