One of the most important questions facing the church today is, “What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?” What about the people who never hear the gospel?
Those Who Don’t Hear the Gospel
There are over a billion people who have never even heard the name of Jesus.
When we think about a billion and a half people who haven’t even heard his name, we begin to ask questions like, “Well, if God is loving and if God is gracious then those people certainly wouldn’t go to hell, would they?
What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?”
I think Scripture can help us answer this question in the book of Romans. Why did Paul write this letter to the Romans?
But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.
They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ (Rom. 15:23-29).
Paul did not write the book of Romans just to give us a good systematic theology of the gospel. He wrote this book because he wanted these people to know the greatness of the gospel. He wanted to compel them to help him on his way to Spain.
An Opportunity to Tell and Hear the Gospel
Sometimes when people go on mission trips they will send out support letters. It will say something along the lines of, “Hey, this is an opportunity God has given to me to go overseas and I want to write you and tell you about it and ask you to pray for me and if the Lord leads you please help me out financially to enable me to go on this trip.” I think that’s what Paul is doing in the book of Romans. He’s writing a missionary support letter. Paul is writing to convince people of the need to take this gospel to people who have never heard it before in Spain. And as a result, when it comes to the question of what happens to people who never hear about Jesus, I think the ramifications of this letter are huge.
Reasons Why People Need to Hear the Gospel
In Romans 1:18 Paul begins his support letter with why these people need to hear the gospel.
“The wrath of God,” Paul says, “is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-21).
All people know God the Father.
All people in all of history know God the Father. Whether it be those of us here, the guy in the jungle in Africa, the person in the village in Asia, or anywhere in between, all people have knowledge of God. The Bible says it is being revealed continually. The wrath of God, the character of God, revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men. We know that God exists because we see his handiwork around us when we look at creation. We can see that it didn’t just happen by chance. There is a God who is behind it. He reveals his character through creation, continually. There is no question–people know. It is continually being revealed by creation. It is clear, and it is sufficient so that all men are without excuse.
All people reject true knowledge of God.
All people reject true knowledge of God. “For although they knew God,” (all people know God), “they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:21-23). In other words, they rejected true knowledge of God. They began to worship idols and images that they created.
Every single one of us has rejected true knowledge of God. This is a fundamental point that we often misunderstand when it comes to this question of what happens to people that never hear about Jesus.
We are all guilty of idolatry. We are all guilty of worshipping something other than God. This includes our jobs, our careers, our houses, our possessions, or whatever it is in our lives that we have put on a pedestal. Whatever is taking the rightful worship that God is due and putting it on something else, that’s idolatry. Whether it’s the person in the jungle worshiping a sun god or the businessman worshiping his investment plan. Either way, it is idolatry. All people–those here, those in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East–all have rejected true knowledge of God.
There are no innocent people in the world.
“There is no one righteous, not even one. And there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
If you were to ask me, “But David, what happens to the innocent guy in Africa who has never heard of the gospel before?” I would look at you. I would say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I believe that person would go to heaven. “What happens to the innocent guy in the village in Asia who has never heard the gospel before?” I believe with all my heart that that person would go to heaven.
Now before you begin to label me a heretic, let me remind you that if there is an innocent guy in Africa or Asia who has never heard the gospel before, if he is innocent, then the doesn’t have a need for a Savior. He hasn’t done anything wrong. So why would he be separated from God? If he is innocent, then he has a relationship with God. He doesn’t need the blood of Christ to save him.
There is no innocent guy in Africa or Asia. Every one of us, every single one of us, rejected the knowledge of God. And we are not innocent.
We get this idea from our culture that the default is heaven. It’s not biblical. The default is not heaven. The default is hell. We sinned against God and we deserve separation from him forever.
All people are condemned for rejecting God.
“We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20). Because all of us stand before God with sin in our lives, all of us have disobeyed God. We stand before him accountable for our sin and we stand before him deserving separation from him.
Some people will say, and I think it’s a valid question, “Well, what about somebody in another place that’s never heard the gospel before, never heard the name of Jesus. Would God, a loving and gracious God, really send that person to hell for rejecting Jesus, even though they never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus?”
Do you think it would be loving or just of God to send someone to hell for rejecting a Christ that they never even heard about? I don’t think it would be. I don’t think that people would be sent to hell for rejecting a Christ that they never even had the opportunity to hear about. But don’t miss the point of this passage: all people are still condemned for rejecting God.
Why We Need to Enable Others to Hear the Gospel
You may think, “Surely, if they haven’t heard of Jesus, then they get a pass somehow on this thing. They aren’t held accountable to the same thing that we are held accountable to.” And obviously, yes, they have a different level of knowledge. They never heard the name of Jesus. But I want you to think about it with me. What are the ramifications? If someone gets a pass simply because they have not heard of Jesus, this would completely deter the missionary enterprise of the church.
If the people in the middle of the jungle in Africa are okay and are headed to heaven, simply, or precisely, because they have never heard the name of Jesus, then the worst thing we could do is go and tell them about Jesus, right? By telling them about Jesus we would increase their chances of condemnation.
Think about how this looks practically.
Imagine going onto a college campus where there are people who still have never heard the name of Jesus. Imagine walking up to an international student on that college campus and saying, “Have you heard about Jesus?” And they respond, “No, I never heard of Jesus.”
If that person gets a free pass simply because they have not heard about Jesus, then what would you do in that situation? You would pull them aside and say, “Okay, if anybody tries to tell you about Him, then immediately put your fingers in your ears and begin yelling really loudly and run away.”
Now, we know that that’s not biblical. Scripture instructs us to take salvation, to take this gospel to the ends of the earth. There is condemnation for all people for rejecting God. And as a result, we need to take the gospel to them.
This post was adapted from the sermon entitled “An All-Encompassing Vision” from the Unstoppable message series by David Platt.