I used to teach world religions for a number of years. I learned that even though many people never got the chance to hear the gospel, they still lived impressively moral lives. What happens to them at judgment?
Countless numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian philosophers and monks and certain Greeks and Romans and others around the globe preached peace and social harmony and social righteousness. They impacted their corners of world for the better. Let’s call them “righteous gentiles” in a social sense. Many of them lived better lives, morally speaking, than some Christians do today.
Yet they lived without the gospel of Christ because transportation and communications were primitive and slow, or they lived before he came.
Let’s explore the issue.
I. Let’s first look at verses that proclaim that God overlooked or was lenient with people in their times of ignorance.
John 15:22, the words of Jesus himself, is clear about a Before and After dividing line: “If I had not come and spoken to them [the world], they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” The context is the entire world, and they were not guilty of sin before he came, indicating a very lenient judgment.
Acts 10:34-35 says that Cornelius, the Gentile centurion, saw an angel. Peter was so impressed that he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Peter spoke this general truth before Cornelius experienced salvation in Christ. Fearing God and doing right opens up some doors to God. Those virtues get his attention.
Acts 14:16-17 says, “God let nations go their own way, yet he has not left them without testimony, but showed kindness to them by giving them life-producing rain to water crops, providing food, and filling their hearts with joy.” This indicates that the laws of nature are a witness and a light. God may judge these nations by the light they had.
Acts 17:30 says that God overlooked Gentile ignorance in the past. This hints at a lenient judgment.
Rom. 2:6-7 says, “God will repay to everyone according to what they have done. To those [outside of Christ] who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Does this open the door to eternal life by doing those things?
Rom. 3:25 says that before Christ died as a propitiation, God let sins go unpunished.
Rom. 4:15 says, “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” In almost all cases in Romans, “law” means the Law of Moses.
Rom. 5:13 says, “Sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.”
II. Let’s also add these passages that show that people outside of ancient Israel and the Law of Moses had a certain level of a knowledge of God, most likely because God revealed himself to them.
Melchizedek was priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:17-24);
God spoke to Pharaoh in a dream to rescue pagan Egyptians: “Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “… God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” (Gen. 41:25).
God revealed himself to Balaam (Num. 24);
Jonah preached to Nineveh, and they repented in sackcloth and ashes. After he left, did some of them experience lasting salvation, even though they were not part of the covenantal chosen people? (Jonah 3-4). If a Ninevite remained repentant throughout his life, will anyone deny him eternal life or at least a lenient judgment?
King Hiram acknowledged God (2 Chron. 2:11-12);
Naaman acknowledged God (2 Kings 5:15);
Ruth the Moabite accepted her new life in Israel, even though a Moabite could not enter the assembly of the Lord to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:3); she was an ancestor of David and Jesus.
God spoke through Neco, king of Egypt (2 Chron. 35:20-24);
After God through Isaiah prophesied judgment on Egypt, he promised that Egypt would be God’s people, and so would Assyria (Is. 19:19-25). Egypt is called “my people.”
And here’s one in the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament), as Jesus was currently ushering in the kingdom of God: A pagan Canaanite woman sought him and had great faith (Matt. 15:21-28).
These passages indicate God spoke through and to these pagans; they had a certain kind of faith and knowledge of God, and he approved of them. It seems God overlooked some things and his judgment was not as severe, as they walked in the light that moral law offered them.
We will never know or deny for sure whether God revealed himself in the same way around the globe, just because he loved people. But I believe these are just samples of what he actually did, outside of recorded history.
III. Let’s list verses that reveal that God will judge people by their good or bad deeds. Did God throw them in hell for not receiving Christ as Savior (even though he did not come yet or they didn’t even know he existed, such as the Australian aborigines)? Here are the verses:
You reward everyone according to what they have done. (Ps. 62:12)
I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve. (Jer. 17:10)
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:36-37)
This one is very, very clear, and the doers of good will rise to live an eternal (zoe) life.
“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:28-29)
The above verses come in the same Gospel where Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). If God throws into the lake of fire everyone who has not received Jesus in their hearts, then why bother judging them based on good or bad works? See a discussion, below, at Question 2.
