This is a question that is often asked by non-Christians to point out the apparent unfairness of the Christian Gospel. It may be a genuine question which we need to help them to answer, or it may just be their way of trying to trip up the Christians, or otherwise an excuse for them not believing. It is important that we are sensitive to their motives before we attempt to respond. It may also be a legitimate question believers may have, a question which may cause us to doubt our faith.
It is essentially a question about the justice and mercy of God. Is it fair or just that God would condemn someone to eternal punishment if they have never heard the Gospel of salvation? How can they be expected to respond to a Gospel message they have never heard?
Who are we talking about?
Before looking at the question in detail it is important to define the problem carefully. The question normally refers to two different groups of people. The first is those people who live in nations where the Gospel has not been preached (yet). These are the unreached peoples, who can be tribes living in the jungles of the Amazon, or those living in nations where another religion is dominant, like Saudi Arabia. The second group would include unborn children and children who die in early years of infancy, which some of the facts in this article will also apply to.
Some basic principles of the Gospel
We first need to understand the foundational principles of the Christian Gospel, as these are so often misunderstood on a popular level. For this question, the most important is that because of original sin, all human beings are born in a state of sin, and live sinful lives. As Paul wrote, “All have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Because of this, we all deserve God’s judgement, as God is a holy God and sin cannot come into his presence. The Christian Gospel is a wonderful message of God’s mercy, which says that guilty people can be proclaimed not-guilty, because Jesus took the punishment we rightly deserved, instead of us. We need to accept the fact that no one on the face of the earth deserves God’s mercy. Instead, the Gospel is a wonderful statement of grace, of God’s undeserved favour. This grace, made available through Jesus, demands a response of repentance and faith, which each person needs to make individually.
Some attempts to get round this problem
Through the centuries, a number of different ideas have been suggested as a way to solve this problem. One is universalism, the teaching that everyone will be saved in the end. This is particularly taught by liberal scholars. Universalism tends to over-emphasise the love of God at the expense of the justice of God, and leads to an unbiblical doctrine. Jesus made it clear that it is the narrow way that leads to life, “Enter through the narrow gate for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt 7:13-14). Jesus certainly did not teach universalism. Another is the idea of purgatory, taught in the Catholic church, which essentially says that there is opportunity after death for sins to be dealt with.
These doctrines are very dangerous and mislead thousands of people. It is only during this life that we have the opportunity to respond to the Gospel of salvation. Once we die, it is too late.
The need to preach the Gospel
The New Testament gives a great urgency to the preaching of the Gospel. Jesus gave his disciples the great commission to go to all nations and preach the Gospel (Mt 28:19). The preaching of the Gospel is therefore the job of the church and of the individual believers in it.
Through the centuries of church history, the preaching of the Gospel has been patchy. Sometimes the church has been active, at other times it was not so active. In many periods of history the church was making great efforts to reach the unreached with the Gospel, but the question remains, “What about those that died before the missionaries got there?”, and “What about those who are dying today, who have never heard the Gospel?”. How can God hold someone responsible if they have not heard about the way of salvation?
Who does this question apply to?
For non-Christians in the United Kingdom and most of the western world there is no real excuse. There are plenty of opportunities to hear the Gospel, if people want to hear it. There are an increasing number of evangelical churches, where the Gospel is preached and the Bible faithfully taught. The Bible is easily available in many languages. There is Christian radio and television, many Christian bookshops, and an ever-increasing quantity of material on the Internet, including the text of the Bible in many languages.
In non-western countries there are still many millions who cannot hear the Gospel. There is a barrier of language, where there is no Bible available in the local language. The are regions where no one has ever preached the Gospel, where there are unreached people with no believers. There may be cultural or political barriers, and particularly religious barriers, regions where Christian activity is forbidden.
What are some answers to this problem?
We need to distinguish the two types of revelation that the Bible teaches about. The first is specific revelation, and the second is general revelation.
The foundation of the understanding of revelation is that God is unknowable because of human sin. Sin causes a barrier to come between a holy God, who cannot look on sin, and sinful mankind. For mankind to know God, God has to take the initiative and reveal who he is, his nature, character, and how to come into his presence. This is the story of the Bible. The Jews had the great privilege of receiving this special revelation of God, as his chosen people, described in the Old Testament. The calling of Israel was to know God, and they were given the responsibility to make him known to the nations, a calling they mostly failed to accomplish.
The church also has an even greater special revelation from God. The revelation of God was supremely given through Jesus. Thomas was told that, “To see me is to see the Father” (Jn 14:9). We now have a greater revelation of God than Israel did in the Old Testament. The church also has the privilege of knowing God through Jesus, and has the responsibility of making him known.
