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!