What happens to people who never hear the gospel? If they go to hell, is God unfair?

Derek Thomas & 2 others
4 Min Read

THOMAS: This is a tough nut to crack here. God is never unfair, though He may seem unfair to us, which is the narrative of the book of Job. In the end, however, Job was schooled that God is never unfair—it’s just that we don’t have enough knowledge.

I think there are certain things that you have to say, such as there is no salvation apart from Christ. I do not believe in the “wider hope,” although Reformed Christians like W.G.T. Shedd went in that direction. I think that idea is unbiblical. “There is no other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). The positive of that exclusivity is that there is an absolute imperative upon us to take the gospel to every people group. This burden ought to weigh heavily upon us. There should be an urgency to take the gospel to as many people as is humanly possible.

Can God use a dream or a piece of literature? Yes, but I have no answer to the question, Why are there vast numbers of people who have never heard of Christ? I am not just talking about very definable people groups like we’ve mentioned in this question. There are people in your street who have never heard of Christ and never heard a presentation of the gospel. For example, there are people living in contemporary America who have never heard the gospel.

NICHOLS: This is a very important question to reflect on. As Dr. Thomas said, this is a very hard nut, and it’s hard for us to answer it sometimes. We must think this through and help our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ think through this question.

Sometimes our instincts say, “Surely, God is a merciful God,” and that He is sort of overlooking the unevangelized or making accommodation for them. I think this is where our instincts want to go because we believe this is a better portrayal of God somehow or that this is a better God who is more commendable. When we move in that direction, however, we’re moving into what theologians sometimes call “inclusivism,” which is a movement away from “exclusivism.” The idea of John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and Romans 10 is that faith in Jesus Christ alone is the only means to have our sins forgiven and for us to be delivered from the wrath of a holy God. That is exclusivism.

There is also pluralism—there are many gods or many ways to be saved—which is rampant in the culture. However, there is a middle way that evangelicals can be susceptible to, and we need to help them not default to it. We need to correct it when we see it. I am talking about inclusivism, that there is one true God, and there are multiple ways to find Him, which may be outside of faith in Jesus Christ and outside of the explicit preaching of the gospel. Again, I think people go there because they believe this is a better God to commend. I think we have to be very careful of that temptation. We must start by saying that God is as He revealed Himself. He does not need our help with PR.

THOMAS: The trajectory of Scripture is not to blame God for the lack of preaching of the gospel but to encourage us to do that. How can people hear the gospel without a preacher? So, the burden to preach the gospel to the person next door, across the street, and across the world ought to be the burden of the modern church. It was meant to be the burden of the church from its very inception since Israel.

GODFREY: I agree with everything that’s been said. I know there is some debate about the exact meaning of Romans 2, but it seems to me that the point of Romans 2 is to uphold the justice of God vis-à-vis all kinds of human beings. From a biblical point of view, in a sense, there are only two kinds of people: Jews and Gentiles, until Christ breaks down that wall. Romans 2 deals with both the Jews and the Gentiles in terms of their accountability to God and His just judgment. In that chapter, I think Paul says it clearly that anyone who makes proper use of the revelation available to them will be acquitted in the judgment of God. But that is not an inclusivist conclusion because Paul then says that no one makes use of the available revelation to serve God. Therefore, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). God is not unjust in doing that because He has revealed Himself in nature to anyone who is willing to look and pursue it. The problem is we are not willing to look and pursue it.

I am always intrigued that in Romans 1, we’re told that the wrath of God is revealed. We do not know the wrath of God without revelation. God has to reveal the character of His justice and His anger against sin. So, we should have the assurance that God is not unjust vis-à-vis anyone who never heard the gospel.

THOMAS: I think we need to be very careful about approaching any issue, particularly this one, with a premise that says God must act in a certain way. God is not bound to show mercy to any individual or any collection of individuals.

Recently, I was doing a devotional on Isaiah 63, and that chapter is almost bloodcurdling. “Who is this that comes from Edom and Bozrah clothed in garments stained with blood?” The answer is: “The Messiah.” Edom, which lay to the south of Israel, was an inveterate enemy of Israel, and Bozrah was its capital. Isaiah 63 describes a war scene in which the people of Edom have been massacred. While it is a picture, behind it is also the reality that Edom did not become part of the covenant people of God. Isaiah’s point in chapter 63 was to say: “Who are you to reply against God? God is just and holy.”

This is a transcript of Derek Thomas’, Stephen Nichols’, and W. Robert Godfrey’s answers given during our Blessed in Christ: Detroit 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.