guest post by: stephen cavness
recently i was contacted by a college student who wanted some input on this exchange:
"my family got into a discussion[argument?] about people who never hear about jesus. my cousin says people who don't hear the gospel will go to hell, but my aunt said that if god sent people to hell who never even had a bible or heard of jesus, then that would be cruel & evil. what do you think happens to people who never hear about jesus?"
i don't know if anyone in this discussion has been privy to the recent "is hell real?" debate or not,but i am glad that she is thinking through this and not just blindly taking sides. the issue for her was that the choice presented was "either god is loving and people who never hear the gospel go to heaven anyway-*or* he is cruel and sends them to hell even though they didn't get a fair chance".
i wrote a pretty lengthy response(much longer than what is below), starting with re framing the question. rather than "is god loving or cruel" the actual question seeking an answer is "why is it that anyone goes to hell?",with the answer being..."because we are all sinners who deserve nothing but hell from a holy and just god".
i included a lot of references from scripture regarding god's holiness and justice and our own state apart from christ, and the problem that poses for the sinner who will be judged by a holy and just god. then i drew aline from there to christ as the only salvation from getting what we all deserve.
i won't post my entire response,but here is an excerpt. maybe it will help you think through the topic so that you can be prepared if you find yourself on the receiving end of a similar question- from a family member,co-worker,or even in a sunday school class/ small group.
[scriptures referenced prior to this point - romans ch. 1, 3, 5, & 6; ephesians 2; john 3]
suppose that you are standing in line at your local bank and in walks a man who declares that he would like to pay off your debt if you meet with him and fully disclose to him your debt and your responsibility to pay for it, and then trust his word that he will pay your debt. shocked, you go to him,admit that you have tremendous debt that is rightfully yours (student loans, car, etc.- all debt that is rightfully yours). he asks the bank president how much the total of your debt is, and then gives him a check for that exact amount.
you would be ecstatic, no? and then this man tells you to go and start telling people about him and promises to do the same for them, if they will follow the same steps you did.
now, imagine someone hearing this story who responds by saying "well he is the most cruel and evil man i have ever heard of... that's not fair at all...what about the people who weren't there- they have debt too??!??!"
you see the issue? this person has ignored the fact that everyone's debt is deserved by them, and they *SHOULD* pay for their own debt. this man's act was tremendously gracious and loving. he is not mean or cruel at all! this person has allowed their sense of justice to be skewed. they are wanting to escape what they *do* deserve (paying off their own debt) and are demanding what they do *not* deserve (someone else paying the debt for them).
this man's act of kindness does not obligate him to extend it to everyone. yet he continues to extend his graciousness and goodness by offering to do the same for anyone who comes to him and follows the procedure. no one who has their debt paid by him deserves it, but he will do it for every single one who does come.
here is the parallel...
all of us have a sin debt that we deserve to pay off on our own. it is our debt that we have because we are born into this world rebellious sinners. no one, apart from the new birth, wants to be under god's rule or in his kingdom. we do nothing but sin in our "cosmic treason" against god- constantly telling him in word or deed/attitude "you are NOT my boss!!!" when in fact, he is- he created us and has complete authority over us.
every single person who is in hell deserves to be there.nor is there anyone there who wanted be saved, but wasn't. they are paying the debt that justice demands that they pay. it isn't unfair or unjust. people who heard of jesus and had bibles and people who never heard or had bibles... they are all sinners who deserve an eternal and literal hell.
but here is the kicker...i deserve hell too...and so do you. in fact, every person (except for jesus) who has ever walked this earth has deserved hell. the difference between the christian and the unbeliever (whether they ever heard of jesus or not) is that the christian's debt has already been paid. so when the christian goes to heaven, it is not because god ignores or forgets about the debt that they avoid hell. it is because he knows that their debt has already been paid by a substitute (jesus)and he does not demand payment again for a debt that has already been paid. but having that debt paid wasnot deserved by anyone. god does not owe anyone grace.
so whenever anyone goes to hell...it is not simply because "they didnt have a bible or hear about jesus" . it is because justice and holiness demand that their sin debt be paid - its what they deserve. when the christian gets heaven, its only because they have a blood stained receipt marked "paid in full" signed by the son of god- and none of us deserve that, nor does god owe it to anyone. it is by grace we are saved- and no one deserves grace.
so this reminds us of two things:
1.) the great love and mercy of god who promises to save everyone who will repent of their sin and believe in jesus christ alone for the forgiveness of their sinfulness and their right standing before god. he does not have to do this. he is not obligated to do this. he is not unfair or "mean" to not save everyone. on the contrary, he is infinitely kind, gracious, and loving to say to everyone from every nation tongue and tribe, "if you will repent and believe- i will NOT give you what you deserve!"
2.) it reminds us the importance and urgency of missions and evangelism. the offer of the gospel is to all people without regard to age, ethnicity, location, reachability. "whoever will call on the name of the lord will be saved!" but as paul as reminds us that they will only have faith if they hear the word of god, but they wont hear unless people "go and tell". (romans10)
may god use the terror filled reality of hell and the beauty and joy of the gospel of grace to move us to always be telling people deserving to pay for their sins that there is indeed one who will pay their debt for them... even though he doesn't have to and they don't deserve it.
that isn't unfair or wicked- it is beautiful.