What Happens to Those Who Never Heard About Jesus?
Romans 2:12This is perhaps the most troubling question that Christians can face. The fate of those who never hear the gospel is both difficult and emotional. It’s a tough question to think about, because at its heart, it touches many people we know personally. Taken at its widest point, the question involves friends and neighbors who seem utterly resistant to any talk of spiritual things. They never come to church, they never read the Bible, and they show no interest in learning more about Jesus Christ. And what about those millions of people in other lands who lack even the opportunity to say “No” to the gospel? The vision of millions – even billions – of people perishing in the fires of Hell is both awesome and terrifying. Is that vision right? Can it possibly be true? How can God allow such a thing to happen?
No wonder we are uneasy talking about this subject. No wonder we squirm whenever it comes up. Our head tells us one thing; our heart tells us another. On a subject as sensitive as this one, we desperately need to hear a clear word from God. The speculations of men will not suffice, not on something that involves the eternal destiny of over one-half of the world’s population. Does the Bible offer any help in answering this question? What really happens to the people who die without ever hearing the gospel? Where do they go? How does God judge them?
Let’s begin by running some numbers to get a handle on the problem. The current world population is around 6.4 billion people. Because that number is so large, it helps to think of it this way: It would require 40,000 trips around the world to equal 1 billion miles. Here is a breakdown of the world’s population by religion:
33% Christian 2.1 billion
21% Islam 1.3 billion
4% Hindu 900 million
10% other religions 725 million
6% Buddhist 376 million
16% no religion 1.1 billion
We can further analyze the world’s population this way:
4 babies are born every second.
2 people die every second.
1/3 of the world belongs to some branch of the Christian movement.
1/3 of the world has heard a presentation of the gospel in some form.
1/3 of the world has never heard the gospel in any meaningful way.
Here’s an additional face to consider. Sixty percent of the world’s population lives in Asia. Some scholars say that the church in China may number as many as 100 million people. While that is amazing, it also means that 1.2 billion Chinese still are waiting to hear the Good News. Most of that 1.2 billion would be in the 1/3 of the world that has never heard the gospel at all.
Let’s take those population statistics and make them more personal. Every day around the world …
350,000 babies are born.
159,000 people die.
That means that …
4 babies are born every second.
2 people die every second.
Think about that last statistic as you read this sermon. Two deaths per second.
Every second around the clock, two people die. What happens to them? Where do they go? What is their true spiritual state? And what happens to those who die without ever hearing about Jesus? Do they go to hell? Do they go to heaven? Does something else happen to them?
Out of 6.4 billion people, 1.8 billion are under the age of 15, and 3.2 billion are under the age of 27.
As a side note, I should add that we also live in a young world. Out of 6.4 billion people, 1.8 billion are under the age of 15, and 3.2 billion are under the age of 27.
As I thought about the question before us, I did some research into the missionary hymns of past generations. I found that those hymns left no doubt about the “fate of the heathen.” Many of the hymns go back 80-90 years. Some were written by A. B. Simpson and Paul Rader. Here are some first lines of these mostly-forgotten missionary hymns:
“Dost thou not care that millions are dying?”
“O Christian, can’t you see them?”
“Let us go with Christ to the harvest fields.”
“Heathendom’s millions wait for the light.”
“Heathendom’s millions wait for the light.”
“Out in the darkness of sin they are waiting.”
“Millions the story have never heard.”
“To the regions beyond I must go, I must go.”“There are souls in heathen darkness.”
Then I found this verse that struck me: “Today they die in heathen lands. They die in want and dread, for they have been omitted in the breaking of the Bread. Lord, I would give them the Bread of Life.”
Finally I found one song that I recognized: “The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin. The Light of the world is Jesus!”
And that led me this missionary hymn, the only one from this list found in our current hymnal:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
As I consider those hymns from earlier years, I realize how quaint they sound in the 21st century. It may sound vaguely hypocritical to speak of “heathen darkness,” especially when our own nation has sunk to such a low depth morally.
Sixty percent of the world’s population lives in Asia.
And one wonders if we still believe what these hymns declare — that billions of people around the world walk in spiritual darkness because they do not know Jesus Christ. Earlier generations had no doubts about that issue. Perhaps we are not so sure. Yet no question is more central to the missionary enterprise than the state of those without Christ. Are they really lost? Are those who never hear also lost? And that raises an important question. How can God send people to hell for not believing in Jesus, if they never even heard of him in the first place?
Good question. In order to find an answer, let’s consider the biblical teaching, a simple illustration, and a practical application.
I. The Biblical Teaching
In order to keep this very simple, let’s consider just one verse. Romans 2:12 explains a solemn truth about the whole human race: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” Paul divides the entire human race into two categories:
Those who live under the law.
Those who live apart from the law.
Think of the whole world as being inside one of two circles. The first circle is very small and is labeled “Under the Law.” Paul says you can find the Jewish people in this circle. The law was given to them, they live under the law, they are judged by the law, and the law finds them guilty before God.
We all end up in the same place — guilty before a holy God, judged for our sins, and deserving of eternal punishment.
