If you don’t hear the Gospel you don’t go to Hell?

In response to my article on Rob Bell and his unbiblical beliefs about hell, a reader sent us the following email:

“I could not help but see your comments about Rob Bell.  I have not read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins.  I was just wondering.  I grew up in Nepal just above India where most of the people are Hindu.  Having spent much time with these people and witnessing their loving caring nature and their belief in God.  I find it very difficult to believe that they are going to hell.  It does not make sense.  One could quote the Bible literally and say they are going to hell but of course that can’t be the case because they may have never even had a chance to read the gospels.”

Since this is a person who reads our website, I assume (and this could definitely be a bad assumption) this person is a Christian.  If so, he clearly has an unbiblical view of Scripture.    However, I also assume (again, perhaps wrongly) that other Christians may have this same unbiblical understanding of hell.  Therefore, I thought it would be worth showing, again, what the Bible teaches about hell.

Before doing that, I thought it would be interesting to point out that the Catholic church essentially teaches this same false belief.  Paragraph 847 of the “infallible” Catholic catechism says, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.”  Sounds like the email above, no?

Essentially, both our friend and the Catholic church are saying that if one believes in God, seeks God, obeys his conscience, and tries to do God’s will, then that person will be saved if he does not hear the gospel.  If that is your view, then the absolute best thing you can do is to NEVER preach the gospel to such a person.  Why risk that person rejecting the gospel if it’s a fact that, apart from hearing the gospel, that person is going to heaven?  It would be cruel to share the gospel with such a person and risk his salvation!  Yet, Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), which implies preaching the gospel to all peoples.  Who is right?

If we examine our friend’s view and the Catholic church’s view, there are basically three things they are assuming about people whom God will not send to hell:  1) they believe in God; 2) they are basically good (e.g., loving, caring, seek God with a sincere heart, try to do God’s will by following their conscience); and 3) they have not heard the gospel.  Let’s look at what Scripture says about each one of these.

First is the assumption that people who believe in God will go to heaven.  Does the Bible teach that if a person believes in God he will be saved?  Scripture does indeed say that a person who comes to God must believe that He is, but that’s not all it says.  Hebrews 11:6 says, “And 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 seek Him.”  The key point here is that a person must have faith, which, you’ll recall, is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8); that is, those who will have eternal life must have faith, and God is the one who gives faith to those He chooses.  Thus, mere belief in God is not sufficient for salvation.

Furthermore, James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one.  You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”  Demons believe in God, but they will not experience salvation; rather, they will be thrown into the lake of fire.  So, we see that the Bible teaches that belief in God, by itself, does not save a person.

Second is the rather common, secular, assumption that people are basically good.  Since that’s the case, and since God is a God of love, then of course He will not send good people to hell.  The fundamental problem with this view is that Scripture clearly teaches that people are not good.  Because of Adam’s Fall, we are all born sinners (Romans 5:12).  Because we are all born sinners, we all sin; that’s what sinners do.  We like to compare ourselves to other people so we appear “good”, and surely some people are not as bad as they could be.  But good in the Biblical sense means perfect, holy, without sin.

We are not without sin.  Here is how Scripture describes all of humanity apart from faith in Christ:

Romans 1:  “18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”  Our email friend is right, people know God, but they do not honor Him as God or give Him the thanks He alone is due.  Furthermore, men always seek to worship something, but they exchange the glory of God for a god of their own making.  This is especially evident in Hinduism.

Someone may say, “Yes, but Romans 2 says that those who persevere in doing good will have eternal life (vs. 7, 10).”  True, but keep reading.

Romans 3 says,

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written,

“There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes

Scripture makes clear that we are ALL under sin, there is NONE righteous, no NOT ONE.  In and of ourselves, apart from faith in Christ, we are unrighteous, we are not good, and we do not seek God.  This could not be more clear:  Scripture says people are NOT basically good.

Finally, what about those who have never heard the gospel?  Don’t they get to go to heaven?  Isn’t that a valid “excuse”?

In a word, no.  Again, Romans 1:20:  “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”  The teaching of Scripture is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  They know God exists by His creation, but do not worship Him as God, so all are without excuse.  Thus, the clear teaching of Scripture is that we all deserve hell because we are all sinners.  Whether or not we hear the gospel has nothing to do with our guilt before God; we are ALL guilty.  When God saves someone, He is like a governor pardoning the guilty on death row, if you will.  The person is guilty and does not deserve pardon, but is released solely at the decision of the governor.

Moreover, salvation is determined by God.  Therefore, the argument that those who do not hear the gospel should be saved is irrelevant.  God chooses who is saved and who is not saved.  To the extent there is even one person among a long lost tribe who has never heard the gospel, God will ensure this person hears the gospel and is saved.  Nothing is too difficult, and nothing is impossible for God.

This leads some to say that if I’m born a sinner because of what Adam did, and God is the one who determines whether or not I am saved, then God is not fair.  Scripture addresses this concern, too.

Romans 9 says, “10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”  14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!  15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.  17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.”  18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.  19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault?  For who resists His will?”  20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?  The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?  21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?  22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?  23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.”

God desires to demonstrate to His creation all of His attributes.  This includes not only grace, mercy and love, but also justice and wrath.  It is not up to the creature to question the motives of the Creator, who is forever blessed.  Besides, if you really want fairness, then true fairness would be for God to send us all to hell.  That He shows mercy on some is all of grace.

Remember, although God showed us mercy, it was not without a cost.  God still punished our sin, because He is a just God.  Instead of believers being justly punished, the wrath of God that we deserved was poured out on Jesus on the cross.  And it is by Christ’s life of obedience that we are made righteous.  This makes God both just and the justifier, as Romans 3 says, “24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Like Job and his friends who darken counsel without knowledge, Scripture renders silent both our email friend and the Catholic church.