June 03, 2024

The Fate of the Innocent Native

R.C. Sproul
The Fate of the Innocent Native

We’ve heard it asked many times: What happens to the innocent native who dies without ever hearing the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ? Today, R.C. Sproul points out a problem with this question that gets to the very heart of the gospel.


What happens to the poor innocent native in Africa, or Australia, or South America, or wherever who has never ever heard of Jesus Christ? It’s amazing how often that question comes. I teach seminary, and frequently, the question comes out of the lips of seminary students who are bothered by this question. And I sometimes, when I hear it, I think, “Oh, I’ve heard that question so many, many times. I’m getting tired of answering it.” And then I check myself in mid-thought and I say, “Yes, but I remember the first time I raised that question.” It bothered me. It’s an obvious question, isn’t it? If we have any concern for people, if we have any compassion for people, we must ask the question, “What happens to people who have never ever had the opportunity to hear about Christ?”

And so, this is not just an idle question. It’s an important question. But usually the way it’s phrased is, “What happens to the poor innocent native in Africa who has never heard of Christ?” Well, when I hear the question phrased in that manner, I have two answers for it—one of which is kind of a trick answer designed to stimulate deeper thought, and the other answer is a more serious or more sober answer. Then I’ll give you both. I’ll give you the first answer first. When people say to me, “R.C., what happens to the poor innocent native in Africa who has never heard of Christ?” I said, “Nothing happens to the poor innocent native in Africa. The poor innocent native in Africa doesn’t have a thing to worry about. The poor innocent native of Africa, when he dies, goes directly to heaven. He doesn’t pass go. He doesn’t collect his two hundred dollars. He has a free ride for eternal life.”

And people look at me in stark astonishment—and sometimes in anger—and say, “How can you say such a thing? Doesn’t the Bible command the church to go into every nation, and to every tongue, and to every tribe, and to preach the gospel to every living creature? Doesn’t the Bible teach plainly that everybody needs to hear the gospel? How can you stand there and say that the poor innocent native in Africa doesn’t need to hear the gospel? Doesn’t need Jesus?”

And I say, “Well, I said it was a trick answer, and it’s an answer to a complex question.” Do you know what a complex question is? It’s the kind of question tricky attorneys ask in the courtroom. You know the attorney that asks the defendant, “When did you stop beating your wife?” If the defendant says, “Last week,” he’s virtually confessed to previously beating his wife. And if he says, “Never,” that means he’s still beating his wife. So however he answers the question, he convicts himself of wife-beating.

And that’s what we call a complex question. That’s kind of a loaded question that makes assumptions that are not spelled out. Well, when the question “What happens to the innocent native in Africa who has never heard the gospel?” is raised in that manner, it has this kind of subtle assumption that I’m trying to challenge. What’s the assumption? The assumption that there are innocent natives in Africa. What I’m trying to say to people is innocent people in Africa, in South America, in Australia, in Russia, I don’t care where they live, as long as they’re innocent, they don’t need Jesus.

Innocent people don’t need a savior. Innocent people don’t need an atonement. Innocent people have nothing to worry about. But what’s the big question here? Are there any innocent people in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or anywhere else? According to the Bible, there are no innocent people. There aren’t any innocent people in Africa. There aren’t any innocent people in America. The whole world has been brought before the tribunal of God and determined to be guilty. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If the New Testament teaches anything, it teaches the universality of human sin. So, the first thing, if we’re going to answer this objection, is to get it clear that there’s no such thing as an innocent native anywhere.