All Christian faiths teach that the only way for anyone to make it to heaven is by believing in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But, if that is true, then what happens to the unknown billions upon billions of people from the time of Adam who have never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ, let alone have had the chance to accept His message of salvation?
Christians believe there are only two places a person goes when then die - either heaven or hell. Since the only people who go to heaven are those who believe in Jesus Christ, that means everyone else have no other place to go than hell, which is a place where they will suffer unspeakable pain for all eternity. But if God is kind, loving and just, why would He send billions of people to hell if they had never had the chance to know about Jesus? That certainly doesn't seem fair because it isn't their fault they were never given the opportunity to be saved. And, indeed, some have argued that "to send an ignorant person to hell would be unjust and contrary to God's nature of love."
Although all Christian denominations believe in the need to accept Jesus as our personal Savior, they differ in their answer to this troubling problem. Some teach that "the scriptures make it clear that those who haven't heard the gospel are lost, just as surely as those who refuse to believe in Christ. Jesus declared that He is the only way to God (John 14:6). Paul referred to all who don't know Jesus as `those who are perishing' (2 Cor. 4:3) and as having no hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12)." In other words, all who have never heard the gospel will perish in hell. As to whether this is fair or not, their answer is that the only thing we can do is trust that all of God's ways are just.
Others say that "man is given certain `light' to show him that there is a God (Psalm 19:13)." Some call this "light" man's conscience that tells him what is right and wrong. What is meant by this is that all men have an inborn instinct that tells them when they are doing wrong. Since everyone deliberately chooses to do that which they know is wrong, therefore they justly deserve the punishment of hell for their evil deeds.
Another variation on this is based on Roman 1:20 which one minister says tells us that "those who know nothing of Jesus still have the divinely given testimony of creation and God's dealings through natural events." In other words, since all of nature shows man that there is a God, then man is left without an excuse for not believing in Him.
Then there are those who claim that "It's not God's fault if sinners are lost. The gospel reached all men in the first century (Col. 1:23). We have the responsibility to hear, believe, and obey the gospel." In other words, the gospel has already been taken to the entire world and therefore there are very few who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel. As one commentator explained, "There are not quite the vast numbers who have not heard the gospel as you might think. In fact, the number coming to the Lord Jesus throughout the world is phenomenal. A huge majority (95%) of folk religions throughout the world acknowledge there is but one great Spirit who is creator… Missionaries have frequently discovered that God has placed in heathen religions and traditions truths to prepare them for the gospel."
Still another commentator has written, "It is groundless presumption to imagine that people have received no Christian revelation merely because they have had no contact with the Bible or with Christians. We have no way of knowing what God has revealed to people by such means as dreams and visions." Therefore, according to this explanation, nearly everyone in the world has had an opportunity to hear the gospel. If that is true, then that leaves all men without the excuse of never having heard of Jesus Christ.
However, another commentator points out that "less than 7% of those living today are born-again Christians. About 50% of the world's population still does not even know who Jesus Christ is. China, with a population of 1.2 billion people, has only a limited gospel witness… Just because a person has heard of Jesus Christ does not mean he has a clear enough understanding of the gospel to go to heaven." If that's the case, then how can God fairly consign them to hell?
One explanation is that the ignorant "have some knowledge of the true God… Yes, their understanding is limited… [in that] they are certainly ignorant of Jesus." Then what will happen to them? Another person has said that "God will hold those who never hear the gospel responsible for what they did with the light they had in this world." According to this explanation, "The saving power of Jesus' sacrifice has been extended even to them," the ignorant. "There is apparently a sense in which God overlooks certain practices and/or ignorance until they become fully accountable by coming into contact with the gospel."
However, there are those who disagree with this, saying, "The Bible teaches that when the gospel is obeyed, sinners are delivered from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). If the ignorant can get into heaven then they can be saved without the gospel… they could be saved without [a knowledge of and a belief in] Christ." "If the ignorant were saved, the gospel would be useless. Rom. 1:16 says that the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes… If I believed that those who had not heard the gospel could go to heaven then I would be afraid to preach to them, lest they reject it and lose their reward."
When we talk about those who are ignorant of the gospel, there is another group of people who fit into this category that we generally don't think of and that is children. They are certainly "ignorant" when it comes to understanding the gospel message, only because they don't fully comprehend the importance of what is being said to them. But that then raises the question of at what age does a child begin to truly understand the concept of sin, along with the need to repent and accept the atonement of Christ?
The vast majority of Protestant faiths teach that all children go to heaven if they die before reaching the age of accountability. This would presumably include the children of unsaved parents as well. One commentator has said, "The strongest proof of this is found in Luke 18:16. Notice especially the last words `of such is the kingdom of God.' Heaven is populated by little children and by those who become like little children. This is further stated in Matthew 18:3."
