What Will Happen to People Who Die and Never Hear About Jesus?

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von Buseck8 Minutes

The Bible contains certain teachings that are difficult for us to understand, yet they are mentioned so often in both the Old and the New Testaments that anyone who believes these writings to be God’s word cannot dismiss them. Grappling with these “hard sayings” is where faith truly enters the picture.

To begin to understand these things, one must start from the Scriptural premise that first, the God of the Bible is a loving and personal God; and second, He is Almighty. From the first premise, we can take comfort in knowing that whatever God does, it comes from a heart of love. From the second premise, we can understand that God is able to protect His revelation to us, so we can know that the Bible is true.

From there we can approach the challenging portions of Scripture with the assurance that they are motivated from a loving and all-powerful Heavenly Father.

So, to answer the question, “What will happen to people who die and never hear about Jesus?” we must honestly say that the Bible doesn’t spell it out. Each person must look at the doctrines of Scripture and draw their own conclusions.

Life After Death?

The New Testament does give us great hope concerning those who die after placing their trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. It also speaks of eternal separation from God for those who do you place their faith in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. This is what we do know about life after death.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. (John 11:25, ESV)

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, NLT)

…each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment… (Hebrews 9:27, ESV)

To Hear or Not to Hear

In the end, it all comes down to accountability. In the Old Testament, the righteous believers looked forward to the promised messiah. Because Jesus had yet to die for the sins of mankind, the Bible tells us that these people were gathered in a place called “paradise,” or “the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:19-31). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus teaches that there was a chasm between the righteous and the wicked.

Many theologians believe that after the death of Jesus on the cross, He descended to “paradise” and preached to the righteous dead, giving them the opportunity to place their faith in Him as the Messiah. Quoting the psalmist, the Apostle Paul tells us what happened to Jesus after his death on the cross:

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? (Ephesians 4:8-9, ESV)

Many theologians believe this to be confirmation that Jesus descended into this “holding place” and preached to the righteous dead, thus allowing them the opportunity to place their trust in Him. In the same way, some believe that perhaps He will do the same for those people who die never having a chance to hear the gospel message here on earth.

We just don’t know.  The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly. When Scripture is unclear on a subject, we must trust in the promise that the God of the Bible is a loving Heavenly Father.

Walking in Faith

Despite the assurances that God is loving, personal, and all-powerful, there are still aspects of certain Bible doctrines that are simply difficult to comprehend. During His time on earth, Jesus told parables – simple stories about everyday life to help people understand spiritual truths. So, to help people who are wrestling with their faith, I often tell a modern parable about my favorite pet, Shadow.

Years ago, my family lived on a busy and dangerous street. Our beloved dog, Shadow, lived up to his name in that he would follow me around much of the day. He was an obedient dog, so I felt safe having him near me when I worked on our front yard, though I made him stay in the garage with the door open.

In obedience to my instructions, he would lie at the doorway of the garage with his front paws just an inch from the concrete of our driveway. When I was done working in the yard, Shadow would follow me back into the house.

Everything was fine with this arrangement until one day something unexpected happened. A rabbit suddenly darted out from between our house and the neighbor’s and ran across the busy street. Instinct took over and Shadow, a golden retriever, immediately gave chase.

I caught this scene out of the corner of my eye and quickly shouted, “Shadow! No, no, no.” Mercifully, Shadow crouched down at the sound of my voice and stopped just before running out into the street. His love and trust of his “father” outweighed his instinct to chase the rabbit.

From his perspective, chasing the rabbit would be both fun and fulfilling – especially if he caught it. From my perspective as his “father,” I knew that chasing the rabbit into the busy street could be dangerous, if not deadly.

This scenario is the same for many who don’t understand that the principles and restrictions of Scripture are there for our protection, not to hinder our fun or fulfillment.

Our heavenly Father knows that to seek self-fulfillment without restraint can eventually lead us into dangerous and even deadly places in life. His desire is only for our good – and our ultimate fulfillment in a relationship with Him. The guidelines of Scripture reflect this love and care, which should give us great comfort in navigating this world.