Tuesday, 11 October 2011

What about those who never heard?

I got an email recently asking about the fate of those who never heard the Gospel.

The email asked if missionaries are doing more harm than good by taking the Gospel to people who have never heard, because people only go to hell for rejecting Christ.

This is a vital question that many wonder about, however the questioner has got off on the wrong foot. Think about it - do people go to hell merely for rejecting Christ?  If God had never sent His Son would no one have gone to hell?  If so, why does the Bible say "the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world" (1 John 4 v 14), or "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1 v 15), or "God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3 v 17)?  Do these verses not make it clear that the danger we were in was not caused by rejecting Christ, and that Christ came to rescue us from danger we were already in? 

To say that people go to hell for rejecting Christ is like saying people go to prison for refusing a pardon, and if you haven't had a pardon offered to you then you shouldn't go to prison.  Hopefully everyone can see how foolish that is.  Prison is for those who break the law, there is no obligation for a pardon to be offered.  None of us would say, it's not fair for that person to go to jail - he didn't get an offer of a pardon!  If a pardon is offered it isn't done out of fairness; it's done out of grace.

Likewise, hell is the prison to which people go for breaking God's law. Even without access to a Bible people intuitively know there is a God to whom they are accountable (Romans 1 v 18-32), and God has written His law on the hearts of all so that we know right from wrong (Romans 2 v 15), so when people sin they do it with knowledge (that's the meaning of the word "conscience"), and are therefore deserving of God's judgment.  So we were all guilty, but God in His grace sent His Son to be a Saviour / Substitute and rescue us from our danger.  If He is rejected then there's no other option but the guilty person takes the punishment themselves.  People are not sent to hell for rejecting Christ - they remain on the road to hell for rejecting Christ - that's where we are going because of our sin, and God was under no obligation to provide salvation.  The Lord is the answer, not the problem.

If I could illustrate - imagine a man who has never done anything wrong, and the police pull him off the street and drag him into a courtroom.  The judge says "I'm going to send you to prison for the rest of your life unless you receive my son as your lord!"  I think you'd agree that's not at all righteous, but that is close to the scenario the emailer presented, but it's not how Scripture presents it.  The way the Bible puts it is more like this, you are guilty of multiple crimes, and the judge says to you "My son has offered to take your place and pay your penalty, and he'll do it if you acknowledge the seriousness of your crimes, and claim him as your substitute."

So, where does this put those who have never heard? Well, it keeps them heading to the prison they deserve because of their deliberate crimes.  So they certainly need to hear about the way of salvation - missionaries are needed!  But remember this, God has a multitude of ways of getting the Gospel to those who are seeking.  If someone in an unreached tribe in a remote village responds to the light they have (i.e. that they have sinned against God) and they are seeking God then God will get the message of salvation to them.  Acts chapters 8 & 10 would give examples of that.  In these two chapters we find men who have responded to the light God has given, they are seeking Him, and God gets the message of the Gospel to them.  No one will perish because of ignorance.  Those who perish do so because of rebellion. 

The question of those who have never heard is one that's often discussed, but don't let the question deflect or distract you.  You have heard, and the act of rejecting God's Son is, in itself, a great and grievous sin, one that you have committed repeatedly.  A pardon is offered to you, through Christ; a Saviour is available, and forgiveness is obtainable - turn to the Lord Jesus, bow to Him and take His salvation.