This same commentator goes on to say, "Although children are born in a state of sin, it is commonly believed that they are sheltered by the blood of Christ. If they die before they reach the age of accountability, that means they have never had the opportunity to accept or reject the Savior."
But this presents two problems in itself. The first is biblically defining what the age of accountability is. In fact another commentator has said, "Scripture says very little about this subject, so we cannot say much in a dogmatic way. [But] We do believe that all dying infants are elect of God… God's elective grace embraced all dying infants." It is admitted that the Bible doesn't really say that salvation has anything to do with a person's age but they nonetheless believe that God saves children because of their age.
The second problem is that if a child is saved on the grounds that they are not accountable for their sins simply because they "never had the opportunity to accept or reject the Savior," then why are those adults who have never heard the gospel accountable for their sins?
Hell is God's punishment to man for doing that which is wrong. But if God doesn't punish children because they don't understand that what they are doing is wrong, then why does He hold adults accountable for their misdeeds when they haven't been taught that their actions are wrong in God's eyes? If we say that an adult is someone who has achieved a moral sense of what is right and wrong and therefore can be accountable for the choices they make, then the same can be said of a three year old child who knowingly violates their parent's orders and then lies about it to keep from being punished. The very reason they lie is because they know what they have done is wrong. To say they don't understand what they're doing is wrong is demonstrably false.
The idea that children go to heaven if they die before the age of accountability on the basis that they don't understand the difference between right and wrong is not taught in the Bible. As one minister put it, "The [quoted] texts (Job 15:14; Jer. 17:9; Eccl. 9:3) do not seem to restrict themselves to people old enough to make intelligent decisions. They seem to speak of human nature as a whole, a classification under which infants certainly fall."
What becomes abundantly clear from looking at all of these explanations is that there is no agreed upon answer among Christians of what happens to those who die without hearing the gospel, even though each of these answers are based on what people think the Bible teaches. Worse yet, many of these answers actually contradict one another. But even if we were to take any one of these answers alone, none of them agree with what Christians profess to believe.
The basic doctrine of Christianity is that all men are born in original sin, meaning that when we are born we are already sinners! It isn't that we have a choice of whether we want to be sinners or not. We can't help but sin. It's in our genes. As one minister put it, "Dogs bark. Bees sting. Birds fly. Fish swim. Skunks smell. Sinners sin. It is not what we do, but who we are that has us in this helpless state of frustration and failure."
And that includes children as well. One minister has written, "Observe children at play. The natural mode of the child is to display some form of greed ("That's my toy!"). Selfishness is a direct result of our fallen nature." It has also been pointed out that no one has to teach a child how to lie, steal, or cheat because such behavior comes naturally to them. And that is because we are born with the tendency to sin. As one minister put it, "Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, sin is passed down from father to children. We inherit the sin from our fathers and are born with this sin nature." And the scriptures seem to bear this out (see Rom 3:23 and Romans 5:19).
It is because of this inability of ours to do anything else but sin that God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son to die so that all of mankind could be redeem from their sinful nature. It is often argued that if man can do works of righteousness on his own then there would be no need for God to send us a savior. As one minister put it, "If we are born innocent and good, why aren't there at least some people who have continued in this state and remained sinless?"
What this clearly implies is that we can't help sinning any more than a dog can help barking or a bee can help stinging people. That is the way we were made to act. Yet, as obvious as this may seem, Christians nonetheless behave as though it is our fault when we sin. Although they teach that man has the freedom to act anyway he wants, yet they also teach that "there is none that doeth good, no, not one" (Romans 3:12), and whenever man does try to do good "all of our righteous acts are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). The unmistakable teaching of Christianity is that man is incapable of doing anything else but sin.
But whose fault is that?
Man didn't make himself a sinner at birth by his own choice or any conscious decision on his part. He was created that way through no fault of his own. It is agreed by all Christians that only God has the power to create life. Therefore, the only way that man can truly be held accountable for his sins is if God created each person innocent from their birth and taught them right from wrong, but then afterwards they deliberately and willfully chose to behave contrary to what they knew God expected of them. This was certainly the case with Adam and Eve. Anything less than that places the burden of wrong doing on Him who created man to sin. (see NOTE at end)
But even when we do sin, God still loves all mankind, so much so that He sent His Son to die on the cross to save us from the punishment for our sins. And the way we receive this salvation is by accepting Christ as our personal Savior. However, if that is true, then God's love for all mankind must also entail making sure that every person not only hears about Christ's atonement but is given the chance to fully accept it as well. And it was for this very reason that Jesus commanded His disciples, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).
