What about those who died before hearing the Gospel?
Q: What about those who died before hearing the Gospel?
A: This seems like one of the most frequently asked questions. Are there other ways to God as some say, contrary to what Jesus taught? If not, then is there no way for those who never heard? What about people who died before Christ was born, and babies?
Remember seven words: Only Jesus justly judges and graciously saves. It would be very difficult to imagine a genuine Christian saying Jesus' great agony and suffering were not necessary to anyone to be saved. Yet God is just, and Christ only judges people based on the knowledge for which they are responsible. All who die rejecting Jesus are separated from God forever. Everyone that God saves goes to heaven through Jesus. This is true even if, like Abraham, Job, and many Old Testament believers, they first hear of the Gospel after they die. So we have an urgency to obey God in sharing the Gospel, not to empower God, or make Him just, but to express His love by asking all to accept the gospel, confident that God works out everything according to His plan.
While this summarizes what we need to know about those who have not heard, the next question shows how this relates to preaching the Gospel.
Q: How does the death of people who never heard of Jesus on earth relate to the Gospel?
A: Let's explore five points that relate to the Gospel message.
1. God's justice: Four attributes about God the Bible emphasizes are His holiness, justice, love, and wrath. Jesus justly judges all (2 Thessalonians 1:6; John 5:22,23; Matthew 12:36; Romans 2:16; 2 Timothy 4:1). God holds everyone responsible for the choices they are able to make and the truth they are given. (Acts 17:30; Romans 4:15; 5:13; 2:11-16; 3:20)
2. Man's sin: Even as to what they know, everyone falls short of the perfect standard for God's Heaven. (Romans 3:9-23; 5:12-19; 1 John 1:8; 5:19; Ephesians 2:3; John 3:36; Psalm 143:2). Even infants who died before they sinned still need sanctification before they could go to Heaven. (John 3:3-8; Romans 8:29-30)
3. The cross of Christ is the only way: So all desperately need a Savior, and Jesus is the only hope for the whole world. (Titus 2:13-14; 1 John 2:2; 3:8; Hebrews 2:9; 1 Timothy 2:4-6; 4:10; Acts 4:12; John 1:29; 3:17; 8:24; 10:7-8,14-16; 14:6; 6:45; Galatians 1:6-9). Because Jesus loves us so much, upon the cross He gave His life as an atoning sacrifice for the whole world (1 John 2:2). If you want to go to God's house, you cannot just go any way, you have to go God's way.
4. There has always been opportunity: Since the Fall to Abraham, from Job to now, whenever and wherever anyone has lived, God has given people the opportunity to call out to God to save them (Titus 2:11; Acts 10:34-35). While God overlooked times of people's ignorance (Acts 17:30), all are commanded to repent and obey the gospel of Jesus. Those who never heard are responsible to obey the Gospel of Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:8), but people can connect with God's grace according to God's arrangements. (John 1:9,16,29; Hebrews 10:1-10,19; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). What is common to God's arrangements is combining what they heard with faith (Hebrews 4:2; Romans 4:3-4).
5. There is only one way (through Jesus), but God has had more than one means. How can the Sovereign Lord give eternal life to those without the gospel, or even without God's law, who still sought glory, honor, and immortality in Romans 2:7,12-16? Under the Mosaic Law people put their life in God, hoped for the Messiah, and lived their faith through observing the law. This was not a different way to salvation, but a different means for them to connect with the salvation through Christ, sacrificing animals to cover over their sin until the perfect sacrifice came. For people like Abraham and Noah, God could move the heavens and the earth to make a means for them to find the One Way. What about those since Christ who died before hearing the Gospel? God says He is just, and has mercy, but we do not know, except that we are given the task of reaching as many people as we can. God can give all the opportunities He chooses, and when He chooses. Beyond this, Christians hold to one or more of the following views.
5a. We have not been told. Christ commanded us to preach so that everyone would here the gospel. For those who die unreached, that is God's department, not ours. We simply labor and strive to make that group as small as possible.
5b. God understands and can take into account the ignorance of babies, children, and / or those who never heard and still save them through Christ. On the other hand, God is not compelled to give people more truth if they already rejected the truth about Him they have.
5c. God actively seeks: God directs missionaries to all who by God's grace seek Him.
5d. Post-mortem for little children: In addition, scripture suggests that infants and little children who die can go to Heaven (2 Samuel 12:23; Luke 18:16), even though they never put their faith in Christ or believed the Gospel while on earth. So those with the understanding of little children have hope of Heaven through Christ, while adults who reject the truth they have do not.
