One of the most troubling subjects for Christians concerns those who have never heard the Gospel. What happens to them?
Think about the first century and where the Church was at. The Church was in Galilee/Samaria/Judea and the surrounding area. It was in Asia Minor and had entered into Europe, perhaps as far as Spain but still only the very southern area of Europe. It probably had entered Africa into Egypt. Tradition says that Thomas made it to India. Even being very generous, most of the world had no idea about Jesus by the end of the first century.
While Christianity has grown to be the largest religion in the world (with Islam a close second), millions of people know nothing of the Gospel and perhaps have never heard the name of Jesus. What happens to all these people?
There are many different theories. Some forms of reformed theology would say that the elect were placed where they could hear the Gospel and the non-elect were placed in the remote areas. Universalists would say that everyone is saved and so it really doesn’t matter. Dallas Willard, in his book, Knowing Christ Today, suggested that those who live a life of love (whatever their religion is) would be saved because love is a demonstration that one is connected to God.
I will say that I really do not know the answer and I am suspicious of those who say they can answer this question with confidence. However, I can offer some thoughts that people can use toward their own reflections.
- There is biblical warrant for people being judged based on what they know. This is not an excuse to stop missions, it is only one of the factors to take into account.
- God is revealed in his creation. Some would say that Romans 1 teaches that there is just enough natural revelation to condemn a person. But perhaps there is a bit more potential in natural revelation.
- God does speak to people outside the Bible or the words of a Christian missionary. There are countless stories of Muslims converted through dreams and visions. I have a friend who had such an experience. God can touch anyone, anywhere at anytime.
If I had to say what I believe is the case, I would say it as a very tentative response. What I think happens is that some people get a sense of who God is through natural revelation and if they are sincerely seeking God, God will give them what they need to come the rest of the way. That might be by bringing a missionary or other Christian, or it could be by dreams and visions.
We need to come to this question with great humility. If this is something that you are very much concerned about, I would suggest you ask yourself what you are doing to help more people hear the Gospel.