The question goes like this: Will a person who dies, having never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, go to heaven or hell? It is common thinking among modern Christians, that if a person dies without ever hearing the Gospel, then that person, in their ignorance, will be saved. That certainly sounds great, and I’m sure that it makes people feel all warm and fuzzy, but it’s just not true. We may want it to be true, and it may make us feel good, but that doesn’t make it right. Though it may sound cruel and unjust, we must realize that God is THE measure of what is right and just; therefore, anything He does is just, regardless of any problems we may have with it. The Bible, not our feelings, needs to be the source of our doctrine, and the Bible makes the way of salvation very clear. So let’s look at this issue of salvation, and put all the pieces together. There will be a great deal of Scripture presented here, but I feel that it is necessary in order to get a complete understanding.
MAN’S SINFULL NATURE:
Jeremiah 17:9 (NKJV)
9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?
Isaiah 64:6 (NKJV)
6 But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.
Romans 3:23 (NKJV)
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
The bottom line is: We are ALL sinners, no one is exempt, and the Bible prescribes a specific penalty for sin.
THE PENALTY FOR SIN:
Genesis 2:17 (NKJV)
17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Romans 5:12 (NKJV)
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—
Romans 6:23 (NKJV)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Revelation 20:11–15 (NKJV)
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them.
12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.
13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.
14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
You see, all people have earned the same penalty for their sin, and that penalty is eternity in hell, but God made that payment for us, through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.
THE PLAN OF SALVATION:
John 3:16 (NKJV)
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Romans 5:8–10 (NKJV)
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.
10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
Romans 10:9–13 (NKJV)
9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.
13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
John 14:6 (NKJV)
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
The Bible is clear that salvation only comes through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and that you must place your faith in Him. There is no other way. But still, the question remains, what if one simply doesn’t know about Jesus?
GOD IS REVEALED TO EVERY PERSON:
Psalm 19:1 (NKJV)
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Romans 1:20 (NKJV)
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,
God reveals Himself in two ways, they are general revelation and specific revelation. We see general revelation in nature. The Bible tells us that by looking at the world around us, we should know that there is a God. Now that’s about as far as general revelation goes. It does not replace the Bible, nor does it give us the specific revelation of Jesus Christ that is necessary for salvation. So, how does one relate to the other? Because God has made His existence known to all, all are without excuse. We see in Romans 1:20 that there are no excuses. The question then becomes: How will you respond to the knowledge that God exists? You certainly have some options here.
- You can reject the knowledge, and totally deny the existence of God.
- You can acknowledge the existence of God, and just accept that “there is a god” without ever desiring to know who that god is.
- You can acknowledge the existence of God, and seek to know Him.
Rest assured, that if you seek to know God, He will make Himself known, which brings us to our next point.
IF ONE ACCEPTS GOD’S NATURAL REVELATION AND SEEKS TO KNOW HIM, HE WILL MAKE HIMSELF KNOWN
There is a good example of this in the book of Acts, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
Acts 8:26–39 (NKJV)
26 Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert.
27 So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship,
28 was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet.
29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.”
30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth.
33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away, And who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.”
34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?”
35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him.
36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.
39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.
We see in this passage that the Ethiopian was reading Isaiah. He knew of a God, but didn’t know specifically who that God was. The Ethiopian; however, had a desire to know who that God was, and God made it happen. God put Phillip in the right place at the right time, to explain the Scripture to the Ethiopian, and reveal Jesus Christ. The Ethiopian had a desire for truth, God honored that, and the Ethiopian accepted Christ as his savior and got baptized.
One may ask the question of how people were saved in the Old Testament, if you have to place your trust in Jesus. That’s a fair question, and it has a pretty simple answer. First, Man has had knowledge of a Messiah ever since Adam and Eve sinned. In Genesis, we see the very first prophecy of a Savior who deliver people from the bondage of sin.
Genesis 3:15 (NKJV)
15 And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.”
Secondly, the Old Testament saints were saved the same way that we are, by faith.
James 2:23 (NKJV)
23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.
The Old Testament saints knew that the law would not save them. In fact, during Abraham’s time, the law had not yet been given. People in the Old Testament were saved on credit, so to speak. they had faith in a coming savior, who eventually paid their debt in full. The Bible says of Abraham that his belief was accounted to him for righteousness. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that ignorance is accounted for righteousness.
The Bible makes it very clear that we need to evangelize the lost, which would be a dangerous prospect if people were saved in ignorance. If ignorance were sufficient, and someone had never heard the Gospel, we could take comfort in knowing that they would be in heaven when they die. Now suppose we present the Gospel to that person and they reject it. Now, they are no longer ignorant, and they will spend eternity in hell. If you had simply left them alone in their ignorance they could have been in heaven. That makes it kind of dangerous to evangelize, doesn’t it? However, that’s not the case. People need to hear the Gospel or there is no hope for them, and God is patient so that we can evangelize people and lead them to Christ.
2 Peter 3:9 (NKJV)
9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
A couple of arguments that people make in favor of salvation for the ignorant:
Some may argue that according to Romans 5:13, that there is no sin where there is no law. Two points to make:
1. We are told in Romans 5:12-20 that everyone suffers the effects of Adam’s sin, even before the law. Even if there were no law for us, and we could not be convicted of any particular sin, we would still suffer the effects of our sin nature. We could never be righteous before God.
2. Romans 2:14-15 tells us that the law of God is written on our hearts; therefore, we could not use the previous excuse even if it were valid.
B. Some would argue that according to 1 Peter 3:19, Jesus preached to the spirits in prison, and that He will do the same for the ignorant, after death. The question must be asked, who were the spirits, and what was the purpose of Jesus’ preaching?
1. These spirits, who are apparently not in Hell, but in temporary holding, are the demons who were active just prior to the flood. They are not human souls.
2. Secondly, there is no mention of any redemption resulting from the preaching. There is no indication anywhere in the scripture, that man has a second chance after death.
4. We see at the “Great White Throne“, that all will come face to face with God. At that point all will believe, but those who are not written in the Lamb’s book of life will be cast into the lake of fire. We are also told of a time when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, but that will not bring about salvation. God will judge people according to the knowledge they have received, which means there will be different levels of punishment in hell.
Romans 2:12 (NKJV)
12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law
Luke 12:47–48 (NKJV)
47 And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.
48 But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
What then of the little children, when he die? The Bible doesn’t say much on this, but we can get some insight from 2 Samuel 12:23
2 Samuel 12:22–23 (NKJV)
22 And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’
23 But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
Here we see the death of David’s seven-day old son. We know that David was sure of his salvation, and his eternal destiny. he makes the statement that he cannot bring the child back, but that he will go to the child.This is indicating that the child was in heaven, precisely where David knew that he would one day go. This is not describing ignorance, a young child does not yet know sin. It is like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they sinned. Before that time, they knew nothing of right and wrong; therefore, they had never been separated from God. There does; however, come a time in every child’s life where they begin to truly understand, not just rules, but the essence of right and wrong. At that time, it is imperative that they come to know Jesus Christ.
In closing, there is no salvation for those who have not accepted Jesus Christ. God reveals himself to us so that there is “no excuse”. People who do not accept Christ, will be judged according to the knowledge they have been given. They will still be in Hell, but some will receive a lesser punishment than others. There is no such thing as ignorance of the existence of God, so there are no excuses, and no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. This is the reason for our call to evangelize the world.