This is a question that pops up in some form from time to time. The questioner wants to know what will happen to people who have never heard of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible and salvation. I am going to try and offer a reasonable answer to the question.
Let me say in the opening that people who ask this question do so out of a love of others. They are horrified at the idea that a person without the Scriptures could be lost. Surely, they reason, there must be some other divine plan for those legitimately ignorant of the Gospel. They seek some hope from Scripture for these unknowing souls.
They also seek a theodicy ((“A vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil”, American Heritage Dictionary)) to explain how a loving and just God could sentence someone to eternal hell if that person didn’t even know of God. For the most part, those who ask this question are not trying to prove some point or pursue a hidden agenda but are truly interested in the souls of men. Let’s examine their novel thought closely.
Heaven and Hell
Heaven and Hell are real places. Many are unwilling to accept the idea of eternal punishment but if one holds the Bible to be true he must accept the reality of the two places.
Heaven is Real
Among those who believe in God most believe in a place of eternal rest called Heaven. It is a comforting thought ( Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11) both for those facing death and those who have lost loved ones. John’s Revelation is clear in its teaching of Heaven (Revelation 21:1-7)
Jesus himself spoke of a heavenly home when he assured his disciples of his return, “…and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am there you may be also” (John 14:3). Jesus spoke of Heaven as a place for eternity for the righteous. (Mark 10:30). Eternal life is the result of faith in Jesus (John 3:15).
Although the word “heaven” is not used in Luke 16:19-31 the concept of a divinely prepared place of comfort and rest is illustrated by Jesus as he talks of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. ((I know this is likely a reference to Paradise in the Hadean Realm but the point is valid as a place of rest beyond the grave.)) Truly, Jesus spoke of Heaven as a real place and his inspired writers did as well.
Hell is Real
Hell is not as widely accepted as Heaven. Although the Bible speaks as much or more about Hell some people just cannot accept the idea of eternal punishment from a good and benevolent God. Oddly, many of the same passages that speak of Heaven are also the ones that speak of Hell.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 Jesus is pictured as returning in power to “take vengeance”, literally to cause to suffer, against those who are lost. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus we see Lazarus in comfort while the rich man suffers (Luke 16:23).2 In Revelation 21:8, in the same context as the description of Heaven, we read of a place for the wicked which is a “lake that burns with fire and sulfur.”
Although our minds have difficulty grasping the horrors of eternal damnation it is still real. The dilemma faced by those who reject Hell is that they must somehow find a way to accept Heaven while rejecting Hell out of the same passage. The solution is that Hell is just as real as Heaven. We can also add that the grandeur of Heaven far exceeds anything our finite minds can grasp just as the tragedy of Hell is far worse that we can imagine.
Whether we want to accept the teaching of Hell or not is largely irrelevant. Truth stands without regard to our thinking. Only God’s word matters.
No Hope For the Those Who Do Not Know Jesus
There is simply no hope for those ignorant of Jesus Christ. ((My discussion here references those since the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ – not those before Christ. Although they did not know Christ they were still saved by his blood through obedience to God’s teachings.)) There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that God will allow men to enter Heaven apart from a knowledge of Jesus Christ and obedience to his will.
Those who try to craft exceptions to this sweeping claim must turn somewhere other than divine writ for their reasoning. Often our own wisdom convinces us that God will not punish those who never heard. While hearts may be soft and burn sincerely for the lost we simply cannot go beyond what the Bible teaches (2 John 9).
Is There A Third Place
Because Scripture is clear that Heaven is reserved for those who come to God through Jesus Christ, some may wonder if there is third place, a middle place, that people who have never heard may go. Perhaps there is another place that God has never told us of they wonder. I do not believe these people are evil or heretical. They are people with real breaking hearts for the lost. I do however believe their idea is misplaced.
There Is No Third Place
All men are subject to God. As Paul stood in Athens he declared, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Please note that at the time of his speech in the middle part of the 1st century, God commanded all people everywhere to repent. There were no exceptions given.
All are guilty. We all are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2-3). None do good (Psalm 14:3). We are all sinners (Romans 3:9; Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8-10). Paul argues powerfully that all are guilty because all have a knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-23). To be sure, this knowledge would be incomplete but even in its shortcomings men reject the creator. One who rejects the Father certainly rejects the Son. This is what is sometimes called natural revelation. It is available to all men every where even in the deepest reaches of the jungles. One who rejects the Father has little use for the son, in his own mind, because he doesn’t believe to begin with. You cannot be saved apart from Jesus and you cannot know Jesus apart from his Father. We should remember that at one time, all men living knew God (Genesis 8:19, after the flood).
Jesus made a very broad statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes unto the Father except through me.” This statement excludes those who do not come to Jesus from approaching the Father.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 Paul speaks of a class of people “who do not know God…and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” These people will face the Lord who comes in “flaming fire inflicting vengeance.”
I think we miss the point when we try to soften the impact of these words. We are dealing with sinful people who, according to Paul, have suppressed the truth of God (Romans 1:18).
There Are Only Two Possibilities
Scripture never speaks of three places only two.
- Light and Dark, not Light, Dark and Dim
- Good and Evil, not Good, Evil and OK
- Sheep and Goats, not Sheep, Goats and Dogs
- Broad Way and Narrow Way, not Broad, Narrow and Snug
- Righteous and Unrighteous, not Righteous, Unrighteous and Kinda-righteous
- Heaven and Hell, not Heaven, Hell and Limbo
In order to assert that there is some third place the Bible student must accomplish five crucial tasks.
- He must negate God’s demand that all obey,
- He must negate the inspired charge that all are sinful,
- He must negate the inspired charge that all can know and honor God,
- He must negate God’s promised punishment of all who do not know him, and,
- He must find some text which supports his position.
While the desire to see souls saved is most admirable, this is not the way to accomplish it. The above 5 tasks are, I think, insurmountable.
There are three implications from this study beyond the refutation of the idea of a third place for those who do not know God. I am going to simply list them. They are so stark that they speak for themselves.
- Untold numbers are right now rushing into eternal damnation,
- The Great Commission is vital today and speaks to each of us,
- We have, and are, failing to reach the lost.
I wonder what your thoughts are about this study and about the three implications above. Commenting is easy. Who will be first?
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