Are people condemned to go to hell if they have never even heard how to be saved through trusting in Jesus Christ?  Why shouldn’t people who sincerely trust in some other religious faith be entitled to eternal salvation?  And, what about infants, young children, and the mentally deficient who die without having trusted in Jesus Christ — won’t they spend eternity in heaven?

People Who Have Never Heard How to Be Saved by Trusting in Christ

On page 136 of their book entitled Answers to Tough Questions, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart state,

Although the Scriptures never explicitly teach that someone who has never heard of Jesus can be saved, we do believe that it infers this.  We do believe that every person will have an opportunity to repent, and that God will not exclude anyone because he happened to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Subsequently, on page 138 of their book, McDowell and Stewart provide the following additional perspective with regard to their belief:

We . . . know that it is God’s desire that none “should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9, KJV).  This indicates that God also cares for those persons who have not heard the gospel.

Even though we may not know how He is going to deal with these people specifically, we know that His judgment is going to be fair.  Just this fact alone should satisfy anyone who wonders how God is going to deal with people who have never heard of Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, the Bible does not seem to offer hope of eternal salvation for those who have never heard about Jesus Christ.  Several scripture passages in Romans address this issue.  [Note:  When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]

Romans 2:12-16a declares,

For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things contained in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men. . .

And, Romans 3:19 states,

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

In reference to these two scripture passages, Gleason L. Archer asserts on page 385 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties,

From these verses we deduce, first that the Gentiles (and surely Paul includes the unevangelized Gentiles in this group) possess a knowledge of the moral law, an awareness of the difference between right and wrong, that makes them morally responsible before God, even though they have never come in contact with the Bible as such.

Second, the Gentiles “are a law for themselves,” that is, they have within their conscience an awareness of a moral standard to which they are accountable, and yet their “thoughts accuse them” (Rom. 2:15).  In other words, they realize that even by their own standards of right and wrong they are guilty, for they have not always measured up to those standards.

Romans 3:19 sums the matter up very clearly: Every mouth is silenced before God, and all the world – both Jew and Gentile – is accountable to Him for sin and guilt.

Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler assert on page 92 of their book entitled Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door, “Morality is not relative.  Right and wrong are not negotiable.”  They then provide the following quotation from C. S. Lewis in his bookMere Christianity:

[W]e are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong.  People may sometimes be mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.

On the following page of their book, McDowell and Hostetler go on to say,

The Apostle Paul pointed out that even those who have never heard of the Ten Commandments have “the law . . . written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Romans 2:15).  To quote C. S. Lewis again, “this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature   . . . because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.”

Romans 1:18-32, which we will not discuss in this article, explains why no person who has the ability to distinguish right from wrong has a valid reason to be excused from God’s punishment of eternal death (i.e., eternal separation from God.)

People Who Have Lived a Life of Faith in God, but Have Never Heard the Gospel

What about people who have never heard the gospel, but have lived a life of faith like the people in the Old Testament who are cited in Hebrews 11 for their faith in God, which presumably resulted in eternal salvation for those whose faith is cited?  Shouldn’t everyone with such faith in God be granted eternal salvation?

Archer, on page 386 of his book, asks, “Is the gospel a matter of grace or a matter of duty on the part of God?”  Then, he answers his own question: “The Bible clearly teaches that it is purely a matter of grace.”  On page 387, he goes on to say,

If the heathen may be saved by living up to the light that has been given them, then it necessarily follows that men may be saved by their own good works.  If that is the case, then Christ died needlessly on the cross; and He was mistaken in saying “No man comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6).

No one is condemned to hell for lack of a missionary witness.  He is condemned to hell for his sin.  He stands guilty of putting himself before God as the chief concern of his heart.

However, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., offer hope for people who have not had the opportunity to learn about God, but earnestly seek to learn about Him.  On page 438 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they declare,

[T]he bible says in essence, “seek and you will find.”  That is, those who seek the light they have through nature, which is not sufficient for salvation, will get the light they need for salvation.  Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”. . . God has many ways to get the truth about salvation through Christ to those who seek Him.  He can send a missionary (Acts 10), or a Bible (Ps.119:130), give them a vision ((Dan. 2; 7), or send an angel (Rev.14).  But those who turn their back on the light they have (through nature) and find themselves lost in darkness, have no one to blame but themselves;

In other words, if a person has never heard the gospel message regarding eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, but is sincerely seeking knowledge about God so they can live according to His will, it can be argued that God will provide a way for that person to learn how to have eternal salvation.    On the other hand, there does not appear to be hope of eternal salvation for others who have not heard the gospel message, especially anyone who is not willing to hear it.

