Should Christians Choose Cremation?

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As a pastor, I deal a lot with people who are sick, suffering, and dying. I’ve had the honor of presiding over more than 20 funerals in the past four and a half years. As a part of this process, families from the church have sometimes asked me for advice regarding final arrangements for their loved ones who have passed away, particularly as it regards burial and/or cremation. This question came home to my family just a few weeks ago with the passing of my wife’s mother, in which her wishes were to be cremated - wishes that we obliged and carried out.

Many Christians are uncertain if the Bible allows for cremation as a viable option for those those who have died. On one hand, burial has become so expensive in recent years as to be financially untenable for many, making cremation a convenient and economical choice. In most cases, cremation is only about 25% of the cost of a traditional burial, which is a savings of several thousand dollars. On the other hand, cremation seems to buck the tradition of several centuries of Christian burial. What are Christians to do? How does the Bible guide us as we make decisions about our final arrangements? As we seek to answer this question, there are four biblical realities that we would be wise to consider.

1. The Bible does not forbid cremation. In fact, there is only one recorded instance of cremation in the entire Bible, and it is not cast in a negative light. After King Saul is killed, the Israelites cremate the remains of him and his sons. Although it should be noted that Saul and his sons were not cremated for economical reasons, but most likely because their bodies had been ravaged by war and had been expired for a length of time before burial rites could be performed. Thus, their cremation was likely the most expedient way of dealing with their bodies. The only other mention of cremation in scripture is in Amos 2.1, in which the bones of the king of Edom are noted as having been “burned to lime.” While this instance of cremation is cast in a negative light, it cannot be interpreted as a prohibition against the practice. In short, the Bible does not forbid the practice of cremation.

2. Although the Bible does not forbid cremation, the clear pattern for the people of God throughout scripture and history has been burial. Just because the Bible doesn’t outright forbid a certain practice doesn’t mean that it gives us license. Rather, we should look at the whole counsel of the entire Bible for wisdom on a particular issue. While the reference above to King Saul’s cremation is the only instance of one of God’s people being cremated, there are more than 200 references in the Old Testament to God’s people being buried. This disparity should at least give us pause as we consider how we treat the bodies of our loved ones (and our own bodies) after death. The reason for the biblical preference for burial was, in part, to differentiate the people of God from other religions and people-groups. This was even true of Christians in the New Testament, who regarded the body (both living and dead) differently from other religions (more on this below). The fact that the overwhelming tradition of God’s people for millennia has been to bury the dead should at least inform the final arrangements that we make for our bodies.

3. God will resurrect our dead bodies, regardless of their physical condition. The Bible teaches that the bodies of those who are in Christ will be resurrected and redeemed after death. This promise disregards the physical destruction of our bodies in death and relies upon the power of God to reconstruct our bodies regardless of whatever physical damage they have incurred. The process of death and decay is not passive. Left to itself, a body will decay and disintegrate in the grave. And yet God is powerful to make dead bones come alive. Likewise, God’s power to resurrect will not be hindered by the decimation of a physical body through cremation. God will resurrect our bodies whether they have been buried in the ground, cremated, lost at sea, or torn apart by wild animals, such as the early Christians who were executed in the Roman coliseum. We should not think that cremation excludes us from a bodily resurrection.

4. The human body holds temporal and eternal significance, and should not be dealt with flippantly. The reality of a future resurrection should inform us that our bodies matter. Your body is not just a vehicle for your soul, or a shell of your true self. We can see clearly from scripture that your body matters; what you do with your body matters; your body has a future, even after it has died. So then, does what we do with a body after death matter? It would seem that scripture teaches that it does. For instance, Joseph was adamant that his bones not be left in Egypt, but instead be carried to the Promised Land. Why? Clearly it was significant in at least some way that Joseph’s physical remains be brought to the Promised Land. On the surface, this might sound strange to us: why does Joseph care where his bones are laid to rest? After all, he isn’t using them! Moreover, each human being has been intricately created in by God in his own image. How we treat the body after death communicates something about what we believe about God. We don’t just throw our dead loved ones out with the garbage. Instead, we treat their bodies with dignity and respect because God created them, and because God cares enough about the body to resurrect it one day. This kind of thinking is in direct contrast to the early heresy of Gnosticism, which taught a sharp differentiation between body and spirit, and that matter (physical stuff, including the human body) was evil, and therefore was of no consequence; only the spirit was important. This teaching led Gnostics to engage in every form of physical debauchery under the sun, and was the impetus for much of the New Testament teaching on sexual immorality to the first century church. According to Gnostics, the body was meaningless, and therefore could be used in whatever way a person desired. Christian teaching stands in contrast to this, in that the body is not insignificant. Rather, each individual has been created in the image of God, and therefore the human body holds significance, both while it is living and after death.

