This is one of the most asked questions of non-believers and believers alike. I get asked this question a lot. Usually in this context.
What about those that live in the jungles of Africa that have never heard about Jesus? What happens when they die?
To being with…man will worship something…it’s the way He made us. Quite simply…God created man with the ultimate purpose for us to be willing and want to worship Him. So, man will worship someone or something…even if it’s just a false god we manufacture.
The consummate passage on the question at hand is Romans 1:18-22.
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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.
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Romans 1:18-22
The Apostle Paul tells us in this passage that since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen and that seeing and understanding that, then men are without excuse. In other words, a person can look at a sunset or a sunrise or the birth of a baby or the power and strength in animals or the way even an ant can carry something 10 times its size and one would have to say…there is a God who made all of this. This just didn’t happen by chance.
Here’s something we need to understand…human history began with man knowing God. Human history is not the story of a beast that worshipped idols, and then evolved into a man worshipping one God. No! Human history is just the opposite: man began knowing god, but turned from the truth and rejected God. God revealed Himself to man through creation, the things that He made. The facts about God are not hidden in nature…no…nature screams out when we see the power of a thunderstorm and lightening streaks the sky or a tornado rips a one mile swath through a forest or we bask in the warmth of an evening sun with a sky ablaze in brilliant hues of orange and red and purple…all of these scream out…there is a God…there is a God!
Psalm 19:1-6 expresses this so well:
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, 5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. 6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat. Psalm 19:1-6
So we are without excuse. God’s nature…His heavens declare Him to the world and all mankind. But, this still doesn’t “square” in many of our minds. We wonder about those that grow up in Africa and they are worshipping the trees or whatever and we say…”they’ve been raised to worship the trees…or owl or like the American Indian…they worshipped the Great Spirit?” But you see…in all of this…man is worshipping something. Look again at Romans 1:21-23 again…
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man…birds…animals and reptiles. Man chose to walk away from God and the sins of the fathers have been passed down from generation to generation. Yet deep within…man knows intuitively that something has created them. Again, that’s how and why God created man…with the capacity to worship. In fact, we are at our best when we worship God. So, whether man is in a jungle of Africa or are an “atheist” professor in one of our elite universities…they are all created to worship. Let me show you this. Turn to Ecclesiastes 3:11…
11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11
God has set eternity in the hearts of men. Did you see that? Man knows that there is a God. He cannot fathom all that God has done from beginning to end…but, innately, he knows there is a God. So, all people are accountable to God whether or not they have “heard about Him.” The Bible tells us that God has clearly revealed Himself in nature (Romans 1:20) and in the hearts of people (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The problem is that the human race is sinful; we all reject this knowledge of God and rebel against Him (Romans 1:21-23). If it were not for God’s grace, we would all be given over to the sinful desires of our hearts and be doomed.
In reality, it is not that some people have not heard about God. Rather, the problem is that they have rejected what they have heard and what is readily seen in nature. Look at Deuteronomy 4:25-29.
25 After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God and provoking him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. 27 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you. 28 There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Deut. 4:25-29
These verses teach an important principle—everyone who truly seeks after God will find Him. If a person truly desires to know God, God will make Himself known. The problem is “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:11). People reject the knowledge of God that is present in nature and in their own hearts, and instead decide to worship a “god” of their own creation. It is almost foolish to debate the fairness of God sending someone to hell who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ. People are responsible to God for what God has already revealed to them. Those that bring up this question do so to try to excuse their lack of belief or commitment to Christ. I’ve never had this question asked of me by a committed Christian. It’s always been asked of me by someone who is wanting to rationalize and excuse their on lack of belief.
Yet, I know folks that will continue to press and push for a concrete answer on what exactly God will do or does with those that have been raised in another religion or live in the jungles of Africa and have never heard about Jesus. It begs an answer to the question…”Can a person have his sins forgiven and have eternal life apart from knowledge of Christ?” Well, we’ve been answering this question all along…but, let’s go even deeper. Look with me at John 14:6 and Acts 4:12…
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6
12Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12
You ask, “Is God fair if people go to hell who have never heard about Jesus?” What I tell people is this. God is a fair and just God. I trust Him. I believe He always does the right thing. He is God! I have faith in His sovereignty and that includes this area. He is just and right in all He does and He’s more fair than we could ever be. What does He desire from man? Hebrews 11:1-3 shows us:
1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. Hebrews 11:1-3
Here’s what we know about God. He desires that all men be saved. Look at 1 Timothy 2:3-7
3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time. 7And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles. 1 Timothy 2:3-7
We see this clearly in 2 Peter 3:9 as well:
9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9
Do you know what I have found simply amazing in Scripture…when people are seeking the true God two things happen. #1 God brings the message to them by prompting a Christian to go to them. And #2 the person hearing the message will respond in faith. Let me show you this. Turn to Acts 16. Look at verses 6-10.
6Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10
God brought the message to Macedonia through Paul, Timothy and Silas. And something else happened…those hearing the message responded. Look at verses 11-15
11From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. 12From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 13On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. Acts 16:11-15
Do you see how gracious the Lord is? Instead of debating the fate of those who have never heard, we, as Christians, should be doing our best to make sure they do hear. We are called to spread the gospel throughout the nations. What did Jesus say in Matthew 28:19-20? (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8).
19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
We know people reject the knowledge of God revealed in nature, and that must motivate us to proclaim the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Only by accepting God’s grace through the Lord Jesus Christ can people be saved from their sins and rescued from an eternity apart from God.
Some say…well if people have never heard about Jesus then, He’ll just let them into heaven. Folks, that is not good reasoning. Think about this…if we assume that those who never hear the gospel are granted mercy from God, we run into a terrible problem. If that were the case, then we would conclude that people who never hear the gospel are saved automatically. So it would be logical to say that we should make sure no one ever hears the gospel. In fact, the worst thing we could do would be to share the gospel with a person and have him or her reject it. Because if that were to happen, he or she would be condemned. Listen, I know this may be hard to hear…but people who do not hear the gospel must be condemned, or else there is no motivation for evangelism and to take them the gospel.
Listen, where there are hearts opened by the Holy Spirit, there will God send His messengers to fill those open hearts with His truth. Even in countries where preaching Christ is forbidden by law, God’s truth still finds its way to those who truly seek it, including through the internet. The stories of thriving house churches in China, conversions to Christ in Iran and other Islamic countries, and the inroads into remote areas of the world all attest to the limitless power of God’s love and mercy.
I think of the work of taking the gospel to Ethiopia as I had the privilege to do last year and will again this year. In fact, last year in the villages we were in (particularly my daughter Katy and good friend Dale Jennings) took the gospel to people who had never heard the gospel before. They were hungry for the gospel and they received it heartily. Ultimately our job is to go. Go and spread the gospel. And yes…we should be worried about the folks in the jungles of Africa 12,000 miles away…but, we should also be worried about that family member or co-worker that do not have Christ that are right beside of us. Amen and amen.