The Old Testament of the Bible reveals that it was only those nations around Israel (from Greece to India and Turkey to Ethiopia) who received invitations to accept God; only they had the opportunity to hear the words of salvation heralded from Jerusalem.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the first Christians added a few more countries around the Mediterranean to the list, but even these were limited to the Roman Empire, which had a population of less than 45 million people—and that in a world estimated to have a population of 200 million back then.
This really means that in biblical times, millions of people living in what we today call North and South America, Australia and vast areas of Asia, Africa and Europe never had an opportunity to learn about and become citizens of God’s kingdom. They were “unwarned.”
For the past 2000 years, missionaries have done a remarkable job of correcting this inequity. However, only one-third of the world’s population today is Christian, while another third, though non-Christian, live within the reach of Christians. The final third—about two billion people—remain unreached. Most live in countries and areas where Christianity is forbidden.
This means that since the beginning of time, millions of people have died before they had a chance to hear and accept the salvation God has provided.
The Bible has promises of salvation for the believer (Psalm 37:39, 40) and damnation for people who reject the offer of entering God’s kingdom (Luke 9:26). It also says that there will be a day of judgement (Daniel 7:9, 10) where both those who accepted Christ and those who rejected Him will be judged.
However, there is no direct “thus saith the Lord” concerning the fate of the millions of people who never heard God’s offer of salvation, either from Jews before the Cross or Christians after. Thus, we struggle with the question, How will a loving and caring God deal with people who never had a chance to accept Him?
This issue has generated significant theological debate and many contradictory suggestions have been made. They can roughly be divided into six main themes:
The Bible says there are hidden things that belong only to God (Deuteronomy 29:29) and subjects that we humans cannot understand fully (John 16:12). Paul writes that “now I know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and Jesus once said, “You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7).
God seems to appreciate that there are subjects where His children have a limited understanding, and the final fate of the unwarned is among the issues of holy ignorance.
However, a couple of texts in the Bible suggest that those who never heard of the Jewish or Christian religions will have an opportunity to respond to God’s call. In John 3:1–3, Jesus said that in order to be saved, a person must be “born again.” Another name for the new birth is conversion and it happens in our lives through a special work of the Holy Spirit on our minds and hearts. With this in mind, please note that John 1:9 says Jesus is “the true light that gives light to every man [who comes] into the world.” In other words, in some way, the Holy Spirit reaches out to every human being who was ever born.
And Paul said that even Gentiles who don’t have the law (that is, God’s truth as revealed in the Bible) sometimes “show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14, 15). To have the law written on the heart means to be converted (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). Thus, Paul seems to be saying that even Gentiles who never heard the Jewish message before the Cross or the Christian message after the Cross can respond to the impressions of the Holy Spirit on their hearts and be “converted.”
The Bible also makes it clear that a growing understanding of the plan of salvation means greater responsibilities in obedience and service to God. Human beings have been endowed with consciences—the inward judges of actions and thoughts. The judgements are based on people’s concepts of morality and ethics as guided by their culture, traditions and religion.
An active Christian conscience will evaluate acts, words and thoughts in the light of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. Of course, sometimes our consciences can be wrong. The apostle Paul makes it clear that his ignorance—a result of his Jewish upbringing—made him persecute Christians with a clear conscience. People with a flawed concept of morality need to educate their consciences so that they are in harmony with God’s truth.
For those who never had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as Saviour, their obedience to the silent voice of conscience may serve as a positive factor in the final judgement. That’s why, in the passage about those who never heard the law yet had the precepts of the law written on their hearts, Paul went on to say that those people’s consciences will accuse or perhaps excuse them in the judgement (Romans 2:15, 16).
In God’s plan of salvation, Christ the Lawgiver takes the penalty for the lawbreaker, whom He created. The Saviour is not only Judge but also Advocate for the sinner. He provides these benefits for the redemption of all humankind, including those who have not received a formal introduction to the Gospel.
This outstanding service was illustrated at the crucifixion when Christ interceded for all involved in that cruel act with the words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
This Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all people. He loves the unwarned. The same plea expressed in His divine love for those who crucified Him will also be made for all those who never had a chance to hear about salvation.
God, who is righteous, is also love. Through Jesus Christ, God accepts the sinner, not as a criminal, but as a son or daughter He loves. Therefore, we can, with confidence, leave the billions of people who never heard about Jesus Christ in the love and care of their Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. He is also their Advocate and Saviour.