After considering these biblical realities, should Christians choose cremation or burial? I am not here to argue for either one. In fact, I think a good biblical case can be made for burial or cremation considering these principles. Rather, my point in this brief post is to simply acknowledge that, although there are patterns in scripture, this is an area where the Bible has not spoken clearly, and as such, it seems to me that the decision made isn’t as important as the process a person goes through in order to make the decision. Therefore, I think there should be a good amount of freedom for people to prayerfully and wisely make final arrangements for themselves and for friends and family members who die. And we should extend a good deal of Christian charity to those who have arrived upon a different conclusion than our own.

So should Christians choose cremation? Maybe. What is not debatable, however, is that all Christians should pray, use wisdom, search the scriptures, and make a decision that makes sense for you and your family. Two Christians who prayerfully think about this question can come up with two different answers, both of which can be honoring to God. We should not condemn those who choose a different form of arrangement than what we are convicted of.

Christian Hope in the Face of Death

During the first full week of June my family and I were enjoying a fun-filled week at a friend’s cabin that he had been gracious enough to loan to us for a week. We were doing all of the usual things that people do at a cabin: fishing, swimming, grilling, playing, and relaxing. But then, in the middle of the week, my wife received a phone call from the doctors at North Memorial hospital: “You should come to see your mother. She’s not doing well.” My wife left the cabin and drove to Minneapolis to see her mom (thankfully the cabin wasn’t too far from the Twin Cities). After she was there for a while she called me at the cabin and said that the doctors would like to meet with us the next day.

A month or so previous my mother-in-law, Nancy, had fallen and broken a bone in her leg. That injury exacerbated other pre-existing health conditions and sent them into overdrive. All of this was explained to us the following day at the meeting with the doctors. One doctor, a lung specialist, said that the fluid was continuing to build up in Nancy’s system and was putting pressure on her organs, particularly her lungs, and that breathing would become a more significant challenge for her as time went on. She said that they could treat the various illnesses in minor ways, but that it was a losing battle. She gave us the option of continuing treatment for the various illnesses that plagued Nancy’s body. If we chose this route, Nancy would most likely be in and out of the hospital for the rest of her life, taking one step forward and two steps back until ultimately her body wouldn’t be able to sustain itself anymore. The other option was hospice care, in which the end would come much sooner, but with considerably more physical comfort.

When the doctor left the room, Nancy asked us, “Did everyone hear what I heard?” To which I responded, “What did you hear?” Nancy said, “I heard that I’m dying.”

This, indeed, was what the doctors had said, although they didn’t use those exact words, and they did not give Nancy a time frame or life-expectancy. But it was clear that this present physical challenge would end in her death. It was a difficult meeting. My wife and her sister were devastated. Nancy expressed regret for the things in her life left undone, aspirations never attained, and the potential of never meeting her third grandchild, due in December.

The next three months played out almost exactly the way the lung specialist had predicted. Nancy had chosen to treat the illnesses in whatever ways possible to elongate her life, and the treatment had the exact affect that the doctor predicted: ups and downs, good days and bad days; but always one step forward and two steps back. This went on until August 12, when we went to visit Nancy at the hospital, where she had resided in one form or another since late April. She was having considerable difficulty breathing, despite the best efforts of oxygen masks and machines. As we sat with her and saw her difficulty, she looked at us and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She died the next day.

