What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?

What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?

Matthew 5:13-16

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.

Wrong answers

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)?

Jesus’ answer

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.

Some theologians believe in after-death evangelism, whereby God gives those who die without hearing the gospel a second chance. This is a controversial idea, one I’m not comfortable adopting, but some very conservative scholars are.

I can find no indication in Scripture that a person can go to hell except for rejecting Jesus. Hell was created for the devil and his angels after their rebellion (Matthew 25:41). It would be unfair for God to send a person to hell for refusing an invitation he never received. At the same time, it would be unfair for God to send us sacrificially to give that invitation if it’s unnecessary.

I’ve wrestled with this problem all summer. It’s been the longest chapter of a book I’m finishing this month–69 pages in the first draft. As best I can tell, the only logical answer is that God somehow gets the message to those we do not. We find examples of such supernatural revelation all through Scripture, and not a single verse which tells us that God is not still revealing himself today.

Does that fact make me any less responsible for evangelizing those I can reach? No more than the fact that there are thousands of missionaries around the world sharing Christ with people I cannot reach. Having God as a missions partner is a privilege, not a problem. It is my responsibility to reach all I can. I’ll trust the rest to God. Rather than speculating about the unevangelized, I’m called to tell them. So are you.

How to use your influence

When we answer God’s call to be his salt and light for a decaying and dark world, we fulfill the highest and most joyful privilege in life. Nothing you and I do today will matter eternally but this. Spreading the gospel of Jesus, sharing his love with people who will spend eternity in hell unless they trust in him, knowing that God used us for his eternal glory–this is the greatest calling in life. How do we do this well?

First, connect with Christ. Only God can create spiritual salt and light. Jesus called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12). The Bible says that he is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9).

We get our influence from him. We cannot convict of a sin or save a soul or change a life. Human words cannot transform human hearts. We are to reflect Jesus’ light; to share Jesus’ preserving and purifying salt with the world.

So we stay close to our Source. We begin the day by submitting it to the Holy Spirit, by meeting God in prayer and Scripture. We walk with him through the day, praying about our problems and opportunities. And we stay with his people. These are collective images–not a single grain of salt; not a single lamp but a city on a hill. As we cooperate with Christ, he uses us to reach the world he died to save.

Second, care about the lost. Salt is no good in the saltshaker. In fact, that’s how it became corrupted in Jesus’ day. They didn’t have pure sodium chloride. What they had came from the marshes around the Dead Sea. Left unused in a container, it would decompose and be good for nothing. What can you use salt to do if it doesn’t taste salty?

Light is no good under a basket. Having a flashlight is not much use if you never turn it on.

Do you care about those you know who do not know Jesus? They will spend eternity separated from him in hell, unless they accept the forgiveness and grace he alone can give them. When was the last time you asked God to use you to help someone know him personally?

Last, communicate God’s love. Compassion is not much good without action. Make sure that people know you follow Jesus. Your good life is not enough. They need to know that you follow Jesus, or your example will not lead them to him.

Put a Bible on your desk where people coming into your office can see it. Wear something which shows that you are a Christian. Since I’ve been wearing a cross ring, I’ve been more conscious of my witness to everyone who sees it. Sign “God bless you” on your restaurant bill. Tell hurting colleagues or neighbors that you’re praying for them.

And look for chances to explain the gospel to them. Forward an evangelistic website. Get a gospel tract to give them. Invite them to worship or a special event here. Tell them how you met the Lord. Ask God to help you connect with those you can influence, and know that he will.


Being called salt and light is the greatest compliment Jesus ever paid his people. We are indeed the world’s only hope. Not in ourselves, but in the story we have to tell. If you’ll connect every morning with Jesus, you’ll care for the lost as he does. You’ll ask him to help you communicate God’s love with them, and he will. And your decision to answer this call will be eternally significant and joyful, for you and all those God touches through you.

Last week I saw evidence of the eternal legacy left by those who choose to be salt and light in their decaying, dark world.

In the late 19th century, Rev. W. D. Bloys made his way to the Davis Mountains of West Texas, coming as a Presbyterian missionary to that tough and violent part of the Old West. This small, frail man rode from ranch to ranch, sharing Christ and winning the people to Christ. He brought a portable Communion kit with him to use in sharing the Lord’s Supper and worship. He won hundreds across that difficult land to Jesus. But none of them could go to a Sunday worship service. It was a day’s ride to the nearest town, and they couldn’t leave their ranches.

So in 1890, Dr. Bloys began what he called Campmeeting. He called the ranchers from all over the region to come together in a beautiful area called Skillman Grove. The second week in August, they came. They brought shovels and pickaxes to dig for water. They shot antelope to have food. They camped in tents and in the open air. They began Tuesday night and met through Sunday, four times every day for worship.

Dr. Bloys preached all four services, every day. For many of those cowboys, this was their only worship service of the entire year. When the Campmeeting grew too large for him to preach alone, he began inviting other ministers to preach as well–Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Methodist.

Dr. Bloys died in 1917, and the Campmeeting soon took his name. George Truett was the Baptist preacher for a time. Last Sunday, the Bloys Campmeeting concluded its 118th meeting. I’ve been the Baptist preacher the last two years, and have three more years to go.

On Saturday night we honored the person who had been to the most Campmeetings–a woman named Tommy who was attending her 95th. More than a dozen other Campmeetings have begun all over the West, each following Dr. Bloys’ model. We will not know this side of eternity the significance of one small man’s decision to be salt and light in his world. He was slight of stature but great of faith. So can we be.

Who was Brother Bloys to you? Who will be grateful that you were Brother Bloys to them?