The second circle is much, much larger because it contains everyone who is not in the smaller circle. Label this circle “Apart From the Law.” Those in this circle live and die without the knowledge of God’s law. Note that Paul says that they also “perish” apart from the law. But how can that be? On what basis does God judge us if we do not know his law? Verse 15 speaks of the law written in the heart of every person. Paul means that because the image of God is found in every person born on planet earth, the moral principles of God’s law are written in every heart.
We know by nature that it is wrong to kill innocent life.
We know by nature that it is wrong to steal.
We know by nature that we should not covet.
We know by nature that we should tell the truth.
We know by nature that we should be faithful.
We know by nature that we ought to honor our parents.
We know by nature that God created us and we should honor him.
But we suppress the truth about God that we know, and that suppression leads to rebellion, moral blindness, idolatry and every sort of degrading sin. Romans 1:18-32 describes this in detail. Paul’s point is that every person knows these things because God has written it inside every heart. We each have a conscience that helps us make moral judgments about ourselves and about others. Even without the written law, our conscience either excuses us when we do right or accuses us when we do wrong.
The good news is that God has done something and now we must do something.
Let us suppose that every time a baby is born, an invisible tape recorder is hung around its neck. As that baby grows up, the tape recorder faithfully records all the moral judgments that person makes about another person: “She’s so catty,” “He can’t be trusted,” “Only a fool would do a thing like that,” “I’d die before I would say something like that,” “He doesn’t deserve a second chance.” Think of all the thousands and thousands of moral judgments we make every year. And the invisible recorder catches them all. Finally, the day comes when the man stands before the Almighty. He protests that he doesn’t deserve to be there, that God has nothing on him, that he’s been a very good person. From nowhere, a finger appears and presses a button on the tape recorder around the man’s neck. Out comes the sound of all the moral judgments that man made over 75 years. When it is over, God says, “Now I will judge you by the same standards you used in judging others.” Who could survive that judgment?
We all end up in the same place — guilty before a holy God, judged for our sins, and deserving of eternal punishment. This is true with or without the Bible. It is true with or without the church. It is true with or without the preaching of the gospel. The whole human race stands condemned before the Lord. Listen to Paul’s sobering conclusion in Romans 3:10-12.
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
He writes this so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (v. 19).
II. A Simple Illustration
Let’s suppose there is a man in Thailand, a rice farmer who lives with his wife and four children in a small village several hundred miles from Bangkok. Rice farming is all he has ever known. That’s his whole life. From morning till night, year round, he works to grow enough rice to take care of his family. He’s Buddhist like his father and grandfather before him. Although he is not particularly observant, Buddhism is the only religion he’s ever known. The only thing he knows about Jesus is that he is the God of the Christians. He knows nothing else about the Christian faith.
The whole world is dying of the cancer of sin.
One day that farmer gets sick and goes to the local clinic. When they cannot help him, he goes to a hospital in a larger village. Eventually he ends up in a modern hospital in Bangkok. After running some tests, the doctor comes to the farmer and says, “I’ve got some bad news. You’ve contracted incurable cancer. There’s no treatment available that can help you.” And they send him back to his village to die. It happens that during that very week, researchers at the University of Chicago discover a cure for the precise kind of cancer this man has. If he gets the cure, his life will be saved. But the man knows nothing about the researchers in Chicago and the researchers know nothing about the man in Thailand. Several weeks later, he dies. Here is the all-important question: Why did he die? Did he die because he had cancer, or because he didn’t get the cure? Think about it before you answer. That poor rice farmer died because he had cancer, not because he didn’t get the cure. Not getting the cure simply sealed his fate. He was dying before they discovered the cure, and he was dying after they discovered the cure. Either way, he was a dying man. He ends up dead because cancer took over his body. The cure that would have saved him simply didn’t arrive in time. And in this case, it never arrived at all.
In the very same way, the whole world is dying of the cancer of sin. Some people are in very advanced stages while others will live for many more years. But all of them are ultimately terminal: The cancer of sin will kill each and every person. But a cure for sin was discovered 2000 years ago. It’s called the blood of Jesus Christ. It’s so powerful that it cures the cancer of sin in all its ugly forms. The sad part about this story is that even though the cure has been known for 2000 years, there are still over 2 billion people who know nothing about it. What’s worse, most of them don’t even know they are terminally ill with the cancer of sin. They’re dying, and don’t know it. When they die, what will be the cause of their spiritual death? In each and every case, the great Coroner of the Universe will write on the death certificate — “Cancer of Sin.” They don’t die because they’ve never heard the gospel. They die because they are sick with sin. Not hearing the gospel simply seals their fate.
“The gospel is Good News only if it arrives in time.”
This week I ran across a quote from John Haggai that stuck in my mind: “The gospel is Good News only if it arrives in time.”
III. A Practical Application
If what I have said in this sermon is true, then apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, the whole human race is doomed to hell. It’s not just those who have never heard, it’s everyone. We’re all in the same boat, and the boat is sinking fast. If someone doesn’t do something, we’re all going down together.