One minister has stated, "The greatest attribute of God is that He is a God of love. He loves you and me. He loves all sinners and wants to save every one of us from hell and the terrible results of our sin." The scriptures themselves tell us that God "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9), and that He "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked." (Ezek. 33:11)
If God is anxious to save everyone and if He is loving, fair, and just, then it is hard to reconcile this with the teaching that those who are ignorant of Jesus through no fault of their own are just as lost as those who have been given the opportunity to hear the gospel message and still reject it. If God truly loves everyone and if He is genuinely fair and just, then justice requires that He makes sure that every person has the same opportunity to hear and accept the gospel message. If He doesn't do that then God does not treat everyone the same. And if that's the case, then how can He fairly punish all sinners equally?
To say that God has given everyone a "light" or conscience to help them know what is right and what is wrong doesn't overcome this objection. The gospel message is more than knowing right from wrong. It is believing in Jesus Christ that saves a person. The scriptures tell us that "there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12, emphasis added). A person can only be saved if they believe in the "name" of Jesus Christ. But it takes even more than that to be saved. For salvation to be effective in a person's life it also takes understanding exactly who Jesus is, what He did, why He did it, and the need for us to have faith in Him. A person who merely has a sense of having done something wrong doesn't automatically realize that they then have to accept someone by the "name" of Jesus Christ into their life in order to get to heaven, nor does that fill them with the knowledge of what God has done to save them. In fact, having a conscience doesn't even give a person the knowledge of heaven or hell, and without that, a person doesn't even know why they need a savior, regardless of His name.
In the same way, even though a person can look at nature and realize that there must be a God doesn't mean they know who that God is, what His name is, what they are doing that offends Him, what He has done for them, what He expects them to do, and what He will do to them if they don't do as He wants.
The argument that all religions have some elements of truth in them that prepare people to receive the gospel misses the point in two ways. First, these "truths" are admittedly only preparations. However, to build on that preparation, someone has to preach to them. But if that preaching never comes then all the preparation in the world will not bring those people salvation. For example, nearly all of the Middle Eastern countries teach the Islamic religion, which has many similarities to Christian teachings, yet all of their countries forbid any form of Christian preaching to convert people. Over the past centuries, billions upon billions of people have lived and died in these countries who have no idea why it's important to believe in Jesus. As such, all of the "truths" their religion has, that may have prepared them to receive the gospel, has done them no good.
On the other hand, a person who is firmly convinced that Muhammad is God's true prophet will strongly resist the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert him from his former faith. So what we really find is that many of these other religions actually prevent people from accepting the gospel rather than prepare them to receive it.
The second way this argument misses the point is that not everyone has a religious belief. For example, even though there are some Christians who live in China, the vast number of their 1.2 billion citizens have no real religious belief because their government forbids them to. Therefore, they have nothing that prepares them to receive the gospel. If we say that their "traditions" have elements of truth in them, such as some sort of a moral code of conduct, that's not much different than talking about a person's conscience. But, again, none of these "truths" do them any good unless someone teaches them about Jesus Christ. Since the Chinese government forbids proselyting by any religion, that means no matter how much people are prepared to receive the gospel, millions of people are dying every year who have never even heard the name of Jesus Christ, let alone know what He did for them or why they need to believe in Him. The same can be said of the people who lived in the old Soviet Union during the forty years of Communist rule.
To say that people who have had no contact with the Bible or with Christians might have had the gospel revealed to them by such means as dreams or visions perhaps has happened in isolated incidents, but such occurrences are extremely rare. However, in order for God to be truly fair, all people in all ages must have the gospel message presented to them in a way that allows them the opportunity to either accept or reject it. If that doesn't happen, then God is consigning people to hell simply for behaving the way they were created without giving them the chance to know how to avoid such a horrible punishment.
But, as we have already seen, it was Jesus Himself who commanded that the gospel is to be preached throughout the world. The apostle Paul also wrote, "How shall they believe in him of who they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?"(Rom. 10:13-15). The Bible specifically tells us that people are converted, not through dreams and visions but through the preaching of the word. In fact, all Christian faiths have some sort of an evangelical, missionary, outreach program to spread the gospel to those who have never heard it. But all of these programs would be unnecessary if God used dreams and visions to reveal His plan of salvation to the world.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, in 2004 the unevangelized population of the world was more than 1.7 billion people. That's how many people who have never heard the message of Christianity even once! In just America alone, there are countless television and radio shows that broadcast the gospel. In some places you can hear someone preaching the gospel at almost any time of the day or night. In addition to this, there are untold books, tracts, and pamphlets printed every year to get the gospel message to those who don't know Christ. As we have already seen, one minister has pointed out that people are accepting Christ today at a phenomenal rate. What that means is there are a phenomenal number of people in America who didn't know about Jesus until someone recently preached the gospel to them. But, with all of this preaching, there are many millions more who still need to hear the gospel in order to be saved.
