Copyright 2017 by Bob Rogers
Many people wonder, “If a person lives in an unevangelized area and never hears the gospel of Jesus Christ, do they go to hell?”
On the one hand, John 14:6 says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, yet we know that millions of people have never heard about Jesus. It seems unfair for God to send them to hell, especially since 2 Peter 3:9 says that God does not desire that anybody perish, but desires all to come to repentance and faith in Christ.
Some Christians try to solve this dilemma by thinking that God just gives people a pass if they haven’t heard. But if that’s true, then they’re better off not hear the gospel at all, because once we tell them about Jesus, we doom them to hell if they refuse! But we know that can’t be right, because the Bible commands us to share the gospel with all people.
We find some answers in Acts 17. It says Paul preached to a group of people who had never heard the gospel before, and Paul says something that can help us understand this dilemma. He noticed that they had worshiped what they called an “Unknown God,” and then he told them what they call “unknown” he wants to make known to them: Jesus Christ. Then he says this:
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, 1984 NIV)
Notice three things in this passage that helps us understand the fate of those who have never heard the gospel:
I. God knows where we live (Acts 17:26)
People say it is unfair that God sends somebody to hell because they happened to be born in a land or culture where they don’t hear the gospel, but Paul says almost the direct opposite. He says in verse 26 that God determined the exact time and place where every human should live. Verse 27 even says that God did this so that men would seek Him!
Could it be that God put people who are less likely to seek Him in strongly evangelical areas, and He put people who are more likely to seek Him in non-Christian areas? I used to pastor in one of the most evangelized areas of the world, in Mississippi, where there is a church on every corner. But I can also tell you that many of the unchurched people that I met were some of the most hardened to the gospel and hardest to witness to that I had ever met. Yet when I went to an unevangelized area of Mexico and shared the gospel, hundreds of people responded.
So don’t think it is an unfair accident that some people live in areas where the gospel is rarely preached. God didn’t make some mistake. He knows exactly where He put every person, and God is revealing Himself. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
II. God knows our hearts (Acts 17:27a)
Paul goes on to say in verse 27, “God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him…”
God knows our hearts. God knows who is going to seek Him.
In Romans 4, Paul discusses this with the illustration of Abraham. Abraham believed what God revealed to him. Jesus had not yet come, but Abraham had faith in everything He saw, and God accepted that faith as righteousness. Apparently God even revealed Jesus to Abraham, because in John 8:56 Jesus says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Notice the words “he saw it.” Jesus was saying that somehow, God allowed Abraham to see and understand about Jesus.
Cornelius was another example. Acts 10 says Cornelius was a God-fearing Roman centurion. He had not heard the gospel, but he had heard about the God of Israel, and he sought the Lord, even giving generously to the synagogue and praying regularly. Acts 10:4 says an angel appeared to Cornelius and said, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” Then God sent Peter to Cornelius to share Jesus with him, and when Cornelius heard about Jesus, he believed.
God knows our hearts. If people live in lands where the gospel is not preached, but they seek God, then God will respond to them. If they come to the light they are given, God will give them more light!
III. God is available to us (Acts 17:27b)
Finally, notice what Paul says in the end of verse 27: “He is not far from each one of us.”
God is available. He is not far away. He can be found.
Romans 1:20 says that God has revealed Himself through creation, so that all people are “without excuse.” Everybody has been given the revelation of God’s existence through creation. When we pay attention to the light that God gives us, then God gives more light. Deuteronomy 4:29, (HCSB) says to “search for the Lord… you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart…”
The International Mission Board reports that around the Muslim world, Christian workers report an increasing openness and turning to Christ — often preceded by dreams or visions of him among potential converts. Several examples of such phenomena were detailed by National and International Religion Report:
— Thousands of North African Muslims wrote to a Christian radio service asking for information. Many reported a similar dream: Jesus appears and tells them, “I am the way.”
— In Nigeria, Muslims savagely beat a Christian convert from their tribe. As he lay dying, they heard him asking God to forgive them. That night two Muslim mullahs who participated in the attack saw visions of Christ. Both repented and took 80 followers to a Christian church to hear the gospel. (“Analysis: To Muslins with ‘love, prayer, tears and blood,’ IMB Connecting, http://www.imb.org. Adapted from The Commission, January 8, 1997).
Each of these stories illustrate the truth, that God is available, no matter where a person lives, and even people who live in areas where the gospel has rarely been heard, are hearing and coming to Christ.
Really, the question should not be, “Why did God put them in places where the gospel is rarely preached?” The question should be, “Why are we not taking the gospel to them?”