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The Unreached: Can God justly punish those who have never heard?15 min read

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Judgment3One of the moral challenges to the Christian viewpoint entails the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, a.k.a ‘the unreached,’ and whether or not they are damned. Naturally, there are ‘biblical’ Christians on both sides of this non-essential, but important doctrine – some think that the Unreached will somehow be saved, while the majority view is that without Christ, they are lost. Isn’t it unfair that some people have had a chance to hear the gospel, and others have not?

How we answer this question flows from our view of God, our view of what is loving AND just, and our soteriology.

But for the sake of argument, if you believe that those who have never heard quite probably are going to face judgement and eternal punishment for their sins, how can you call God just? Isn’t it unfair that some people have had a chance to hear the gospel, and others have not? The real accusation is this – is it just for God’s mercy to be inequitably distributed – that is, some people hear of God’s mercy, and some do not. Is that fair?

Below, I explore this theme, but I want to suggest a theodicy that defends the idea that God is just in condemning those who have never heard, and that they have in some sense received the gospel and some measure of mercy, based on one principle alone (though others may apply) – that of Generational Justice.

Logical v. Evidential Challenges

The plight of the unreached taps into what I consider one of the two most significant challenges to Christianity – that of Predestination and Free Will (the other is the Problem of Evil). In my survey of the Bible, these are the only two conundrums for which, after giving some explanation, the Bible appeals to mystery – i.e. God challenges us by essentially telling us that we are too puny to get it.

Since we are not omniscient, I would suspect that there ARE a few subjects that are only partially intelligible to us, and since the Bible really only makes this defense on these two subjects (unlike some Christians who use it as a lazy way out of a challenge), it is reasonable that perhaps God would make this move, but only AFTER giving some intelligible but incomplete justifications.

What ends up happening in these cases is that the challenge breaks down into two pieces – the  logical argument, and the evidential or emotional argument. The logical argument answers whether or not it is logically possible that such a condition, such as the existence of both predestination and free will, could exist. The evidential argument addresses whether or not the logical solution offered is probable, or philosphically, evidentially, and intuitively convincing.

So I assume that any or all of the arguments below adequately address the logical challenge – that is, it is logically possible that God has just and adequate reasons for punishing all and everyone, including those who have not heard the gospel.

However, many people do not find these probable or emotionally convincing. So I am now adding one more, and I think reasonable answer.

Theodicies for Defending the Damnation of the Unreached

Christian theologians and philosophers have attempted to address this moral challenge in many ways, but few address the evidential challenge  and no one that I have found offers the one explanation that I believe may be most critical – that of Generational Justice. But let’s work through the other excuses, er, defenses first.

1. God’s Providence and Predestination

Biblical theology, in general, would claim that all people are guilty, and if God punishes the Unreached, it is because, like everyone else, they are guilty of sins and merely getting the just penalty, nothing more, and nothing unjust. If some receive mercy and are not punished, that does not make the punishment of others unjust. And while this may be logically consistent and sound, it utterly fails to address the inequity of mercy given to only one of the two groups – and so it fails to address the evidential challenge.

Calvinists, who heavily emphasize God’s role in choosing the saved and the damned, might also emphasize God’s sovereignty, foreknowledge and election, remarking that God chose who would be near the preaching of the gospel, and who would not. In addition, they may be tempted to resort to the appeal to mystery, or answer that we can not challenge God in such a way as to question his justice. They might quote something like Romans 9.18 –

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Who are we to question God’s mercy or justice? Naturally, such an answer again avoids the evidential moral challenge, even if it is correct that we can not really fathom it. William Lane Craig, a self-declared Molinist (Molinism entails a softer type of predestination) attempts to justify God’s providential placement of individuals, near or far from the preaching of the gospel, by arguing this way:

It is possible that God in his providence so arranged the world that those who never in fact hear the gospel are persons who would not respond if they did hear it. God brings the gospel to all those who he knows will respond to it if they hear it….No one who would respond if he heard it will be lost.1

However, as Dr. Jerry Walls remarks in Hell: The Logic of Damnation, this logically possible solution doesn’t pass muster if we really consider it:

It is exceedingly hard to entertain seriously the notion that all the persons who lived and died in countries the gospel did not reach for centuries would have rejected it if they had heard it. 2

I mean, think of it – he must say that, for instance, most of the people in China or other unreached regions were more hardened to the gospel than those in the west. Is that believable? Not to me.

2. The Numbers Game – Best of All Possible Worlds

William Lane Craig has another possible explanation in his arsenal, that known as the Best of All Possible Worlds concept. To grossly oversimplify it, in a world with free people, God could not force everyone to love him, so some would go to hell. However, he could design a world where the least NUMBER of people go to hell. Or as Craig argues:

God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between saved and unsaved. 3

Now while that is a possibility, I do not think it answers the geographical problem that such providential views face, as mentioned above. Are we to believe that if God had reached China (with arguably more people than any country in all time), that less people would be saved overall? In defense of this argument, Jesus has not yet returned, and it has been suggested that more people are alive today than if you summed up the population from all of human history – so if China, for example, continues it’s current rate of Christian conversion, it is possible that more people will end up being saved across history than under other circumstances. So this argument is not totally without merit. But I think there is better.

