How can a loving God let anyone go to hell if they have never heard of Christ and are therefore incapable of believing in Him? Does it seem fair for God to bar people from heaven if they are living up to the light they have?
This is one of those emotionally charged questions that often receives either an equally emotional response, or a response where one appeals to reason in the attempt to make their way through the knotty problems that such a question seems to create.
I have no problem with either emotions or the intellect; God made us with both. As I see it, the problem is with emotionalism and intellectualism; that is, where the source for solving Bible-based questions is found in the emotions or the intellect. We should not despise either, but neither should we rely on either for the discovery of Bible answers to Bible questions.
Proverbs is pretty clear:
We are not to trust in our hearts (emotions), nor are we to lean on our own understanding (our thought processes). We should be moved, blessed and encouraged emotionally by what we read in God's Word, but not to the point of allowing our emotions to determine our interpretation of that same Word. Just so, we should be intellectually challenged by what we read in the Scriptures, but we should also keep our thoughts and conclusions subject to what the Bible clearly teaches. Never subject Scripture to your logic or to your emotions; always let Scripture have authority over any conclusions based upon emotional or intellectual considerations only.
God's Word is not silent on this question. In fact, it is very revealing. The test for each of us, therefore, will be: Will I submit to what the Bible clearly reveals? If what I read in Scripture repulses me emotionally or is intellectually repugnant, will I bow before "Thus says the Lord" or insist on my conclusions based on my own emotional or intellectual bent?
Does the Bible actually teach that salvation is available for all people?
First, let's remind ourselves of certain Bible facts: all people are lost and in need of saving; no one is capable of saving himself; and God has provided the Savior that all people everywhere need. Consider the following verses that show what God has already done to make salvation available to all:
Romans 1:18–20: First, He has revealed Himself in those who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." This is an inborn God-awareness. He has also revealed Himself to them through creation. This is a God-awareness through nature. Neither of these are sufficient to bring salvation to anyone, but they are sufficient to cause one to seek after the God of creation.
John 3:16–17: God loved the world, which includes all men everywhere. God gave His only begotten Son to be the Savior of the world and when He came to earth He provided salvation for all through His death and resurrection (compare Luke 2:11 and 19:10).
Hebrews 2:9: Jesus "tasted death for every man" — not just the civilized or the elect.
1 John 2:2: Christ was the "propitiation (satisfactory payment) not for our sins only but also for the whole world" — the so-called pagan included.
Titus 2:11: God's grace "that brings salvation has appeared to all men" — all men would certainly include those who have never heard.
What is God doing now to make salvation available to all?
Consider the following verses that show what God continues to do:
John 1:9: Jesus is "the true Light which gives light to every man who comes into the world." Every man, then, is born with Divine light from God, a God-awareness. People are not born with a bent toward atheism, but toward God. No one comes into this world without this initial light from God. We'll see in a moment what may happen to that light.
John 16:7–11: Jesus promised that once He left to return to the Father in heaven He would send the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit came the promise was that He would "convict" (persuade) the world of the sin of unbelief, of its need for righteousness, and of coming judgment. Jesus did go back to heaven and He did send the Holy Spirit who is doing His convicting work now.
John 12:32: Jesus promised that when He was "lifted up from the earth" He would "draw all peoples" to Himself — "all" is all. He is doing it now. He draws, but not all respond to His drawing. Note: Some have changed the impact of this statement of Christ's by making "all" mean all kinds of people — various races, the poor, the rich, the educated, the ignorant, etc. But the actual statement from John points to the all-inclusive drawing of all men by the Savior.
Jeremiah 29:13: "And you will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart." This verse is written to Israel when captive in Babylon, a heathen country. It is there when God guarantees that those who seek Him will find Him.
Isaiah 55:1, 6–9: "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters… Seek the Lord while He may be found…For He will abundantly pardon."
Acts 17:16–34: Paul was in Athens and he saw that "the city was given over to idols." He witnessed to the worldly philosophers and heathen on Mars Hill and told them that God has made "from one blood every nation of men…that they should seek the Lord…and find Him." He then proceeded to tell them of Christ and some of them believed.
Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46–49; Acts 1:8: All of these verses record The Great Commission where Christ commanded His disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. They did it and all the world heard the gospel in the first century (Colossians 1:5–6, 23). Would Jesus Christ command us to preach the gospel to the world if these people were already saved through their own pagan beliefs? Hardly.
Why have some not heard the gospel?
Salvation is available for all men, but some have never heard the message. Why is that?
Romans 1 contains the answer: They suppressed (held down) the Truth in their unrighteousness (v. 18).
Throughout these few verses we can clearly see the cause and effect principle at work — what one sows is what he will reap. When a person turns from whatever spiritual light they may have, the result is spiritual darkness of one degree or another.
God's Remedy: His Way of Salvation
Let's see what God's Word reveals concerning the requirement for obtaining salvation or eternal life.
God's Method to Reach the Unreached
God always has a plan to reach the lost. His plan for getting the gospel to those who have not heard the salvation message is utterly simple, practical, and very effective.
God sends witnessing believers to seeking unbelievers, as Philip was sent to the Ethiopian man on his way back to Africa (Acts 8:26–39). At other times God sends seeking unbelievers to witnessing Christians, as God told Cornelius to send for Peter (Acts 10:1–11:18).
If you have never trusted in Christ to save you, will you do it now? If you have trusted in Him, will you be one of those "witnessing Christians" whom God is able to send to the lost?