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A forum where tough questions about the Christian faith can be discussed. A resource of Gracepoint Ministries
This is possibly one of the most difficult questions posed toward Christianity. Let's discuss this question at length, as I foresee this thread going on for a while, and I can also guess that this thread will probably be referred to in the future. Don't be intimidated into thinking that each comment needs to address the issue exhaustively. There are many approaches to this question, so let's take it one approach at a time. Here's one for starters...
The OT prophets and people of faith had a limited understanding of God, and they did not have an explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Yet it seems clear that they were saved, and that God was pleased with them. So that fact alone seems to show the theoretical possibility that someone could be saved without an explicit knowledge of Christ.
That's one observation, which of course needs to be balanced out by other issues raised by the Bible... but just wanted to throw one out there to begin with.
I would like to add to this a little bit by throwing in another component to the question, which to me seems important to answer: What kind of answer should we as Christians give?
I think a major issue with this question is trying to figure out, and thus explain, what we think God's model for 'setting up the world' was. Already we're off on a bad foot if we try to do this, because stepping into contradiction(and outside the scope of the bible) is so easy to do. The bible makes statements about both God's sovereignty and our capability to choose Him, but generally does not drive a clear, detailed line between the two(or else this question would probably be easier to answer).
Given this, I think there are some side questions that would be very useful to consider(ones that can help us truly answer the question, instead of trying to model the mind of God):
Is God's justice and the possibility of those who haven't heard a contradiction?
More than not being logically contradictory, is there good evidence for God's fairness in the bible?
Does God's mystery on this subject make sense?
These can help us think about the topic, because I don't think we need a full model of God's salvation plan(how could we fit it in our minds anyway?) in order to piece together examples like what Daniel gave.
With all that in mind, I'll try to push forward what Daniel started in addressing the first couple of questions: "Was salvation possible in a pre-christ world? Was it possible in all cultures, outside of Abraham and outside of the Jewish community in formation? If so, how?"
In the OT we have some examples that seem to answer these questions well for us: On one hand, the pre-Christ Jews, especially the Prophets, seemed to have been saved by God through their faith(ex. Abraham in Gen 15:6, or David, the man after God's own heart). On the other hand, we also have non-Jews who are deemed righteous(Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 2, Naaman of Aram in 2 Kings 5). So we have big questions for discussion: Is there more in the Bible to support this? Are there also passages that seem contradictory? Does it all make intuitive sense?
Was salvation possible in a pre-christ world?
Salvation was definitely possible in a pre-Christ world, as Daniel and Dan (that’s pretty confusing) have already pointed out. Hebrews 11 points out many individuals in the Old Testament who went to heaven without even hearing the name of Jesus: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, etc.
Was it possible in all cultures, outside of Abraham and outside of the Jewish community in formation? If so, how?
There are a few examples of Gentiles being saved in the Old Testament. Ruth, a Moabite, made a personal decision to follow God, rather than the gods of her country (Ruth 1:16-17). God healed Naaman and brought him to an understanding of who He is (2 Kings 5:15). Rahab even gives her testimony in Joshua 2:9-12.
Is it possible for someone who has never heard of Jesus (in a post-Jesus) world, to be saved? If so, how, and under what circumstances and understanding.
This question can be answered in a variety of ways. One of the most common responses is that those who haven’t heard of Jesus can be saved through “natural revelation”. This concept stems from Romans 1:20, which says:
“20For 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.”
The argument is that God reveals himself through nature and the human conscience, so that even if a person has never heard about Jesus, he/she could still recognize that an omnipotent spiritual being exists, and even be able to discern His nature. However, this argument contradicts everything in the Bible that says that the only path to heaven is through Jesus Christ.
Some believe that Jesus gives those who have never heard another chance to hear the gospel after their death. This is derived from 1 Peter 4:5-6, which states that Jesus preached to “those who are now dead”. This is more believable than salvation by natural revelation, but still only stands on two verses. Others believe that God will resurrect those who have never heard during the end times, when they will get a chance to hear the gospel for the first time.
