Will God Condemn People Who Have Never Even Heard About Jesus?

watch video by philosopher Michael Horner

A way of answering your question might be to answer the following: “How were people saved prior to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection?” People then were saved by responding positively to God’s revelation. In other words, people are held accountable for what they know. How much light has a person received from God? Whatever that is, that is what they’re accountable for. The same would be true for people today who have never heard of Jesus.

If someone lived in China prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, how could they be expected to believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of their sins? Obviously, they could not believe in something they had never heard. In fact, that’s what the Bible tells us: “How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14)

God doesn’t expect people to respond to something they’ve never heard. But He does hold us accountable for what we HAVE heard. This idea is expressed by the following passage: “sin is not taken into account when there is no law” (Romans 5:13). If a person cannot respond to the good news of Jesus dying on their behalf (because they haven’t heard that good news), what are they accountable to respond to?…

The Bible tells us that there are some basics. First, all people are accountable to know that God exists. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). The complexity of the world around us tells us that there is a God (even though people can suppress that knowledge in their heart). Even those who haven’t heard of Jesus are accountable for knowing that God is.

Second, we’re all accountable for knowing that we are sinners. The Old Testament law proves that we’re sinful. Who has perfectly loved God or their neighbor? Therefore, “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). But what about people who do not know the Old Testament law?

The Bible tells us that even people who don’t have that law nonetheless have their own “law” — their own moral standard within their hearts (Romans 2:14-15). For example, if in his heart Nick believes it is wrong for others to talk behind his back, then that is a law within his heart. Therefore, when Nick talks behind someone else’s back, he has disobeyed the moral standard within his heart, thus proving he is a sinner.

So the two basics of revelation from God are (1) that God exists and (2) that we humans are sinners. How does one respond positively to these things? Well, if there is a God and we are sinners, then we need to humble ourselves before Him. Even the person who never hears about Jesus is accountable for humbling himself before God. In fact, the Bible speaks of a future time when God will proclaim the following “eternal gospel” to every nation, tribe, language and people on Earth: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Revelation 14:7)

In times past (prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection), people were saved by humbling themselves before God. God can have compassion and mercy on whomever He chooses (Romans 9:15), and He alone knows people’s hearts. Today, when a person hears the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they will respond positively to it if they are humbling themselves before God.

For those who don’t hear about Jesus, they still need to humble themselves before God. That means that they cannot trust in themselves for their salvation. Meaning, a person cannot think they can earn God’s favor by following religious rituals. That is an error because it’s like telling God, “I’m not a sinner — just look at all the good things I’ve done!” Therefore, it is a rejection one of the basics of God’s revelation to us: that we are sinners who need forgiveness from God.

But know that no matter who is saved, they will receive salvation on the basis of God’s grace, not by their works. God’s grace was given through Jesus’ death and resurrection. His atoning work is the way into heaven, even for those who have never heard of Him but who nonetheless are shown mercy from God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).

And He has commanded His followers to tell others about Him. He commanded them to go to the ends of the earth to declare His message of forgiveness of sin and offer of eternal life (Matthew 28:18-20). For, as the Bible tells us, with His blood He purchased people “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

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10 thoughts on “Will God Condemn People Who Have Never Even Heard About Jesus?

  1. Jonathan White

    If people are only accountable for what they know of God, shouldn’t we stop going into the world burdening them with more specifics to believe?

  2. Darren HewerDarren Hewer

    Jonathan,

    One thing that the author may not have articulated clearly is the reason why people need Jesus in the first place. No one is “condemned” (as the author put it) because they didn’t know who Jesus is; they are condemned (for justified reasons) for their own sin. Someone who dies from a self-inflicted wound doesn’t die due to lack of medical help; they die due to their injuries. Similarly, the condemned person is so because of their sin, not their lack-of-Jesus.

