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What happens to people who have never heard about Jesus?

I have found this very basic question perplexing to different pastors, rectors, and members of churches: If there is a monk who has lived in the mountains of Asia, who has lived a good life, and not sinned by our definition, but does not know of or ever heard of Jesus, does he go to heaven or hell? He does not reject Jesus or a single God, but he also has never heard of him.

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marked as duplicate by hammar, Waggers, Marc Gravell Dec 20 '11 at 7:34

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has lived a good life, and not sinned by our definition. Which definition is this? Clearly not a Biblical one... –  Flimzy Dec 24 '11 at 18:47
    
Has not committed sin - original sin not included. –  user1054 Dec 24 '11 at 19:04
    
Even so, every person on earth has sinned, according to the Bible. –  Flimzy Dec 24 '11 at 19:11
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It's called Grace Flimzy, we do not earn heaven or hell. –  user1054 Dec 25 '11 at 5:52
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Grace is what allows us to enter heaven, despite us having earned hell. –  Flimzy Dec 25 '11 at 9:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'm going to try to answer this from a purely Scriptural point of view, rather than a particular doctrinal stance.

The short answer is, according to Scripture, no. But there are a few points to address in the question.

and not sinned by our definition

Everyone on earth has sinned, save Jesus.

Romans 3:23 (KJV)

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

When you examine it, every one of us has broken each and every one of the Ten Commandments, if not in deed, then in heart and in intent. For example, perhaps we've never committed adultery physically, but as Jesus said, if we've looked at someone with lust, we've committed adultery in our hearts.

Matthew 5:28 (KJV)

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

We've all broken the other Commandments in spirit as well, but even if one of us has squeaked away with not committing all of them, it doesn't matter. The Bible tells us that if we've broken even one, we're guilty.

James 2:10 (KJV)

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

So, the theoretical monk is not sinless by the standards laid forth in Scripture.

Romans 1 touches on the subject of whether or not we are held guilty if we've never heard the Gospel message. It lays out a few truths:

  • God reveals Himself to us, and we are without excuse.
  • Our ancestors had access to the truth of God, and chose to turn from them.

Romans 1:18. (KJV) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23. And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Their unbelief and rebellion against God meant that their children, their children's children, and so on were not taught about God. It's not His fault, it's theirs. Because they chose to rebel when they knew the truth, and didn't teach their children, they doomed their children to not knowing the truth of God. This is one reason that Proverbs 22:6 is important. (Again, KJV)

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

In Romans 2 (KJV), we read:

11. For there is no respect of persons with God. 12. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; 13. (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15. Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

This theoretical monk would qualify, not knowing about the Hebrew God, or Jesus as one who "sinned without the Law", and Scripture here tells us that "he shall perish without law". He will perish because he has sinned, and ignored the conscience that God has placed in each and every one of us.

Finally, it should be noted that even in civil, earthly law, ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law.

If I were to carry a concealed weapon in a state that doesn't allow concealed carry, for example, and I was arrested, would I be able to avoid the consequences by telling the Judge "I didn't know"? No. I'd be punished according to the law, whether I intentionally broke the law or not.

As we saw in Romans 2 (quoted above), the Bible tells us that God will not accept ignorance as an excuse. He will perish without the Law, as God's word states, because he has sinned and broken the law, not because he has rejected Jesus. Accepting or rejecting Jesus is the only way to be saved. He pays the penalty for our guilt. However, the reason we are guilty is not because we didn't accept Him, it's because we chose to sin.

We can try to blame God all we want, and we can even try to blame the ancestors, but the simple fact remains that the monk will be condemned because of his own sin.

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You have "The short answer is, according to Scripture, yes." -- but the rest of your post seems to support the answer "no". –  Muke Tever Dec 20 '11 at 14:05
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Boy, do I feel dumb. Thanks, @Muke Tever, for pointing that out so I could change it.! –  David Stratton Dec 21 '11 at 2:40

and not sinned by our definition

You won't find such a monk. Check that. You might find someone who passes a human definition... but our definition doesn't matter. Only God's definition of sin matters, and you won't find a monk who hasn't sinned according to God's definition. Everyone has sinned when compared to God's standard.

Setting aside original sin for a moment, even if the monk did everything else right, failing to acknowledge and praise God is enough. Romans 1:19-20 make this clear.

I don't want to speak for God here. He is sovereign and can save whoever he chooses. For example, in this case there is the chance that God may choose to treat the monk as he would a child that is innocent through virtue of not yet knowing right from wrong. I wouldn't expect it, but I am not God. His grace and mercy and are amazing, and so an outright rejection is too much.

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Didn't I say that? I need to learn to keep it short! ;-) Edit.. Edit... –  David Stratton Dec 20 '11 at 3:05
    
@David - you motivated me to add on a bit more. I think I cover some new ground now in the final paragraph. –  Joel Coehoorn Dec 20 '11 at 3:22
    
You don't have to speak for God or even speculate. He speaks quite plainly for himself. Take Nineva for example. Although they did not know right from wrong and it was God's will to save them he could not just break his own rules and pardon them as innocent. He sent them a messenger to inform them of their guilt and offer them the chance to believe and repent. –  Caleb Dec 20 '11 at 7:54

From a strictly scriptural perspective, one must remember Luke 12:47-8.

And that servant who knew his master's will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

From a purely scriptural perspective, this is fairly clear: those who fall are culpable no matter what.

From a more nuanced perspective, the law of God is written on our hearts, which means that it is possible to follow this law without ever learning the name of Jesus. It may be difficult, but the grace of God knows no bounds.

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From a strictly Scriptural perspective you err. The Bible makes it clear that it is not possible for anyone to keep God's commandments perfectly. "All have sinned" and "are without excuse". This isn't a matter of limiting God's grace it is a matter of Him being consistent with his own word. Although men know enough about the law by nature to follow it if it was in their natures, we also know that it is impossible for us by nature (even if we do know it plainly) to follow it to perfection. Not difficult, impossible. –  Caleb Dec 20 '11 at 7:45
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@Caleb The part from a scriptural perspective is 100% accurate, because it is all scripture. The nuanced part is, well, nuanced. I omitted a discussion of the Catholic doctrine of baptism of desire and the doctrine of baptism of blood. They seemed to be a bit much for the discussion at hand. –  cwallenpoole Dec 20 '11 at 15:01
    
It is of course Scripture, the question at hand is it relevant scripture and is it properly interpreted. Frankly I don't think that verse applies very well to this situation. It is given in the contexts of faithful vs. unfaithful servants, not servants vs. non-servants. I would apply that verse to people who God has genuinely redeemed but through whatever circumstance where exposed to bad teaching and perhaps the way they lived their live and ministered was not what it could have been had they been properly trained in God's word (the will of the master). –  Caleb Dec 20 '11 at 19:35
    
As for the "nuance" section, I still assert that "knowing" the law does not equate to "possible to follow". Paul goes to great lengths in the following chapters of Romans to demonstrate how the law whether spelled out through Moses or understood through creation and our conscience does nothing but condemn us because we are incapable of following it. –  Caleb Dec 20 '11 at 19:37
    
Am I misreading you, or do you mean culpable rather than capable? –  TRiG Feb 25 '12 at 23:35