Are Those Who Have Never Heard of Christ Going to Hell?
That’s one of the most emotionally laden questions that a Christian can ever be asked. Nothing is more terrifying or more awful to contemplate than that any human being would go to hell. On the surface, when we ask a question like that, what’s lurking there is, “How could God ever possibly send some person to hell who never even had the opportunity to hear of the Savior? It just doesn’t seem right.”
I would say the most important section of Scripture to study with respect to that question is the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The point of the book of Romans is to declare the Good News—the marvelous story of redemption that God has provided for humanity in Christ, the riches and the glory of God’s grace, the extent to which God has gone to redeem us. But when Paul introduces the gospel, he begins in the first chapter by declaring that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven and this manifestation of God’s anger is directed against a human race that has become ungodly and unrighteous. So the reason for God’s anger is anger against evil. God’s not angry with innocent people; he’s angry with guilty people. The specific point for which they are charged with evil is in the rejection of God’s self-disclosure.
Christ is sent into a world that is already on the way to hell.
Paul labors the point that from the very first day of creation and through the creation, God has plainly manifested his eternal power and being and character to every human being on this planet. In other words, every human being knows that there is a God and that he is accountable to God. Yet every human being disobeys God. Why does Paul start his exposition of the gospel at that point? What he’s trying to do, and what he develops in the book of Romans, is this: Christ is sent into a world that is already on the way to hell. Christ is sent into the world that is lost, that is guilty of rejecting the Father whom they do know.
Now, let’s go back to your original question, “Does God send people to hell who have never heard of Jesus?” God never punishes people for rejecting Jesus if they’ve never heard of Jesus. When I say that, people breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Then we’d better not tell anybody about Jesus because somebody might reject him. Then they’re really in deep trouble.” But again, there are other reasons to go to hell. To reject God the Father is a very serious thing. And no one will be able to say on the last day, “I didn’t know that you existed,” because God has revealed himself plainly. Now the Bible makes it clear that people desperately need Christ. God may grant his mercy unilaterally at some point, but I don’t have any reason to have much hope in that. I think we have to pay serious attention to the passionate command of Christ to go to the whole world, to every living creature, and tell them of Jesus.