    The author points out that even someone who has never heard of Jesus knows intuitively the difference between right and wrong. So as Paul says, people are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Yet even so, God has provided an opportunity for anyone who is not deserving (that is, all of us) to be reconciled with him. We cannot save ourselves … yes, people are accountable to what they know of God, but that knowledge cannot save them. This is why it’s so important that people are informed about God’s offer of free grace through Jesus, because it is only through Him that we may have eternal life.

  3. Cristian D.

    Darren,

    You’re missing the point of Jonathan’s post. This piece by Michael indicates that if you know not of Jesus Christ, but have humbled yourself before God (which he equates to living within your moral standards) then you are saved. After knowing (receiving light from God) of Jesus, they then must pledge their allegiance to him regardless of their actions, thus condemning those who are generally good people, but are doubtful.

    Hence if you actually spread this truth you are actually burdening people with the fact that now instead of just relying on living withing their moral compass (which good people will do anyway) now they must also claim that Jesus is their savior as well in order to be saved. Were these same people not better off before they were given the good news? At least back then all they had to do was live life in a manner they found righteous. This does not make sense.

    Your analogy does not work to explain this dilemma because it is a completely different situation. Something better would be this: There exists a warrior that is skilled. He can defend himself well enough that life in general isn’t too difficult. Then he discovers a fountain that automatically heals him, and makes him invincible however now that he’s tasted it he *must* regularly drink from this fountain forever or risk dying a gruesome death. Was that warrior better off when he knew not of the fountain and defended himself well enough before or now that he is invincible, but has to drink from the fountain or risk dying?

  4. Darren HewerDarren Hewer

    Christian D,

    You seem to be saying (if I may rephrase what you’ve said in a way that is more straightforward in my own mind) that all people who are “good” (at least in their own estimation) are saved. Is this the case?

    If so, a few questions come to mind. First, is there anyone who lives perfectly within God’s moral standards? Actually, nevermind that. Is there anyone who does, as you say, live perfectly within their own moral standards? It seems to me that there is not. There is no “good” person; as Jesus said, “No one is good—except God alone.” Or as Paul said, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). How then could a person be saved by their own goodness, if there is no one who is good?

    But let’s say for a moment that somehow a person could be saved by their own goodness. How good is good enough? A person would never be quite sure that they were “good enough” to be saved. This to me seems like a rather terrible burden. A person is not “more burdened” because they have heard the good news; in fact they were entirely burdened without it, but now they do not have to rely on their own toil to (ineffectually) try to save themselves. Instead they rely on the only perfect One who in fact can save them.

    The only way, as I see it, to be saved is to put our trust in the only One who is both trustworthy and able to save us: God as revealed in the person, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul said in his writing to the church in Rome, “The one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (4:5) They are not made righteous themselves; they are credited with righteousness that comes from the only one who is righteous.

    There is no such warrior that can defend himself. All our attempts to do so will end in failure. Thankfully, Jesus’ resurrection, as applied and credited to all those willing to trust in it, will end in victory.

  5. Senthil Nathan

    As you sit back and analyze the possibility of anyone – who never heard the gospel- making it to heaven, you would appreciate the urgency of the great commission:
    Out of these unreached people:
    – those who have rejected or turned away from or ignored God – as they know He exists, such people are without excuse.(Rom 1:18-22)
    – those who clearly indulge in crimes or sins against their own conscience will be judged / condemned by their own law written into their conscience (Rom 2:14-16).
    – those who judge and condemn others for committing certain act – but do the same act themselves – also condemn themselves. (Rom 2:1)
    – those who worship idols are also condemned. (Rom 1:20) “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

    For those who hear the gospel and reject the gracious offer of the Savior, Lord Jesus Christ Himself made it plain what would be the consequence in Jn 3:36.

    Of the many unreached people that I have come across, I am yet to see anyone who does not fall into one of the above categories. In spite of the Word declaring that “There is no one righteous, not even one…” if some of us believe in a theoretical possibility of one in a million or a billion who may not be in the above categories, let’s leave that person’s judgement in the hands of the righteous God rather than speculating. Our concern really should be about the billions who do fall in these categories of condemnation. What chance they have for eternal life – if the gospel light does not reach them. In practical reality, Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation for any one in this world.
    Evangelization will not bring condemnation to such unreached people – that would bring the only possibility for eternal salvation if they receive Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.