Needless to say, the last few months have been difficult for our family.

But also through this process, we have been going back to the conversation we had when we were called away from the cabin to meet with doctors in that first week of June. After the doctor had delivered the grim diagnosis and we internalized the news that this illness would end in death, we immediately turned as a family to the truth of God’s word and our expectant hope in God’s faithfulness to his promises:

Although Nancy’s illness would end in death, death could not touch her standing in Christ.

Although her body was coming to its end, she would receive a redeemed and restored body at the resurrection.

Although friends and family would be missed by the separation of death, there will be a reunion one day.

Everything that we do not experience on this earth and in this life we will experience on the new earth in new bodies in the next life.

We have the promise of God to cover those who believe in the righteousness of Christ, making us pure before him.

Death has no victory, it has no sting.

Although her illness was terminal, nothing can separate her from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s faithfulness to these promises has been our hope and comfort in this difficult time. And indeed, it is our only hope. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15.19-22, emphasis added).

Death is a painful thing to go through, even in light of the hope we have as Christians. But that pain is tempered with expectant hope. We are not crushed by the pain of death; we are not debilitated by the physical separation it brings; we are a people who have hope.

Robin's Nest: A Reflection

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About 25 years ago I went on my first trip to Jamaica. I went with my dad and one or two others through a ministry called Project Increase which seeks to bring the gospel to the people of Jamaica. We spent our time leading a Vacation Bible School program for kids who lived in a rural area out in the bush. Over the next few years I would return to the island three additional times for the same purposes.

One of those latter trips was with a woman named Michelle Robinette, who like me, first experienced Jamaica on a short-term missions trip. Michelle’s experience was different from mine, however, as she was deeply impacted by the poverty that exists in the country - especially among children, many of whom simply lived on the streets. Michelle followed the call of God and opened a children’s home on the island, conveniently named “Robin’s Nest” in relation to her last name. I was privileged to accompany Michelle to the island when she made her permanent transition there.

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20 years later, and Robin’s Nest has distinguished itself as the most reputable children’s home on the island of Jamaica, although Michelle has since retired and handed over the reins to other directors. Riverview has been in partnership with Robin’s Nest ever since its inception, and we decided it was time to go back to Robin’s Nest and get a taste for the ministry that happens there. I was part of a 15-person team who went for a total of seven days just a couple of weeks ago. It was a tremendous opportunity and privilege to see all that God is doing on one particular mountaintop on which is located a campus that 26 children call “home.”

The purpose of our trip was to assist with the ministry of the Robin’s Nest Children’s Home in whatever ways we could, through physical labor, interacting with kids and assisting with childcare, and whatever else would come up. Our team accomplished these goals, and much more, during the week we were there. But I had some other questions I wanted answered; other reasons for traveling to Jamaica

1. What happens at Robin’s Nest? Our Missions Committee at Riverview is very active in staying in touch with missionaries that we support. Oftentimes this is accomplished through visiting with missionaries when they are home on furlough or for a home assignment. It’s common at Riverview to have missionaries with us, telling us about the gospel work they are doing in other parts of the world. But Robin’s Nest is a bit different: there are no regular missionaries associated with Robin’s Nest. Rather, there are people who have volunteered to serve as directors of the children’s home for a period of time. This makes face to face communication somewhat challenging, as the directors of the home aren’t necessarily missionaries that we have any formal relationship with. Needless to say, although we partner with Robin’s Nest as a church, sometimes we don’t know too much about what is going on down there.

This trip afforded me and the rest of our team a first hand experience of the ministry that takes place there, and we were very encouraged by what we saw. Robin’s Nest is home to 26 Jamaican children who are constantly cared for, ministered to, and discipled by the two American directors and the 30+ Jamaican staff members. These 26 children, who at one point in their lives, were abandoned for whatever reason by their natural parents, are constantly taught and reminded that they have been created in their Father’s image, that they are valuable, loved, and cared for. Our team got to have just the smallest (about one week) opportunity to reaffirm this message to these kids. And the children receive an education (including Christian education) that they would most likely otherwise be without, a home to live in, and people who love and care for them on a daily basis.