These answers are all from an Arminian (salvation may be obtained from a free-will choice) standpoint. The question is rendered moot if looking at it from a Calvinist (salvation is only given to the elect and is irresistible) position, since Calvinists would believe that people who have never heard of Jesus were simply not part of the elect.
I would like to offer some counterpoints about Billy's answers regarding the last question, about a post-Jesus world.
This is derived from 1 Peter 4:5-6, which states that Jesus preached to “those who are now dead”. This is more believable than salvation by natural revelation...
I think the idea that Jesus actually preached to people while they were dead is a mis-application of the verse. The full portion of the verse we care about says "But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead"(NIV 1 Peter 4:5-6). The 'was' is ambiguous(in the aorist aspect of the past tense, can't infer much), but I think the clearest meaning is that there were people who were preached to that are now dead(preached to while alive). The verse does say that both the living and dead will be judged, but I don't get the impression that preaching to the dead is ongoing.
...However, this argument contradicts everything in the Bible that says that the only path to heaven is through Jesus Christ.
I'm going to disagree with this on two points. First, I wouldn't restrict revelation to nature, and the written word. For example, there are many people in Asia who have had dreams or visions that lead them to become Christians(see some books by Ravi Zacharias, or Brother Yun's book "Heavenly Man").
Second, I think we need to carefully define what it means for Jesus to be the only path to heaven. If a requirement existed to know that actual name 'Jesus' then we've ruled out pre-Christ persons, which doesn't fit. Of course there are blatant statements in the bible about requirements for salvation(John 14:6, Romans 2:13, Acts 16:29-31), but I think what it means precisely to 'believe in Jesus' is open to a little bit of interpretation. Do you have to know Jesus' formal name? Do you merely have to know Him? If so, what constitutes knowing Jesus? Whatever we pick, how do pre-Christ persons fit in? To spark some thought on this, I'd like to offer an illustration:
Suppose that three people are arriving one at a time to the entrances to a series of paths(the journey is life, the paths are our choices). The first person has heard about where each path leads, and chooses a particularly small one named the 'Jesus path'. The second has heard nothing, but recognizes some sort of truth or rightness about the Jesus path, and chooses it even given it's size and difficulty. The third, no matter what he's heard, chooses one of the easier paths.
So this fit reality? If so, does it answer any questions?
I personally think the Second Man is a vague case, I'd like to see what people think about it. I don't think this gray area is really a difficulty for the argument that God is fair, but I don't agree with the argument that salvation from natural revelation "contradicts everything in the Bible that says".
I'd like to offer my thoughts on the "second man" that Dan references in his previous comment.
Romans 2: 13-16 that says "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law" additionally "when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves" and furthermore "...they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness." From this and the "natural revelation" that Billy talked about, it seems that, even if someone doesn't have an explicit knowledge of the law then he or she is (in some sense) held accountable by their conscience which "bear witness" and their "thoughts" which can "accuse" or "defend" those who have not heard the law.
To me, this seems to suggest, that for someone who hasn't heard of Jesus (meaning they probably haven't heard the law either), God will take into account this "conscience" when he judges that person. Not to be nitpicky (sorry billy, haha), but rather than saying someone can be "saved through 'natural revelation'" I think its more accurate to say that God may have mercy on someone who hasn't explicitly heard of the law or Jesus because he takes this "conscience" into account.
But now regarding Kinder's "second man" and whether it really fits reality that someone can walk the "Jesus Path" without knowledge of God. It seems to me, that there can theoretically exist someone who is fully repentant and fully willing to be sanctified, but just hasn't heard of Jesus. Perhaps if this person was to be judged by God, God will take that into account. This conclusion is exciting, but then I have to remember the state of man. Romans 3:10-11 reminds us that "there is no one righteous, not even one...there is no one who seeks God." I feel like when I peer into my heart, I realize that my natural inclination is to rebel against God with all my heart. I feel like this is the general tendency among every man. Hmm... what I mean to say is that, I'm rooting for this man who hasn't heard but would repent if he did, but I think it's accurate to say that this "second man" is the exception rather than the rule.
