What about those who have never heard the Good News of Christ because of geographical, social, or linguistic isolation, and/or hostile government? And what about our truly good non-Christian neighbors, who lack only a belief in Christ? Would God ever send such persons to hell, or allow them to go there?
Let’s put this up front: No one will ever go to hell for what they did not know. The problem is that just about all of us already know too much to plead ignorance before the throne of God. We know that God exists, and we know that we need someone to save us from who we are and what we have done. The real question is, Would the person who does not know Christ accept him if he/she had the chance? Are they looking for a Savior?
God has a track record of revealing God’s self to anyone who truly wants to know.
In the book of Acts, we find cases of truly good non-Christians: the Ethiopian eunuch, Sergeant Cornelius, Lydia of Thyatira. In each case, God is willing to pull every string to see to it that someone tells that person about Jesus. What that says to me is that in any case of a (theoretically!) truly good non-Christian who wants to believe, but who simply hasn’t heard, God will stop at no obstacle to reach that soul. In recent years, we have heard countless testimonies of Muslims who were drawn to Christ because they saw him in dreams or visions.
One can only speculate on the implications for Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or anyone who has not had those dreams or visions. None of this implies that they are “bad” people. Only God can arrive at such a conclusion, based on evidence that we are in no position to know. Our assurance is simply the converse, namely that those who truly do want to know and accept God’s mercy will ultimately find it, but only in Christ.
In the end, the issue of faith may boil down to attitude. Look at the story of the sergeant who sends to Jesus for him to heal his beloved slave. (Forget the claims that this is a gay relationship, unless you want to concede that it was an unequal one.) While the Jews insist that this Roman is worthy of divine intervention, the Roman himself categorically denies that he is worthy to have Jesus even come under his roof. He is the very opposite of the person who demands that a loving God must do thus-and-so for him.
At considerable risk, I suggest that perhaps this is the kind of faith that God honors in the non-Christian who genuinely struggles to find salvation. It’s the attitude that God is a sovereign God – a very Presbyterian concept.
True, the same concept has been used to argue the exact opposite: that God has the sovereign right to save people without Jesus if God wants to. But that ends up being a slap in the face to the Jesus at Gethsemane who cries, “Father, if it be possible, take this cup away from me!” If there was any other way to God other than through Jesus’ atoning death, the cross becomes a cruel joke with no saving value.
I am in no hurry for God to show us why so many seemingly good unbelievers (relatively speaking) never found Christ. The New Testament’s clear teaching that God moves heaven and earth to bring such souls to faith in Christ is sufficient for me.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 29 years, is adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill. He is author of “What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?” (Wipf and Stock, 2011).