Aditya Sardana is a good man. He was born in New Delhi, India on October 7th, 1981. He was raised by devout Hindu parents who lovingly brought him up in the Hindu tradition. He absorbed the best of the Hindu faith as he grew into adulthood. David faithfully adhered to the Hindu Dharma, he faithfully loved his family, and he was gracious towards those who believed differently. Because of his birthplace and cultural upbringing, Aditya never met a Christian, and he never heard the name of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he honored his parents in following the truths he had been taught, and he expressed those beliefs in a loving, peaceful way to those around him. Tragically, on January 21st, 2016, Aditya was involved in a fatal car crash which killed him, his wife, and his 13-year-old daughter Aanya. Neither Aditya nor any of his family ever heard of Christ.
Aditya’s story raises some problems for Christians because Christians traditionally have believed that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and that those who do not follow Christ will experience an eternity of separation from God. And because God is the source of all good things, separation from God means separation from all joy, peace, love, and hope; it means an eternity of misery, fear, and despair. This eternal state of darkness and suffering is what Christians call Hell.
So, if Christianity as traditionally believed is true, then it would seem that Aditya and his family (along with millions of other families) were condemned to an eternity in hell without ever having a chance of salvation. God knew from the beginning that Aditya and his family would never hear of Christ, and he knew that they were living the best lives they could with the upbringing they had, but God let them die without a chance of hope for eternity. How can such a God pretend to be just? How is it fair that Christ is the only hope of human salvation when the accidents of time and place determine who does and doesn't hear about Jesus? This question rightly troubles many people. What better example of injustice is there than to condemn good people to an eternity of torment simply based on where they were born?
Like so many other objections to Christianity, an understanding of scripture helps resolve this question. In particular, Biblical teaching on both the human condition and the Divine solution to the human condition helps make sense of the fate of those who never hear about Jesus.
The Human Condition
There are three aspects of the human condition which are relevant here. The first is that all humans - both those who have and haven't heard of Christ - can know that God exists and that they are responsible to respond to God's general revelation of himself. As Romans 1 states, "For what can be known about God is plain to [unbelievers], 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."
So all people can know God and are thus responsible to honor him as God. However, as this passage points out, human beings do not honor God; instead, they serve the creature rather than the creator. All humans have turned inward, towards themselves and away from God. Since God is the source of all goodness, this turn from God isn't just "disrespectful" or "rebellious;" it is literally a turn away from that which is perfectly good toward that which is evil. And because we were designed to live in joyful fellowship with God, turning away from God also brings immense suffering.
Second, all of humanity - both those who have and haven't heard the gospel - can know right from wrong and are responsible to do what is right - as Romans 2 states, "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them."
Yes, the Bible teaches that atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, and Mormons can all know basic principles of right from wrong without the aid of scripture. Regardless of whether any individual has heard of Christ, that person CAN know what he ought to do in his dealings with other people, and he knows what he ought not to do. And as the scriptures state repeatedly, all human beings fail repeatedly to do what they know to be good. (Romans 3:9-12)
Thus, all human beings have failed to honor God as God, and have failed to keep the moral law of God. This failure is, ultimately, the root cause of all the pain and suffering we see around us. Yes, the world is broken, but it is ultimately because people are broken that the world is broken. We all turn away from God and inward towards ourselves. In our selfishness, we hurt others and are, in turn, hurt by them. Thus humanity is not condemned for merely failing to follow Christ, but for failing to do what they know they ought to do, and for causing immense suffering through such failure. The unpopular truth of scripture is that there are no truly “good” people. Because of the circumstances they have been placed in, some individuals like Aditya may look good in comparison to a person like Hitler, but they are not truly good people in the most full sense of the word. They are still oriented toward serving themselves rather than serving God and others. This self-focused nature means that, even if the world were populated entirely by people like Aditya, that world would quickly become filled with suffering and evil – because the natural bent of our broken hearts is away from God and toward ourselves.
Because of our sin, we humans are guilty and deserving of punishment for wrongdoing. God, as the source of love, mercy, and justice, has written the laws of right and wrong on the hearts of people, and all people have broken God’s laws. God is perfectly just, so he cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and scripture teaches that the payment for sin is physical and spiritual death. Thus, humanity’s ultimate separation from God is both the natural result of sin and the just punishment for sin. Hell, as terrible as it is, would actually be an example of perfectly appropriate justice - not a random result of someone's birthplace.
The Divine Solution
Thankfully, scripture does not end with the human condition; it gives hope and reveals to humanity the divine solution. Human beings need two things -
First, they need someone who can die in their place, thereby taking upon themselves the just punishment for their sins and failures. But obviously, no sinful person can pay for the sins of someone else, for all persons have their own sins which demand justice. Humans need a perfect substitute... a person who does not have his own sins to pay for, who capable of paying the debt of another's sin.
Second, humans need new hearts... hearts that seek to honor God and to love others. For, if one's sins were wiped clean, but the heart remained unchanged, he would just go on to cause more suffering and evil. So humanity needs both payment for sin and a renewal of the heart – a new birth.
Here is where the glory of the Christian faith breaks in. The central Christian ethic is love. God himself IS love, and God loves the world so much that he decided to become a man in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ lived a sinless life, and then he took the sins of the world upon himself by dying a sacrificial death. Christ paid the debt for the sins of the world, so that anyone who puts his faith in Christ will have his sins forgiven. But Christ did not stay dead; Christ rose again with new life so that whoever believes in him will be “born again” into a new life. Someone who is born again is given a new heart and indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God who can change a self-centered heart into one that seeks to serve God and love others. Jesus Christ is thus the perfect and only solution to the human condition.
So in revisiting the original question about justice, God is clearly not unjust to punish sinful people for what they freely and knowingly did wrong. Humans know what they ought to do, and they choose to do what is wrong. God is not wrong to allow sinful people to suffer the consequences of their sins.
What about YOU?
This question about “those who have never heard” can only be asked by someone to whom it does not apply. So if you are reading this post, and you are not yet a follower of Jesus, I appeal to you to apply the truths of the Gospel to yourself.
First, the truth that you and I are all broken; we sin and we fail.
(For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - Romans 3:23)
Our sin separates us from God and from others and ultimately causes physical and spiritual death.
(For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. -Romans 6:23)
But God loves us so much that he became a man, who suffered and died to take the just punishment for our sins. Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself and showed us his love by his sacrifice.
(But God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. -Romans 5:8)
And he offers the free gift of salvation to anyone who acknowledges their sinfulness and puts their faith in Christ’s work to give them new life to follow him.
(If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. -1 John 1:9)
(But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - John 1:12)
This is the good news, the "Gospel"; Christ not only offers forgiveness for sin now and eternal life in the future, but he also gives us new life in the here and now. He allows us to become part of the kingdom of God and to become children of God. As part of God's family, we get to experience a new abundant life in Christ, and we get to help bring others into the Kingdom of God. Following Christ offers thus a life of healing and a life of hope - a life where our ultimate purpose and ultimate joy coincide.
“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” -Jesus Christ (John 10:10)