I got this in an email the other day:
In North Vietnam there was a very loving and caring man who worked his fields and taught his children basic decency. His life was devoted to what he perceived as ‘good’. He was in a remote village so his life experience was nearly exclusively what his family/villagers had taught him. He did not know about the Messiah but was a sort-of-Buddhist. I called him a ‘rice farmer’ and his kindness was genuine. He would do all he could to assist others. Now, the American bombs killed him so what is his destiny???? What about the “Billions” in similar circumstances who are alive now??? What about the ones in death??? This is what is driving me nuts. Nobody wants to or can help me understand this.
That’s a very difficult question–not because the answer isn’t there, but because of the emotion tied up in it. On the one side, you have the standard Christian answer: All have fallen short of the glory of God, so whoever doesn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will go to Hell for their sins. Those who accept that will attack any attempt to discuss the point as an invitation to heresy. On the other side, you have the sick dread that those of us live with who have relatives and ancestors who never knew the real Yeshua–and that includes me, since I have a lot of Jewish relatives who don’t believe.
To answer the question, let’s first make a distinction between those who actively reject Yeshua versus those who simply never heard of Him.
There is no doubt at all that the Bible teaches that those who actively reject Yeshua, no matter what their excuse, are under judgment. For example, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not believe the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). The word translated, “does not believe” is apeithoon, which never refers to an honest mistake, but means an active and willing disbelief leading to disobedience. It is, for example, used throughout the book of Acts to refer to those Jews who actively persecuted the Apostles, not of those who were just weren’t sure yet.
The same word appears in Romans 2:8, “But to those who are selfishly ambititious and do not believe/obey (apeithousin) to confirm the truth but obey unrighteousness, [recieve] wrath and indignation.” The issue is clearly not that they don’t have access to the truth, but that they are actively disobeying it in persuit of unrighteousness.
Scripture never once condemns those, Jewish or otherwise, who simply had not yet heard of Yeshua, but only those who actively chose to reject the Word being delivered to them.
So what does Hashem do with those who did not have a chance to hear of Yeshua’s salvation? There is no simple answer for that, but I believe that there is Scriptural evidence that He shows mercy to the ignorant who pursue whatever light they are given.
Let us begin with the Torah:
“‘When a ruler sins, and unwittingly does any one of all the things which the LORD his God has commanded not to be done, and is guilty if his sin, in which he has sinned, is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish. (Lev. 4:22-23)
“If anyone of the common people sins unwittingly, in doing any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and is guilty if his sin, which he has sinned, is made known to him, then he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has sinned.” (Lev. 4:27-28)
The word translated “if” is ao, which indicates a condition or a choice. Here it indicates that the person becomes guilty if, and only if, his sin is made known to him. This does not mean that the person has to be confronted by another, since we each have our own sense of right and wrong (which, if nothing else, makes us angry when someone else sins against us, making us guilty for those sins which anger us, Rom. 2:3). But it does mean, for example, that someone who has never heard of the Sabbath or who honestly believes that he should observe Sunday instead is not held guilty by God of any sin.
This idea is confirmed in the New Testament as well. Yeshua says, “If you were blind, you would have no sin,” to the Pharisees (John 9:41). Paul says to the citizens of Athens that God “overlooked the times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30) and to the Romans that “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).
Does this mean that everyone who has simply never heard of Yeshua automatically goes to Heaven? I don’t think so, for if that were the case, why should we risk condemning billions by making them come to a decision point? What I do think it means is that a person who doesn’t know Yeshua but is aware of their own sinfulness and seeks out a way to be reconciled with the Holy Creator will have a door opened for him. Those that do not, who hide behind tribal gods and customs or seek occultic power in this world rather than the righteousness of Heaven, will not.
Let’s take for example the story of Jonah. God sent Jonah to Ninevah (after a bit of a detour) to proclaim to them that judgment was coming if they did not repent. The rabbis discern that when Ninevah did repent, they did not do so completely and many of their actions, like making the animals fast and wear sackcloth, demonstrated a complete ignorance about the God of Heaven’s requirements.
In fact, there’s a suggestion in the text that they didn’t even really understand who they were repenting to! The Assyrians worshiped Dagon, a fish god, and it is likely that one of the reasons they listened to Jonah was that he had been vomited up on the shore by a giant fish. There’s no record that they sent sacrifices to the Temple of God in Judah so they didn’t even understand that their forgiveness required blood-atonement.
But Hashem forgave them anyway, and when Jonah protested, what did He say? “Should I not have compassion on Ninevah, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)
The Eternal One does not change, and He is just as compassionate today as He was 3000 years ago. Therefore, I have to believe that He still excuses the sins of ignorance, and that He is merciful to whose who acknowledge their sin–even if they don’t know what all of their sins are–and seek the forgiveness of Heaven but who through no fault of their own never meet a missionary to proclaim the One they are seeking to them. As Yeshua Himself said,
“Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the Torah and the Prophets.” (Mat. 7:7-12)
But by the same token, that means that those who do not ask, who do not seek, who do not knock will not find. Therefore, those who refuse to acknowledge their sinfulness, who do not seek forgiveness but instead seek self-justification will never find forgiveness.
And to our sorrow, we have to acknoledge that this includes the vast majority of the human race.
Therefore, let us seek to neither exonerate nor condemn those who have passed before us. For them, we will trust the Holy One to be both just and merciful. Our task is to bring the true Good News to those yet alive today. Those asking and seeking deserve to have their answer in the Messiah Yeshua, and many of those who are not seeking may yet be turned when they hear of the glorious love and mercy of the true Eternal God.