The Bible also does not offer hope of eternal salvation for people who sincerely believe in a religion that does not teach that trust in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation.  The Bible indicates that trusting Jesus Christ as Savior is the only way for a person to be assured of having eternal salvation. [For a discussion regarding assurance of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]  Therefore, a person who has placed trust in anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ should not expect to enjoy eternal salvation, no matter how sincere his (or her) beliefs are.

Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”  History is filled with stories about people who have held beliefs that have been proven false, and some of these beliefs have led to severe consequences.  Such is the case with belief in a false religion.

Infants, Young Children, and the Mentally Deficient

The Bible does not clearly address the matter of whether or not infants, young children, and the mentally deficient who die without having trusted in Jesus Christ will have eternal salvation.  Archer says on page 389 of his book,

If the benefits of Calvary are available only to one who repents and believes, what hope is there for an infant who dies before he is capable of repenting and believing?. . . [A]ny infant who is permitted to live to the age of accountability will surely repeat the sin of Adam and thus recapitulate his fall on the basis of his own free will and voluntary choice, a choice for which he is fully responsible.  [Note:  The age of accountability is the time when a child first becomes sufficiently mature to understand that certain behavior is wrong (i.e., immoral or sinful).]

However, in a presentation entitled “The Salvation of Babies Who Die,” John MacArthur says there is no such thing as the age of accountability. Instead, he believes “there is a condition of accountability and it is true for children and it is true for some adults who are mentally deficient or handicapped.”

[Note: Our understanding of the term “condition of accountability” is that accountability with regard to sin is not based upon a specific age such as 10 or 12, but instead upon when a person understands the basic moral concepts of right and wrong, which may be never for a child who dies at a young age or for a person who has limited mental capacity.]

Archer, on pages 389-390 of his book, goes on to make the following argument:

[I]f the child who died in infancy had been permitted to live, he would also have made some kind of response to the gracious offer of the gospel, whether by way of acceptance or rejection.  God knows what is in the heart of man even before he is born.  God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5, NASB). . . . The same was true of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13-15). . . . If then God knows in advance what each child will do and how he will respond when he reaches the age of moral decision, there is every reason to believe that God knows how every child will respond to His call and whether or not he would embrace His offer of redeeming grace.

Therefore, it may be considered a necessary inference (although there may be no explicit teaching in Scripture on this particular point) from God’s foreknowledge of the future response of each child that He also knows what would be his response if he were permitted to live long enough to make that response.

Archer acknowledges that this point of view with regard to infants (and presumably to young children also) does not seem to have scriptural support.  Furthermore, such a point of view suggests that a similar argument could be made with regard to people who have never heard about Jesus Christ (i.e., their salvation would depend upon what their response would have been if they had heard the gospel).  Thus, the salvation of such people would be based upon their hypothetical response to the gospel.  But, if this is true, the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:19-20 andRoman 10:14) would lose virtually all of its significance, and it would be unnecessary for Christians to spend time and money attempting to evangelize non-Christians.

A more widely held belief is that all infants and children who have not reached the age (or condition) of accountability are automatically granted eternal salvation.  There are, however, several reasons to question the validity of this belief.  One reason is that the Bible provides very little, if any, support in this regard.

A passage of scripture that is cited as support for the belief that all infants and young children will be automatically granted eternal salvation is 2 Samuel 12:1-23.  In verse 23 of this passage, King David says regarding the death of the infant conceived in his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”  Many people interpret this to mean that David expected that, after he died, he would join his son in heaven.

However, Norman L. Geisler, Ph.D., states on page 363 of his book entitled Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, “Critics of this interpretation point out that the phrase might mean no more than ‘The dead do not return; we go to be with the dead.’”  Similarly, in the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, a footnote regarding verse 23 says, “Like the child, David will die and join him in the grave. . . .”

Furthermore, no doctrine should be based on only one scripture.  If a doctrine is taught in the Bible, it should be confirmed by other scripture.  There does not seem to be any scripture that confirms that David’s belief was correct.  And, in contrast with many other passages in the Old Testament, there is no indication that what David said was inspired by God.  David’s expectation may have been nothing more than the hopeful thinking of a father grieving over the death of his infant son.

On page 390 of his book, Archer provides another reason to question the validity of the belief that all infants and children who have not reached the age (or condition) of accountability are automatically granted eternal salvation.  Archer states,

This opinion . . . amounts to a rejection of the doctrine of original sin as taught in Romans 5, for it presupposes that we come into the world as sinless and free from guilt as if Adam had never fallen – a clear contradiction of scriptural teaching on this matter.

In this regard, Romans 5:12 says, “[J]ust as through one man’s sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. . . .”  [As we noted above, “death” in this context means a person will be eternally separated from God, if that person does not trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior.]

Geisler says on page 363 of his previously cited book,

[Even if there is an age of accountability], there are at least two other issues that must be settled before one can prove this, namely, that inherited depravity in itself is not enough to send one to hell and that faith is not an absolute essential to salvation.

