And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment
One of the most common complaints or questions about the final judgement of God is whether it is fair, or not. Someone who never heard the gospel goes to hell. Someone who does hear the gospel and believes goes to heaven. It seems unfair.
Granted, this poor caricature of the gospel makes many of us ask questions, but it is just that – a caricature, a poor cartoonish representation of salvation. For anyone to be saved is a miracle of God, an awesome work of sacrifice, conviction, and conversion. We are saved by repenting from our sins and trusting in Christ. So God is intensely involved in the entire process. Many who hear do not believe, and if they think that any limp, flippant, careless expression of positive feelings toward the gospel warrants salvation, they have misunderstood the matter entirely. Those who are saved are drawn by God (John 6:44), convicted by the Spirit (John 16:8-11), converted by and born again through the Holy Spirit (John 3:6), they have repented of their sins (Acts 11:18), they have declared “Jesus is Lord” by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3), they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. All of this is by the hand of God, and whatever role we may have – repenting and believing – is utterly impossible without the work of the Spirit.
But let’s examine this complaint.
Several things come to mind. First, God’s fairness is clearly established in Scripture. Abraham asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25) Though it is a question, it is a rhetorical question, that affirms the righteousness of God. In fact, God judges anyone because He is righteous. The righteousness of God is the first concept necessary to begin to understand the judgment of humanity. Numerous Scriptures proclaim His righteousness – too many to print here. But, for example, “Righteous are You, O LORD, and upright are Your judgments” (Psalm 119:137).
Second, because He is righteous, His judgment is righteous. The Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). In chapters 2 and 3 of Romans Paul stressed the point that the Jews and the Gentiles were alike sinful. “What then? Are we better than they?” (that is, are we Jews better than those Gentiles?) “Not at all. for we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles] that they are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9)
Third, though I get ahead of the argument with placing this point here, Jesus said that it will be “more tolerable” for some in the day of judgment than others (Matthew 11:22-23). This means that there will be degrees of suffering and judgment in hell. Dante, in his allegorical fiction “Inferno,” described heaven and hell in varying degrees. This is fiction, of course, but it is an attempt to make sense of this concept. God’s judgment is utterly and completely fair.
Fourth, Those who lived in the earliest days of human life on earth were given a simple means to express their faith in the atonement – the worship through the blood sacrifice (see Genesis 4:3-4; 8:20). They lived in the days of human conscience, but God had instilled within them the awareness that a penalty had to be paid for sin. Most of humanity has continued to live under this condition until the coming of the gospel, God using whatever means were at His disposal to bring people to an awareness of sin and salvation. Paul said on Mars Hill in Athens as he preached about the idolatry of that city and their altar to the Unknown God, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness …” (Acts 17:30-31)
As I understand this, God judges people based on the information they had at their disposal. This does not mean that there are two or more ways of salvation. Only the blood of Christ has paid for the sins of humanity, only has made the sacrifice possible that we might be forgiven. (See Hebrews 9-10, especially 9:28 and 10:12). But the blood of Christ was applied retroactively to those who approached God in contrition of sin and through the means available to them in their age.
Fifth, the preaching of the gospel is still good news to all. Though the Bible presents the possibility of someone, like Abraham, responding to the call of God before they could hear the gospel of Christ, it seems to be extremely rare. I have never met such a person. for everyone that I know the gospel is good news to them, showing how they can be saved.
Sixth, as stated above, the preaching of the gospel is done by the leadership of God’s Spirit. It is not merely hearing the gospel, it is also the drawing of God, the conviction of the Spirit, and the repentance and faith of the hearer.
So in conclusion: the only thing that any of us can do is to repent and believe in Christ. We can utterly trust the fairness and righteousness of God in these matters. He is righteous and we are unrighteous. Those who have had every break in the book will be judged by God like that. Those who have had multiple experiences of hardship and injustice and cruelty done to them by humanity will be judged accordingly. God is utterly fair and just.
All of God’s work is fulfilled through Christ and through Him alone. No one who truly believes in God will reject Christ. “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).