Do Christians believe that everyone who hasn’t heard of Christ will be damned to suffer eternal agony in hell?
In John 14:6 Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Jesus’ words make it clear that He alone has brought God’s gift of salvation to the world. But do His words also mean that everyone who hasn’t heard of Him will be condemned to hell?
Abraham lived long before Christ. When he told Isaac that God would provide a sacrifice, his words were strikingly prophetic, but he didn’t understand their true significance. He knew nothing about the Lamb of God who would die on a cross nearly 2,000 years later. People like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Melchizedek, Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob never heard the gospel, yet Hebrews 11:13 leaves no doubt that they will be in heaven.
No one in Old Testament times had a clear understanding of the role that Jesus Christ would someday play in atoning for sin. But centuries before the gospel was revealed, the faith of Old Testament believers was already “credited to them as righteousness” ( Genesis 15:6; Psalm 106:31; Galatians 3:6 ).
One of the most remarkable missionary stories of this century was the martyrdom of five young missionaries in Ecuador and the conversion of the Auca Indians. The first convert from the Auca tribe was a young woman named Dayuma. Remarkably, Dayuma was predisposed to accept the gospel because of her father’s influence. Although he had never heard the name of Jesus, he spoke out against the blood feuds and murder that were an Auca way of life. Unlike the others of his tribe, he was deeply conscious of his sinfulness and knew that he and his people needed forgiveness. He told Dayuma that some day God would send a messenger to the Aucas to tell them the way of salvation. Like Old Testament believers, Dayuma’s father was still living by faith when he died ( Hebrews 11:13 ). The witness of his life implies that he would have been overjoyed to hear the gospel, but he died before missionaries came.
Does Scripture give us grounds for insisting that Dayuma’s father is any different in God’s eyes than the believers of the Old Testament? Clearly, Dayuma’s father, like Abraham, would face eternal damnation apart from Christ’s shed blood. Apparent, too, is the desperate spiritual need of those, like the Auca people, who live in fear and spiritual darkness. The fact that Christ is the only way to God places on us the responsibility to make Him known to all.
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles asked:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? (Romans 10:13-14).
But there isn’t a passage of Scripture that definitively proves that God looks upon Dayuma’s father differently than He looked upon Old Testament believers who had only a faint idea of the nature of coming redemption. (See the ATQ article, How Could Old Testament People Be Saved?) The apostle Paul may have had this issue in mind when he wrote the first chapters of Romans, declaring that God has revealed Himself in creation ( Romans 1:18-20 ) and in human conscience ( Romans 2:12-16 ). Paul said that each individual will be judged according to his response to these two revelations of God. To those who respond positively, God gives more knowledge—as He did to the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion, Cornelius (see Acts 8,10 ). Those who are lost will be judged according to their response to the spiritual light they have received ( Hebrews 4:12-13 ). 1
It may be that God will extend His grace to Dayuma’s father on the basis of Christ’s shed blood, just as He did to Enoch, Melchizedek, Job, Abraham, and Sarah—people who had only the faintest intimation of the means by which God would provide for their redemption. In the final analysis, we must leave this matter in God’s keeping. He is both just and loving. We can be assured that the Judge of all the earth will do right ( Genesis 18:25 ).
(See the ATQ article, How Can Christianity Claim To Be the Only Way to God?)
- Jesus made it clear that those who had little light will be punished lightly:
That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked ( Luke 12:47-48 ). Back To Article