I posted this quote as my status on Facebook last week by Mark Driscoll, “Not only did Jesus die, He came back from death to give us confidence that He alone can be trusted upon death. Therefore, the worst thing is not to die, but rather to die without knowing Jesus.”
With that question, I had someone ask me, “but what about those who have never heard about Jesus?” He and I got into a conversation about it, via chat, where I explained to him what my thoughts were. He believes that if someone is in a remote location, that IF they start to genuinely search for God but don’t totally find Him, that they’re saved due to God’s grace. So my exact question would be this: what does happen to those that may never hear about Jesus?
I believe that one must repent and believe in order to be saved. I’m excited to read your thoughts!
Thank you for your question, JJ. This is a topic that I discuss quite often in live settings but one that I have not yet had an opportunity to address in writing. Your question allows me the opportunity to rectify that situation.
My view is that no one winds up in heaven or hell by accident and that all people get to make a free and informed decision to eventually resist God’s grace and love or not. In short, I agree with you that one must repent and believe in order to be saved. I also think your friend is onto something! Perhaps it is not an “either/or” but a “both/and.”
There are a range of options from which one is free to choose in dealing with this question. Consider three:
God knew that those who never hear the Gospel would freely choose to reject it, even if they did hear it! Remember that God has perfect omniscience; therefore, He knows with certainty who would freely accept His offer of love, and who would freely choose to reject Him even if they could do otherwise. Since God knows who would freely choose to reject Him (even though they really could do otherwise), why does God even need to let them hear the Gospel, since He knows they would reject it anyway?
I can imagine this unevangelized person face to face with Jesus on Judgment Day. This person might initially object and say, “But this isn’t fair! How could I have rejected you, when I didn’t even know about you?” God would reply, “I knew that even if you were face to face with me on earth, that you would have rejected me anyway.” The defendant would then reply, “That’s right, I would have rejected you then, and I reject you now!”
God can make sure that those who would repent if they hear the gospel message will hear the gospel message. As an advocate of God’s middle-knowledge, I believe that God knows with perfect certainty who would repent after hearing about Jesus. Therefore, if hearing the Gospel is necessary to be saved, God can make sure that those He knows would accept Him will be born in a time and a place in which they will hear the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul says natural revelation is enough. In Romans 1:20, Paul writes:
“For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Paul’s writings might suggests that hearing the Gospel is not necessary, as one is “without excuse,” due to God’s revelation in nature alone. But how do we reconcile this with scriptures making it clear that Jesus is “the only way” such as John 14:6 which says:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
And Acts 4:12, which states:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.
Perhaps Option #2 can be combined with the following…
This last option is the most controversial and also my favorite. William Lane Craig offers a thought experiment about a Native American named Walking Bear, who lived around 500 years ago. He was born into a time and place that was “unevangelized.”
Moreover, he was born into a tribe that taught him to worship the sun, trees, totem poles, and “the Great Spirit.” However, Walking Bear, rejected the teachings of his tribe, and recognized God’s invisible attributes found in nature as Paul discusses in Romans. In this thought experiment, Walking Bear rejects lies and instead seeks truth — the only true God — with his whole heart! Craig writes:
“Let’s suppose that as Walking Bear looks up at the heavens at night and as he sees the intricacy and beauty of nature around him, he senses that all of this has been made by the Great Spirit. Furthermore, as Walking Bear looks into his own heart, he senses there the moral law, telling him that all men are brothers made by the Great Spirit and therefore we ought to live in love for one another” (275).
Because of Walking Bear’s response to natural revelation, perhaps God would then provide special revelation in the form of dreams, visions (Acts 2:17), or angels to communicate the “rest of the story.”
Or perhaps Walking Bear never hears the rest of the story via special revelation and dies after being trampled by a herd of buffalo. But, when Walking Bear opens his metaphysical eyes on the other side of death — and is now face to face with Jesus — he would say, “Wow, I’ve been looking for you my entire life! I love you and if only I would have heard about you, I would have worshipped you on earth!”
Jesus would say, “I know you would have, Walking Bear — I know the truth-value to all counterfactual statements. I know you love me, and I love you too. Welcome to the Kingdom!”
I must be clear about a few things regarding this thought experiment. First, Walking Bear is a sinner, and it is only through the atoning blood of Jesus that Walking Bear could be saved! Even though Walking Bear, during his time on earth, was not aware of Jesus’ work on the cross and His resurrection, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (the only way to Heaven) was still applied to Walking Bear. No one gets to the Father apart from the atoning work of Jesus (John 14:6).