3. Post-mortem Opportunity

There may be some biblical support for the idea that people will have a chance to hear the gospel AFTER they die and BEFORE their judgement, though such support is minuscule at best. Most of it is based on passages that describe Jesus’ descent into Hades during his burial (as per the doctrine captured in the Apostle’s creed), and perhaps preaching the gospel to the Old Testament saints in Hades/Sheol (the ‘holding tank’ for the dead awaiting the glorification of Christ – other passages used in this doctrine include  Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6).

People extend this idea to a possibility that those who die AFTER Jesus’ death may have a similar post-mortem chance before or at the resurrection. Again, this is not stated in scripture, and is merely an extension of an already weakly supported doctrine. Let’s remember what we are doing here – we are trying to explain how God justly judges the Unreached – in this case, God would be considered just since they DO have at least one good chance to hear the gospel. Dr. Walls defends this view tentatively, though with reservation about it’s validity

Of course, the assumption that the opportunity to receive grace can extend beyond this life is also controversial. But if it is granted, I think the problems I have noted can be satisfactorily addressed, and we may reasonably maintain that God can and will make up for the disadvantages pertaining to salvation which some have in this life.4

As a side note, Dr. Walls is a protestant philosopher who also promotes the idea of Purgatory for the purpose of post-mortem sanctification (but not penal satisfaction or salvation), and has written an entire book on the subject. This view, in summary, might address the perceived injustice of damning the Unreached by God giving them a real chance, post-mortem, to hear and respond to the gospel. However, this theology is not well supported by scripture, and I want to suggest two more that ARE biblically supported.

4. Proportional Punishment as Justice

If you are a traditionalist regarding hell, you believe that God will punish the unsaved with an eternity of conscious torment. This in itself raises questions about God’s justice, since this seems quite disproportionate to a short life of sin, especially if done in ignorance of the saving message of the gospel.

While this does affect our perception of the injustice of punishing the Unreached, I think it can be taken off the table in two ways.

Firstly, if such a punishment *is* somehow proportionate (and I understand that many of us do not think it is), then the damned are merely getting what they deserve for their sins, and no more. They may not be receiving mercy, but mercy is not demanded by justice, and it is arguably not unjust to extend mercy to some, while withholding it from others, especially if those who do not receive mercy are impenitent.

There is, in my view, a second reason why we can ignore the perceived injustice of eternal conscious torment – I am of the mind that the traditional view of hell is NOT biblical, and I now subscribe to Conditionalism (a.k.a. Annihilationism), which claims that the best exegesis of the relevant Bible passages is that after the unsaved die, they are punished in proportion to their sins, and then cease to exist – that is, they do not receive eternal life, and are therefore annihilated. You can read my many posts on this issue here, or at, where I am a contributor.

So to sum up, those who haven’t heard are not receiving punishment they do not deserve, but exactly what they DO deserve. This is just, even if some receive mercy. Those who do not receive mercy are not being unfairly treated, but justly so.

5. Generational Justice

But here is my main argument, the biblical perspective which I think best justifies God’s damnation of the Unreached. Our decisions have consequences (as I have written about elsewhere, see God’s Consequential Wrath) – that is, one type of God’s judgment is allowing us to incur the consequences of our decisions. And such consequences naturally extend not just to us, but to our immediate and even future family members. Generational judgment is clearly justified in the scriptures, such as in Exodus 34.6-7

And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

Let me illustrate – if I reject the gospel, and am in some form of leadership, be it the head of my children, home, school, or society, I impact not just myself, but others – not just metaphorically or ‘spiritually,’ but actually! And while God may judge me more severely for influencing others away from the gospel (Matthew 18.6), the fact remains that I did affect them. Are they guilty? Yes, and not only due to their own sins, but perhaps also by the extension of my authority over them, as the one responsible for them.

My claim is this – modern nations who are largely without a gospel witness are not so because their ancestors never heard the gospel – most DO have early first and second century witnesses that they murdered or rejected, and in doing so, they brought God’s just judgment upon themselves AND their descendants.

And so God is just in condemning the Unreached, based not only on their own sins, but on the sins of their forefathers. In the proxy of their own leaders, they DID receive the mercy of the opportunity to hear the gospel, but, just as all sinned in Adam, these sinned in their ancestors, who rejected God’s mercy for themselves and their descendants.

Admittedly, this still does not bring the mercy of the gospel to the living person, so it incompletely answers the challenge. But it does explain in part that they received SOME mercy, though distant in time by at least one generation. What say ye?


  1. William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 150-151
  2. Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 97.
  3. William Lane Craig, “No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation Through Christ,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989): 184
  4. Jerry Walls, Hell, 92.