As a pastor I am periodically asked difficult questions of faith. One question I was asked recently is the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. My response to this person's question is listed below.
One of the perennial questions of Christianity regards the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. After all, if Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to God except through Him (John 14:6), then how do you process the untold millions (in the present and in history) who have never even heard His name or have only a vague or inaccurate picture of Who He is?
The question behind the question is the very heart of God. Is He really loving? Would God condemn someone unfairly? Will there be someone burning for eternity in hell who, under different circumstances, would have trusted in Jesus but didn't have the chance because of the "unluckiness" of their place of birth, the religion that they were raised in, and/or the laziness of Christians in getting the gospel to them?
Scripture makes it very clear that God is loving (1 John 4:7-8), He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), shows no favoritism (Romans 2:11), completely knows people's hearts (Jeremiah 17:10), knows all realities as well as all possible realities (Psalm 139:1-6), desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-6), takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), and is in complete control of the salvation process (2 Thessalonians 2:13). God's salvation plan is universal and His reach is unlimited.
Key verses which show the universality of God's redemptive plan and which assure us that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25) are as follows:
Romans 1:18-23 — God reveals Himself to the heart of every person through creation and also through some kind of personal inner witness (conscience, conviction, etc.). What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:19)
John 1:9 — Jesus is the Light that gives light to every person who enters the world. There is some kind of inner witness given by Jesus to all people.
John 16:7-11 — The Holy Spirit convicts the entire world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Again, another inner witness. Every person, in other words, knows deep down that there is a standard (righteousness), that they don't meet it (sin), and that they are responsible to God for not meeting it (judgment). The universal practice of giving excuses reveals this fact. We know we should do better. We know we are accountable. We know we fall short. Thus, we rationalize, excuse, blameshift, compare ourselves with others, deny the whole conscience thing as a repressive remnant of religion, compensate with extreme morality in other areas, or humbly take responsibility and seek redemption.
Acts 10:34-35 — I love this passage because it should bust our categories a little bit…or at least greatly challenge them. God sees the heart of every person in the world. And if someone fears Him and hungers for righteousness (as prompted only by the Spirit of God), God will accept him and, as in the case of Cornelius, will reveal more and more of Himself to him (dreams, unexpected messengers, inner convictions, missionary, etc.).
Acts 17:26-28 — Not only is it impossible that someone could be born in an "unlucky" place but God has put each person in the exact place and time they need to be in order to find Him. That's how much in control of the salvation process He is.
1 John 2:1-2 — Jesus' death is not only the propitiation for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world. In other words, God's wrath has been completely satisfied in Jesus' death. Nothing prevents reconciliation except the heart of an individual who rejects the conviction of His Spirit and speaks against (i.e., blasphemes) the Spirit's ministry in their heart.
[By the way, that is how I understand blasphemy of the Spirit, mentioned in Matthew 12:31, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 12:10. It has nothing to do with the goofy blasphemy challenges on the internet. Jesus states that every sin will be forgiven except one, speaking against the conviction of the Holy Spirit and His drawing toward Jesus Christ in one's heart. Forgiveness is offered to all. Jesus' atoning death has covered all sins. God's wrath has been completely satisfied in Christ. Thus, the only sin that sends a person to hell is when the Spirit of God moves in a person's heart, convicting them of sin, pointing them to God's mercy, and the person finally and firmly says in their heart, "Shut up, Holy Spirit! I want none of this! Leave me alone!" God alone sees and hears these words of the heart. Note that in the context Jesus mentions this sin, the religious leaders have said nothing verbally about the Holy Spirit. It was a heart thing that only Jesus could see.]
Scripture makes it plain that no one gets to heaven except through Jesus (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). No question. He is the only One who could pay and has paid the infinite debt of sin. But how much a person needs to know and understand about Jesus for salvation is debatable. Obviously OT saints were justified through Jesus' death even though they did not fully grasp the idea of Messiah and sacrificial atonement. Abraham was justified by simply believing God's promise (Genesis 15:6). Thus it is possible for God to justify someone based on the revelation that He has given them and their heart response to it.
Luke 18:9-14 is my favorite passage in this regard. The tax collector in this story knew three basic things: 1) There is a God. 2) I fall short of His standard (sin). And 3) I desperately need God's mercy. Jesus said the tax collector was justified based on his knowledge and heartfelt response to these three simple truths…three truths which clearly point to Jesus Christ, the only Savior from sin.
The fear some people have when you teach these truths is that it will lessen our evangelistic imperative. Actually I think it increases it because it takes the pressure and fear out of it. I am simply a confirmer (witness) of what the Holy Spirit is already doing in a person's heart. I never talk to anyone who hasn't already been confronted by God. I also realize that I am just a seed planter (Matthew 13:1-23). Only God can cause the seed to grow (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). God will accomplish His work. I have the privilege of joining Him in the process. What greater joy and motivation is there?
A classic book on the topic is Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson. It is a missionary, historical perspective showing how, through history, God has prepared people for the gospel even before missionaries have ever stepped foot in their nation/culture. Great book.
Hope that helps. Oh, I would also suggest John MacArthur's commentary on Romans 1. Good stuff. He tells a compelling story of Helen Keller. Anne Sullivan, Keller's teacher and a strong believer in Jesus, desires at one point to teach Helen about God. When Anne broached the topic for the first time, Helen responded, "I already knew Him. I just didn't know His name." Quite a testimony from a woman who was cut off from the sight and sound of God's creation but apparently heard His voice in her heart. Maybe we don't hear it today because we are too consumed with the world's sights and sounds…but that's another sermon for another day.
In the end, I trust my Father. He is the God of all mercy, all grace, and all love. And as Lord of all the earth and Creator of all things, He knows the hearts of all people. As Abraham said, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). He indeed will. And we can trust Him to do so. In the meantime, let's join Him in the ministry of reconciliation.