Perhaps what impressed me most about Robin’s Nest is the organization and structure that exists there for the ministry to these kids and the staff members to be efficient and effective. The directors, Janet and Kevin Krusmark, have drawn upon their lifetimes of business and professional experience to make Robin’s Nest an example of efficiency and excellence in childcare, ministry, and management, not to mention providing employment opportunities for more than 30 local Jamaicans. Janet and Kevin serve as missionaries in their own right. They have volunteered their time and energies to serve the Nest in their retirement years, and have put their years of management, business, and Christian living experience to work efficiently. The facilities and campus in general are clean, well organized, and arranged to encourage maximum efficiency when caring for the daily needs of 26 children, aged 2-14.

After having observed how Robin’s Nest functions, I am convinced that it is this attention to detail that makes Robin’s Nest such a “successful” children’s home, and why it is the highest rated children’s home on the island of Jamaica. Having personally seen the condition of other children’s homes on previous trips to the island, I am thrilled that our church has partnered with Robin’s Nest to provide such high quality and God-centered care to these children and to the Jamaicans employed by the Nest.

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2. A second question I had before going on this trip was about the nature of short-term missions trips in general. Many people in the Western world have (rightly) questioned the effectiveness of short-term missions: is it really cost effective? Does any lasting change exist once a team has left? Would it be better to send the money spent on short-term missions trips to indigenous Christians so they could do the ministry rather than flying in Americans for significant money to do the same work? I think these are important questions, and ones that Christians should spend time thinking about. I wanted to see for myself if it was “worth it” for our team (and our church) to spend a significant amount of money to send 15 of us to Jamaica to work at Robin’s Nest.

To be honest, the first couple of days of work at the Nest didn’t do much to encourage me that it was “worth it.” We did mostly menial tasks that presumably could have been done by anyone, let alone Americans who had flown more than 2000 miles to do them. But as the week went on it became apparent that our team wasn’t there to perform some task that only we could do, but rather to support the overall work of the Nest in any way we could. More on this in a minute.

Also, a large part of our time at the Nest was dedicated to interacting with the children there and supporting the staff members through our presence. While these interactions were special and fun, it was clear that any relationships we made with the kids most likely wouldn’t be lasting. After all, we would be leaving in just a few days, with no indication of when or if we would ever return. Could the brief times we spent with these kids in just a few days really be that impactful? I wasn’t so sure.

Then, on the last night of our stay at Robin’s Nest, we had a debriefing meeting with Janet and Kevin, Robin’s Nest directors. What they told our team during that meeting completely changed my outlook and answer to this question, at least as it concerns our church’s mission trip to Robin’s Nest.

Janet and Kevin shared with us that we were but one of 32 short-term missions teams who either had been or would be at Robin’s Nest in 2019. My first reaction to this news was that our physical labors and relational interactions were an even smaller drop in the bucket than I had previously thought. But then Kevin framed our time at the Nest like this: as children, most of us have parents who love us and care for us, and they demonstrate their love and care for us by talking to us, playing with us, feeding us, clothing us, sheltering us, and so on. The same is not true for most, if not all, of the children at Robin’s Nest. Although we were just one of 32 teams during 2019, we were able to fill a vital seven days of telling these kids that they are loved, cared for, and valued by God and us. We were able to help with their care, talk to them, provide for them, and so on. If we weren’t there, those seven days would be devoid of that message being poured into those kids’ minds and hearts. It was important for us to be there; it was important for us to serve them; it was important for us to tell those kids that they are loved and valuable. And not only that, but they are so loved that we are willing to spend our hard-earned money and travel 2000 miles to tell them so!

