When someone raises an objection to Christianity like: ‘There’s no proof of God’, it’s relatively easy to respond. You can talk about how, outside of pure maths, we don’t talk about proof, or look at how most of the important decisions we make in life are not down to irrefutable proof (see our blog, Prove It To Me!) It doesn’t guarantee that people will buy it, of course, but the answers are there.
But when asked about the eternal fate of someone who has never heard the Gospel or never heard about Jesus, the truth is more hidden from us.
Remember, our role is not to win arguments. We are called to love people and point them to Jesus. With something like this, I think it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’
What can we say that might be helpful?
God has promised us that, if we seek Him with all our hearts, we will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13). He is not eager for anyone to die (2 Peter 3:9). “For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13). We do not know how God is dealing with people in lands yet unreached by the gospel, but from Scripture we can see that He will never condemn anyone unjustly, but will be faithful to reveal Himself to anyone who looks for His salvation. Nobody goes to hell on a technicality!
We also know that John saw in heaven “…a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10). Not only every nation but every tribe will be represented in heaven.
Notice that they all sing the same song. We are not saying that sincere Muslims or Hindus, trusting in their religion, will make it to heaven. There is only one Saviour, and everyone in heaven will be there through the salvation provided by Jesus.
Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)! We are confident, for example, that the Old Testament patriarchs who lived by faith before Jesus’ earthly ministry, are in heaven. So certainly some people have got to heaven without knowing Jesus in the personal way that the New Testament speaks of. Ultimately only God can judge as only He knows the individual’s heart. We hold out hope for those who have not heard but have not rejected God, those who have been misinformed, or those who are unable to understand. And we don’t need to worry about injustice, because God is Justice. It is impossible for God to go against his own nature and be unfair. Nobody will stand before God and claim foul play.
Certainly, the Bible does not teach “universalism”. Universalism is the idea that everyone gets to heaven. The Bible clearly teaches that the only certain way to heaven is through Jesus. We are confident that God will not hold anyone accountable for any knowledge he did not receive. At the same time, the Bible emphatically states that Christ is the only sure way to salvation. For anyone who has heard of the saving grace of Jesus and rejected, you have to ask what more God can do in that situation?
So, we don’t know what happens if people die not knowing about Jesus. We do know that we need to tell people about Jesus. And we do know, above all, that God has all the bases covered!