But it isn't enough just to hear the gospel. People must be converted to Jesus, and, in most cases, that involves a continuous process of teaching. Even if people have heard the message of salvation once and don't accept it, churches still continue preaching with the hope that someday those same people will finally become convinced of the need to believe in Christ. Not everyone is prepared to receive God's message of salvation at the time they first hear it, so the gospel has to be preached over and over again to the world.
But, there are untold billions of people throughout the history of the world who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel message even once, let alone enough times to finally convince them to accept it. It is neither fair nor just that one person makes it to heaven after being given the opportunity to hear the gospel preached to them ten times before they finally heed it's message, while another person is sent to hell even though he had never once heard of Jesus Christ. If God is truly sincere in wanting to save all sinners, then He must give every sinner the same opportunity to come unto Christ.
It is the logic of this that has led some to conclude that God must somehow save the ignorant despite them never having heard of Christ. But if that is so, then it makes no sense to preach the gospel or to believe in Christ if all a person has to do is live up to the "light" they were born with. But this is not what Christianity teaches. The very essence of the gospel is that people need to believe in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The only way that those ignorant of Jesus Christ could be saved is if there were different kinds of "salvation" or "heaven." In other words, God saves the ignorant but they don't receive the same reward of glory as those who accept Jesus. While that would be fair in one sense, it is unfair in the sense that the ignorant were not given the opportunity to receive a greater glory. But this also is not what Christianity teaches.
When we carefully examine all of the explanations of what happens to those who die without having heard the gospel, not one of them is consistent with their own message of salvation.
However, there is one other explanation that we haven't looked at, and that is the one given by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They do not believe that when a person dies they go immediately to either heaven or hell as their final resting place. Instead, the spirits of all the dead go to a place where they await the resurrection. The prophet Alma explained "that there is a space between death and the resurrection of the body, and a state of the soul in happiness or in misery until the time which is appointed of God that the dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works" (Alma 40:21). And it is during that time that those who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel in this life are afford the opportunity to hear and accept the message of salvation in the world of spirits.
This is consistent with what Peter said when he wrote, "For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (1 Peter 4:6).
The scriptures also tell us that there will come a time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philip. 2:10-11). But, if every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, then that means every person has to know who Jesus is. And the only way that can happen is if everyone has been taught about Him. Even those who have rejected His offer of salvation will at least know who He is and ultimately be forced to admit they made a mistake in refusing to accept Him. But how will those in hell bow their knee and confess that Jesus is the Lord when they had never heard of Him nor were given the opportunity to be saved from their eternal punishment?
If God loves all of mankind and desires that all sinners come unto Him, then the only fair and just thing is for God to make sure that all people in all ages are taught the gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only Christian faith that declares that God does have such a plan. But more than that, it is not a plan based on what man thinks God's word says but is founded on what God has revealed about His word through living prophets in our day. That way we are not left to wonder how to properly understand the scripture and we are not left with a multitude of explanations that make no sense.
However, this argument presents a dilemma for those who use it.
There are only two possibilities to consider. Either God creates all life or He doesn't.
If we say that God alone is the creator of life (which most Christians believe) then either God created us with a sinful nature or He didn't. If He didn't create us to sin then that means each person is born innocent and we become sinful by our own individual actions, in which case that then destroys the idea of original sin. On the other hand, if we say that we are born in sin and that God alone creates life, then we are left with no other choice than to say it is God who created us as creatures who can do nothing else but sin.
If we say that we inherited our sinful nature, not from anything God did, but from Adam and Eve, who were human, then we would have to say that the creation of life is nothing more than a biological process that God exercises no control over. In other words, it is humans who create human life, not God, which is a doctrine most Christians reject. To say that God gives us life but that He has nothing to do with the development of our human body, along with its sinful genetic makeup, is also at odds with what most Christian faiths teach about conception and life.
To illustrate what I mean, statistics show that one in every eight hundred children in America is born with Downs syndrome, which is a result of a defect in the child's chromosome make-up. Those who have had experiences with Down syndrome people report that these children are often very loving. What that means is, they have a greater affinity or natural tendency to be much more loving than the average person. If our sinful nature is something that is inherited and passed down from parent to child, then there must be some sort of "defective" chromosome or gene that makes us behave as sinners. But, if altering just one chromosome can make Down syndrome children naturally behave more loving, then why hasn't God interfered with the hereditary genetic make-up of man in the beginning so that he is less susceptible to sinning? And if He can do that but doesn't then it cannot be said that God shares no responsibility for our sins.
It is completely illogical to say that God creates all life but that it is not His fault when the life He creates is born in sin. Yet that is what most Christian teachings want us to believe.