What About People Who Don’t Know Jesus?

I can remember as a very small child wondering about people who never even hear the name of Jesus.  It didn’t seem fair that some little boy on the other side of the world who didn’t have the good fortune to be born in a Christian home would go to Hell, while I went to Heaven.  Much later, when I was working at UH one summer as an orientation guide, one of my co-workers was venting to us about one of her Christian friends.  She explained that she herself had been raised a Christian, but was starting to have doubts about what she really believed.  It all came to a head when she was talking to this Christian friend about who goes to Heaven.  Somehow, they started talking about Ghandi, and whether he was in Heaven now.  The friend said no, because he was a Hindu and never accepted Christ as his Savior.  My co-worker was furious about this.  “If you’re telling me that Christianity teaches that one of the greatest, most courageous people who ever lived isn’t in Heaven because he was of the wrong religion, then that’s not a religion I want to be a part of anymore.”  I must confess to you that I sat there mute, not knowing what to say or how to answer her.  I was awfully glad when someone changed the subject.

So what would’ve been the right answer?  This is one of the most important questions of all.  It’s something we all want to know.  Missiologists estimate that as much as 1/3 of humanity hasn’t even heard the name of Jesus.  At least 4 billion people don’t identify themselves as Christians.  On a national level, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has decreased by 11 percent in this past generation.  The fastest growing religious group in America today are those who claim no religious affiliation.  But for most of us, this is a more personal issue than all of that.  I want you to think about the people who mean the most to you.  Look at their pictures in your wallet, purse or phone, or envision them in your mind.  There’s probably at least one of those people who you are concerned about today.  You know they are headed in the wrong direction.  Ultimately, you’re not sure what would happen to them if their life ended today.  It’s okay to admit it…the billions of lost people bother you, but you are most concerned with that one person; that son, that granddaughter, that sister, that dad, that friend.  What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus?  For that matter, what about people who have done some outwardly religious stuff, but their present life is headed in the wrong direction?  What does the Bible say?  Would a loving God really send people to Hell?

Some people try to solve this problem by saying that Hell is a ridiculous, obsolete concept.  Who still believes in a Day of Judgment and a literal Hell?  Well, Jesus did, for one.  He spoke about it 15 times in the Gospels.  The most common image He used to describe it was Gehenna, a real place in Jesus’ time.  It was a valley just outside Jerusalem where the garbage, including the bodies of dead animals and human criminals, were burned in a fire that never went out.  That, Jesus said, was what Hell was like.  Scholars debate whether the images of fire are intended to be literal or figurative (I lean on the figurative side), but the point is clear: Hell is real, and it is a terrible place, far from God and anything good.

I have to admit to you, this bothers me.  A part of me would love to agree with those who say there’s no Hell, that God lets all of His children into Heaven.  But the idea of Hell and God’s judgment didn’t seem to bother the Jews in the time the Bible was being written.  I think that’s because of the oppression that was so common in their daily lives.  They knew that a God who truly loved them would not let the awful evils of this world go unpunished.  Maybe doubting God’s judgment is a peculiar luxury of the prosperous.  For instance, I doubt that Christians whose churches are being bombed in other countries have much trouble believing in the reality of Hell.  I doubt that the men and women who have been sexually violated by clergymen in their childhood feel squeamish about the idea of God’s judgment.  When we get right down to it, we feel the same way:  Do you believe the 9-11 terrorists went to a place of paradise when they died?  What would that say about God if they did?  There’s a great line in a British mystery novel of a several years ago.  A woman is mocking religion and says, “I don’t go in for all this emphasis on sin, suffering and judgment. If I had a god I’d like Him to be intelligent, cheerful and amusing.”  Her friend, who is Jewish, replies, “I doubt whether you’d find him much of a comfort when they herded you into the gas chambers. You might prefer a god of vengeance.”