5e. Post-mortem until ...: How old does a little person have to be before the previous no longer applies? Christians have given different views. On one hand, Augustine and Ambrose said only baptized infants would go to Heaven. On the other hand, Clement of Alexandria (193-217 A.D.) in Stromata book 6 chapter 6 taught that 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6 imply even adults who never heard have an opportunity after they die to make the same choice they would make when alive. Others say there is an "age of Accountability" which can be different for different people. One thing we can say for sure though, it is God who draws the line.
5f. Millennium choices: Another complementary view is that some have choices to make during or after the Millennium.
5g. No opportunity: Some other Christians disagree with these opinions. Some, starting with Ambrose of Milan (340-397 A.D.) and Augustine of Hippo (370-400 A.D.) taught that God gives many (including all unbaptized infants) no opportunity to escape Hell. 5-point Calvinists today believe there is no opportunity for many people.
All Christians ought to agree though, that
a) Nobody has any salvation, except through Christ
b) Nothing in scripture proves that aborting or otherwise killing a baby automatically sends the baby to Hell, or to Heaven.
c) Nothing in scripture gives any hope of anybody having a "second chance" after they die.
d) No scripture says anyone would be more likely to accept the gospel they first heard after they die than if they heard it while they were alive on earth.
e) We have been given an urgent task, of preaching the gospel to the whole world.
f) A person's salvation does not depend on their works of obedience, or our works of preaching, but ultimately on God.
Let's examine this issue in depth by answering some questions that arise about the details.
Q: In Rom 1:18-20, how does a just God condemn someone for not having enough knowledge about Christ to save them, even though they have enough knowledge about God to condemn them?
A: God is just to do so based on five points.
a) People are responsible for the truth that they have, as Romans 1:20-24 shows.
b) All people have some truth, from nature (Romans 1:20) and their own conscience. (Romans 2:13-15)
c) God is just. He does not hold people responsible for the truth they do not have, as Romans 4:15; 5:13 says (Sin is not counted where there is no law). Acts 17:30 says that God overlooks times of ignorance.
d) However, all ignorance is not necessarily innocent ignorance. Romans 1:18-20 shows that people can suppress the knowledge that they have. While God is understanding of someone who only had very little light, people are still condemned if they are in darkness because they themselves "blew out the candle".
e) For people who reject the truth that they do have, God is not obligated to give them additional truth. (Romans 11:20; Matthew 13:14-15; 23:29) In fact, for those who reject the way of truth, the less they know the better off they are. (2 Peter 2:20-22; John 15:22-24)
An illustration might help. You are lost in a dark forest at night, full of wild animals, and you do not know how to get out. You see a light ahead, and it appears to be a parked car with a man outside. You choose not to go near the man. Would you be right to blame the man anyway for not giving you directions?
When you move toward the light, doesn't the light get brighter? In a similar way, if someone is searching for the truth about God but doesn't know about Jesus, God desires to give them more light when they respond to the light that they have received. Ultimately God will do whatever it takes to try to reach us because He loves us so dearly and desires a relationship with us, as 2 Peter 3:9 shows.
While the previous illustration is OK, for some there is a more appropriate illustration. A person is lost in a dark forest at night, full of wild animals. He sees a light ahead, which is a parked car with a man outside. He sneaks up on the man, kills him, burns the map, and then says he is doing the best he can because he knows no other way. He is telling the truth, since he burned the map. Today, about 2 billion people, and perhaps the majority of non-Christians, live in countries and cultures that have killed countless Christian witnesses. If someone approves of killing of Christians, how many more missionaries do you think God is obligated to send them?
But the good news for them is that God still keeps sending some missionaries, because He loves those lost people, even enough to sacrifice the lives of some of His missionaries.
Q: Can other religions lead to Heaven too?