  6. JamieLauren

    I guess it is important to have the context for why a question is being asked. If we are asking “Will God Condemn People Who Have Never Even Heard About Jesus?” to plan a strategy for how we can help people find forgiveness for their sin our answer is quite different than if we are asking out of eternal concern for those who have died who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel proclaimed. We do have a clear commission from our Lord to make disciples of all nations, so allowing this question to instruct us to ignore that call is obviously ‘off the mark’. But at the same time, if we allow this question to distort the character of God, denying His mercy and grace and His ability to reveal salvation to all people, then once again we are ‘off the mark’. Remember Abraham (long before Jesus died) was declared righteous by God because of his faith. Remember Enoch, who walked with God and then was taken by God. God is more than able to reveal Himself to people; and through His Holy Spirit, empower them for saving faith in Him. Who He chooses and how He chooses them is not for us to know. His mercy is infinite and His grace is limitless. We who have been ‘preached to’ are just as dependent on His Spirit’s revelation and empowerment as those who have never heard.

    So let’s be grateful that God’s offer of salvation reaches out to all (even to us); let’s be diligent on following His leading and directing of our lives to proclaim to people near and far the wonderful story of God’s salvation; and let’s keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith and keep in step with the Spirit every moment of every day.

  7. Nicole

    I think that we all all made for God’s pleasure, which it says in the Bible, and it pleases God for us to honor him. After Jesus, people had to recognize that they are sinners and let him redeem them instead of redeeming themselves. In a way, I think that as long as a person does this, they are actually accepting Jesus even though they may not have a book to explain exactly what he did and who he was or they may not have a name to assign to him. God’s spirit lives inside every human, and every human who seeks him will find him in whatever it is they are deciding and doing. And God consist of himself, his son, and the holy spirit. Anyone who actually physically finds out, however, about the sacrifice of Jesus should certainly submit to him or they are subject to condemnation. But it isn’t a burden to do this. More people who recognize this brings glory to God and makes it easier to fulfill his purpose, so we should be trying to spread it all we can. If you think about it, the only reason more people are separated and don’t know is because of the sin of people (i.e. Adam and Eve,The Tower of Babel). So we should be trying to undo this. I feel like I understand this, but then again, this is a very complex issue. Sometimes, I think there are some things that are too deep for us to really understand fully. You just have to have faith that God is fair and has our best interests in mind even though it seems otherwise. Remember that God is the judge, and no one here can say for sure how he really does judge. We can only do what he says, thus honoring him here on earth. So keep evangelizing and serving. We’re not trying to condemn people and save people from the brink of Hell; we’re just trying to honor God because we know that is our purpose for being here, though there may be other reasons that we can’t understand yet. I hope this helps.

  8. JamieJamie

    Thanks for the reminder, Nicole, that when we honour God we are living out the purpose for which He created us. that is a great way of evaluating my attitude and actions: “How does this honour God?”

    One thing I wasn’t so sure about was your statement that God’s Spirit lives inside of every human. I was trying to find that in the Bible somewhere and I just couldn’t. What do you mean by saying God’s Spirit lives inside every human?

  9. The Dude Abides

    So if I become brain damaged and forget I ever heard the ‘message’ and act in a way contrary to what is taken broadly as ‘upright’ , then I’m ok?

  10. JamieJamie

    Hey Dude, I just saw “The Big Lebowski” a couple of weeks ago! I love Sam Elliot soliloquy at the end, “The Dude Abides”.

    Anyway, I am trying to get the gist of what you are suggesting here. You are obviously talking hypothetically here but is your question about being a follower of Jesus but losing your memory of that and still being ‘ok’ in God’s eyes even though your life doesn’t look upright?

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