Others solve this problem by saying, “Obviously, the bad people go to Hell, but good people go to Heaven.”  Or they rely on the dominant view of this age: “All religions lead to the same place, as long as you’re true to your beliefs and tolerant to others.”  Again, these would be attractive solutions, but Jesus clearly didn’t believe that way.  In John 3, we read about Jesus encountering a man named Nicodemus.  This man was a religious leader among the Jews, which meant he was exceptionally devoted to His religion (which was, let’s remember, the same religion Jesus was raised in and practiced).  Everything we read about Him indicates he was also a sincerely good man.  He tried to defend Jesus when the other religious leaders were determined to kill him (Jn. 7).  Later, after the crucifixion, he personally helped prepare the body of our Lord for His burial (Jn. 19).  Both of these actions showed incredible courage, integrity and compassion.  But Jesus told this good, devout man, “Unless you’re born again, you can’t see the Kingdom of God.”  It’s not about goodness or religious devotion at all.  If it were, then Ghandi would definitely get in ahead of me.  But the person we are cannot stand in the presence of God.  Our sin keeps us out.  Jesus would later say in John 14:6, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  In Acts 4:12, Peter, standing before the same Sanhedrin that conspired to kill Jesus, said, there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  I haven’t even started on Paul’s writings in Romans and Ephesians.  If people can get to Heaven by being good or by being devoted to their religion, Jesus and those who followed Him certainly didn’t seem to know it.

So what did Jesus believe about the fate of unbelievers?  Luke 13:1-5 sheds some light on the question.  There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Some people come to Jesus, asking His opinion about a current event.  The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate—known for his cruel anti-Semitism—had ordered some Galileans executed while they were sacrificing at the temple.  This would have been big news, and perhaps they just wanted to know what the young Rabbi had to say about it.  But notice the words “at that time.”  Luke wants us to know that this event was brought up right after Jesus foretold the return of the Son of Man and the Day of Judgment (see Luke 12).  I think these people were saying, “Well, I guess those people were getting some of that Judgment you were talking about, right?  After all, God wouldn’t have let that happen to them if they hadn’t been pretty bad sinners.”  In essence, they were getting some of the heat off of themselves by speculating on the state of some recently deceased people.  But Jesus will have none of it.  His response is, “Don’t worry about the state of those poor Galileans.  Don’t worry about the 18 people who were crushed by that tower that fell the other day, either.  It’s not your job to decide who the bigger sinner is.  You better focus on getting yourself right with God.  God will handle the rest.”

Obviously, the ultimate point of this is that we had all better make sure we’re right with God before we face our own death.  As we’ve already said, that’s not a matter of being really, really good, or really, really religious.  It’s a free gift Jesus bought for us all at the cross.  His death takes the heat for our sins, if we’ll accept it.  But what Jesus says here also goes back to our question for the day: How do we know about whether or not someone else is truly saved?  Jesus’ answer is consistent with the rest of what Scripture says—and doesn’t say.  Three points:

  1. It’s not our job to decide anyone else’s eternal fate. I cannot tell you how many times I have had conversations with another Christian where we discussed some version of the question, “So, do you think so-and-so is saved?” Sometimes it would be a certain celebrity, or an acquaintance, or someone we read about in the news.  Sometimes it was a denominational question: “That church believes some stuff we don’t.  Can they really be saved?”  But now I truly believe each of those conversations was a waste of time.  It’s not our job to determine those things, and the one whose job it is doesn’t need our help.  I don’t know any Scripture where we find Jesus, the apostles or the prophets asking such questions.

Nor do we find, anywhere in Scripture that I know of, a concrete list of criteria that we can use to determine whether someone is going to Heaven or not.  We see characteristics that should be in our lives if we’re following Jesus, and beliefs that we should hold onto, but these are always presented as things we  should aspire to in our own lives, not tools we use to judge others.  Just to make our point, let’s play that little parlor game I spoke of earlier: is he saved or not?  What would you say about a president who was personally courageous, who knew Scripture and quoted it often, but never made any public commitment to Christ and was never a member of any church?  Saved or not?  What about a famous clergyman who held many beliefs which would get him run out of a typical Baptist Sunday school class?  Saved or not saved?  What about a man who was a political and religious leader, who wrote religious literature that has been read by millions, but who secretly got the wife of a colleague pregnant, then had the man killed to cover up his crime?  Saved or not saved?  Well, I don’t know if Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther, and King David are in Heaven or not, but I wouldn’t bet against them.  It is not our job to determine anyone’s eternal fate.