There is a great principle concerning revelation from God, that knowledge goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. The greater revelation we have been given, the greater accountability we have before God. The principle is that God judges people according to the revelation that has been given to them. As Christians, we are blessed in order to be a blessing. We are to pass onto others what we know, through being a witness to Christ. This accountability also applies to believers today. God will hold us individually accountable for the teaching we receive in church, and how we use it, how much we apply it our lives, and how much we pass it on to others.
The second form of revelation is available to everyone, wherever they are living, and whenever they are living. It comes in a number of different ways. The first is that because God is the Creator, he has revealed himself through what he has made. This is taught consistently throughout the Bible, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps 19:1). In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains why the Gentiles stand guilty before God, even if they did not have the law of Moses:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse." (Rom 1:18-20).
Paul is stating that God has made the fact of his existence clear to all, through his creation. The implication is that if you look at the physical creation, you will see that there must be a Creator. Paul is claiming that all around the world people already have received a revelation of God through his creation, and therefore are accountable to God, and stand guilty before him if they reject that revelation.
So how do people find God this way?
This is the way I first came to believe in the existence of God. Through studying Biology at university, I came to the conclusion that living cells and the biochemical processes taking place within them are far to complex to have ever evolved by chance. From a scientific perspective, evolution was impossible, so there must be a Creator. A recent opinion poll taken in the U.K. gave the surprising results that many people also have come to a similar conclusion. Even after decades of deliberate evolutionary propaganda through the education system and media, only 48% of the population believed in evolution. By contrast, 17% believed in some sort of intelligent design, and 22% in some form of creationism.
Among many tribal peoples, even today, there are stories of a creator-god they no longer know. Paul used this idea when preaching in Athens to the Greek philosophers, when he told them about the “unknown god”, who was actually the Creator (Acts 17:22-31). In Lystra he spoke about this to the crowds trying to worship him and Barnabas:
“We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news that you should turn from these worthless things (idols) to the living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good - giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food, and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17)
However, creation by itself is not enough to lead people to salvation. People need to hear the Gospel and respond to it.
Revelation through our conscience
Each human being has a basic inbuilt sense of moral right and wrong. This is the same in every culture and nation, all round the world. Even very young children have a basic sense of fairness, and are very quick to claim, “It is not fair!”. This gives a very strong evidence for the existence of God, which C.S. Lewis argued in his book, Mere Christianity.
All round the world, people naturally appeal to a common standard of behaviour which they expect others to obey, a moral standard found in all religions and all cultures. However, people often fail to practice the behaviour they expect from others, and attempt to make excuses. All over the world people know the Law of Nature, but break it. This law of human nature tells us what humans ought to do, but often do not do. This is a real law, which we did not invent, and know we ought to obey. The question is, “How did it get there?”. It must be inbuilt into the way we were created, it could not possibly have evolved by chance. Paul spoke about this in his letter to the Romans:
“When the Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts will accuse, or perhaps excuse them on the day when God will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (Rom 2:14-16)
He is stating that the requirements of the God’s law is already written on the hearts of all people, together with their conscience, which bears witness to God’s law. However the conscience is easily damaged, sin leads to greater sin, with fewer feelings of guilt.
God has not left himself without a witness
We see that God has revealed himself to the whole world in a variety of ways. One is through his creation, shown in the design of the universe. Another is in his ongoing care for the world, sending the rain, and the third is through the inbuilt sense of moral right and wrong and our consciences. All this shows God’s justice. He cannot blame us for what we do not know. Therefore people do know, at least enough to start seeking the truth.
What went wrong?
Why is it that so many people fail to respond to that revelation? According to Paul in Romans, they suppress the truth and turn to idolatry and immorality (Rom 1), and they ignore the conscience and reject the inbuilt moral law (Rom 2). Therefore they stand guilty. However, in the passage quoted above, Paul says this: “their thoughts may perhaps excuse them on the day of judgement.” (Rom 2:16). The implication is that Paul is leaving open the possibility that a person might just respond to the revelation they receive, listen to their conscience and obey the moral law written on their heart.
What are the conditions?
The condition is that we need to seek the truth, at whatever cost. Most people have pre-conceptions and presuppositions, and these can prevent us seeing the truth. If we believe there is no God, and construct our world-view on that basis, it is very difficult to change, so we tend to filter out and ignore the evidence. However, Jesus made a great promise to those who are seeking the truth:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt 7:7-8)
The conclusion to be drawn from this is if we are genuinely seeking the truth, we will find it, in Jesus. However, there will be a personal cost to finding the truth. It may cost us our reputation, or even our life, in some places around the world. At a minimum, finding the truth involves repentance, humbling ourselves, and unfortunately people are all too often not willing to do that.