Then on the next page of his book, Geisler notes,

[I]t can be argued that faith is a normative requirement for salvation but not an absolute one.  That is to say, faith may normally be a condition for salvation; it is the way God requires of all adults.  But there may be no inherent necessity that little children must believe in order to be saved.

In his previously mentioned presentation, MacArthur asserts,

All children who die before they reach the condition of accountability, by which they convincingly understand their sin and corruption and embrace the gospel by faith, are graciously saved eternally by God through the work of Jesus Christ, being elect by sovereign choice, innocent of willful sin, rebellion, and unbelief. . . . So, when an infant dies, he or she is elect to eternal salvation. . . .

Although every normal person has a disposition to sin, that does not mean that they are a sinner even before they commit their first sin.  Therefore, if an infant, a young child, or a mentally deficient person has not committed any sins, they are not a sinner and, therefore, God regards them as righteous.  Furthermore, although the Bible does not provide a clear indication of the eternal destiny of such infants, young children, and the mentally deficient, there is reason to believe they will have eternal salvation, despite having died without having trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Conclusions

Because God is righteous and just, He abhors sin and requires that a penalty be paid for sin.  (Scriptures which teach that God is righteous (or just) include 2 Chronicles 12:6; Ezra 9:15; Nehemiah 9:8, 33; Psalm 7:9; 11:7; 116:5; 119:137; 129:4; 145:17; Isaiah 45:21; Jeremiah 12:1; Lamentations 1:18; Daniel 9:14; John 17:25.)  Since all humans who have a certain level of understanding of right and wrong have sinned, they deserve to be punished, according to the Bible.

This may raise questions, such as the following:  Does anyone who has sinned deserve God’s mercy (i.e., avoid punishment for their sins)?  Is there anyone, other than God, who has the right and is capable to determine the appropriate requirement(s) for a person to receive His mercy?  Is it unfair if God doesn’t give everyone many opportunities to be forgiven of their sins, so they can have eternal salvation?  We believe the Bible indicates that the answer to each of these questions is “no.”   [Note:  The Appendix at the end of this article briefly addresses the question: Why isn’t everyone given similar opportunities to receive eternal salvation?]

Nevertheless, we can have assurance that God will do the right thing with regard to every person’s eternal destiny.  However, what many people believe is “right” and what God believes is “right” with regard to this matter may differ.  It is important to understand the significance of the fact that the eternal destiny of each person is based on God’s plan for salvation, not on a plan that humans developed.  Some people may question if God’s plan is “fair.”  However, not only because God knows everything (i.e., He is omniscient), but also because the essence of His nature is love, His ability to make “right” and “fair” decisions is infinitely superior to that of humans.  [For a discussion of God’s nature and supernatural abilities, click on “Has God’s Nature Changed?” and/or “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?]

In any case, the validity of an idea or principal is not determined by whether or not we understand or accept that idea or principle,.  As human beings, we have only finite understanding and perspective.  There are many things that we don’t know or understand.  So, how likely is it that any person is capable of understanding the mind of God?  Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’” says the Lord.  “’For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”

[To see a couple of our other articles pertaining to eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to be Assured of Eternal Salvation?” and “What Is the Biblical Basis for Believing that Only Christians Will Have Eternal Salvation?”]

Appendix

 Why Isn’t Everyone Given Similar Opportunities to Receive Eternal Salvation?

 Why do some people have many opportunities to hear the gospel message regarding how to be forgiven for all their sins and receive eternal salvation, whereas other people hear the gospel message no more than a few times?  In light of the severe eternal consequences for any person who has not received eternal salvation, why does God not give every person equal – or, at least, similar – opportunities to hear the gospel message?

Many of us who are Christians did not trust in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation until after we had heard the gospel message numerous times.  So, why are people who have heard the gospel message only a few times and failed to accept it not given more opportunities to accept the gospel message?

R.C. Sproul, an American theologian, author, and ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, in his book entitled Now, That’s a Good Question, provides the following perspective that seems applicable to this matter:

I don’t think God owes it to anyone who doesn’t want Christ to give them the desire to want what they need. He doesn’t owe that to anybody. The problem is that if God does it for some, why doesn’t He do it for all? I can only say to you that I have no idea why He doesn’t do it for all. But this I do know and ask you to think about carefully: Just because He does it for some in no way requires that He do it for everybody else –  because grace is never required. God always reserves this prerogative “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.”

Regardless of whether or not we agree with what Sproul has stated, we usually don’t know how many opportunities people have had to accept the gospel message but not done so.  And, we also don’t know how many people would have had more opportunities to accept the gospel message if they had not hardened their heart (i.e., been willing to give further consideration to the gospel message).   At some point, God may decide that giving certain people further opportunities to trust in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation would be futile and, therefore, He does not give them any additional such opportunities.