It's an age old question. What happens to people who haven't heard the Gospel when they die? We know that accepting Jesus is the only way to Heaven, and the only other option is Hell, so if a person dies in somewhere or somewhen where they lived their whole life without ever being told about Jesus, what happens to that soul? Now that you're contemplating that, think about this: how is that question really relevant to God’s plan? Obviously He knows what happens to them, and has the situation under control. My thinking that maybe this is not the correct question we need to be asking.
Following that train of thought, I looked to the Scripture to see if this is a habit of mankind, this asking the wrong question. When the Pharisees brought the adulterous woman to be stoned they asked, “What shall we do with her?” Peter asked if seven times is enough to forgive someone who has wronged you. The Magi went to Herod and asked where the king of the Jews was. Both the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a sign that He was the Messiah. Even the disciples asked for signs of the end of the age. As we look at God’s answers to these questions we can see how He can lead us from incorrect questions to righteous answers.
The story of the adulteress woman who was brought before Jesus is told in John 8:3-11. The Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus, knowing that either answer they were expecting, (stoning or releasing the woman) would cause trouble, one from the Romans, who wouldn’t let the Jews carry out a death sentence, the other from the Jews themselves, who would not agree with such a disregard for the Law. Instead, Jesus gave them an answer that showed God’s mercy and reserved judgment for Him alone, that being of course “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Pharisees came with a legitimate question, even though they brought it with selfish intent, and got an answer that pointed those who were willing to listen God’s purpose. An interesting side note to the story is that the Pharisees appear to have doctored the Law a touch to suit their purposes. Deuteronomy 22:23 states that if a virgin pledged to another man commits adultery, both her and the man are to be taken out and stoned, and Dt. 22:22 says that if the woman was another man’s wife, then they still are both to be put to death. So here we have man’s question of what are we to do with those who are sinners and offenders, followed by God’s answer of show mercy on them as you have been shown mercy upon by Him and leave the judgment to the only one who is truly worthy of leveling judgment, and who will handle said judgment in His time.
The next question we will look at is Peter’s asking how many times we must forgive someone who has sinned against us in Matthew 18:21. Peter thinks that seven times should be plenty for us to bother with. But Jesus’ answer raises the bar by quite a bit. Depending on the version we read we either get seventy times or seventy times seven, which comes to 490. Either number gets the point across, that love keeps no record of transgressions. (1 Cor.13: 5) If you love someone, you will not keep a track record of how many times they have wronged you just so you know when you have to stop forgiving them for it, or to hold over their heads, or for any other reason. Jesus then tells the parable of the man who was released from the large debt he owed his king, and then threw another man in jail for a lesser debt. We see man’s question of searching for a limit on how far out of our way we have to go to forgive others, followed by God’s answer, which reminds us how far out of His way God went to forgive us. Jesus later told the disciples that He had a new commandment for them to love each other as He had loved them (John 13:34). Jesus goes on to demonstrate how we are to love by reinstating Peter even after his denial of Jesus, once again giving us God’s answer to this human question.
In Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus what the signs will be of His second coming, and while He does give a long description of many things that will happen leading up to the second coming, He reaches His main point in v. 42-44, saying that instead of worrying about what the signs will be, always be prepared, because we will not truly know when He is coming until He does appear. This answer is followed by a tale of a good servant and an evil servant, one who takes proper care of his master’s possessions and one who abuses his master’s possessions, and then two parables, the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the talents, all of which focus not on what the signs of the second coming will be, but on believers always standing ready in their faith, faithfully awaiting it, always prepared for it.
So what is the point of all this? The point is to always ask to see things from God’s perspective instead of ours. God’s plans may not make sense from our perspective at the time, but they always work out. When we try and work God’s plans out our way, trouble is assured. We see this shown throughout the Old Testament. When the nation of Israel consisted of Abraham and Sarah, they took their way to try and fulfill God’s promise, which opened an enormous can of worms. When Israel demanded a king, wanting to be like the other nations around them instead of how God wanted them to be, it led to a divided kingdom and captivity. We also see how following God’s plans will succeed when we follow them as in the fall of Jericho. One of the finest examples of keeping God’s perspective comes from the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego. When faced with either a fiery furnace or obeying God, they came back with “our God has the power to save us, but even if He doesn’t we will not bow to your god.”
We can find other examples of people asking the wrong questions in search of right answers in the Bible, or sometimes asking the right questions to the wrong people. The Pharisees and Sadducees went to Jesus demanding sings that He was who He claimed to be, instead of looking to the Law that they were supposed to know so well, and watching for the continued fulfillment of the prophecies about Jesus.
So what of the question that started this train of thought? What is God’s answer to the question of unknowing unbelievers? I believe that it is given to us in the Bible, in Matt. 28:19-20. God is in control of those souls and knows His plan for them. Our job here is to reduce that number as much as is within our calling and our God given talents. So let us keep our minds clear our eyes on Jesus, and our questions correct.