Then, at the close of our meeting, Kevin read from Philemon 1.4-7:

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Kevin explained that this scripture was fulfilled in our time at the Nest. Through our willingness to come to the Nest and work and love on kids, Kevin and Janet praised the Lord because of the love and faith that we had toward Jesus and for all the saints in Jamaica, certainly through our gifts and donations and partnership through the church, and also through our physical presence. They explained that their prayer for us was that the sharing of our faith on this trip would become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. They explained how they had derived much joy and comfort from our love, and that their hearts had been refreshed through us.

If this is true, and I believe that it is, then it didn’t matter if our team did menial tasks that were “beneath” us; it didn’t matter that there was some downtime when we could have been working or doing things but instead spent that time hanging out with kids; it didn’t matter that our skills weren’t utilized to their fullest potential. It became clear to me that the purpose of our trip was to give Janet and Kevin and the other staff at Robin’s Nest joy and comfort from our love, and to refresh their hearts in any way that we could. And as a result, God is glorified, and we (our team) have a fuller knowledge of all that is ours in Christ. That was the purpose of our trip.

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Earlier in the week my son James and I volunteered to paint some signs on the Nest property that are actually part of an historical marker. The signs had gotten rusty and weathered, and were clearly uncared for by whoever had erected them several years previous. Jamie and I volunteered to paint the frames the signs were in and to do some minor repairs on them to get them looking nice again. It was this kind of work that I had previously thought was menial and “beneath” me. Not to mention, one of the signs seemed to be located on a nest of fire ants that wouldn’t stop biting my ankles! Why did I fly 2000 miles to paint signs and get bit by fire ants? But Kevin’s message to us the night before we left put my sign-painting into perspective. If my painting these signs enabled the ministry of Robin’s Nest to function a little more smoothly and with a little less trepidation about all the work that needed to be done, then it was worth it. In fact, I’d paint as many signs as they had if doing so would give the people at the Nest joy and comfort in the ministry that God has for them to do.

This was the fifth overseas short-term missions trip that I’ve been on in my life, and I have a confession to make: the best day has always been the one going home. Each time I have returned home, I have longed for nothing more than sleeping in my own bed. Put simply, I am not an overseas missionary (at least not yet). But for now, I can encourage the hearts of those who are, and I can give them much joy and comfort by my presence and support of their ministries. This is what we did at Robin’s Nest.

A Theology of Vacations

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In the near future my wife and kids and I will join the other members of our family at a cabin on a clear Minnesota lake for a week of fun, rest, and relaxation. I can’t wait.

A yearly week at a cabin is a tradition our family has held for about a decade now, and it is always one of the best weeks of the year. It’s one that we look forward to with longing and anticipation, and one that we look back on with fond memories and laughter.

But sometimes vacations are hard to take. The stress of preparing for the trip, or the extra work you have to do before the vacation, and the catch-up you have to play when you get back can sometimes seem to drain away the rejuvenation you received on vacation. But we should not let these things hinder us from taking time to enjoy our families and the earth God has created. In fact, I believe the Bible teaches that it’s a good, godly, and wise thing to take a vacation!

Created to need rest
God created us to need rest. He designed our bodies to need a recharge every 16 hours or so. And so, every night we go to sleep to rejuvenate our bodies for the coming day’s work. In fact, a full one-third of our lives (give or take) is spent resting. This is by God’s design. God knows that if left to ourselves, we would work ourselves to death, trying to get ahead, “eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127.2). It is not good for us to be at work all the time, so God ordained sleep, and he commanded us to take a regular time of rest for our own good.

But there’s more to just maintaining our health that makes resting a good idea. There’s also a spiritual reality at work. By taking the time to rest we remind ourselves that we are not God, that our work is not ultimate, and that we need him. It is not good for me to work, and work, and work, constantly trying to get ahead, because I never will. By resting, I acknowledge God’s sovereignty over my work and my dependence on him to accomplish the things that my own efforts at work can’t. If you struggle to go on vacation because you keep thinking about all the work that’s not getting done while you’re away, you need to remember that you are not God, and the world will go on without you because God is God. In fact, if you struggle to go on vacation because you are vexed by work left undone, that’s a sign that you need to go on vacation! Reorient yourself to the reality of God’s sovereign control with a week of vacation.

