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Do People Who Haven’t Heard of Jesus Go to Hell?

August 13th, 2008 · No Comments

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart …” (Jeremiah 1:5)

Purpose Weekly, August 5, 2008

When the Questions are Too Big

Vol. 2, Issue 28

I received a response to last week’s Purpose Weekly, “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” Last week’s letter was sent out at the end of the week before last and this week’s is being sent out at the beginning of this week, so technically it’s not last week’s letter, but I’m late again and you get the point.

Anyway.

Christine wrote to me (her name’s not really Christine; I changed it to protect her anonymity and told you I changed it so you wouldn’t have to guess at which “Christine” I was talking about.) I’ve corresponded with “Christine” before, from everything I’ve read, she’s a thoughtful, serious, honest believer. Her response to last week’s letter is a thoughtful request for an honest answer to a pretty heavy question.

*****

Hi,

I do have a question – but perhaps the answer wasn’t received yet due to the fact this is a series. Even though I’ve read this issue through twice – I’m not seeing your actual answer – how can those who were alive before Christ came to earth be saved? Or won’t they be saved?

I believe I know the answer to that and other related questions, but I’m interested in your answer. This is an important issue for me because of my oldest daughter. Please let me give you a little background about her because it’s quite relevant to this discussion as she has asked that question – and related – many, many times.

From almost the moment my daughter Maegan (not really her name either) was born – she was very sensitive to the spirit world. I won’t go into detail in this email — but suffice it to say she saw demons. I know she did not only because when she got older she told me, but because when she’d be looking at these things that I couldn’t see, I felt their presence in my spirit.

She became so devoted to Christ that at the age of 11 she had already read her Bible through and through numerous times and was witnessing to Mormons her age on-line. Yet – during her adolescence – she began to have anxiety and compulsive thoughts that she said she could not control. They haunted her and kept her up nights.  The more she read her Bible – the worse the thoughts became. Now Maegan is such a tender hearted person, she became a vegetarian because she didn’t want animals to suffer just so she could eat them (she will eat meat if she knows the farmer and knows he doesn’t mistreat his animals and kills them humanely).

Her thoughts became worse and worse and so did her anxiety. We took her to a Christian counselor – several. One particularly horrible evening for her she cried out to me about these thoughts she had. I had always told her — search the Bible and pray. Her answer to me one day as she literally cried out in anguish, “I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed every day, through the night day after day for so long Mommy! Why does He let me suffer so?” Then she practically screamed, “I think God is VERY irresponsible!” And burst into heart wrenching tears. Her torture just broke my heart! But we got her on some medications according to her doctor’s orders (a Christian woman we loved) and things seemed to get better.

Eventually she confessed, when she didn’t read her Bible – the thoughts were better. This related to church as well – so we didn’t force her to go. Soon – naturally – she stopped reading her Bible altogether and only went to church because she wanted to be with the family. Sometimes she’d have to leave before the service was over.

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was at the age of 17, she was at a party – someone slipped her something in her drink and she was brutally raped.  He was an exchange student – and just fled back home to Ireland.

That was the end. She rejected God – and for quite awhile – her obsessive compulsive problems stopped. Her anxiety was manageable and she didn’t have to take medication. She’s a voracious reader – and because of school and eventually college – she adopted the attitude that God probably doesn’t exist due to input from her professors and books on religion and philosophy she devoured.

One doesn’t need a psychology degree to figure out why this occurred.  She cried out to the Lord for a very, very long time.  God never answered her – helped her, stopped her pain.  In her mind — either God doesn’t love her – God doesn’t care she suffered, or the most acceptable answer for her – God doesn’t really exist.  So now – at the age of 25 – the anxiety has come back of course – and other manifestations of the things that plagued her – but she still is steadfastly convinced that God doesn’t exist (on the surface).  She has frequently asked, “If He does exist, why does He allow children to suffer unspeakable things?  They are innocent.”

I’ve answered her with – this world is sinful – men are born to sin and death – and their children suffer for that.  But her understanding is – God is all powerful – He can stop it IF He wanted to stop it. That is IF He existed.