Some of our more fiery brethren might say, “But we’re called to preach judgment on the lost! That’s the only way to get people saved…scare ‘em out of Hell.”  I don’t see anyone in Scripture doing that, either.  When judgment is preached, by the prophets, Jesus or the apostles, it’s almost always directed toward the religious people, not the unreligious.  Jesus had the harshest words for the self-righteous Pharisees and the affluent fat-cat Sadducees, because they should’ve known better.  But we have no record of Jesus ever accusing a Roman centurion of being a fascist pawn of an idolatrous, sexually immoral nation…and He had plenty of opportunity to do so.  In the same way, Paul was not afraid to confront hypocrites and false teachers within the Church.  But when he had a chance to speak to the pagan philosophers at Athens, he didn’t say, “All you idol-worshipping boy-lovers are gonna burn in Hell if you don’t repent!”  Instead, he reasoned with them calmly and persuasively, trying his best to prove that Christ was the risen Lord.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t speak about sin, judgment, and Hell when we talk to unbelievers.  But the example of Jesus and Paul shows us that we’re supposed to use the method that’s most likely to produce life change.

  1. We can trust God with the souls of others. I have done a lot of studying the Scripture on this issue, and one thing that I find consistently astonishing is that there is so little information about whether this person or that person went to Heaven or not. For example, what about the great men and women of the Old Testament?  They lived long before Jesus, so they certainly couldn’t accept Him as Lord. Are they shut out of Heaven?  Hebrews 11 and 12 name several of these heroes and clearly indicates they are in Heaven, but what about the rest?  And how did God get them in without them ever knowing Jesus personally?  I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to that question.  The Old Testament almost never mentions the intermediate state. There’s plenty of information about the Day of the Lord, and other passages that are foretelling the New Earth, but when it comes to what happened to those people when they died, it’s as if God says, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve got it covered.”

We face a similar dilemma when we think about small children who die.  Pastors will point to the fact that Jesus said you have to be like a little child to enter Heaven, but did He mean 12, 8, 5 or 5 months?  We don’t know.  I’ve heard many people say there’s an “age of accountability” before which God doesn’t judge us.  But try finding that in the Bible (hint: it’s not there).  So here’s what we’re left with: We know God loves little children.  We also know God is fair.  With what we know of God, we know He wouldn’t shut out of Heaven little children who never really had a chance to know Him.  We know He’ll do the right thing, and so Christians who’ve lost children, either in the womb or in their childhood, look forward to seeing them someday, and rightly so.  Now consider this:  God’s love and fairness are true for all people, not just children.  That doesn’t mean everyone goes to Heaven.  But it does mean we can trust Him to do the right thing.  Ezekiel 18:32 says, For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.  Peter 3:9 says, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  He backed up His words at the cross.  At the cross, God said, “I won’t force you to accept my love, but if you choose to go to Hell, it will be over my dead body.”  Don’t you think a God who loves every person that much will do the fair thing?

  1. Our job is to bring as many people to Jesus as possible. In spite of what we’ve said up to now, God’s attitude is not, “Don’t worry about the eternal fate of anyone else. Just make sure you’re getting in.”  True, Jesus didn’t tell us how to determine whether or not someone else was going to Heaven.  But He did leave us with a mission: Go into the all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.  I like the answer Jim Denison gave when someone asked him about people who never hear the Gospel: “The Bible doesn’t equip us to solve that problem with our theology, but we are called to solve it with our witness.”  He then points out an astonishing fact—and I haven’t checked his math, but I’m going to trust him on this.  He says that if every Christian in the world brought just one person to Christ per year, and that person led another person to Christ per year, and the process continued, the entire world would be saved in 34 years.    

Here’s what it comes down to.  Think back to those loved ones in your life who are headed in the wrong direction.  What if there was someone in their life who earned your loved one’s respect by living an authentically, courageously Christian life, who showed intentional love to them, prayed for them, and shared their testimony of faith in Christ.  If that person could convince your loved one to turn their life around and start following Jesus, how grateful would you be?  Is there any amount of money you could give this person to express your gratitude?

Everyone of us knows someone, a friend, neighbor or co-worker, who’s headed in the wrong direction.  Most of us know several “someones.”  Each of those people is somebody’s loved one…somebody’s mom, little boy, granddaughter, brother, spouse.  Someone, somewhere is hoping and praying that God will send a special person to help him or her turn their life around.  You might say, “Well, how do I know if they’re saved or not?”  You might say, “I can’t save anybody.  I’m just an ordinary person.”  It doesn’t matter.  If we make sure everyone we know knows that we love Jesus and knows we love them, through both words and an authentic, compassionate lifestyle, God will take care of the rest.  And as we are used by God to turn people’s lives around, can you imagine the gratitude on the part of their Heavenly Father, who loves them more than life itself, who actually CAN repay us for what we’ve done for His special child?  That is why we are here.

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