Jesus rested, and so should we
In Mark 6 we read about Jesus’ disciples going out on a mission trip and returning exhausted. When they get back, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Jesus, perhaps more than anyone, knew what hard work was all about, and he knew the value of rest. Jesus himself would often retreat to get away from the crowds and craziness of his work, and he also invited his disciples to take time to relax and recharge. In doing so, they would be better equipped to fulfill the work that God had given them to do.

The same is true for us. We are to do all things for the glory of God, and we are to work as unto the Lord, not men. If Jesus knew the value of taking time to rest, we should learn from his example and not shun times where we can enjoy rest and relaxation, and times that will re-energize us for carrying out the work that God has given us to do.

Vacation Salvation
Rest and relaxation in this life is a fuzzy shadow of the rest that we have in Christ. This is the purpose of God’s commanding a Sabbath day of rest. It operates as a foreshadowing of the rest that we will have in Christ at our ultimate salvation. We do not have to work to please God, because Christ has pleased him on our behalf; we no longer work to offer sacrifices and atone for sin, because Christ became the perfect sacrifice and, once offered, he rested from his work. Now those in Christ rest in the security of their salvation.

This, the Bible teaches, is the spiritual lesson that we are to learn by observing a Sabbath day in our regular work-week. By resting from our labors, we are reminded that Christ’s work is finished and complete. It cannot be added to, nor should we try to do so. Jesus’ last words on the cross were “It is finished,” referring to his work as a perfect sacrifice for all who would believe. Christians rest in that finished work, and a weekly Sabbath reminds us of that spiritual reality.

I believe that a good vacation can remind us of that same truth. We can relax and enjoy times of rest because our spiritual work has been completed. We need not spend our time obsessing over how we can please God and stave off his wrath, because that work is already done. Imagine if you had to work to maintain your standing in God’s good graces. I’m sure you wouldn’t be spending any of that time at the lake! But those in Christ do not work to maintain their standing with God, so we can rest. Let a good vacation remind you of the rest you have in Christ.

A little slice of Heaven
One of the reasons we so enjoy our yearly cabin retreat is not just that we get to enjoy one another as a family, but we also get to enjoy God’s creation in a unique way that is different from any other experience we have all year. Our week at the cabin is filled with swimming, fishing, cookouts, late nights outside around the campfire, tubing behind the boat, knee-boarding, failed attempts at water skiing, boating, kayaking, frog-catching, sitting under the sun, wildlife watching, and a whole host of other activities that are designed for us to delight in the things God has made.

As much as we enjoy God’s creation now, it will pale in comparison to how we enjoy the new heavens and new earth that God will one day create. When this world passes away, God will create a new one that will be unaffected by sin and death (an ever-present reality when playing on the water with little ones who still need life jackets to protect their safety). We cannot even conceive of the glories of this new world that God will create, let alone our delight in it.

While on vacation at the cabin, enjoying family and creation, we often ask, “Can it get any better than this?” The answer is, “Yes, it can. And it will!” As much as we delight in God’s creation now, we will delight in it all the more when it is remade. Allow the “little slice of heaven” of your vacation time to fill you with a longing for the consummation of God’s creation, and for the new heavens and the new earth that will soon be a reality.

What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

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Many years ago our church partnered with Steve and Carol Jean Gallagher and sent them to Papua New Guinea among the Bariai people in order to translate the Bible into their language. As of this writing, their translation project has been completed and the Bariai people now have the scriptures in their own language and can read the gospel for themselves and know God through his revealed word.

But that begs a question: what about all the Bariai people who lived and died before the scriptures existed in their language? Will they be held accountable on judgement day simply because they were unfortunate to live during a time when there was no Christian influence in their culture and language? Will they be condemned to hell because they did not have the Bible and the story of Jesus and the gospel made available to them?

Many people have wondered what God will do with those who have never heard of Jesus. Certainly, we think, God cannot be so capricious as to punish people for not believing in a God they’ve never heard of. This question has also confounded seekers who have considered the Christian faith and have found it wanting: “If Jesus is the standard of salvation,” they think, “then I would not believe in a God who would send people to hell simply because they’ve never heard of Jesus. To do so would be unjust.”