If what I've just described is accurate, it seems that God is indeed "fair" (yay, b/c he's not obligated to be), in that he'll at least consider the "conscience" when he's judging, not just explicit knowledge of the law. But I guess my point in a nutshell is, it'll be rare (but perhaps not impossible) to find a "conscience" that is indeed righteous and not in rebellion against God but who hasn't heard of the law nor Jesus. (But alas, if we keep spreading the good news, then people won't be put in this precarious situation!) But that's just an additional comment to the original question which was "is it possible for someone who has never heard of Jesus ... to be saved?" Any thoughts?
First, I'll have to apologize for cryptically denying salvation by natural revelation without explaining myself further. Hopefully this comment will rectify that.
...I think the clearest meaning is that there were people who were preached to that are now dead(preached to while alive). The verse does say that both the living and dead will be judged, but I don't get the impression that preaching to the dead is ongoing.
If the argument is pivotal around the phrase “now dead”, I think it would be useful to know that the word “now” only appears in the NIV translation. None of the other major translations, such as the King James Version, NASB, ESV, etc, have the word “now”. In any case, I realize the futility of arguing about syntax and I'm not going to die defending this hill; I just thought the idea of Jesus preaching to the dead was an interesting concept.
I wouldn't restrict revelation to nature, and the written word. For example, there are many people in Asia who have had dreams or visions that lead them to become Christian...
I agree, and I apologize for not differentiating between natural revelation and special revelation. Natural revelation is what we've been talking about: God revealing himself through His creation (the natural world, our inherent sense of morality). Special revelation is when God chooses to reveal himself at special times to specific people, which can be through miracles, prophesies, scripture, or our own personal experience of God. Although I don't believe that natural revelation is sufficient for salvation, special revelation is absolutely necessary for salvation. Dreams and visions are examples of special revelation.
Now I'd like to discuss Garrett's comment, which I think will also answer some of Dan's questions.
[Continued in next comment]
Here's the whole text of Romans 2:12-16, for convenience's sake.
12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Verses 14-16 seem to suggest that those who don't have the law (or have heard of Jesus) are judged according to their conscience, which all people have. The implication is that if you've never heard of Jesus and your conscience is that of a good person who believes in a Creator, then you will be saved. This seems to me like a dangerous assumption.
Verse 12 differentiates between those who are apart from the law and those under the law. However, the common denominator is that both have sinned. This is just a foreshadowing of what Paul is really getting at; in Romans 3:23 Paul declares that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and Romans 5:12 states that “death came to all men because all sinned”. The point of this passage, and one of the main points of the book of Romans, is that no matter your heritage, if you are Jew or Gentile, if you have the law or do not (and abide by another law), you are a sinner.
Some may see verses 14-16 as a possibility of being justified by the law, especially an inherent law of conscience. However, to me, verses 14-16 demonstrates the futility of justification by any sort of law. I agree that God will not judge the Gentile by Mosaic law when his/her day of judgment comes; instead He will judge him according to his conscience, and the verses confirm that much. However, will this conscience accuse him or defend him? Since we are all sinners according to Romans 3:23, he will not be excused because of his conscience, but he will be accused by it, since he has violated his conscience by sinning. What Paul is getting at is that everyone needs Christ because without Him, we are left with justification by the law. Although theoretically one may be able to be justified by it (Mosaic law or the law of conscience) if they are sinless, the theory is only a theory because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory God.
[Continued in next comment]
Regarding the paths analogy (or allegory, if you prefer), I would think that the 1st person and the 2nd person chose completely different paths. The 1st person chooses the path of Jesus despite its difficulty, knowing that it leads to a redeemed life on this world and everlasting joy in the next. The 3rd person sees its difficulty and decides to take an easier path, because he can't see the end of any of the paths. The 2nd person has no knowledge of the Jesus path, or of even where it starts, so he takes a path that has similarities to the Jesus path but leads somewhere else. The central doctrine of our faith is that there is only one path to heaven, and that is through Jesus Christ; all other paths are insufficient.
Although it doesn't seem “fair”, why is it that we impute human characteristics of fairness and equality to God? I would argue that since God is our perfect Creator, we are the ones who owe everything to Him. God doesn’t owe us salvation, or even the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Jesus Christ was God’s gift to us; our demanding that it be freely given to everybody is like a pardoned death row prisoner saying “Thanks for pardoning me! But how come you didn’t pardon all those other guys I was with?” We all deserve death and banishment to hell; it’s only through God’s great mercy, personified in Jesus Christ, that we don’t receive the punishment that our sins warrant.