She has also asked numerous times something like — if they don’t know Jesus Christ – if they’ve never known Jesus Christ because they are a small tribe deep in the Amazon – will they go to hell? I’m not being accusatory – but your “stars” answer didn’t work. The reason is (for example) – what about those children born who are vegetables? How can they see the stars or even the world around them – if they are deaf, blind and severely brain damaged and live through adulthood that way? What about children held captive in Cambodia in cages – literally – used for prostitution at horrifically young ages – who never SEE the outside world – and who die at the age of 20 because they were beaten to death by their captor. Will they go to hell? I can probably bet that there isn’t a question a “doubter” has asked that I haven’t heard come from my daughter’s lips because I know she longs to come back to the faith of her father and mother (Praise God she says she sees us as compassionate and good examples) – but she cannot wrap her mind around the “fact” that God is “mean.” OR – worse – God simply doesn’t exist.

Because she is SO kind hearted – she sees God through her own eyes as a heartless being — she cannot accept any God who would stand by and watch the innocent suffer.

All through her childhood – she loved God, obeyed me and her father (of my three children she was the most obedient consistently) – she read her Bible, went to church, she was kind to people and animals. She witnessed to others around her and on-line. Yet God deserted her – to her mind. I always tried to tell her God was testing her to make her strong so she could use her experiences to minister to others. Which was actually my own experience. But her pain became too great and she gave up.

I know the answer to the question about those who were living prior to the Pentecost/Christ coming to earth. And regardless of whether or not I know the answer – I trust the Lord implicitly. He is God, I am not – He is just and He is merciful. It is not my job to determine what is just or not, eternally. I only know I breathe to tell others about Him and to be used by Him to bring about His kingdom here on earth.  It is why we all are given the breath of life.

So while your answer is an excellent one – it truly does not address the actual question comprehensively. Or did I miss something? What about those who couldn’t know of Jesus Christ except through prophecy? If the NT tells us you can’t get to heaven without KNOWING Jesus Christ – the New Testament scriptures don’t say God, they say Jesus Christ – how can those people we have read about in the OT get to heaven? Looking at the stars is a good answer – but it doesn’t cover those who can’t see them – so to speak.

Food for thought – a challenge if you will – not a criticism in any way. Just adding (I hope in a helpful way through Christ Jesus) to the discussion because I am always searching for new ways to answer my daughter.

I enjoy your newsletters.

God bless you.

*****

Wow.

Here’s my response:

Hi Christine,

Thanks for the thoughtful letter. You’ve got a few tough questions in there. ‘Why does God allow the suffering of innocents?’ and ‘Why does God not answer my prayers?” But the question you want me to answer is, “If the Bible says we can only be saved by knowing Christ, how about all those people who were born before Christ died on the cross and all those who, through no fault of their own, never heard of Christ? Are they all damned to hell?”

Maybe by answering this question we’ll shed a little light on the other two. Here goes:

We learned in Sunday school that only believing in Jesus could save us from certain spiritual death. If we’re only saved through accepting Jesus, what about people who, through no fault of their own, never heard about Jesus? Are they destined for hell?

This may be one of those theological questions that men will struggle with forever … well, almost forever. The problem with a question like this isn’t that there’s no right answer. There is a right answer. That we’re not privy to it is something that we have difficulty accepting as the answer.

We’re built to seek answers to our questions. We can’t stand not knowing. At the same time we’re in a position that as created beings, there are things our Creator knows that we’ll never know. Add to that that as a race we’re in a fallen state; we’re broken and we haven’t been fixed yet. In the state we’re in there’s a lot we don’t know and have no capacity for understanding even if it were shown to us. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12) Until we’re fixed we won’t have an answer to a lot of our questions. But we’ll keep trying.

For those who don’t think that’s a good enough answer, there’s always dogma. Dogma is a belief, or a set of beliefs, that one holds to be true – considers as fact. Dogma is a good thing when the beliefs that one holds to be true actually are. Dogma gets screwed up when people suppose something they have no way of knowing for sure and call it fact. That’s called being “dogmatic.”

Those are the folks you need to watch. I’m distrustful of the preacher or teacher who has all the answers to all the questions … immediately.

