One of the most difficult questions for a Christian to wrestle with is the thought that people who have never heard the gospel may spend eternity in hell. Throughout history this thought has raised questions about God’s justice, mercy, and goodness. It has led many to simply conclude that God must save those who don’t hear the gospel.
These are important questions, and I think every Christian should wrestle with issues like this. Too often, deep questions like these are answered with cute or quaint sayings. Many times platitudes are invoked in order to resolve the tension we feel. (A platitude is a pat answer that has been repeated so many times that it loses it’s meaning; in this case, something like, “Don’t worry, God will sort it out.”) While we shouldn’t be content with platitudes on this or any issue, we should keep in mind that just because a statement has been repeated many times, that does not make it false or unhelpful—otherwise we would have to disregard all of Scripture.
In this post, I’d like to point out a couple of elements that are essential to thinking through this issue. I’m going to rely on a couple of points from Romans 1, as expressed by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle in Erasing Hell.
In talking about God’s general revelation, Chan and Sprinkle say that general revelation gives us enough knowledge to be accountable to God, but without the revelation of Jesus, we don’t have enough knowledge to be saved. According to Romans 1, God has made the truth about Himself plain to everyone, and everyone knows the truth about God.
But according to Romans 1, it’s not an issue of people seeing God’s truth in general revelation, responding positively to it, and then incurring God’s judgment because they don’t have the revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul makes it clear that while everyone knows God’s truth, everyone also rejects that truth. Here’s how Chan and Sprinkle put it:
“In other words, when people look at creation and see that there must be a God, and yet have no way of knowing His name or the plan of salvation, the Bible says that these people do not respond positively to such ‘light’…Even though I have theoretical stories in my mind of a person living in the jungle who responds positively to the light he’s been given, Paul argues otherwise. This passages teaches that all people are condemned not for rejecting the gospel but for rejecting the ‘general revelation’ that’s given to all people.” (Erasing Hell, 159-160)
If hell were God’s punishment for those who reject the gospel, then we might be able to say that God is unjust for sending people to hell who have never heard the gospel. But hell is actually God’s punishment for those who rebel against him, whether by rejecting the gospel or by rejecting something much more basic—the clear and unmistakable evidence of God’s existence (this is how Paul describes general revelation in Romans 1) as seen in the world we inhabit.
We have a tendency to view the unreached as innocent people who are going to be judged because they never had a chance to respond to the gospel. It’s not fair, because they weren’t given a choice in the matter. But the Bible is clear that no one is innocent. We all deserve death. The surprising truth in the Bible is that some people get saved, not that God punishes people.
So it’s not that these people are not given a choice. We all have a choice, but every person on the face of the planet, without exception, chooses against God rather than for Him. But that’s why God urges us to go to every point on the planet with his message of salvation. Everyone is choosing wrongly, but we are His ambassadors, pleading with people to be reconciled to Christ (2 Cor. 5). The problem lies not in God’s justice, but in every human heart. God gives us the solution, then sends us out to the world to spread that solution.
Having said all of that, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this doesn’t make the doctrine of hell easy to believe. But should we really expect to be okay with the thought of hell? I don’t think so. Paul wasn’t. He said that he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart when he thought about hell (Rom. 9:1-3). It shouldn’t be easy for us, but as I said, these are important things for every Christian to think through. I believe that the Bible gives us answers to these questions, but they’re not always as friendly or as clear as we’d like.