I hope this clarifies my stance on the matter. I understand that this is an ongoing debate among Christians, and that I could be completely wrong about the whole thing :P.
P.S. I realize I didn't answer the whole pre-Jesus dilemma...but it's a hard question and I'm thinking about it, haha.
Well put, Billy. I think you've captured the general fallen state of man and addressed the fact that God is not obligated to save us (which is important to realize for this question).
Yea it's hard to categorize the second man. The OT salvations seem to suggest that "second man" really can be saved, meaning that the first and second man go the same God-directed path. But in a post-Christ era, maybe it only remains theoretically possible. If someone's conscience is the judge because they don't have an explicit knowledge of the law, then things aren't lookin' good (to put it lightly). I'm glad we're planting 3 churches next year.
We've talked a bit about the theology of this issue, any thoughts on how to actually talk about in conversation? Certainly, most of what we talked about would go over a non-christian's head.
Well so far we have been doing our best to solve detailed issues with salvation and those who haven't heard, but in conversation we usually don't have the luxury of time, or listeners with biblical knowledge. I think a better method is to establish some basic facts about what we believe, and answer some questions from there. Some things I would establish would be:
1) The Bible doesn't say much specific about those who have never heard
2) We don't need to know what God's plan is, just that it's not contradictory
3) Even without full knowledge of God's plan, we can see evidence in the past and today of God reaching all kinds of people
I think from here it's possible for others to explore and question these points. If they question point 3 it's possible to use some of the examples we already used. If point 2, then we can explain a good possible model like Molinism, or whatever you think makes the most sense. Any other ideas here?
For anyone with further interest on this topic, here are two good (short) articles with different perspectives on the matter:
William Lane Craig
Chad Owen Brand
wow, nice finds. the articles capture a lot of the sentiments we discussed.
Reading William Lane Craig's fifth point, I don't exactly understand it: it doesn't quite sit well with me, if someone could explain to me again I'd appreciate it:
5. God has created a world that has an optimal balance between saved and lost, and those who never hear the gospel and are lost would not have believed in it even if they had heard it.
Though I understand God's foreknowledge doesn't negate free will, this assumes that all people who don't hear the Gospel wouldn't have believed it anyways. That's a pretty strong assumption - and though he doesn't assert it's true, that it just needs to be possibly true, I don't see how it solves the issue unless it's absolutely true.
Though this is an important issue to address, I feel like we as Christians simply just need to bridge the gap of number of people who have not heard. Romans 10:14,15: How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
As for William Lane Craig's point about an 'optimal world', it's important to note that this is meant to be a philosophical counterpoint, not to say that Christians should accept the fate of those who haven't heard the gospel and leave it at that. What Romans says is very true, we have a responsibility to spread the Word, and this is not an excuse to break from that call.
Given that, Craig's point 5 is intended as a counterpoint to the objection to God's existence based on those who have never heard. The objection would be something along these lines: "If the God of the bible made the world, all people would have heard the gospel message, in order to freely accept or reject it. Since not all have heard, God does not exist." In other words, God would have made a world where more people are saved by giving the gospel message to everyone(you could say a more 'optimal' world).
Now we see the context of point 5. Rather than some indication that we no longer need to evangelize, it fits nicely as the counter to the objection above: God may have actually created the optimal world. Unless it can be shown that He didn't, the objection fails.
This is definitely one of the most difficult questions of the Christian faith! I recall in reading William Lane Craig's article
How Can Christ Be the Only Way to God? a very poignant description of the problem of Christian exclusivity - "Enlightenment rationalists like Voltaire taunted the Christians of his day with the prospect of millions of Chinamen doomed to hell for not having believed in Christ, when they had not so much as even heard of Christ." This is a very personally relevant point since I am 1) a follower of Christ and 2) a person of Chinese heritage. Thus, I am faced with the unpleasant but unavoidable fact that I will most probably not see any of my ancestors in heaven. Still, I think that the answers provided by Craig in the aforementioned article sufficiently address this very difficult problem.