Second, this is only a thought experiment! Indeed, if this thought experiment corresponds to reality, I do not know if we should think this happens often. The salient point, however, is that if this thought experiment is even a possibility, then we have a potential solution to the “those who never hear” problem. There is apologetic significance as well as the skeptic’s “objection of the unevangelized” has no teeth in its bite!
I have applied Craig’s Walking Bear thought experiment to others who lived in a time and place in which they would not have heard about Jesus. Take Plato, for instance. Plato was raised in a polytheistic culture and based on natural revelation (Romans 1:20) and critical thinking chose to reject these false claims.
I once asked Dr. David Rozema (a fantastic philosopher at the University Nebraska Kearney) if Plato was a theist. His answer was one I will never forget: “Plato was a straight-up mono theist!”
With Rozema’s words in mind, I can imagine Plato rejecting lies, seeking truth, and seeking even more truth. Then, eventually — while continuing his search for truth — Plato takes his last breath and dies. Now, Plato is facing judgment. Hebrews 9:27 is clear:
Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,
When Plato opens his metaphysical eyes on the other side of death — and is now face to face with Judge Jesus in the final courtroom, perhaps Plato would say, “Wow, I’ve been looking for you my entire life! I love you, and if only I would have heard about you, I would have worshipped you on earth!”
Jesus would say, “I know you would have, Plato — I know the truth-value to all counterfactual statements. I know you love me, and I love you too. Welcome to the Kingdom!”
Or, perhaps Plato might say, “Oh, you are what I was looking for? Interesting, I might need to go philosophize about this a little longer, perhaps for a few more years, perhaps to infinity and beyond” (I have something akin to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce in mind). This is hell!
I am in no position to know how Plato would have chosen (or did choose) in this scenario, but an omniscient God is in such a position to know these things. Because of this, we can trust that God is perfectly loving and just. We can also have hope for those who have never heard.
Consider some anecdotal evidence supporting this possibility. A couple years ago I was on an airplane flying to San Antonio to the annual Evangelical Theological Society conference. I found myself sitting next to a man from China. He told me that he was a Christian. I asked him if he would share his story with me. He obliged and told me that he was raised in an atheistic culture. He knew nothing of Jesus or the Bible and all he was taught about God was that some crazy westerners believed in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and God. He said that he was taught by everyone – from his parents to his professors – that atheism was true, but surprisingly, he never believed them (even as a little kid)!
I was shocked and asked why he never believed his parents or his professors. He said that he would look at the beauty of nature and realize that this wonderful artwork demanded an artist. He would study science and see intelligent design — the work of an engineer — behind that which he studied.
On the airplane I exclaimed, “That’s Romans 1:20 in action!”
This Chinese man raised in atheism responded appropriately to God’s revelation in nature (and God knew that he would respond appropriately to the gospel if he heard it) – God made sure that He provided a way for this man to hear the gospel and he heard the gospel from those in a campus ministry at the University of Oregon. He told me that as soon as he heard the gospel he said, “I always knew this was true, I just never had access to the details!”
Here is what really got me thinking: I asked this man what would have happened if his plane would have crashed on the way to Oregon (which is not the best thing to think about when you are actually flying in an airplane). He said that if that would have happened, that he would have fallen on His knees and worshipped Christ as soon as he was face to face with Him.
I wonder how a perfectly good and loving God would have judged my friend in that scenario (just something to consider)!
Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),
 William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, 2010 (p.275)
 I asked Rozema if I recalled his statement accurately and he sent me the following via email (used with permission):
“There are strong and consistent indications in his dialogues that Plato was a ‘straight-up monotheist!’ Even though I have no doubts that both Socrates and Plato were monotheists, there are still some who think it can be doubted. This addition wouldn’t change anything in your argument however.”
 Rozema added some interesting thoughts regarding Option #3 when compared to other works of C.S. Lewis:
“On a related note, the best example of how option 3 might work is found in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia (“The Last Battle”), where a Calormene soldier, Emeth, finds himself in Paradise after his death, even though he has served Tash—the false god of the Calormenes—his whole life, not Aslan. We learn that he has never truly known Aslan (he’s only been told lies about Aslan), but, at the same time, all the good things he believes are true of Tash are also lies—they are truths about Aslan, not about Tash. In other words, he mistakes the false god for the true One, and vice-versa. But, since his faith and service are true and he loves with all his heart, and since his ignorance about which one is the true God is not his fault, his faith is taken as righteousness and he is welcomed into the eternal kingdom. It’s an often-discussed passage, as you might guess, but I think it illustrates your point better than either of us could do.”