I recently had a difficult and honest conversation with a person who is skeptical of the value of the spreading of the Gospel message to unreached groups. This person is not a Christian, and her cheif complaint was that it isn’t fair for a hypothetical God to send people to hell who have never heard about how to get to heaven. My inadequate response was to explain that people will stand or fall on judgment day based on their own merit in God’s eyes. By His standard, we are all doomed. Therefore, the “lifeboat” offered in the person of Jesus is certainly an act of mercy on God’s part. The other party in this conversation was not impressed, as I mentioned above. She has a point. At first blush, it seems entirely unfair for people who have never heard the good news of Jesus to go to hell on judgment day. After all, they didn’t even know! How can one be held responsible for information that one never possessed?
Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses the question of how much spiritual truth is residual in the human heart apart from special revelation (the Bible). His inspired teaching on that question is found in Chapter 1, verse 20, “For His [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly percieved ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Chapter 2 builds on this idea: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (verse 14-16). Paul continues the theme of universal responsibility before God, culminating in chapter 3 with the worst news in the world: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (verse 23). The bottom line is that God doesn’t damn people to hell, we damn ourselves. Every person from every religion, philosophy and walk of life is guilty of violating not only God’s standard, but their own conscience. Furthermore, salvation is not a question of moral uprightness before God, but of faith in his promises, specifically the person of Jesus Christ.
But this doesn’t directly address the question of apparent unfairness toward those who have never heard of Jesus. Is it fair for someone who has lived a relatively good life, perhaps in a remote jungle tribe or predominantly Buddhist city in Asia to recieve a sentence of eternal conscious torment in flames, just because they were never told the good news about salvation in Jesus? Two themes may be helpful in understanding this problem in a Biblical light.
The first, as I mentioned above, is that hell is what we deserve. (I need to temper the brashness of that statement by appealing to a more nuanced, three-dimensional, yet thoroughly Biblical version of Hell, which I hope to accurately discuss below). Whether we believe we are good people or not, the fact remains that no amount of moral bootstrapping will justify any of us in the presence of a Holy God. We all find ourselves flawed by the curse of sin and in need of redemption. The fact that God provides redemption at all is a mercy on his part. The fact that not everyone will hear about his mercy does not diminish his goodness. He tasked His church with the burden of bringing the good news to every corner of the globe, AND He promised to provide the resources for the completion of that task (Acts 1:8)! (Which begs the question, “What are we waiting for??”)
The second concept that may help to mitigate the appearance of unfairness on God’s part is with an appeal to Divine Justice. Divine Justice (as opposed to human Justice) necessarily has an element of Divine Love. Love and Justice are not mutually exclusive in the Divine Person (God). We see them overlap to a certain degree in passages foreshadowing Christ’s death on the cross, where we finally see them work in complete harmony. For example, the first passover (Exodus 12) demonstrates justice carried out against Egypt on behalf of the Israelites. A few chapters later (Exodus 21:24) we see the famous injunction, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In the context of 14th Century BC Canaan (or thereabouts), this and other legal stipulations were limiters on punitive action, rather than the draconian impetus for mob vengeance that we percieve from our “advanced” cultural perspective. Whereas other legal codes were (and are) famous for asymmetrical justice (the lopping off of hands as punishment for theft), God, in the Sinaitic law, set the precedent for proportional justice. The punishment was supposed to fit the crime.
Can the scheme of proportional justice be applied to the final state of unbelievers in a Biblically appropriate fashion? Is there room for any punishment besides eternal conscious torment in the Christian concept of hell? I think so. While it is impossible to be dogmatic about the exact conditions of unbelievers in Hell, Jesus made it plain that there are differing levels of punishment (Matt. 11:21-22). This certainly fits in with the idea of proportional justice. Our natural moral faculties would balk at the idea of a Hitler or a Stalin receiving the same punishment in hell as a Dalai Lama or an Albert Swietzer. (I need to qualify that statement by saying that I am not intending to be the judge on any of their final destinations–it was simply rhetorical).
Rather than the idea of a blanket punishment of eternal conscious torment for every person who does not place their faith in Jesus (including those who have never heard), the Bible gives us reason to believe that there are degrees of punishment to be meted out on judgment day, just as there are degrees of reward in heaven. As Abraham asked God in a not-so-rhetorical conversation, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25).
Rather than resting on the Justice of God (as a limiting factor in punishment), Christians should be motivated by the Love and Mercy of God to bring the good news about redemption through Jesus to those who have never heard.