In response to bwang's question, I think the article I referenced above helps greatly to clarify point number 5. In addition to more fully developing his argument, Craig does in fact explicitly assert "There are no such people [who have not heard the Gospel but who would believe in Christ if they had]. God in His providence has so arranged the world that those who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it, do hear it. The sovereign God has so ordered human history that as the Gospel spreads out from first century Palestine, He places people in its path who would believe it if they heard it. Once the Gospel reaches a people, God providentially places there persons who He knew would respond to it if they heard it. In His love and mercy, God ensures that no one who would believe the Gospel if he heard it is born at a time and place in history where he fails to hear it. Those who do not respond to God's general revelation in nature and conscience and never hear the Gospel would not respond to it if they did hear it. Hence, no one is lost because of historical or geographical accident. Anyone who wants or even would want to be saved will be saved."
I find this to be personally very true, as I came to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior after being reached out to by a team of staff from Gracepoint Berkeley who moved out to Austin to start a church/college ministry primarily for the students at University of Texas at Austin. I firmly believe that it is only by divine providence that I ended up in Austin instead of Duke or Dartmouth for my college years and that the directors at Gracepoint were led by God to choose Austin as the site of the next church plant. I believe that God directly placed me in the path of my spiritual leaders who were part of God's plan to spread the good news of Jesus Christ since that message was first preached in first century Palestine.
What makes me believe this even more is the fact that my spiritual leaders here in Austin that eventually led me to Christ were well-versed in apologetics. Being from the heart of atheistic liberal California, they had/have excellent apologetics training (i.e. Course 101), which helped me to overcome my intellectual smokescreens to belief in God. I had previously believed there were no intellectual reasons to believe in Christianity because all the Christians I met seemed to have no intellectual warrant for their faith, but boy was I proven wrong. Thus, because of this fact, God made sure that I would not have to plead before Him (had I not been reached) that I would have believed if only I knew about apologetics.
I also found it very interesting that this point has been specifically addressed in Scripture in Acts 17:26-27 "26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us."
As to the question of absolute vs. possible truth or the improbability of this solution to the problem of those who have not heard, Craig states "Now it would, indeed, be fantastically improbable that by happenstance alone it just turns out that all those who never hear the Gospel and are lost are persons who would not have believed the Gospel even if they had heard it. But that is not the hypothesis. The hypothesis is that a provident God has so arranged the world. Given a God endowed with knowledge of how every person would freely respond to His grace in whatever circumstances God might place him, it is not at all implausible that God has ordered the world in the way described. Such a world would not look outwardly any different from a world in which the circumstances of a person's birth are a matter of happenstance."
To me, if we deny this solution, we are essentially saying to God, "God, I know that there definitely exists persons X who would have believed in Your Son's death and resurrection for their sin had they only heard the Gospel message." That implies that we know more about persons X and their decision-making process than God does, which seems to be a ridiculous, not to mention heretical, position. I think it may be easy to convince ourselves that persons X and Y would have believed if they had heard, especially if we personally know persons X and Y, and emotions come into play. Realistically, however, there may be a wide range of reasons why persons X and Y would not come to freely accept Christ such as persons X's pride and inability to acknowledge sin or other things in this world.
I personally find this Biblically supported solution to the problem of those who have not heard to be very exciting especially in light of the fact that Gracepoint is planting three new churches this year. The staff are directly addressing the problem of the unheard and are being part of the solution. The staff are being led by God to be part of the reason why there are none who have not heard but who would have accepted Christ, just as was the case for me.
P.S. Greetings from Austin! Pastor Manny recently mentioned Gracepoint Forum when he urged us to become intellectually mature and fulfilled Christians in his SWS message right after he came back from meeting William Lane Craig in Berkeley. I've found it a very helpful resource in helping to answer some of the most difficult questions about the Christian faith.
summary answer: I must acknowledge that this exclusivity is a very difficult and disturbing ramification of Christianity, along with other world religions such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.