What does God do with people who have never heard of Jesus? Will they be condemned to hell? And is it wrong for God to do so? Thankfully, the Bible helps us think about and answer this difficult question.

First, we need to be clear about what it is that condemns a person to hell. What condemns a person to hell is not whether or not he has heard about Jesus, but whether or not he has sinned. So if those in the darkest jungles on the earth do go to hell, it will not be because they have never heard about Jesus, but because they have sinned against a holy God. It is our sin that separates us from God, and this truth is apparent to all people - even to those who have never read one word of scripture. Romans 1 says that all people are aware of God’s existence through the things that have been made. In other words, creation reveals that their is a Creator. This is a self-evident truth that can be understood by the wealthy businessman in the highest skyscraper, and by the lowliest tribe member in a far-away jungle. We all know that God exists, and if we know that he exists then we also know that he demands something of us.

But how can we know what he demands of us without the Bible? Romans 2 tells us that we can know that God demands righteousness from us (even if we don’t have a Bible) because God has given us a conscience. In other words, we know that there is a universal right and wrong because God’s law has been written upon our hearts, no matter who we are or where we live. The commonality of all human beings across time and across the face of the earth has been that we all know in our hearts that God exists, and we know the difference between right and wrong. And our conscience testifies to us that we are sinful, that we have done wrong. So it is not the lack of hearing the gospel that condemns a person to hell, but his knowledge of God and willful sin against the law that God has written upon his heart.

But this does not mean that those who live apart from the influence of the Bible and the good news of Jesus are automatically damned to hell. The Bible teaches us that God uses a sliding scale in his judgment of people (see Luke 10.13-15 and 12.41-48). This means that we will be held accountable for the amount of truth that we have been exposed to. For those of us in the West, and especially in the United States, we have been exposed to much of the truth of God. We have instant access to scripture, preaching, churches, freedom of religion, and so on. There is absolutely no reason why we should not be able to hear and respond to the truth of God, and we will each be held individually accountable by God for what we have done with the truth that he has revealed to us.

In other parts of the world, however, there is considerably less access to the truth of God. Some countries are closed off to religious freedom and do not allow people to have Bibles or to profess faith in Christ without dire consequences. Other countries, such as numerous current people-groups in Papua New Guinea, are so remote that the name of Jesus has never been claimed or taught to its people. Scripture teaches that these people will be held to a lower degree of responsibility because of their lack of knowledge of the truth. Does this mean that they will escape judgment for their lack of knowledge? We can’t know for sure, but we do know that God will judge them more leniently than those in developed nations where the truth of God is freely accessible to all.

Finally, we know that whatever God does will ultimately be what is right and just. God is perfectly just and inherently merciful. It would be contrary to his nature to unjustly condemn people. We may not be able to know precisely what happens to people who have never been exposed to the truth of God, but based on what we know about God from the Bible, we can be confident that whatever God does will be right and fair. He will not unjustly condemn anyone. And he is more than willing and happy to overflow with mercy.

For instance, if there is someone who has never heard the name of Jesus, yet acknowledges God’s existence (Romans 1), and who knows their sin (Romans 2) and desires to get right with God as a result, I believe that God is merciful and he will be faithful to send a missionary to them to preach the gospel to them, or to send that seeker to a church where he or she can hear the gospel. God is not looking for reasons to condemn people - his desire is to save people (2 Peter 3.9)!

Rather than this question causing us to accuse God of injustice, it should instead cause us to question our own zeal in seeking out the salvation of the lost. We know that there are people in the world who have never heard about Jesus and who are destined to meet God on judgment day, lost in their sin. Regardless of how leniently God might judge them, our desire should be for them to come to life and blessing through the gospel of Jesus Christ. So if there are people in the world who have not heard of Jesus, we shouldn’t blame God - we should let the fate of the lost inspire our zeal to reach them with the good news of Jesus!