What happens to people who never hear the gospel?
What an awful question—to consider those who never hear the gospel, die in their ignorance, and suffer for eternity. Their fate is eternal torment by fire. It should make every Christian shudder.
But is it fair for them to be judged in this way? To never hear the gospel and still be punished forever?
Remember that man is sinful and therefore justly condemned by God. God is not obligated to save anyone, and it is a wonder that He saves any at all. Sinfulness begins at conception (Psalm 51:5) and is common to all mankind (Romans 3:23; 5:12; Ephesians 2:3). Sin provokes God’s wrath and punishment, whether the sinner has heard the gospel or not. Those who die in their sins immediately go to torment by fire (cf. Matthew 25:41; Luke 16:23–24) and will reside in the lake of fire forever (Revelation 20:14–15). “Fair” would be for all mankind to be forever in hell with no hope of salvation. Thankfully, our God is merciful, forgives our sin in Christ, and grants the merits of His Son to those who believe.
Remember also that God’s standard for eternal punishment is not whether or not someone has heard the gospel. To be sure, there is a greater accountability and punishment for those who hear and reject the gospel (cf. Matthew 26:24; 2 Peter 2:20–22), but, for those who do not hear the gospel, God still judges them justly. They plainly see and recognize His power and divine nature in creation and yet suppress this truth and fail to give Him thanks and honor (Romans 1:18–21; cf. Psalm 19:1–6). Their consciences condemn their sins and thus provide grounds for God to judge them through Christ (Romans 2:12–16). God judges them for how they have responded to what He has revealed of Himself to them in creation and conscience, even if that revelation does not include what He reveals of Christ in His Word. They can only be saved by hearing about and believing in Christ alone (Acts 4:12; Romans 10:14–15), but they can also be judged on the basis of what He generally reveals of Himself to all.
So, what do we as Christians do about these terrible truths?
First, be thankful that you yourself have heard and believed the gospel when others have not. You can say with Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Second, give the gospel to anyone who will listen. Wherever your feet may take you, take the good news with you, and preach the gospel so that some may believe. Otherwise, “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?” (Romans 10:14).
What an awful thing to consider the fate of those who never hear. But what a mercy it is that we have heard and believed. And may God show mercy to more through us as we share the gospel of Christ.