17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. (1 Pet. 1:17)
6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Rom. 2:6-7)
The next three passages are about final judgment, probably the great white throne judgment, but people are still judged by works. There is no word about hearing the gospel and receiving Christ in one’s heart:
The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matt. 13:36-43)
“He [the Son of Man] will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt. 25:45-46)
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. (Rev. 20:13)
Finally, some believe that the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man actually happened and reveals a clear teaching on the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus, who suffered from extreme poverty and disease, ended up in Abraham’s bosom. Nowhere does it say he had a personal, salvific relationship with Christ, or one would expect Jesus to have healed him. The implication is that Lazarus’s suffering lifted him up to Abraham’s bosom, lifted by God’s mercy.
Let’s wrap up this section. It is probable that those verses clarify God’s judgment on those righteous gentiles. He will judge them by their works as they walked in the light of the moral law that he gave them, even though they never heard the gospel and received Christ in their hearts.
IV. Let’s look at the clearest teaching of all about God’s judgment before the law of Moses was sent down from heaven.
In Gen. 18:23-25, Abraham asks God, before the law of Moses, about punishing righteous and wicked people together, as if God would get them mixed up.
Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Yes, God will judge righteously in answer to the question in v. 25. So whatever happens to the righteous and wicked before the law of Moses was thundered from on high at Mt. Sinai, God will not be confused. He gave humanity moral law. Some people followed it and can be called righteous, and other people did not follow it and can be called wicked. Clearly the righteous are judged by a different set of standards than the wicked.
V. In this major section, we answer some questions.
1. What about Rom. 1:21-23, which say that people’s minds were darkened and worshiped idols instead of God?
Here is an atrocious example: the bloodthirsty Aztec priests, who never heard the gospel before Europeans came, sacrificed humans to a satanic spirit they thought was a god. Jesus will judge them by their awful works.
This Psalm comes to mind:
36 They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
37 They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to false gods.
38 They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood. (Ps. 106:36-38)
However, Paul in Rom. 1 is making a general statement, but not every single individual who ever lived gave in to such things.
John 14:6 has nothing to do with final judgment. In Jewish culture, people came to God through the law of Moses. Now they come to God through Christ, a much better way (John 1:16-18). Further, 14:6 is a repetition of a theme in John. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (14:9-10). Jesus “can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also” (John 5:19). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The same theme is expressed in different words in 14:6. Religious Jews of his day believed they could come to God by the temple system and in the name of Elohim. In this context, he announced to his disciples that he is now the only way to God. Pagans needed to know this, also. But this verse is not about final judgment, where he introduces good and bad works and righteous behavior and wicked behavior into his evaluations.
And in Acts 4:12, Peter is talking to Jerusalem Jews who were (partly) responsible for the death of the Messiah. Of course Peter would say it is by his name they must be saved. He’s driving home the point that this Jesus was exalted by God himself. Was he supposed to say they can be saved by the name of Elohim? They already believed that. Further, Acts 4:12 also applies to pagans, who needed to know the best way of salvation. But this verse is not about final judgment, where God introduces good and bad works, righteousness and wickedness into his evaluations.
However, let’s take 14:6 (and Act 4:12) to mean how most people interpret it—Jesus is the only way to God at the final judgment. At the great white throne judgment, Jesus will be the judge (Matt. 25:31; Rev. 20:11-15). Jesus is the one who will judge those righteous gentiles, and if he accepts them, then they are coming to the Father through Christ alone. All people will always approach or depart from the Father through Christ alone. Salvation is always through Christ alone. John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are fulfilled. Jesus will judge them mercifully. He will give them a lighter sentence.
3. What about the presence of original sin in everyone’s life through Adam’s fall (Rom. 5:12-21)?
Original sin is not clearly taught in that section of Scripture, but let’s say that it is. Recall that 5:13 says that “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.” And Rom. 4:15 says, “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” In almost all cases in Romans, “law” refers to the Law of Moses. People in other parts of the globe and who lived before he did never even heard of his law.