A: No. Jesus said there is only one way, and that way is not a religion, not even Christianity. That way is Jesus Himself. People who think other religions lead to the same place forget that everyone does not even want to go to the same place. For example, many Hindus desire to rejoin an eternal life, die for the last time, lose their individuality, and be absorbed in a cosmic consciousness. Buddhists want to go to Nirvana, where among other thing, there is no love or joy. Muslims refuse to worship Jesus and are taught to fight against Christians. Either this pleases God or it displeases God, but it cannot be both. Everyone does not all worship the same God, because God does not have multiple personality disorder! In addition to all the verses referenced in the first question, there are five main things Scripture teaches about Jesus being the only way.
a) Only One Way: Imagine, before Jesus' terrible torture and crucifixion, Jesus praying in the Garden in Gethsemane saying "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me", and God the Father saying, "Your dying on the cross is not needed to take away people's sins, we're just going through all this for fun." Jesus' death did not provide an "alternative way" to go to Heaven. Jesus is the one and only way.
b) Narrow is the gate and way that leads to eternal life (Matthew 7:14). Can someone like a Buddhist ever go to Heaven? Sure, because my father-in-law and mother-in-law were Buddhists, before they rejected Buddhism and came to Christ. A Muslim who wants to come to Christ has to realize that when Mohammed fought against Christianity, he was against the Triune God of Christianity.
c) Sacrifices a person sincerely might make to idols, are sacrifices to demons, not God. (1 Corinthians 10:19-20; Deuteronomy 32:16-17). C.S. Lewis wrote otherwise near the end of his book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis was wrong here.
d) However, God desires that none perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23,32). The narrowness is not due to God's lack of love, or withholding information, but due to people's rejection of God (Romans 1:18-21) and not combining what they know with faith (Hebrews 4:2).
e) Everyone who trusts in Jesus will never be put to shame (Romans 10:11b)
f) People have to call on one whom they believe, whom they have heard about, who have been preached to. (Romans 10:14-15)
An illustration might help here. Suppose you were on an island and you were warned that a hurricane was coming. There is a narrow bridge connecting the island to the mainland. It really does not matter which road you take on the island, or which way you go, as long as you do not want to leave the island. If you want to escape the hurricane though, you have to cross the bridge to the mainland. Now the typhoon of judgment for mankind's sin in coming to our island called earth. God invites us all to cross the bridge He has provided for us and escape. If we choose not to cross God's bridge though, then our destruction is our own fault.
When Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, learned to communicate with the outside world, her teacher shared with her about God. Helen said that she always knew He was there, but she just did not know His name.
Contrary view: Pope John Paul II and many liberal Protestants believe that many religions lead people to the same God, that Jesus is the best way, but not the only way. Jesus said, "no one comes to the Father, but through Me." (John 14:6). If you are going to the same place as all the other religions lead, or you can go to a different place, where Jesus leads.
Q: Can anyone, including people who lived in earlier times, go to Heaven apart from Christ?
A: No one could go to Heaven apart from Christ. However, the Bible teaches that many who lived in earlier times still went to Heaven through Christ, even though they never heard of Him. Consider someone who lived surrounded by a pagan, idolatrous culture, but obeyed the one command God gave him, and whose name was Abram. In John 8:56 Jesus said Abraham looked forward to see Jesus' day and was glad. Could God ever reveal His truth to anybody else, especially if they were from Gentile tribes and their name was Elihu, Eliphaz, or Job? Five points show how these examples reconcile with the teacher with the Bible.
a) Salvation has appeared to all people through Jesus. (Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:2; Titus 2:11; 1 Timothy 2:6) Jesus is the only way. (John 10:7-9, John 14:6; Acts 4:12 and Philippians 2:9-10)
b) Even Old Testament sacrifices only covered over sins until Jesus came. (Hebrews 11:39-40; 10:1-3). While Moses did not hear of Christ, Moses actually suffered for Christ according to according to Hebrews 11:26.
c) When is an earlier time? Even up to the time of Paul's preaching to them, God overlooked times of ignorance for Gentiles according to Acts 17:9. However, all who have the knowledge are responsible for what they know.
d) Moreover, even Jews who refused to ever believe in Jesus will die in their sins according to Matthew 23:29-33; John 8:24; Acts 20:21; 2:37-40; Romans 9:6. All who reject Jesus will die in their sins. John 5:10,12; Luke 7:30.
e) People from every tribe and nation will be in Heaven. (Revelation 5:9; Acts 10:34-35). This presumably includes tribes whose members all died off before any of them heard of Christ.
An illustration shows this. A number of people are trapped in a burning building. A brave fireman appears, telling them to follow him to safety. Some of the people personally met the good fireman before, trust Him, and follow His commands. Others have not met him before, but they heard that if in the future they had a fire, a fireman would help, and they at that time choose to follow him too. Others, regardless of whether they met him before or not, do not trust him, and perish in the fire. It is not when you first met the good fireman that is important, it is whether you trust and follow Him that matters. See the article "What of Those Who Never Heard? - Part 1" for more info.
