I recently grabbed coffee with an old friend from high school. We’d grown close mainly through our interactions at church, but we hadn’t talked about spiritual things in a long time. I asked him his stance on faith, and among other things, he brought up the issue of what happens to those who never hear about Jesus.
There are some 2 billion Christians in the world. Two billion is a lot, but it’s just under a third of the global population. Beyond that, the various world religions are not evenly dispersed. So, there are people who have never heard the gospel and never will—hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in urban centers and rural villages.
When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” was He condemning billions of people who would never hear His name?
1. Missionary Fervor
Christians throughout the ages have taken Jesus’s words as motivation to go to those who’ve never heard. The fact that Jesus had the word of life initially compelled His disciples to stay in spite of their questions and confusion (Jn. 6:68-69). Once they witnessed Christ’s resurrection, however, they urgently traveled the world to share the news, and people believed (Acts 15:3).
Jesus commanded His followers to go into all the world to share the gospel (Mt. 28:19-20), and God shared His heart for the nations with Abraham (Gen. 18:18). That heart has manifested in believers for centuries. For example, there are Chinese believers today who see it as their mission to take the gospel “back to Jerusalem.” The gospel originated in Jerusalem and made its way through Europe and the West to reach them in Asia. Now, they see it as their task to complete the circuit, sharing the gospel with Middle East countries along the way.
So, God’s desire for the whole world to hear is evident, but my friend’s question remains. It’s been 2,000 years, and there are still people who have never heard about Jesus.
2. God’s Goodness
My friend set his mind at ease by trusting God’s goodness. Even if he couldn’t understand exactly how everything worked out, he trusted that God’s not going to be unjust in His dealings with those who, through no fault of their own, never heard about Jesus. Abraham wrestles with a similar question and asked the rhetorical question, “Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25)
Yet, Christians know that “there is no one who seeks God” and that justice for those without Him means death (Rom. 3:11-12, 23; 6:23). Salvation is available to all who believe in Christ, but Paul asks the question in Romans 10:24, “How can they believe without hearing about Him?” Though this question fuels the missionary’s fire, the fact remains that we cannot and have not reached everyone.
It’s worth noting that this failure is not for lack of trying. There are and have been regimes that have been hostile to the gospel’s influence in their countries. North Korea is the chief example. China has been cracking down on Christianity in recent years, and it’s not the first time, historically, that they’ve done so. But, this makes the case more difficult because there are people within totalitarian regimes who not only didn’t hear because the gospel failed to reach them; they were violently prevented from ever hearing.
Some Christian thinkers have said they will be judged by the light, or revelation they do have, but what light exists apart from the light of Christ? It’s difficult to make a biblical case for this argument.
3. God’s promise
Within Scripture, however, God indicates that while His people—the church—are given the main responsibility of taking the gospel to the nations, we are not His only means. In Luke 19, Jesus is making His triumphal entry. His disciples are singing praises to Jesus when the Pharisees ask Him to rebuke them. Christ responds, “If they were to keep silent, the rocks would cry out.” In another instance, John tells a group of Israelites, “God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones” (Mt. 3; Luke 3).
In recent years, many Muslims have reported coming to faith in Christ after having visions of Jesus. They live in majority-Muslim countries that are hostile to Christian influence. Yet, God breaks through. I’ve heard an anecdote of missionaries who reached a remote people group to bring the gospel for the first time, and when they arrived, they found a Christian cross. When they asked about it, they responded that a sign of a cross had been shown to them in the stars. The missionaries then proceeded to share the gospel of that cross.
Without the gospel of Jesus Christ, these dreams and visions are a mere shadow (cf. Col. 2:17). Can the shadow save a person? No. Like the Old Testament believers, however, those who never hear may be able to recognize the shadows as a signpost pointing to the greater Reality that, ultimately, is Christ. In Romans 1, Paul describes how God’s attributes “have been clearly seen since the creation of the world” so that “people are without excuse.” Across the world, His fingerprints are not absent.
Typically, God fulfills His promise to bless all the nations of the earth by raising up generations of believers who long to take the gospel to those nations. The history of missions is replete with men and women who inspired a new wave of fervor: Lottie Moon, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Annie Armstrong, and many others. Where regimes oppress the truth, God is not incapable of acting.
The lost in your neighborhood and the lost on the other side of the globe need the gospel. Believers—those who have tasted and seen—are God’s plan.
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” | Romans 10:15