However, let’s expand things and assume that 5:13 and 4:15 refers to moral law. If so, then those righteous gentiles kept it as well as any human could. No, they could not extirpate original sin (the inbuilt presence of sin) by keeping moral law, but if Jesus judged them by good or bad works and found those people acceptable, then he absolved them of the penalty of sin—the second or spiritual death (Rom. 6:23). He saved them from eternal hell-fire–through him.
4. What about Rom. 3:9 that says, “All are under the power of sin” with a list of Scripture verses proving the point (3:10-18)? And what about Rom. 3:23 that says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”? “All” means “all,” right?
No, “all” does not always mean “all,” when rhetoric is used. But no matter. Let’s say “all” means “all.” The heavenly glory of God is such a high standard that no can reach it. So, yes, by that standard everyone falls short. But there are other standards by which God will judge humanity, such as moral law and good and bad works, which are determined by those moral laws. And as noted, Christ at the final judgment may absolve the righteous gentiles of the penalty of sin, based on the light that the moral law shone on them, however dimly, in their cultural contexts.
6. What about Heb. 9:27, which says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”?
This post does not deny the truth of that verse. Rather, we are talking about what happens to “righteous Gentiles” at judgment.
6. Is this article teaching universalism?
Let’s define it first in very, very basic terms. This doctrine says that everyone will eventually be saved after spending time in the flames of hell, even people like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and other awful people. Hell is a kind of fiery, purging “timeout” where they learn their lesson and are then shown mercy.
In reply, those dictators lived after the gospel of Christ penetrated their world, so their judgment will be severe. People like those modern mass-murdering dictators and ancient bloodthirsty Aztec priests don’t eventually work their way into heaven, whether they heard of the gospel or not.
7. What if their names are not found in the book of life (Rev. 20:11-15)? Aren’t they thrown into the lake of fire? The book of life means life in and through Christ alone, doesn’t it?
There is more than one book in Rev. 20:11-15. Some books record good and bad deeds, and people were judged by them. If the book of life is only about life in and through Christ alone, then why bother judging people by their good or bad deeds? They were going to end up in the lake of fire anyway, if their names were not written in the book of life.
No, there are not levels of heat in the lake of fire, low heat for the good-deed doers, and high heat for the bad-deed doers. Scripture is silent about degrees of heat. Or does a preponderance of good deeds get their names transferred over to the book of life? Scriptural is silent about that, too.
In any case, there is a mystery about those books. But the interpretation in this post tentatively concludes that the other books leave the door open to these very righteous men and women to have been judged (or will be judged) favorably in God’s sight.
8.. If what this post says is true, then where did the righteous gentiles end up, finally?
Other interpreters say they are not in God’s presence, but they are not being punished in in lake of fire. They may be in in outer darkness.
9.. They why preach the gospel to anyone if they will receive a light sentence for not hearing it?
Lots of reasons: The presence of the Holy Spirit to empower and lead them to live better lives; escape judgment that decides where they spend eternity, either in heaven or hell; saving knowledge of God through Christ; relational knowledge of God through Christ; answers to prayer by as they are in Christ; joy in the Spirit–and so on. Let’s hope that avoidance of hell and the entry into heaven is not the only motivation for people to convert and follow Jesus. Some have humorously called it “fire insurance.” That’s not good enough for new life in Christ.
VI. Let’s conclude.
Living far away from the gospel of Christ or before his gospel came, some people lived exemplary moral lives. How did they know to do this? Moral law is a gift of God. Many of these people followed it as closely as humans could. There is a strong probability that God will judge them by good or bad works as they walked in the light of the moral law that he gave them. It is difficult to believe that God would consign them to eternal conscious torment in hell-fire forever and ever. Our sense of justice is not greater than God’s actual justice.
But this post is speculative about people who never had the chance to hear about Jesus or his gospel of the kingdom. When we don’t agree, let’s show each other generosity.
How does this post help me know God better?
This verse is the most important one because it shows God’s character or attribute of justice, and it takes this issue out of our hands.
“Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).
Yes, he will.
Everyone who is outside of Christ will face the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). Whatever happens to them, he is perfectly loving and perfectly just, so he will judge them with perfect justice and perfect love.
We can trust him in that.