What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?
James C. Denison
A friend recently sent me an essay titled “Ode to Plurals.” It goes like this.
We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes; but the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes. One fowl is a goose, and two are called geese, yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet, and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet? If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth, why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth? We speak of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say mother, we never say methren.
There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple. Boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And if teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?
We recite at a play and play at a recital. We ship by truck but send cargo by ship. We have noses that run and feet that smell. We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway. Your house burns up as it burns down; you fill in a form by filling it out; an alarm goes off by going on. If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? And if Father is Pop, how come Mother’s not Mop?
You probably hadn’t asked yourself any of those questions before today (and you probably won’t ever again). Here’s another question you may not have come to church wondering, since it doesn’t apply to you. But it is crucial to more than two billion people on our planet: what happens to those who never hear the gospel? How can God be fair in sending them to hell for rejecting a message they never heard? But if they can go to heaven without trusting in Christ, how can God be fair in sending Christians to sacrifice their time and even their lives to tell them?
All through our summer series we’ve been calling the church “the world’s only hope.” Today we find out why. And why the answer is the key to living with purpose, redeeming your days, and leaving a legacy that matters.
More than two billion people on planet Earth have never heard the gospel. To them, the syllables “Jesus Christ” are like “mumblephump” to you–sounds with no significance. There are a billion more unevangelized people in the world today than there were a hundred years ago. Eighty percent of the Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in the world have never met a Christian, much less heard the gospel. What happens to them?
Let’s begin with the wrong answers to our question. “Universalism” is the very popular idea that a loving God wouldn’t let anyone go to hell. “Christian universalism” says that Jesus’ death paid for all our sins, so everyone goes to heaven.
Except that the Bible says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). And Jesus was explicit: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16, 18).
“Middle knowledge” is the idea that God knows what we would do if we had a chance to hear the gospel. It is clear that God knows the future better than we know the present. But if he knows what the unevangelized would do if they heard the gospel, why tell them?
Natural revelation is the assertion that God judges us according to the light that we have. If that’s true, why give people any more light? Some say that if a person responds to the light he has, God will see to it that he receives the light of the gospel. If that’s true, why do I need to go?
“Determinism” is the claim that God chooses who will be saved and who will be lost, and makes sure that the “elect” hear the gospel. But what of the biblical promise that God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)? Or the assertion that God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4)?
So, what is the answer to the problem of the unevangelized? You are. “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13); “you are the light of the world” (v. 14). “You” is plural–all of you, not just those who went to a seminar. “Are”–present tense, right now. “The”–the only salt and the only light in all the world.
Salt was the one way people in Jesus’ day could preserve their food. During their frequent crop failures and droughts, salt was crucial to life. The “lamp” to which he refers (v. 15) was a small clay oil lamp with a floating wick. It was their only means of lighting a dark room. Nothing could take the place of his salt and lamps in their world. Nor in ours.
That’s why Jesus called us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)–because those who do not believe in him are condemned (John 3:18). The only way to be in the “lamb’s book of life” is to trust in the Lamb, Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life–no one comes to the Father except by trusting in him (John 14:6).
But what happens to those we don’t tell? The Bible doesn’t really say, because we’re supposed to tell everyone.
Supernatural evangelism is one option. As God revealed himself to the prophets through dreams and visions; as he revealed his plans for Christ’s birth to Joseph and Mary through dreams and visions; as he revealed himself supernaturally to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road and to John on Patmos; so he might reveal the gospel supernaturally to those the church does not reach. For instance, thousands of Muslims are reporting visions and dreams in which Jesus appears to them and calls them to himself. Nothing in Scripture says that God cannot do this.