Those Who Never Heard

by Tim Isbell, March 2018

People ask, "What about those who've never heard of Jesus? It doesn't seem fair that God would send them to hell!" It's a good question that keeps many people from seriously considering Christian faith. A few weeks ago a church invited me to preach. The pastor there is a lectionary preacher and my Sunday fell on the first Sunday of Lent which includes the Noah story. Preachers take the Noah story in many directions and I organized my sermon around four questions. The third was, "Suppose you get to heaven. What are the chances you'll meet any of Noah's neighbors?" 

I'll leave it to you to read the Noah story in Genesis 6-10. But I'll tip you off about what the Bible says Noah's neighbors: every one was "corrupt and filled with violence," which is why God sent the flood to exterminate them. Except for Noah, who the Bible describes as, "a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time and he walked in close fellowship with God." So, God made a plan to save Noah and his three sons, along with the four wives, and a pair of each animal. 


If all we knew about God came from this story, we'd be in theological trouble because the Bible includes a lot more about God. Indeed, it contains other stories similar to the Noah story, and then there's the Jesus story and many other stories and teachings in between. So before we judge God on his fairness, let's take a look at what the Bible says about God's personal characteristics. Systematic theologians study the whole Bible diligently to create a robust description of the characteristics of a robust God. Millard Erickson is one of those and Christian Theology (chapters 12 & 13) he organizes his analysis into two broad categories:

Greatness, two elements of which are:
  1. Personality. God is an individual being with a will, capacity to feel, choose, and have reciprocal relationships with other personal and social beings.
  2. Infinite. But this does not mean he can do anything whatsoever. God cannot do the logically absurd or contradictory. He cannot act contrary to his nature.

Goodness, four elements of which are:
  1. Just. God administers his creation consistent with his Law. He is like a judge who as a private individual adheres to the law of society, and in his official capacity administers that same law to others.
  2. Benevolent. God seeks our welfare, loving all women and men on the basis of the likeness of himself which he placed within them.
  3. Gracious. God does not deal with us on the basis of our merit or what we deserve, but according to our need. God supplies us with undeserved favors.
  4. Merciful. God extends special tenderness to the needy - whether or not they offend him.

I've been a Christian for a very long time. Early in life, I used to read scripture to judge for myself God’s greatness and goodness. But now I've experienced life with God long enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. So, I read Scripture assuming his greatness and goodness. Let's do a thought experiment where we look at the Noah story while presuming that God’s is great and good.

But, what about Noah’s neighbors?

There is a set of Christians who will answer this question immediately by saying that Noah's neighbors are already in hell, or will certainly go there in the final judgment. People base this on such New Testament scriptures as: 

  • Jesus told his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned…” (Mark 16.15-16)
  • And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. (John 3.36)
  • Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. (John 14.6)
  • And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth. (John 17.3)
  • There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4.12)

But hold on a minute. On the bases of those 5 scriptures, Noah also would be in hell along with everyone else who lived before the incarnation of Jesus. Yet Hebrews 11, a book that was written after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, lists Noah among the “Great Examples of Faith!” So, I expect to see Noah in Heaven, so do most Christians, along with all the other Old Testament characters listed in Hebrews 11. So, how does Noah get into heaven without believing in Jesus? 

Suppose, just for a moment, that when Noah died he didn't go directly to hell for not believing in Jesus. Further, suppose that God was able to get the Jesus story to Noah centuries after he died in Genesis. I'm sure Noah would immediately believe, confess his sins, and receive God's forgiveness. The New Testament gives us a hint of this sort of thing when Saint Paul met some Ephesian "believers" in Acts 19.1-7 and told them about Jesus for the first time: 

Saint Paul traveled through the interior regions of Asia Minor (Turkey) until he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”.

“No,” they replied, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

“Then what baptism did you experience?” he asked.

And they replied, “The baptism of John.”

Paul said, “John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.”

