Paul concluded his teaching on the sinfulness of human beings by saying, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by obeying the law; rather, though through the law we became conscience of sin.” (Hey, I told you these chapters were depressing.)
Not only is every person guilty before God, but there is also nothing we can do to change this. The more we try to do good, the more we expose our evil. Even our attempts to obey God only further uncover our inability to do so. This applies to you, me, and every other person in the world. As a result, we all stand condemned before God.
This brings us face to face with a fundamental misunderstanding that appears in many answers to the question of what happens to people who never hear about Jesus. Many professing Christians have come to the conclusion that if certain people around the world don’t have the opportunity to hear about Jesus, then this automatically excuses them from God’s condemnation. Such people will go to heaven because, after all, they never has the opportunity to hear about Jesus.
This line of thinking reflects the intensely emotional nature of this question. We want people to be okay when they haven’t had the opportunity to hear the gospel. But think with me about the logic of this conclusion. It asserts that people will be with God in heaven for all eternity precisely because they never heard of Christ. Their not hearing about Christ gives them a pass into heaven.
In addition to the lack of biblical evidence for such a pass, consider the practical implications of this idea. If people will go to heaven precisely because they never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus, then the worst thing we could do for their eternal state would be to go and tell them about Jesus. That would only increase their chances of going to hell!! Before we got there, they were going to heaven; now that we just told them about Jesus, they might go to hell. Thanks a lot!
Imagine encountering an international student newly arrived on a college campus in the United States. You ask her is she has ever heard about Jesus, and with a puzzled look on her face she says, “no.”
Now, if this girl is headed to heaven precisely because she has never heard about Jesus, then the best thing you could say to her for the sake of her eternity is, “If anyone tries to tell you about Jesus, just put your hands in your ears, start yelling very loudly, and run away.”
Obviously, this particular methodology is not prescribed in Scripture. But when you follow the logic on the conclusion above, this is the practical result.
Still, some will maintain, “Well is God just in condemning people for not believing in Jesus when they never heard about Him?” Now this is a really good question, and I believe the answer is no. God would not be just in condemning people for not believing in a Savior they never heard about. But don’t forget, people are not ultimately condemned for not believing in Jesus. They are ultimately condemned for not believing in God.
This is the key. There is no question that the billion people who have never heard about Jesus have a different kind of accountability before God than the rest of us do. Those of us who have heard about Jesus have had the opportunity to receive or reject the gospel, and we are responsible for our decision. But regardless of our relative knowledge of the gospel, based on the second truth we’ve already explored, all people stand condemned fundamentally for rejecting God.
I can imagine tears in Paul’s eyes when he comes to Romans 3:20. He painted a terrifying portrait of humanity’s sinfulness. All people know God, all people reject God, all people are guilty before God, and all people stand condemned for rejecting God. But I can also see Paul wiping away those tears as he pens his next words.