So how do we scratch this itch of needing to know? We can use what we’ve got to know what we can. God, in His mercy, has given us some help with that. The Bible is our default for understanding God and ourselves and the relationship as it should be.

According to the Bible there were a lot of folks who were born and died before Jesus ever came on the scene in Galilee who are counted among the “saved.” Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. David was a man after God’s own heart; where do you think he is right now? How about the saints who rose from their tombs after Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:53)? Did they all accept Jesus as their Messiah and Savior in the way that we understand it before they died? Unlikely.

In Matthew 22 Jesus talks about the resurrection of the dead, not those who are going to die after, but of those who died before His crucifixion and resurrection. He said, “But about the resurrection of the dead-have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:31-32)

How about that “great cloud of witnesses” Hebrews 12:1 tells us surround us and encourages us in our daily struggle against sin? The ‘witnesses’ all lived and died before Jesus was ever born in Bethlehem. How is it they’re not burning in hell by not accepting Jesus as their Savior in the way we understand it?

The Bible is pretty clear about saints that lived and died before Jesus ever came to earth to provide redemption to fallen man. And it’s pretty clear that the spirits of those saints live today even though their bodies died long ago and that they will be a part of that last resurrection when Christ claims his kingdom and creation, you and me included, is finally restored.

God is not bound by time and space. We are. Because we are, our brains can’t get around the fact that Jesus provided redemption to people who lived and died before Jesus came to earth to enact the redemption he provided them. But He did; the Bible attests to it and that “cloud of witnesses” will attest to it when you finally meet them face to face. I hope that takes care of the question about those who lived before Jesus died on the cross.

What about those who never had the privilege of hearing or reading from God’s Word? How are they to know? As we discussed in last week’s letter, Gods message is written all over creation and it’s written in men’s hearts. Inside, we know right from wrong. Inside we know of a Creator. God’s Holy Spirit reveals this to us, all of us, according to our ability and capacity to receive it.

Which brings up another issue. What about those who through an incident of birth or environment lack any reasonable capacity or opportunity to ‘see’ God in nature or contemplate Him in their hearts? Are they going to Hell because they don’t ‘see’ and accept Jesus?

Remember this. We’re not the adversary. That’s the role of Satan and those like him who followed him in a rebellion that took place before we existed. We are God’s personal creation, we were made in His image to love and be loved by Him. The adversary twisted that creation early on, but he’s the object of God’s wrath, not us. Each of us, equal to our ability to comprehend God’s love, is free to accept it or reject it. But each of will only be judged according to that ability (I Peter 1:17).

A baby is born with a birth defect that prevents her from ever comprehending the world around her; is she going to hell for not accepting Jesus? A child is imprisoned in a cage and raised to be a prostitute; that’s all she knows in her short life before dying of disease before she’s twenty. Is she going to hell because nobody told her about Jesus? Terrible things happen in this fallen world, but God’s wrath is not directed at those innocents to whom it happens; it rests on the one who first drew men into this fallen state.

God’s exists beyond time and space. We don’t. His perspective is wider than ours. He looks at the life we’re going to live after He has restored creation as well as the life we’re living now. If God has a purpose for you and me, He’s got a purpose for that baby and that child who, in our eyes, never had a chance. That we can’t see it, doesn’t affect God’s purpose at all.

I’ve talked about the idea of the tapestry before. As we’re being woven into this great eternal tapestry of God’s purpose, all we can see is the tangle of threads in the back; and a pitifully small portion of that. There will come a day when we’ll be able to see the front, and the whole picture. Until then, there’s faith. Faith that God meant it when He said He loved us, even though in our temporal short-sightedness, we can’t see evidence of it. The deposit of that faith was when He sent His Son to become one of us, suffer as we suffer, and eventually suffer for us all so that the price of sin that rested on our shoulders would rest on His. His love is serious enough to do that. It’s serious enough to believe that He’s got you and me and His other children in the palm of His hand, even when all we can see is the storm.

God makes the same promise to each of us that He made to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart …” (Jeremiah 1:5)

When the questions are too big and the answers are too small, hold on to that promise.

In Him,

Steve Spillman

Tags: God's purpose · Heaven · Hell · love · purpose · Stars · suffering · Tapestry

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