Last edited on 17/Sep/2021
The Bible’s Answer
The Bible teaches that the only way a person will be saved from their sins and go to Heaven is if they believe in the biblical Jesus Christ (Ac 16:30–31; 4:11–12; Jn 14:6), which is synonymous with believing in the gospel (Eph 1:13; 1Pt 1:23–25). Those who do not believe in Jesus will go to Hell when they die, as divine retribution for sinning (Mt 25:46; Jn 3:18; Heb 9:27). This can be summed up in the following Bible passages:
Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. … Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:18, 36, ESVUK)
And [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15–16)
Bible passages like the ones above have caused some people to question whether or not God will apply the same criteria for eternal life to those who have never heard of Jesus. They may ask questions like: if they die in unbelief, will God judge them the same way as any other unbeliever who has heard the gospel, but refused to believe in it? Would God automatically grant them a free pass into Heaven, because they had no chance to believe? Or, would God judge them by their works, and allow the good people to go to Heaven?
As a matter of fact, the answer to all of the above questions is: no. The Bible does not offer us any exceptions to the rule; every person must believe in Jesus to be saved, regardless of where they live, or what their personal circumstances are. Naturally, this includes people in lands where the gospel has yet to be proclaimed. However, we cannot end the conversation there, because the Bible has more to say regarding this topic. There are also some assumptions that people often make when bringing up this topic which must be addressed from a biblical perspective.
No One Is Righteous
A mistake people often make when asking what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus, is that they assume people can be “good”. When most secular people refer to “good” people, they mean law-abiding citizens who try hard to be nice people. Such people may be good from a human perspective, but from God’s objective perspective, no one (except for Jesus Christ) is truly good. St Paul wrote:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Romans 3:9–12)
Not only is the human race unrighteous in God’s eyes, but we even do no good; we are altogether evil. The reason why we are all evil is because we have all sinned (Rm 3:23). This means we have broken God’s commandments—his holy law (1Jn 3:4). Even pagans in non-Christian lands know about God’s law, because he has written it on each person’s heart from birth, and their conscience condemns them when they break it (Rm 2:15–16).
Because of our natural knowledge between right and wrong, we are all—even those who have never heard of Christ—aware of our shortcomings. Because of this, all people, both in Christian lands and pagan lands that have never heard of Jesus, deserve God’s eternal punishment. All people stand guilty before God, so no one will be saved by their good works (Gal 2:16). The amazing thing is that God chooses to save some people, rather than none at all (Ps 8:3–5).
God Does Reveal Himself to Everyone
Another mistake people often make when asking this question, is they think that God is incapable of revealing himself in his own way, such as in dreams or visions, to people in lands where the gospel is absent. By assuming this, they are putting limits on God’s power, even though Jesus said “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote that God does reveal himself to all people—even those who have never heard of Christ—in creation. He said:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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 honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18–23)
In this passage, Paul was clearly referring to Gentile pagans who had never been in contact with God’s Old Testament Christians before, the Israelites. Yet, Paul still accused them of suppressing the truth by their “ungodliness and unrighteousness”. Why? Because God’s “eternal power and divine nature” can be seen in his creation, and so they all “knew God”. Even still, they chose to reject him, and worshipped their own images of animals that they themselves had created, instead. The exact same thing can be said of people in non-Christians countries where the gospel is absent today.
If they die as unbelievers and, consequently, end up in Hell, it is because they wilfully chose to reject God, whom they perceived in creation, and worshipped their own idols instead. However, if they choose to seek God in creation, then God will reveal to them what they need to know to be saved (cf. Ac 17:26–27 with Jer 29:13). God could do this through a dream or vision, or by sending them a Christian who tells them the gospel (see Ac 10:1–8, 44). This is why Paul wrote about the necessity of mission work (Rm 10:14–15).
Furthermore, Jesus clearly said that God the Father gives the Holy Spirit (who gives us faith in Christ [1Cor 12:3]) to all who ask him (Lk 11:13). The problem is not that people do not have evidence for God; the problem is that people’s hearts are evil (Mk 7:21–23; Jn 2:24–25), and so by nature, they prefer to stay in the darkness, rather than follow where the evidence naturally leads, which is the light of Christ (Jn 3:19–20). God wants all people to be saved (1Tim 2:3–4), but not all people want to be saved.
God Judges Righteously
Yet another mistake people often make when asking this question, is they assume that God is “not fair”, usually in reference to his judgement. Yet, in the above sections we have established that all people are sinners and without excuse for their disbelieve, so God could not possibly be “unfair” for giving sinners the punishment they deserve. However, it should be mentioned that God, being the just Judge that he is (Gen 18:25), does not punish every sinner the same way. Jesus said:
Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming’, and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:42–48)
Our Lord Jesus clearly said that people who know the will of God, but fail to uphold it, will be punished more than those who do not know God’s will, but who sin anyway. This should make every person reading this article fearful; for such people are, in all likelihood, in a position where they have access to the Internet, access to hundreds of biblical resources, and access to the Bible, God’s Word, and thus can indeed know the will of God.
Thus, rather than worrying about those who have (supposedly) “never heard” of Jesus, people asking this question and reading this article should worry about themselves first, and prioritise putting their own lives in order. God is just (Is 30:18); he will ensure that people in non-Christian lands receive enough revelation of himself to believe, and will judge them fairly, according to what they have access to. If they die in unbelief, they will go to Hell, but will not be punished to the same degree as a person who lived in a Christian land and had many opportunities to believe in Jesus, but died in unbelief.
In this article, we have looked at what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus and died as unbelievers. We established that the Bible teaches that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved from their sins, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. This applies to all people, whether they live in Christian lands, or pagan lands. We then looked at some assumptions people make when asking this question.
No person is truly good, because all have sinned, and all are aware of this, because God gave us a conscience. All people can perceive God in creation, and he reveals himself to those who seek him, so there is no excuse for unbelief. Moreover, God judges those who know (or have access to) his divine will more strictly than those who do not have access to the Bible, so he is just. Rather than worry about those who have (supposedly) never heard of Jesus, we should first worry about our own salvation.
To learn about the the good news of salvation (gospel) concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, please read the below article.