As J.P. Moreland says in the book God Conversation, "In handling difficult questions such as this, we find it helpful to begin with what we know and move to what is less clear. From the Scriptures it is clear that the love of God extends to all people regardless of geographical location (John 3:16). It is equally clear that God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). There is only one mediator between God and man - Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). God's love for the world is so great that he commands his followers to sacrifice everything in taking the Gospel to the entire world (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15-16; Lk 24:46-48; Acts 1:8)." Given these clear precepts, we can now move to the less clear - particularly the question of what happens to people who have never heard the gospel.
First of all, God's judgment is toward sins that we have committed, not toward not being able to hear the gospel message. There can be a misconception that somehow God's judgment is unfair because He is punishing people for something that they couldn't have helped - namely that they couldn’t get access to the gospel message. However, Greg Koukl points out (in the article "The Unevangelized Heathen" in str.org) that God's judgment is toward sins that human beings willingly and knowingly commit, and the fairness of that judgment should not be affected by the fact that there might be another person who happens to get pardoned. Therefore, God has the prerogative to judge, and He is being fair when He punishes people for their willful sins, regardless of the existence of people who are forgiven. That would be like questioning the entire justice system just because there is such a thing as clemency.
However, beyond that harsh baseline of God's prerogative to judge, there are other factors that we need to consider. For one, there is evidence in the Bible where people are saved without an explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ. As Gregory Boyd points out (Letters from a Skeptic, p.158), "we know of saints in the Old Testament who shall be in heaven, and the Bible even implies this about several individuals who were not even Israelites (e.g., Noah, Job, Melchizedek)… If people in the Old Testament, Jews and Gentiles, could be made right with God, then it can only be because God applied to them the blood of a Savior they were, for various reasons outside of their control, prevented from knowing…" So it seems possible that there can be salvation without an explicit, cognitive knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Rather than giving a "yes" or "no" answer, I believe the Bible gives a more nuanced answer regarding people who have not heard. Romans chapter 2 address this issue, and in verses 14-15 says, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness…" In other words, there is some amount of inherent (although limited) knowledge of God's moral laws written in our hearts, and for those who do not have the explicit knowledge of God's full revelation, the book of Romans says that their conscience serves as the "law", and that becomes the basis of judgment (v.12). In Luke 12: 47-48, there's a parable that Jesus gives which indicates that judgment of God would depend on how much knowledge one was given. Now, given that God takes into consideration the circumstances of his birthplace and the available opportunities in His judgment, that does not necessarily mean that the unevangelized person is safe from judgment, because before we can breathe a sigh of relief, Romans 2 goes on to proclaim that our own consciences accuse us (v.15). And if one were to think about it, it's true - it's not necessarily good news that we would get judged according to our own conscience, because human beings do commit sins that cause us to be conscience-stricken, regardless of how much Bible knowledge we might have.
In the midst of these ambiguous answers, one thing is clear. As Moreland says, "God will do what is right in the case of those who are unaware of the Christian path. Unlike the decisions of human judges, God's judgment is always informed, unbiased, compassionate and trustworthy. He is the ideal judge." Josh McDowell and Don Stewart (Answers to Tough Questions) hold to the commonsensical sentiment that God will not simply punish people "because he happened to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time." What exactly happens to those who never had a chance to hear the gospel is not explicitly spelled out. In the midst of all this ambiguity, however, the fact that God is the ideal judge whose judgment all would ultimately recognize as righteous is one solid ground that we could rest on.
In 1 Timothy 2:4, it states that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” While we cannot be sure how God will judge men in the end, we know that he does not act vehemently.
At this point, I think it is necessary to say that while the bible gives us some hope for those who never heard the gospel, there is no assurance for them. The bible stresses the urgency to evangelize to people so we can be sure that this is the greatest and only way to be assured that people are saved.
On a more personal note, it is important for us to recognize that we are not in this situation. We have heard the gospel and therefore we need to be sure that we make our decisions in accordance to this knowledge. While the issue of hell is something that God needs to worry about, our concern should be about our own relationship with God. He has blessed us with not only nature and our conscience, but with direct knowledge of his love through the bible and the church. My hope is that you will continue to seek and ask questions and eventually make the decision to believe. Again, I am glad that you came to me with this question and I hope that my answer will help both you deepen in your understanding of the gospel and the heart of God.
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