Early on in my ministry, I was shepherding two high school seniors who were . Neither of them claimed to know Christ, but they had a multitude of about Christianity. They were wondering things like how could a loving God send someone to hell, does hell even exist, and what would happen to someone who lives on a desert island and dies without ever hearing the gospel. If I’m honest, these questions were hard to answer, not because I didn’t know the truth, but because they are loaded with teenagers’ perception of who God is.
You’re likely to face these questions—especially the one about the proverbial man on the desert island—from your own students many times over the course of your ministry. In the next few paragraphs, I hope to give you a biblical foundation plus some practical tips to help you answer this question in a God-honoring, firm, but grace-filled manner.
Often when people ask the question about the hypothetical person who has never heard about Christ, they are working from the assumption that humans, by nature, are good. This would mean God is unfair for sending anyone to hell, particularly someone who hasn’t actively disregarded the gospel. Paul was anticipating this when, through the influence and power of the Spirit, he penned the first few chapters of Romans.
In Romans 1:19-20, he writes that “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 word, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse.”
This is what is known as general revelation. God has revealed himself to his creation through nature, however, we as humans exchange him for our own idols. We willfully chose to sin against God. On top of this, because of Adam’s original sin, humans are automatically shackled to death. This is how Paul can write “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The Greek word for all is pas, which means “all,” “the whole,” or “of every kind.” Essentially, all people, no matter where they were born, have sinned against God and therefore cannot have eternal communion with him in the new heaven and new earth.
So the answer to the question what happens to the person who lives and dies without ever hearing about Jesus and his gospel is that they spend eternity under the wrath of God in hell. While this might seem unfair, Paul clearly demonstrates that this is what we all deserve, because we all exchange idols for God and willfully sin against him. (Even as we acknowledge that this is the proper theological response, as pastors we must be careful how we communicate this truth to someone who is struggling with doubt. Keep reading for further thoughts on the pastoral part of the conversation.).
But Paul didn’t stop with verse 23. Romans 3:24 says “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24-25). God, in his infinite love, grace, and mercy, looks upon His rebellious creation and provides a way to be saved. That way is Jesus Christ, who says himself that “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). While every human being throughout time has sinned, God has provided a way to be redeemed from that sin: His name is Jesus Christ, the only person who would die on a desert island and go to heaven, because he never sinned.
Answering this Question in Real Life
Now, when a student comes up to you and asks this question, remember this: The student you are talking to is more likely than not wrestling with some deep questions personally, not just asking hypotheticals. As pastors, what is just as important as getting the answer theologically correct is communicating the truth with much prayer, and with compassion. If you respond with biblical truth in a manner that is condescending, arrogant, and hurtful, that student won’t listen to the truth, he or she will only hear your prideful tone. The best way to answer this question, Paul says, is “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Remember that students are likely operating with the assumption that human beings have enough good inside of them to get them into heaven. Gently show students what Paul has to say in Romans 1-3. Point to the words of Jesus Christ himself, that there is only one way to heaven, and that is through him. Remind the student that God didn’t have to provide a way, he wasn’t obligated to do so, but he chose to out of his great love and mercy. Some resources that you could read on this subject are or by Scott Christensen.
Inevitably during the course of this discussion, the question will come up, what happens to babies when they die? This is an excellent question and one that, unfortunately, doesn’t have a straight biblical answer. What we can point to are examples in Scripture that would seem to indicate babies who perish in the womb or as infants go to heaven.
After David’s son dies in infancy, he says “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). In the midst of his grief, David takes comfort in the fact that when he dies, he will go to be with his child. This would seem to support the idea that babies, if they die, will be in heaven. In some traditions, there is an understanding of the “age of accountability.” This means that if someone dies before they understand good and evil (not just an infant, but an adult who is mentally impaired enough that they can’t comprehend) through God’s grace and mercy, even though they are sinful, receive entrance into God’s Kingdom. Again, there isn’t airtight biblical evidence for this position, but there are verses that seem to point us in this direction (Deut. 1:39, Matt. 19:13-15, Luke 1:15).
These questions are very difficult to both ask and answer. However, as youth ministers, it is necessary for us to be able to answer these questions when they are asked so that students don’t have to go somewhere else looking for answers. Not only that, questions like this one give us a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel with them, reminding them that God’s grace is a free gift in Jesus, not something any of us can earn. We have the chance to remind them of God’s mercy, as we also encourage them to share the gospel with others.