I’ve heard the question more times than I can count: “If people are only saved by believing the gospel, what about those who have never heard the gospel?” The idea that God would throw people into hell who have never heard about Jesus seems unfair, almost arbitrary. It’s like the moment they die, God appears and says, “You didn’t receive Jesus!” And when they say, “Jesus who?” God answers, “It’s too late now!”
So the question inevitably comes up: “What about the innocent native in Africa who has never heard about God? How could God hold him accountable for what he didn’t even know?”
Most Americans have developed a “functional universalism,” where they kind of assume it’s all going to work out in the end. Just about everybody will make it to heaven, except maybe Adolf Hitler and child molesters. Others, including some prominent Christians, opt for a position called “inclusivism.” They say that even though Jesus is the only way of being saved, that if people respond rightly to the good things in their religion, it’s as if they were obeying Christ.
I understand why people want to believe in universalism or inclusivism. But the Bible, particularly Romans 1, paints a different picture of the situation:
1. All people have heard about God.
Paul says that what can be known about God has been made plain to all people (Rom 1:19). Every human being, everywhere, has been made aware of God in two ways.
First, the glory and beauty of creation teaches us that there is a Creator. There is a natural, innate sense of awe and wonder as we look at creation. We look around and instinctively we know that we don’t come from nowhere. Creation screams at us the presence of a glorious, all-powerful Creator.
Second, the presence of a conscience in each of us teaches us that there is a Lawgiver. We know, innately, that there is a right and wrong. When your conscience tells you, “That’s wrong,” that’s an indication that there is someone to whom you ultimately must answer.
2. All people have rejected God.
Since the fall, the human race has been in a posture of rebellion. Even when we reject God’s commands and set our own standards, we don’t keep them because we resist what is right and love what is wrong.
All of us have rejected the glory of God (Rom 1:21–25). We don’t seek God’s glory above all things; we seek our own glory and our own pleasure. Even people who believe in God don’t pay as much attention to him as they do their jobs or what others think of them.
So, because of this posture of rebellion and idolatry, Paul says, our foolish hearts have been darkened, which means that we distort the truth about God when it is presented to us (Rom 1:18). Scripture leaves no ambiguity about how universal this rebellion is: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1–3).
This rejection comes in various forms: outright atheism, in which we refuse to acknowledge God; idolatry, in which we give other things in our lives God-like priority; works-righteousness, in which we keep a list of rules, so that we feel like God owes us good things. All of these have one thing in common: they are expressions of humanity rejecting the authority and goodness of God.
3. All people are guilty before God.
Our hearts naturally hate God and reject his rule, a rejection that culminated in the murder of God’s Son. We hate God so badly that we put him on a cross and say, “Go to hell, God.” Because of this, is it any surprise that we deserve his wrath?
Sometimes we underestimate the wickedness of our sin, as if sin is only really bad if we’re doing drugs or having sex with people we shouldn’t. Those things are wrong, but the core of sin is hatred of God. We’d rather murder him and have him out of the way than submit to him.
All of this means that we are guilty, not because of things we haven’t heard, but because of what we have heard and rejected. The “innocent native in Africa” doesn’t exist. We have all rejected God. Would it be unfair if God condemned us for not hearing about Jesus? Yes. But that’s not why we are condemned: we are condemned because we have rejected the rule of God.
4. Only Christ can save.
The resounding theme of the entire Bible is that salvation is found in God alone. Any mention of religion apart from the one true God is consistently disparaged, even mocked throughout the Old Testament. When Jesus comes on the scene in the New Testament, that theme is crystallized, and we see salvation is found in God alone, through the work of Christ alone.
Many in our culture today hate any mention of exclusivity, but all religious or moral viewpoints are inherently exclusive. Even those who claim to have no religious opinions whatsoever have standards by which they judge certain people “good” and others “bad.” We all have a line for who is in and who is out.
But the gospel of Jesus is a different kind of exclusivity. The gospel teaches us that our acceptance with God is not based on anything about us—not our morality, or our heritage, or our reputation with others. No one who is “in” has any ground to boast about it. God gives salvation as a gift to all who will repent and receive it. As Tim Keller has said, “All religions are exclusive, but Christianity is the most inclusive exclusivity there is.”
5. What is really “not fair” is that any of us have a chance to be saved at all.
One of the reasons we often react so strongly against the idea that God allows some people to go to hell is that we don’t really believe that we ourselves are worthy of hell. The more we are persuaded of our own righteousness, the more the question of God’s justice troubles us.
I have found, however, that the more I sense the noose of God’s judgment rightly around my own neck, the more that I am amazed at the greatness of God’s mercy—not the severity of his justice. When I first see myself as absolutely worthy of hell, then I am ready to understand that magnanimity of God’s grace. This is certainly how it will be when, in God’s presence, we finally see clearly.
Thus, if you find yourself still really troubled about the doctrine of hell rather than amazed at God’s salvation, ask God to help you understand more about your own wickedness and the amazing grace that saved you.
6. It is unfair for those of us who have heard to do nothing.
I was in college when I first became aware of what the doctrine of hell meant personally. As I was reading the first chapters of Romans, it came alive to me that all were condemned, but that salvation was only through Christ. I knew at that moment that I had three choices:
I could deny it, which many Christians do. They change the Bible to fit their preferences. I understand why this is so popular, because it would make so many things easier. I sympathize with those who think this way. But I’d have to ignore too much of the Bible to do this.
I could ignore it, which is probably the most common Christian response today. Perhaps you agree in theory that hell is real, but you live like it’s not a reality. So you do next to nothing to reach your friends, your neighbors, your family, or those around the world. But to paraphrase Martin Luther, to knowingly ignore the truth is neither right nor safe.
Or I could believe and embrace it. I could say, like Isaiah, like Paul, like the missionaries throughout the centuries, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
Charles Spurgeon was once asked his opinion about those who had never heard of Jesus or the gospel. His response sting rings true today: “How can they be saved without ever hearing about Jesus? We should rather ask, how can we be saved if we do nothing to take the gospel to them?”