Non-Christians usually ask this question: Does the innocent person who has never heard of Jesus Christ go to hell when he dies?

Christians believe that salvation is through Christ alone, but they also believe that not all people have an equal opportunity to hear Lord Jesus’ message of salvation and to receive Him as personal Savior. We also have to deal with the countless millions of people who lived and died centuries before Christ. How could they have avoided hell?

What happens to the innocent natives who have never heard of Jesus Christ? Can they be saved? The answer is yes, they can. However, this is not the same as saying they will be saved.

Although the heathen have never had the opportunity of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ personally, they nevertheless have had the opportunity of knowing God. The heathen will be judged, not according to how they respond to Jesus, but how they respond to God the Father.


1. General Revelation to the Heathen

In what way has God revealed Himself to the heathen?

17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:17)

This passage states that God has given everyone a witness of Himself. This witness is general revelation through nature and our moral conscience. Hence, the heathen will be judged according to how they respond to this general revelation.

18 The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. 19 For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 While claiming to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. 24 Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 1:18–25)

This passage states that God considers the heathen "without excuse" if they do not accept His revelation in nature and respond to it.

12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12–16)

This text teaches that God’s moral law is written on the hearts of all human beings, and they are judged according to how they respond to it because a proper response to the moral law is a proper response to the moral Lawgiver.


2. Judgment Standard for the Heathen

We can rest assured that God will judge all human beings fairly. This is the clear teaching of Scripture (Genesis 18:25; Psalm 145:17). To understand how the heathen will be judged, we must understand something about the nature of sin.

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

This passage states that even one sin, regardless of how small it is, causes a person to fall under divine condemnation.

23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)

42 And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (Luke 12:42–48)

These passages states that:

  1. some sins are greater than others and deserving greater punishment;

  2. sins done in ignorance are less blameworthy than sins done in the full knowledge of God’s disapproval; and

  3. the person who knows God’s will and fails to do it will receive greater punishment than the one who does not know God’s will.


3. Difference between the Heathen and Christian in respect of Salvation

General revelation does not give a clear plan of salvation. The fact is, heathens without the gospel message have a much more difficult time responding favorably to God than those who receive a clear presentation of salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul writes:

even though the heathen knew God [through general revelation], they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.… For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature [creation] rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:21–23, 25)

Although the heathen receive through general revelation a picture of God clear enough for them to acknowledge and seek Him, the sad fact is they usually reject God. In mankind’s sinful state, in his rebellion against his creator, he continually attempts to suppress God’s truth. So most heathen people turn from God and worship God’s creation.

A real life example is that if you want to become a barrister, you have two possible paths:

  1. pass all public examination papers held by the barrister institution; or

  2. attend a pre-approved law degree course and obtain full exemption to all the papers upon graduation.

There is no argument that following the second path is much more easier for you to become a barrister because you receive all-round training to equip you to become a qualified barrister. Salvation through accepting the Lord Jesus Christ is similar to attending the degree course, you have standard text book (i.e. the Bible) and receive training (i.e. church teaching) to assist you to obtain salvation.      


4. Conclusion

God will judge the heathen according to the degree of information about God available to them, and how they chose to respond to this information. All people have had the opportunity to know God either through general revelation or through the Christian message. Rejection of either of these revelations will result in damnation. People will be denied entrance into heaven, not because of what they have not heard, but because of what they have heard and rejected.


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