What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

By Michael R. Licona, Ph.D.

remote tribeMany years ago I had a conversation with a gentleman about religion who made it abundantly clear that he abhorred Christians, Muslims, and Jews who claimed that their particular belief system provides the only way to knowing the true God. After several minutes of listening to an impassioned monologue against exclusivist positions, he paused for a breath. So, I chimed in saying, “I want to be certain that I understand you clearly. You’re saying that it’s wrong for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to claim they are correct and others are mistaken.” He agreed. So, I asked him, “Then why do you believe it’s okay for you to claim you’re correct and the others are all mistaken?” There was a long pause. So I continued, “It seems to me that the intolerance in them you find distasteful is equally present in your view. So, the issue is not tolerance but truth. In other words, the most important question to ask is which worldview is true?”

As I discussed in an earlier article, the New Testament is clear that Jesus believed the only way to God is through him. However, one may ask whether this is fair to those who have never heard the gospel? Will they be condemned to be separated from God eternally when they were unable to embrace a message they never had presented to them? And what is the fate of babies and the mentally handicapped who have died without embracing the gospel of Christ? Will they be eternally separated from God for their failure to embrace a message they were unable to understand?

These are difficult questions deserving thoughtful replies. Since the Bible does not address these issues directly, we will have to engage in speculation. In the end, we can provide plausible solutions to these difficult questions by recognizing two divine principles.

We’ll start by addressing the question pertaining to the fate of those who die without ever having heard the gospel. Let’s suppose that a friend telephones me and tells me he has just received two free tickets to a musical and wants to know if I would like to go. Since musicals do not interest me, I decline his kind offer. Now since I did not respond to his general invitation, he is under no obligation to give me specifics pertaining to which musical is in town. For example, it would not have made any difference to me whether it was Cats, Wicked, or A Chorus Line.

Now let’s suppose instead that my friend had told me he had just received two free tickets to see a baseball game and wants to know if I would like to go. Since I’m a baseball fan, I may ask him who’s playing before accepting. In this case, since I responded to his general invitation, he will provide the specific details concerning the event.

According to Romans chapter one, God has made some of his invisible attributes known through the world in which we live. The stars, the sun, the moon, the ocean, and many other wonders of nature were not the work of a bull, a horse, a calf, or a man. These are the products of a cosmic designer of immense intelligence. In Romans chapter 2, Paul tells us that God has instilled basic knowledge of his moral laws in our conscience, so that, instinctively, we know that actions such as rape, murder, stealing, and falsehood are immoral. We all are accountable to God for immoral actions we have committed of varying degrees. Theologians refer to this type of knowledge as general revelation. In other words, given our universe and our conscience, we should be aware that a God of some sort exists and that we have failed to live up to his moral law…


What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

The Poached Egg

Recommended Resources by Michael R. Licona: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach | Evidence for God