Ask the Alliance: What about those who have never heard?

question-mark:::Ask the Alliance Question #1:::

Question submitted by Samuel: What happens to an individual who has never heard of Christianity or God at death? 

One CAA member submitted simply this verse:

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. Revelation 20:12-13

Zack catches us up with some background:

Even some skeptics have created memes to assert that the real point behind the work of evangelism worldwide would be weakened if those who never heard automatically went to Heaven (AvT and RBPT1, 2012). In one of them, a person who newly hears the Gospel asks why the evangelist should tell him such news. (For then the Gospel news would automatically condemn him until he chose to accept it.) An underlying point seems to be that condemnation has come upon the man. If the man dies after hearing but before accepting, he would be condemned, hypothetically speaking, for simply hearing the Gospel.

AvT = “Atheist versus Theist: The God Debate” social media internet forum
RBPT1 = “Reliability of the Bible Put to the Test” social media internet forum (2007-2013, recently closed forum, its successor forum has the same name)

Z. E. Kendall

Bill Slater answered, “People are not lost because they never hear the name of Jesus. They are lost because they (like me) are sinners. At death, they will be judged along with those who have heard the name of Jesus and rejected His offer of salvation. Francis Schaeffer used an illustration, i.e., it is as if everyone had an invisible tape recorder hung around their neck that activated when they made a moral judgment, e.g., “That’s wrong.” At the end of their life, the tape would be played and they would be found not to have even lived up to their own moral code, much less God’s. Finally, Romans 1-2 clearly show that there is no rational excuse for atheism.”

Contributed by “Anonymous”

There are two possibilities that Bible believing Christians have come to. Both are in agreement that all people, sinned (Romans 3:23), an aorist, indicating past tense — falling short of the grace of God. All people are separated from the life of God because of being descendents of Adam (whether federal head or biological head) (Romans 5:12ff).

The first possibility is that, despite not hearing about Jesus, we are not without evidences of God (Romans 1-2) and of our condition before a Holy God. Numerous people in the Old Testament, when confronted with the Living Holy God, knew that they were undone and that they were unclean (Isa. 6) — and that, on the final day of Judgment, they will see clearly that they are unclean and they desperately need a mediator. And perhaps they will accept that Jesus is that mediator (or maybe put more convoluted, “their lives were already pre-inclined towards someone who would be their propitiation and mediator such that, at Eternity’s Gate, they would accept, given that opportunity and revelation.”)

The second possibility is that we are all judged with the light that we’ve been given. Even ignoring those who haven’t heard of Christ — even those who have, say those who are children or mentally handicapped — it would seem that Jesus does know the hearts (wills) and minds and dispositions of everyone, so surely Jesus would not expect the same understanding of sin, of their condition, of their need for God, articulation of faith, etc.?

However, on the negative side, there are many who want nothing to do with God or think they would have more fun without God. In which case, I just quote C. S. Lewis, “There are two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”


To put it simply, Christians don’t know for sure, but we know from the character of God, as revealed in Scripture, that he will do the just and right thing concerning such people, if there are such people.

Here is what we do know:

1) Everyone is aware of God, but suppresses it. In some manner, due to humanity’s fall away from God in Adam, everyone is in rebellion against God by their very nature. (In other words, we’re not condemned because of what Adam did. Rather, because of what Adam did, we are who we are, sinners by nature.) So, we’re all condemned.

2) But, Jesus’ work in accomplishing what Adam did not, and much more, as well as his taking on our guilt and punishment, repairs that relationship which was broken, putting us ‘in Christ’ (righteous, children of God) if we humble ourselves and accept him, instead of ‘in Adam’ (condemned), our natural state (being rebels, or guilty of ‘cosmic treason,’ as R.C. Sproul likes to put it). And, Jesus loses none given to him; he goes after the lost sheep.

So, we know those who are saved will be saved on account of Jesus. That is the only way. We know the prescribed manner given to the Church (universal body of true believers, not some institution) is through the Gospel message. But, we don’t know how God might directly, in some manner, deal with those who don’t hear that message from the Church. There are passages which indicate they are judged on the basis of what they do know. We DO know what happens to those who hear and reject.

Thus, there are no innocent people, who due to failure to hear, end up in hell. It is a false category. (There may, depending on one’s theology, be those who are justly condemned, yet who are not rescued from their rebellious condition.) So, a better way to rephrase the question might be: What happens to an individual (rebellious to God by nature) who has never heard the Gospel message directly from the Church?

Steve Wilkinson,

See also our category Answering the Problem of Evil, Suffering and Hell for more related posts, and perhaps submit your own Ask the Alliance question or answer.

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