As a pastor of a church and occasional speaker at other events, I come across a common question regarding the fate of those who never hear of or accept Christ. It goes something like this: "Will God punish people in hell who have never heard of Jesus?" or another version of it is, "Will God send people to hell from other religions who were just ignorant about Jesus being the only way?"
Many do not believe that people apart from Christ will spend eternity in hell. One of the reasons for their doubt is an appeal to sentimental feelings. We live in a culture that is slow to criticize or punish anyone. Children are often warned over and over again of potential punishments if they do not reform their behavior, yet they rarely do, and parents who follow through with their warnings is even rarer. Criminals are often relieved of jail sentences long before they have served the time they were sentenced. There is even a movement of people who want to get rid of jails and move toward rehabilitation therapy. The culture has grown less convinced of justice for law-breakers and rebels.
There is another reason for the belief that people apart from Christ will not spend eternity in hell. This second reason runs deep into the fabric of our misunderstanding of God's justice and our sinful condition. It is not a misunderstanding relegated only to those outside the church, but this idea is growing inside of churches. The idea: God would be unjust to punish people who have never heard of Jesus. Nobody likes the idea of God being unjust or cruel, so a growing theology is developing that denies the claim that only faith in Jesus saves us from sin and hell.
So how do we answer the question?
There are two premises that need be firmly established before answering the question:
1. Nobody is innocent or without sin.
There is no such thing as neutral people. We have all sinned against God (Romans 3:23). No one is good, not even one (Romans 3:10). Every person has a record of sin against God. This includes the person who grew up in home with a massive family Bible on the coffee table, to the young girl whose daddy was a preacher, to the old man who has only lived in Muslim-saturated environment, to the man in the dense jungle that has never been exposed to civilization or the Bible. None of these people are without sin.
Some people would argue, "yeah, but the guy in the Muslim country or the guy in the jungle may not have ever heard about Jesus or had a copy of the Bible." However, Paul addresses this very argument in Romans 1 and 2 when he repeatedly makes clear that both the created universe and the moral law written on man's heart, serve to reveal God to man. Man both knows that there is a God, and that He is just and morally righteous. He knows this because God's law is written on his heart (Romans 2:15). Paul warns his readers that these people who never had the Word of God or never grew up hearing the teaches about God, are without excuse. Nobody is innocent. All we like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). I will demonstrate in a moment why this is such a vital premise to understand.
2. Only the blood of Jesus redeems us.
The blood of Christ is mentioned three times more than the cross of cross, and five times more than the death of Christ in the New Testament (see Blood Work by Anthony Carter). The teaching of Scripture is that Jesus and his finished work on the cross is our only redemption. Nobody can have their record of debt cleared without a substitute, and there is only one substitute available - Jesus. The blood of bulls, sheep, or goats is no longer sufficient for our sin. God sent forth His Son to be our exclusive redeemer and to atone for our sin with his blood (Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Romans 5:8-9; 1 John 4:10; Ephesians 2:13; Revelation 1:5).
Jesus addressed this issue. In John 14:6 Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." These words are clear. There is no room for debate. If Jesus is indeed who he claimed to be (which the resurrection attests to), then this claim slams the door shut on any questions. Only through Jesus can anyone approach God. Only Jesus and his shed blood for sin, can redeem us.
So how do we answer the person who questions whether God will punish those who were ignorant of Christ for all of eternity? Here is usually how my conversation goes:
Person: "When you say that only Jesus can redeem us, are you saying that people who never hear about Jesus will go to hell?"
Person: "Don't you think that it is unfair that God is sending people to hell who didn't know?"
Me: "No, because I do not believe that God sends people to hell for their ignorance."
Person: "But I thought you just said He did?"
Me: "No, God does not send anyone to hell for their ignorance. It is not about whether a person has heard of Jesus or not that determines if they are going to hell. The reason people go to hell is because they have sinned against God. That is why they are condemned."
Person: "But how would they know they have sinned against God if they don't have the Bible or haven't heard preaching of the gospel?"
Me: "Because the Bible teaches us, Romans 1 & 2 specifically, that everyone knows that there is a God and they know His moral law because it is written on their hearts. Paul says that they are without excuse when they stand before God. First, because they knew there was a God and didn't honor Him as such, but suppressed the truth. Second, they knew right from wrong, but continue to willingly do wrong. So they have willfully sinned against God, who has revealed both Himself and His law to them, and they have rejected Him." [THIS IS PREMISE #1]
Me: "Let's imagine a scenario. Pretend you were driving through a town and you failed to notice the speed limit. Let's pretend that you were driving 20 mph over the speed limit and got pulled over. The officer gives you a ticket and a court date. You think to yourself, "I will tell the judge that I didn't know the speed limit." You go to court on your date and see the judge. You plead ignorance of the law, but he tells you that the speed is posted and that you should have known based on your surroundings that you were going way to fast. He finds you guilty and makes you pay the fine. Has the judge been unfair to you? The answer is clearly, "no." He has not been unfair. He has upheld the law. Your ignorance was not a way out. The law is the law. You are not declared guilty because you failed to see the sign. You are declared guilty because you broke the law and went over the speed limit. Does that make sense?
Person: "Yeah, it does."
Me: "Okay, let me give you one more scenario to wrap up. Let's pretend you have committed murder. There is another case just before yours. This person has also committed murder. However, this individual has a lawyer that has worked out a deal with the judge. He has committed to serve the sentence of his client. His client is guilty, but the lawyer is going to pay the debt owed for him. The judge slams the gavel, and the man walks out of the courtroom free. Now it is your turn to stand up in front of the judge. You are guilty and you are now standing before the judge. The judge declares you guilty and sentences you to life in prison. You are outraged and say, "But the man before me was guilty and he went free. Why do I have to go to prison?" The judge says to you, "That man had a substitute take his place." You say to the judge, "But I did not know you could get a substitute, this is not fair." The judge then looks at you and says, "Friend, you are getting exactly what you deserve. You may not have known about the substitute, but that does not mean you are innocent. Your ignorance of a Savior does not exonerate you from your crime." In this scenario, the judge has been just. Nobody would accuse him of injustice. Does this help you understand? Christ is offered as a gift for sinners; he is a substitute. But those who are ignorant of Christ are not somehow declared innocent. They are far from that." [THIS IS PREMISE #2]
Person: "Thanks, that makes sense."
Me: "You're welcome. Now you see why we must go with urgency to make disciples of all nations. We have great news to proclaim. This news is not the basis of their condemnation, it is the pathway to freedom from the condemnation in which they are already standing. So let's get busy"
Ignorance is not a redeemer. There is only one Redeemer of our sins, that is Jesus Christ, and his shed blood on the cross. Avoid temptations to get sucked into poor reasoning and false teaching because of sentimental arguments. We must be solid in the Bible's teachings on these issues and not let our culture lead us astray into wrong thinking. Jesus Christ is the exclusive Savior of men. Flee to him, and warn others to do the same.