That question has been asked more than most by lost people, critics of Christianity, and Christians seeking to understand sovereignty, grace, and salvation. It’s an honest question that needs an honest answer. And, the answer might surprise you.
The reason people so desperately want to know the answer to this question is because we are humans that care about other humans. We think about the people in remote parts of the world that don’t have a Bible in their language and wonder what will happen to them. We wonder because we care. But we also wonder because we are curious about the nature of God. Deep down, we wonder if the God we serve is kind, loving, and benevolent. Or, is He a sadistic ruler condemning people to everlasting torture.
I have a friend that moved his family to Belize for the purpose of sharing the Gospel with the people there. One of the reasons he felt called to be there was that the people did not have a Bible in their native language. My friend wanted to go and help translate a Bible and use it to share the Gospel. People often comment about how incredible it is that my friend would make this decision.
But is it really a good thing?
R.C. Sproul is one of the world’s leading theologians, pastors, apologists, and evangelical authors. His podcast is listened to daily by people across the globe. His books are in house all over the world. He is a respected Christian that ahs dedicated his life to addressing the tough questions we often ask. Recently I was listening to one of his podcasts in which he was addressing the question of whether innocent people that have never heard the Gospel go to hell. Sproul says the question is loaded with presumptions, but the answer is very simple:
“The innocent native who never hears of Christ is in excellent shape, and we need not be anxious about his redemption. The innocent person does not need to hear of Christ. He has no need of redemption. God never punishes innocent people. The innocent person needs no Savior; he can save himself by his innocence.”
Wait a minute! If innocent people that have never heard of Jesus won’t go to hell, why in the world would anyone share the Gospel with people in remote parts of the world? Why is my friend in Belize translating the Bible into a new language and sharing Jesus with people? If he would just leave them alone those “innocent” people that have never heard the Gospel would be fine. As soon as my friend shares the Gospel with them they are no longer innocent and now have to accept Jesus if they want to go to Heaven. For that matter, none of us should ever tell anyone about Jesus. Right?
The problem here is no that missions work is creating guilty people out of innocent people. The problem here (and with the original question) is that there is no such thing as an innocent person. Again, Sproul writes:
“The point of the book of Romans is to declare the Good News—the marvelous story of redemption that God has provided for humanity in Christ, the riches and the glory of God’s grace, the extent to which God has gone to redeem us. But when Paul introduces the gospel, he begins in the first chapter by declaring that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven and this manifestation of God’s anger is directed against a human race that has become ungodly and unrighteous. So the reason for God’s anger is anger against evil. God’s not angry with innocent people; He’s angry with guilty people. The specific point for which they are charged with evil is in the rejection of God’s self-disclosure.” (Emphasis mine)
Paul makes it clear in the book of Romans that there is no such thing as an innocent person. No one, not even people in remote parts of the world are without guilt. Every person has the knowledge that there is a God, and that He has revealed Himself in His creation, and that we are guilty before Him. It is for this reason, rejecting God’s self-disclosure, that all humans are guilty and none are innocent.
In Romans 1:18 Paul tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
It is this “suppressing of truth” that condemns all people, regardless of whether they have heard the Gospel or not. All people, in every part of the world, have an innate knowledge that there is a God and we are accountable to Him. Some, however, choose to suppress this truth, and ignore what is clearly known about God. Paul makes this clear as well:
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:19-21).”
God has revealed Himself through His creation; this is called “general revelation.” And it is through God’s general revelation that all people stand condemned. God has revealed enough about Himself, and has written this knowledge on the heart of all people, so that no one can claim innocence or ignorance. Certainly some will die never having heard the name of Jesus. But, this would only be a defense if rejecting Jesus were the only sin for which a person could be condemned. But because rejecting God and suppressing the knowledge of God as Creator and Ruler is also condemnable, all people stand condemned.
What can we conclude form this brief study? I could not conclude the issue better than what Dr. Sproul has done in his article so I have posted that conclusion here. (Incidentally, you really should read Dr. Sproul’s comments on this topic; they are helpful in properly understanding this issue. Click here to read.)
(1) All men know God the Father (Romans 1:18ff). The problem of the pagan who has never heard the gospel is the problem of our universal fallenness. We must emphasize that God has revealed Himself to all men. All men know there is a God. Thus, no one can plead ignorance as an excuse for denying God.
(2) All men distort and reject true knowledge of God. Since all men know God and all distort or reject that knowledge, they are not innocent.
(3) There are no innocent people in the world. People who die without hearing the gospel will be judged according to the knowledge they have. They will be judged guilty for rejecting God the Father. God never condemns innocent people.
(4) God judges according to the knowledge people have. Idolatry as a “religion” does not please God but adds insult to injury to the glory of God (see Isa. 42:8). Idolatry does not represent man’s search for God but rather man’s flight from God.
(5) The gospel is God’s gift of redemption for the lost. God sends Christ to give people an opportunity for redemption from the guilt they already have. If men reject Christ they face the double judgment of rejecting both the Father and the Son (see Colossians 1:13-17).
(6) The pagan needs Christ to reconcile him to God the Father. Christ Himself viewed the pagan as being in a “lost” condition.
(7) Christ commands the Church to make sure everyone hears the gospel (see Mark 16:15).
(8) Rejection of Christ brings a double judgment (see 2 Tim. 4:1).
(9) “Religion” does not redeem people but may add to their guilt.