What Happens to People Who Never Hear the Gospel?

John Piper tackles an oldie but a goodie in the form of a question from a 12-year-old girl: What happens to people who die without ever hearing about Jesus?

The main passage in the Bible that talks about this is Romans 1:18–23. Here is what it says. Then I’ll make a comment or two. 

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 

Notice several things: 

  1. All people “know God,” even if they have never heard the Bible. “What can be known about God is plain to them” (verse 19). “Although they knew God…” (verse 21).
  2. The way they know God is by the way God has made the world and their own consciences (verses 19–20).
  3. Even though they know God, no one who knows God anywhere in the world “honors God as God or gives him thanks” (verse 21). Instead, they “suppress the truth” (verse 18). That is, they resist the truth deep in their hearts and “exchange it” for other things that they would rather have (verse 23).
  4. Therefore, they are “without excuse” (verse 20). That is, they are guilty and deserved to be punished.

It’s a good effort, but if I were the 12-year-old girl, I’d have some follow-up questions, including:

– So, people who have never heard of Jesus aren’t going to hell for rejecting Jesus, because they’ve never heard of him, but they’re still going to hell, right?

– What does it mean to “know God” without ever having heard of Jesus or the Bible? What does that look like?

– If it’s possible to know God without ever hearing the Gospel, is it possible to hear the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit calling you to seek God without ever hearing the Gospel? And if so, does that count for anything?

I’m not asking these to be a smart-alec; I’d really like to know how Biblical scholars would address them, because 12-year-olds can be pretty persistent if you don’t cover all your bases. I have some ideas, but I’m not an official theologian or anything.

4 thoughts on “What Happens to People Who Never Hear the Gospel?

  1. Note that it’s conditional: “all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” Are there some who do not suppress the truth? See Rom. 2:14-16—the Gentiles who have the truth in their hearts, their conscience bears witness and accuses or perhaps excuses them on that day.

  2. Hmmmm… interesting. I’d like to see some analysis of those passages in the original Greek and see what kind of interpretations we get.

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