Contrary view: Calvinists say that God gave no opportunity for those destined for Hell. Thus, according to Calvinism people in Hell believed this truth: Jesus did not love them or die for their sins. They are in Hell not only because of their own sins, but they are also guilty for what Adam did, and because God actually desired to create them to go to Hell. Against this, 2 Peter 3:9 and Ezekiel 18:23,32 say that God desires that none perish. Calvinists interpret these verses to mean none of the elect. They saw we should not sing "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world", and not tell people that God loves them. Some people today can have unusual interpretations of the Greek. However, if no early Greek-speaking Christian was known to understand the Greek this way, then that modern Greek interpretation is highly suspect. No native Greek-speaking Christian can be found who denied that Christ died for all.
Q: Do we have any evidence of other people believing the truth of God prior to hearing of Christianity or Judaism?
A: Remarkably, yes we do. Read the fascinating book Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson for more info. Here are three examples.
Sgaw Karen people of Burma: the almighty, all-knowing God named Y'wa created everything. He created two persons, a man named Thanai and a woman named Eeu, and placed them in a garden with seven kinds of fruit trees. One kind they could not eat, though. The evil Mu-kaw-lee deceived the two persons, telling them they would have miraculous powers and ascend to Heaven. Mu-kaw-lee persuaded them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial. They ate and became subject to sickness, aging, and death.
Don Richardson explores the possibility that this might have come from Nestorian or Roman Catholic influence, and concludes it did not, because Richardson found no concept of the incarnation or a redeemer dying for man and rising from the dead. See Eternity in Their Hearts (p.77-83) for more info.
Santal of India: They believed in "Thakur Jiu" (Thakur = genuine, Jiu = God), who created the first couple, a man named Haram (Adam?) and a woman named Ayo and put them in Hihiri Pipiri, which was west of India. The evil Lita tempted them to make rice beer and pour part of it on the ground as an offering to Satan. They did so, and became drunk on the rest of the beer. When they woke up, they knew they were naked and felt ashamed. They later had seven sons and seven daughters. Their descendents became corrupted, so Thakur Jiu hid a "holy pair" on Mount Harata (=Ararat?), and destroyed the rest in a flood. Eventually their ancestors traveled (east) from forest to forest, until they came to high mountains, which blocked their path. Finally they got through (perhaps at the Khyber Pass) and they came to their homeland near Calcutta. See Eternity in Their Hearts (p.41-44) for more info.
An Emperor of the Incas. Don Richardson also mentions an Emperor of the Incas, who believed all the idols were wrong, and there was only One True God, who existed as a Trinity. This Emperor died before the Spanish came.
Revelation 5:9 says that people from every tribe and nation will be in heaven.
Q: Can anyone go to Heaven if they did not hear the Gospel while they were alive?
A: If you are a Christian that is a good question to ask Job, or Abraham, or Daniel someday. Everyone will hear the gospel of Christ, even if it is after they die, for every knee will bow to Jesus. Some hear before they die, and some after. Those who hear after they die include Old Testament saints who faithfully followed the truth they had, and evildoers who rejected the truth they had.
Scripture also implies that babies and little children can go to Heaven too (2 Samuel 12:23; Luke 18:16). What is the "cut-off" age for children/adults?
While Scripture is silent on if those who did not make any choice can make one after they die, the early Greek-speaking Christian Clement of Alexandria (193-217 A.D.) taught that they could, based on 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6. Other Christians disagree though. Five points to support this answer.
a) Every knee, not only in Heaven, on earth, but under the earth (in other words the dead) will bow to Jesus in Philippians 2:10 (See also Isaiah 45:23-24). Every eye will see Jesus return in Revelation 1:7, and will see God's glory in Isaiah 40:5.
b) Whatever God intended to communicate 1 Peter 3:19, Jesus preached to the spirits in prison, and "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 KJV)
c) People die once and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27-28). There is no second chance after death for people who reject Jesus. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce speculated that it might be possible for those in Hell to repent then and go to Heaven. However Mt 18:8; 25:41,46 and 2 Th 1:9 show that this speculation of C.S. Lewis is wrong. Luke 16:26 also shows there is an impassable chasm.