As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

Now, what if I told you that there’s a pretty good hint in the Bible that arranged precisely that for Noah? There is, listen to 1 Peter 3.18-20, where Peter describes what Jesus did between the cross and the resurrection:

Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.

So he went and preached to the spirits in prison— those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood.

Also see Revelation 20.11-12, where John describes his vision of the final judgment:

And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books...

So we can see how Noah and the Hebrews 11 list can show up in heaven, even without any knowledge of Jesus before they died centuries before. 

But what about Noah’s corrupt neighbors? They never heard of Jesus either, but even worse, they weren’t even trying to follow God, and they were "utterly corrupt."

A way to think about this:

Some Christians believe that to go to heaven, in this life we must know the Jesus story, believe certain things about Jesus, and specifically ask him to forgive us. I agree that knowledge, beliefs, and confession are important. However, in the grand scheme of things, God primarily wants us to get to know himself. He isn’t just interested in us knowing that he exists, he wants us to experience his personality and nature to a depth where we begin to share in his characteristics. So God communicates in ways that reveal himself most fully. We may wish God would speak differently and that the Bible didn't have so many apparent contradictions, but I’ve come to assume that his ways are optimal for his purpose, regardless of whether I understand them completely. 

The Bible teaches that God is just and merciful to all, inviting even the most corrupt of us into a transforming relationship with himself. So if God judges on the basis of knowledge that wasn’t available to the sinner, we could conclude that God is unjust - in violation of what systematic theologians tell us is his nature. Instead, I choose to give God the benefit of the doubt and look deeper into how God may navigate through this problem. Decades ago I concluded that God will judge people according to what they do with the resources they have at their disposal. Before anyone finds themselves eternally in hell God will make sure they have sufficient knowledge of salvation through Jesus and an opportunity to decide whether to confess and receive him as Lord or not. 

Condemnation to hell arises when people become aware of God’s truth and respond to it with hatred and contempt, twisting themselves out of shape rather than admitting its claims on them. In a relational world such as God designed for us to share the Good News of Jesus to people all around us, there is no reasonable way for God to give each person an equal chance to be saved. However, God will give each person a genuinely sufficient chance to be saved - as consistent with his justice and mercy.

Eventually, God will judge all of us as individuals, on the basis of the person we have chosen to become.

So are people better off not hearing the Gospel at all? 

No, for several reasons. 

  • One is that those who have not heard remain trapped in their sins. Hence they are not saved yet. At some point in the future - either in this world or the next - God will give them an opportunity to repent and believe. 
  • Another reason is that they miss living as a Christian, knowingly filled with the Spirit of Jesus and surrounded by other sisters and brothers in God's family. 
  • Another reason is that they miss out on much of the adventure of serving and following Jesus as Lord in this life.

I began this post with this question, "What about those who've never heard of Jesus? It doesn't seem fair that God would send them to hell!" 

  • Here's my answer, "So, let’s not judge anybody into hell. Instead, let's trust that God is just and merciful and infinitely qualified to judge the world he created and administers. 
  • And here's my good friend George Larsen's answer, "The real question always comes down to 'what about you and God?', not about someone else and God. The question is sometimes an evasion."



Notes & references:

  1. For my summary of Millard Erickson’s full list in Christian Theology, click on Characteristics of God.
  2. See Are Bad Historians in Danger of Hellfire? And  A conversation about why God doesn't speak more clearly.
  3. What of Those Who Have Never Heard by J. Oswald Sanders.
  4. I'm Glad You Asked by K. Boa and L. Moody.
  5. The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis has a character (Emeth) who is not a follower of Aslan but, surprisingly, ends up in Narnia. Lewis doesn’t explain this, but it implies that he anticipates some who have never heard of Jesus will be in heaven. This character appears in the last part of chapter 14, and Emeth tells his story in chapter 15.
  6. My sermon notes for The Gospel of Noah preached on 2/28/2018.

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