Are those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus going to Hell?
This is a good question. Is God a cruel, evil judge? How could God possibly send someone to hell who never had the opportunity to hear of Christ? Here, we’ll attempt to answer that critical question biblically.
Consider this - in Matthew 17, we see Jesus of Nazareth took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. However, Moses and Elijah died centuries before Jesus’ time, thus never would have heard about Jesus, so how were they saved?
Yes, Moses believed that a descendant of the woman would destroy Satan and sin and would die in the process (Genesis 3:15), and he believed God would send a Prophet to people and God would speak directly through him, telling them everything God commands him (Deuteronomy 18:18), but Moses did not know about Jesus.
Yes, Elijah believed the promised Messiah will be a decadent of King David and would die, but would not stay dead (Psalm 16:10), and believed God would establish a kingdom in the Messiah’s name, and this kingdom will last forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16), but Elijah did not know about Jesus.
While they believed in God, believed they were sinners in need of a saviour and believed God himself would send that saviour, they did not know about Jesus, and yet somehow were saved.
It’s possible people who never heard the good news of Jesus - like a tribesman - will be judged no more than Adam, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah or David who didn’t either. They did not know the full revelation of Christ, yet they were saved because they believed in God and trusted that he would take care of all their sin. They didn’t exactly know how He would accomplish that, but they believed and trusted in God. Let me explain.
The requirement for salvation has always been faith. The object of one’s faith for salvation has always been God. In Genesis 15:6 we read, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” God’s requirement of what must be believed is based on the amount of information (or revelation) He has given to mankind up to that time. This is called progressive revelation.
For example, Adam believed the promise God gave in Genesis 3:15 that the descendant of the woman would destroy Satan and sin. Adam believed Him. At that point, that is all Adam knew, he didn’t know about Jesus, but he believed in God. Abraham believed in God according to the promises and new revelation God gave up to that time in Genesis 12 and 15, but he did not know about Jesus.
As mentioned, Moses and Elijah believed in God and his promises of a coming Messiah and the revelation God gave up to that time, and we see them both glorified with Christ in Matthew 17. King David believed in God and his promises of a coming Messiah that would be called God’s son (2 Samuel 7:12-14) and would be divine (Psalm 110), but he did not know about Jesus.
Jeremiah believed in God and his promises that God would establish a new covenant unlike the old, where he would reveal himself personally to all and do something to totally forgive sins (Jeremiah 31:31-34), but he did not know about Jesus. Isaiah believed in God and his promises of a coming Messiah who would live, suffer, die for the sins of all of mankind, and rise again from the dead so that others may be saved through him (Isaiah 53), but he too did not know about Jesus.
Even the 1st century eyewitnesses believed in God and believed “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-20), but they didn’t understand how He would take away the sins of the world, as this hadn’t been revealed yet. They believed based on the amount of revelation God had given up to that time.
In fact, we see God has already revealed himself to mankind through his creation and our conscience that he gave us.
In Romans 1:19-20 it reads, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
And in Romans 2:14-15 it reads, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
If we have the knowledge of sin, then we also have the knowledge of the need for a Saviour. Therefore, our conscience works in the same capacity as the Law by condemning us and pointing us towards Jesus, even if they hadn’t heard of him.
Now, this does not mean that someone can be saved apart from the work of Christ. No amount of effort, no good deeds, no money, no talent, no achievements are enough to take away our guilt of sin (Isaiah 64:6). What it would mean is that the benefits of Christ's death could be applied to someone without having knowledge of Christ.
If a tribesman, for example, was to look out at the world and say, “I know there's a God who has created all this,” and looking at their own heart and said, “I don't live up to the commands of God's moral law”, and they fling themselves on the mercy of this God asking for forgiveness and pleading for mercy and grace - that person would be saved by grace through the blood of Christ, even though they had no knowledge of Christ. This tribesman would be like people in the Old Testament who had no conscious knowledge of Christ at all, but they responded to the light that they had and will be judged by their response to that light.
And yet, this does raise a critical question, “Is there anyone like this? That will look outwardly and inwardly and come to believe and trust in God?” Sadly, if you take Romans 1 seriously, it’s safe to assume there’s not very many people like this - who come to believe in God, who put their faith and trust in him through his revelation in creation and our conscience.
In Romans 1, we see rather than worship and serve the creator, people turn to gods of their own making and turn away from the true God, and rather live up to His Moral Law, they plunge themselves into immorality and sin, and so find themselves condemned before God.
Just because God has made it plain to mankind that he exists through creation, and just because he’s given all of mankind a conscience that condemns us of our sin, that we might turn to God and believe in him, doesn’t mean people do. This is why Christians share the gospel (i.e., good news) of Jesus.
Based on scripture, it’s not optimistic that people would turn to access salvation through God’s revelation in creation and their conscience, but nevertheless, we see in the Bible it is possible that salvation is available to them if they will turn to God, trust in him and repent. God has set a day that he will judge all the world with fairness and justice (Acts 17:31) because that is his very nature – a good and loving judge (Psalm 7:11, 1 John 4:16).
So, are those who have never heard of Jesus Christ going to Hell? Not necessarily. Like a tribesman, we see historic people in the Old Testament didn’t know how God would remove their sin problem. Adam, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David and the disciples didn’t know how, but they believed in God and trusted in him. And we see people like Moses and Elijah, who hadn’t heard of Jesus, but were saved by their faith in God.
God has revealed himself through his creation in the things that have been made, so we are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20). God has revealed his holy law through our conscience that condemns us of our sin and points us towards Jesus (Romans 2:14-15). God has revealed himself through scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), and God has revealed himself in history through the promised Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Everyone will be judged by their response to the revelation God has given us. The question is, how will a person respond? Will they accept it, or will they reject it.