What about those who have never heard the Gospel?
Is it reasonable to believe that only those who hear the good news about Jesus,
and ask him for forgiveness, are accepted into heaven?
Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? looks at a variety of questions regarding the reliability of the New Testament. For example:
- Is there evidence that people during Jesus’ lifetime could reliably record what He said and did while he was still alive?
- Has the New Testament been copied accurately?
- Are the Gospels true records of what Jesus said and did, given that the original authors were biased?
However these and the other concerns raised in Echoes of Jesus do not focus on those questions that are of a moral nature. One such question is whether God should allow everybody into heaven and not judge us when we die. Consider these words of Jesus in which he talks of himself as the Son of Man.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:28)
This is one of my favourite sayings of Jesus because it says so much. To focus on a few points:
Jesus is stating that he came to serve us, not that we are to serve him. Jesus, who is God the Son, the maker of the universe, is telling us that he ‘is so full and so self-sufficient and so overflowing in power and life and joy, that he [does not need us, but wants us] …’ (J Piper)
This sentiment was echoed later in the New Testament
And he [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25)
Jesus’ goes on to say that he came to give his life as a ransom. He fully understood what his offer meant. Elsewhere he explained what this death would entail:
Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them,“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. (Matthew 20:17-19).
But why did Jesus think any of us needed to be ransomed? It is for two reasons. Firstly he knew that without his sacrifice/ransom we would not be free of sin. Jesus said that ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34, NIV). We are not basically good (as some argue), rather we are “slaves” to sin and can not free ourselves from it. Being sinful even in some small ways means that our actions and thoughts can never be 100% in harmony with God’s. The New Testament goes so far as to say that before we are rescued by Jesus we are his enemies. (Colossians 1:21, Romans 5:6-10)
Secondly, Jesus also wanted to save us from the punishment related to our sinful state, a punishment that he described as being of a terrible nature.
Fear him [God] who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. (Luke 12:5)
But the words of Jesus about him coming to serve and being a ransom have often caused people to wonder how fair is Jesus’ treatment of those who do not become Christians. What will happen to those who never get to learn about Jesus before they die?
Questions like these have often been phrased in the following way:
What about the good people who have not been fortunate enough to live in a country where Christians live and have spread the news of Jesus’ offer of being a ransom?
Two Christians with training in theology and philosophy (Dr R Douglas Gievettand Dr W Gary Phillips) made a noteworthy response,which I have partly paraphrased here. They first looked at the assumptions that form the basis of the above question:
1) What part of the world you are born into is a matter of fortune or luck
2) Only those who live in such countries ever get to hear the good news and are saved by it;
3) If Jesus’ judgment is that someone goes to hell, then this is what God wanted or intended.
Gievett and Phillips respond by asserting that:
a) God is in control of all events in every person’s life, and this sovereignty includes the circumstances of their birth. So it is not a matter of fortune or luck.
b) That Jesus’ teachings which command Christians to tell others has ensured that many people have heard the goods news, even in lands where Christians have been largely absent. In modern times radio and the internet make this even easier.
c) That although…
‘God our Saviour … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-6)
… God also allows people the freedom to choose their own destinies based on their responses to him. If they freely wish to make their own rules and ignore him in this life, then in the next life such people will live where God is absent. As God is love then such a place is hell.
d) On the flip side, It is possible that even in countries where the good news of Jesus’ ransom is very accessible that still only a minority will take up Jesus’ offer, which is no doubt why he said:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
e) There is nothing inherently impossible with the proposition that God – the maker and owner of the universe – only allows those who hear and believe him to go to heaven. This in itself can be seen as entirely fair as God has ‘middle knowledge’. This means he knows all the free choice actions a person would perform in any possible scenario, even ones that will not actually happen in that persons life. Therefore it is reasonable that God, who is omniscient, knows ‘what a person in some non-Christian land would freely decide if that person were, contrary to fact, to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ’
f) ‘Some who accept the doctrine of middle knowledge hold that there are individuals who never hear the Gospel but would believe if they were to hear it and that God saves them on the basis of his foreknowledge of that fact.’ Some of these individuals may receive dreams and visions of God and them make the best responses they can based on such limited knowledge.
g) ‘But it is equally plausible philosophically that God knows that all individuals who never hear the gospel are individuals who would not believe if they were to hear the Gospel.’
Getting back to the words of Jesus where he taught that we needed him to pay the ransom we owe for our sins, J Piper put it well from God’s perspective:
Jesus did not come in search of slave labor. He does not need it. He came in search of those who would become his friends. That is, he came in search of those who would trust him to serve them. … For these he laid down his life. For these he gave his life as a ransom. These are the many in Mark 10:45. Everyone who trusts the servant Christ as Satisfier, Supplier, Guide, Forgiver.
Every time that I choose to think about how Jesus has rescued me causes an immense feeling of freedom and happiness to rise up inside. This is what I mean when I say how great it is to be forgiven. Not just forgiven for the sins of today, but forgiven for who I was born as. We are all born separate from God. We are evil in the sense that we do that which is wrong; and even when we are rescued by Jesus Christ we continue to do evil to some extent. But the good news is that he transforms us so that we can become more like him.
We get to choose to be his children. He will never “divorce” or abandon His children, but he want us to lead wise and fulfilling lives. We, as his children will disappoint Him at times, when we chose sin, but he will forgive us if we are genuinely sorry. He knows how tough life can be, He’s lived it here on earth. Although we know that there will be times when we fail, our one and only holy Father will never abandon His children.
J Piper, The Son of Man Came to Give His Life a Ransom forMany: Christmas Eve Day, 24/12/1995. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-son-of-man-came-to-give-his-life-a-ransom-for-manyAccessed 23/07/2018
R. Douglas Geivett: author of Evil and the Evidence for God; co-editor of Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemologyand In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History; former president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
W Gary Phillips: author of Making Sense of Your World: ABiblical Worldview, was Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies, has served as an officer in both the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
R Douglas Gievett &Dr W Gary Phillips, A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach: ConclusionIn Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996