An interesting illustration was given by C.S. Lewis. Consider Heaven and Hell as two points, with Heaven above Hell, and a horizontal line (salvation through Christ) drawn between them. Some people might be directly between the two points, with some closer to Heaven and some closer to Hell. Some people might be way to the left or right of the two points, again some closer to Heaven and some to Hell. Those who far from Heaven and Hell, if they reject what they know have a lesser punishment, and those who believe the little truth they have been given have fewer opportunities for rewards. Those directly between Heaven and Hell have the greatest opportunities for rewards if they believe. They also are the closest to Hell, and receive the greater punishment, if they reject Christ. How close you are to being directly between Heaven and Hell depends on the knowledge you have been given.
My Conclusion: We can see in many ways how God is just, though God has not told us everything He will do. But, what will you do? Now that you know, what are you going to do about it? If you are concerned about those who have not heard today, then accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, become a foreign missionary, and go preach to them.
Your Conclusion: When you come to your own conclusion about those who died before hearing the gospel, you have to answer two questions
(Yes/No) Did a just God choose to give everyone an opportunity to be saved?
(Yes/No) Would it be possible for God to ever give anyone an opportunity after they die?
Erickson, Millard J. How Shall They Be Saved : The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus. Baker Books 1996.
Packer, J.I. Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. InterVarsity Press 1961.
Richardson, Don. Eternity in Their Hearts -revised. Regal Books 1981.
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Early Church Speculations on Those Who Died Before Hearing the Gospel
Shepherd of Hermas (c.160 A.D.) book 3 ch.16 refers to those who died before Christ and before being baptized. It says apostles and teachers [no mention of Christ] preached it to those already asleep.
Justin Martyr (138-165 A.D.) Those who did which was universally, naturally, and eternally good are pleasing to God, they will be saved through Christ in the resurrection equally with the righteous men before them, such as Noah, Enoch, Jacob, and others. Dialogue with Trypho ch.45 p.217. Also, First Apology of Justin Martyr (c.150 A.D.) ch.63 p.184 mentions that those who died are "yet in existence and men belonging to Christ Himself." Also First Apology of Justin Martyr ch.46 p.178
Irenaeus of Lyons (182-188 A.D.) "It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. Now all those believed in Him who had hope towards Him, that is, those who proclaimed His advent, and submitted to his dispensations, the righteous men, the prophets, and the patriarchs,... For 'all men come short of the glory of the God,' and are not justified of themselves, but by the advent of the Lord," Irenaeus Against Heresies Book 4 ch.27.1 p.499
Irenaeus of Lyons (182-188 A.D.) "And on this account all things have been [by general consent] placed under the sway of Him who is styled the Most High, and the Almighty. By calling upon Him, even before the coming of our Lord, men were saved both from most wicked spirits, and from all kinds of demons, and from every sort of apostate power." Irenaeus Against Heresies book 2 ch.6.2 p.365
Clement of Alexandria: (193-202 A.D.) answers about those who never heard the Gospel.
Wherefore the Lord preached the Gospel to those in Hades. Accordingly the Scripture says, "Hades says to Destruction, We have not seen His form, but we have heard His voice." [allusion to Job 28:22] It is not plainly the place, which, the words above say, heard the voice, but those who have been put in Hades, and have abandoned themselves to destruction, as persons who have thrown themselves voluntarily from a ship into the sea. They, then, are those that hear the divine power and voice. For who in his senses can suppose the souls of the righteous and those of sinners in the same condemnation, charging Providence with injustice? But how? Do not [the Scriptures] show that. the Lord reached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept "in ward and guard"? And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the Master; so that He should bring to repentance those belonging to the Hebrews, and they the Gentiles; that is, those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and Philosophy, who had ended life not perfectly, but sinfully. For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed of greater worth in righteousness, and whose life had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions, though found in another place, yet being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty, should be saved, each one according to his individual knowledge. And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there; since God's punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance thorn the death of a sinner;" The Stromata book 6 ch.6 p.490-491
Tertullian (198-220 A.D.) mentions that Christ went to Hades "that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself." (It does not say whether or not Jesus preached to them though.) A Treatise on the Soul ch.55 p.231.
Hippolytus (222-235/6 A.D.) "He [Jesus] who is become the preacher of the Gospel to the dead, the redeemer of souls, and the resurrection of the buried;" Fragment from Commentary on Psalm 19 or 20 p.170. Also ch.7.14 p.189
Origen (225-254 A.D.) "but also, then when He became a soul, without the covering of the body, He dwelt among those souls which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were willing to Himself, or those who He saw, for reasons known to Him alone, to be better adapted to such a course." Origen Against Celsus book 2 ch.43 p.448
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by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.