The good news is that God has done something and now we must do something. He sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Those of us who believe in Jesus have the awesome responsibility of sharing him with the rest of the world. We are to go to the ends of the earth, find everyone who will listen, tell them about Jesus and invite them to trust him. It is precisely at this point that we come face to face with the words of our Lord in Matthew 9:37-38. These famous words are quoted at almost every mission conference, but they have special relevance in light of this message.
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
The harvest Jesus refers to represents the vast multitudes of people waiting for someone to come to them with the Good News. In Jesus’ eyes, the problem is not with the lost people of the world. If you read the context, they are like confused, hurting sheep, disoriented and fearful and looking for help. The problem is that the harvest is wasting because there are not enough workers to go into the field. What should the church do in response to the vast harvest on every continent?
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” Therefore …
Let the pastors preach dynamic sermons.
Let committees meet and make great plans.
Let the people read books and attend conferences.
No, Jesus does not mention any of those worthy things. The church’s primary response to the needs of the world can be summed up in one word. Ask. The church is to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest fields. We plead and pray and earnestly beseech the Lord of heaven to stir his people to become workers in the fields.
First we pray. Then we meet.
First we pray. Then we sing.
First we pray. Then we preach.
First we pray. Then we give.
First we pray. Then we organize.
First we pray. Then we go.
And how are we to pray? Jesus said we are to ask the Lord of the harvest to “send forth” workers. The underlying Greek word conveys a very powerful image. The word is ekballo. The ek part means “out” and the ballo part means, “to throw” (like throwing a ball). It comes into English as the word “ballistic,” which refers to the explosion that occurs when the hammer of a pistol hits a bullet, propelling it out of the gun. We are to pray that God will light a fire inside the church that will ignite a movement inside many hearts that will result in people being “thrust out” of the church into the harvest fields of the world. We need to pray that God will throw some people out of the church.
“Lord, throw them all the way to Vietnam.”
“Lord, throw them all the way to Egypt.”
“Lord, throw them all the way to Finland.”
“Lord, throw them all the way to Liberia.”
“Lord, take your people gathered in comfort in Oak Park and blast them out of this place and into the distant corners of the world.”
And we ought to pray that when God lights a fire, he won’t deal from the bottom of the deck. We should pray that God would thrust out the best and the brightest for the sake of the Kingdom.
As God begins to answer that prayer, he often begins with us.
When J. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China, spoke about the need for additional workers on the field, he said something like this: “The great need is not for more elaborate pleas for help. If we are to meet the needs of the world, two things must happen. First, there must be earnest prayer to the Lord of the harvest. Second, there must be a deepening of the spiritual life of the church so that men will be unable to stay home.” He is exactly right. We must pray and then deepen our own walk with God so that when God calls, we will …
Care more than some think is wise,
Risk more than some think is safe,
Dream more than some think is practical,
Expect more than some think is possible.
And when we begin to pray, an unusual thing happens. As God begins to answer that prayer, he often begins with us. The people who go to their knees to beg God for workers are often the very people God uses to answer their own prayers. In the early 1940s a young woman named Eva Lodgaard began attending our church during her student days at Moody Bible Institute. She told me that back then, she was part of a prayer group called the “Go Ye Prayer Fellowship.” She said they had to keep restarting it because the Lord kept calling people from the group to the mission field. Eva Lodgaard graduated from Moody in 1945. We sent her out as a missionary, and 60 years later she is still serving the Lord in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.
When Eugene Peterson wrote The Message, he offered this version of Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:37-38.
“What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples.
“How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”
That seems to me to perfectly capture the spirit of Jesus’ words. As I finished my message on Sunday, I felt led to kneel on the platform and to ask those who would, to join me by kneeling in their pews or in the aisles so that we could together ask God to light a fire in our midst and ballistically thrust forth workers from our congregation to the ends of the earth. Here is the prayer I prayed on Sunday morning. If you can, I urge you to go to your knees and pray this prayer with me.
Lord of the Harvest, the world scorns what we do here today, but we come with great faith nonetheless. We see the needs all around us, and we hear the cries of the lost ringing from distant lands. And we know that they are dying and entering eternity without you …
We are not equal to the task but you are our strength. In ourselves we cannot do what you ask us to do. We have no power to change a single heart. But all power is given unto you, and you have promised to be with us to the very end of the age. You have called us to go, and so we must dare to leave our comfort and our safety for the sake of the gospel. Some of us will go as missionaries into the classroom very soon. Others will go tomorrow as missionaries into offices and stores and shops and into high-rise buildings and into hospitals and universities. So may we take Jesus with us, and also a burning heart to share the Good News.
We thank you for loving the world. We know that you take no pleasure in the death of the wicked. You desire that no one should perish but that all should come to repentance. Thank you for inviting us to join you in bringing your message to the world.
Now we ask you to ignite a fire in our hearts. Thrust us out from this place to the very ends of the earth. Give us your heart and make us willing to go. Send us. O Lord, send me. Raise up a new generation of workers for your harvest field. Amen.
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