John Piper’s reply to a letter from a 12-year-old about heaven and hell:
You asked what happens to people who live far away from the gospel and have never heard about Jesus and die without faith in him. Here is what I think the Bible teaches.
God always punishes people because of what they know and fail to believe. In other words, no one will be condemned for not believing in Jesus who has never heard of Jesus.
Does that mean that people will be saved and go to heaven if they have never heard of Jesus? No, that is not what God tells us in the Bible.
The main passage in the Bible that talks about this is Romans 1:18–23. Here is what it says. Then I’ll make a comment or two.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Notice several things:
- All people “know God,” even if they have never heard the Bible. “What can be known about God is plain to them” (Romans 1:19). “Although they knew God . . . ” (Romans 1:21).
- The way they know God is by the way God has made the world and their own consciences (Romans 1:19–20).
- Even though they know God, no one who knows God anywhere in the world honors God as God or gives him thanks (Romans 1:21). Instead, they “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). That is, they resist the truth deep in their hearts and exchange it for other things that they would rather have (Romans 1:23).
- Therefore, they are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). That is, they are guilty and deserve to be punished. So, I don’t think the Bible teaches that people can be saved without hearing the gospel. Look at what Paul says in Romans 10:13–17. You need to hear the gospel to be saved.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
So, let’s pray for missionaries, and ask God if maybe we should be one. The world really needs more people to tell all the lost people in the world about Jesus and the amazing good news that he died for sinners so that whoever believes will be saved.
Thank you for your good question. Keep praying and reading your Bible. God will give you growing understanding.