What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
“What about the countless millions of people who have died without ever hearing the gospel? Do they spend eternity in hell for not believing a message they’ve never heard?”
The answer, in short, is no. People who have never heard the gospel do not go to hell because they haven’t heard it. Everyone who has ever gone (or will ever go) to hell is there because they have sinned against God… period.
God, as a holy, righteous and just judge has no obligation to offer salvation to anyone. God would be perfectly just if He sent everyone to hell without any chance of salvation. We hear of no plan of salvation for the angels who sinned against God; and that, in no way, takes away from God’s goodness. So before going further into answering the question about the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, it’s important to understand that God owes nothing to those who have sinned against Him.
With that being said, the bible doesn’t only say that God is good, holy, righteous and just… it also says that He is loving, forgiving, and merciful. So lets look at what the bible says about this issue.
First, God has revealed Himself to all mankind whether they have heard the gospel or not. He has revealed Himself through creation (Romans 1:18-20) and through our consciences (Romans 2:12-15). This is what theologians call “General Revelation”. There are certain, general things we all know about God just by existing. We don’t have to be raised in church to know that God exists – all we have to do is look at creation to know that there is a creator. We don’t need the bible to know that we have sinned against God, all we have to do is judge ourselves according to our own moral standard. We all intuitively know that certain things are right, and certain things are wrong, and we, at times, willingly choose to refrain from doing the right things, and take part in doing the wrong things anyways. In other words, we don’t even live up to our own moral standards, much less God’s.
Therefore the problem is not that God hasn’t revealed Himself. The problem is that “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11).
So in that sense, yes – we will be judged on the basis of what we know, and we all know enough truth about God to condemn us. The problem is that we often “suppress the truth by [our] wickedness” (Romans 1:18).
General Revelation is only good enough to condemn us – it is not sufficient to save us. There is another type of revelation that is sufficient to save us, but unlike General Revelation, it is not accessible to all people at all times. This is what theologians refer to as “Special Revelation”. Special Revelation is when God reveals information about Himself to us that we otherwise wouldn’t have known. Things such as the Trinity, the existence of angels, the terror of hell, the glory of Heaven, the beauty of the gospel, etc… none of these things would be known to us unless God revealed them to us in a special way. Throughout history, God has given us Special Revelation “at many times and in various ways…” (such as: angelic visitations, prophetic proclamation, His written word, etc.), “but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
The gospel message is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), but it is only available to those who hear it.
Response to General Revelation Grants Special Revelation
The bible teaches that if we respond positively to General Revelation, He will grant us Special Revelation.
“But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” Duet 4:29
There are not only promises and examples of this in scripture (Acts 10), but there are countless stories of this throughout history. If we acknowledge the evidence of God in creation, and we respond with Godly sorrow to the fact that we have sinned against Him, He will grant us repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). However, conversely, if we reject, or suppress General Revelation, God is not obligated to grant us any other revelation.
In short, no – people do not go to hell for not hearing the gospel; they go to hell for sinning against God and suppressing the truth about Him in their wickedness. However, if someone responds positively to General Revelation with godly sorrow, God will grant them Special Revelation that could save them.