In 2011, atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig met at the University of Notre Dame to debate the topic, "Is Good From God?" The purpose of the debate was to interact with the question of whether God is necessary for morality. In an attempt to show Christianity’s teachings on judgment irrational, Harris makes the following claim:
There are 1.2 billion people in India at this moment. Most of them are Hindus, most of them, therefore, polytheists. In Dr. Craig’s universe, no matter how good these people are, they are doomed. If you are praying to the Monkey God Hanuman, you are doomed. You'll be tortured in hell for eternity.
He brings up an important question: are those people who have never heard the Gospel “doomed” because of their ignorance? While judgment is never an easy topic to deal with, for the Christian, it is vital to understand.
Who God Judges
In Romans 2, the apostle Paul explicitly deals with the question of judgment and ignorance. In his answer, he describes the differences between the Jews (those who have God’s law) and the Gentiles (those who do not have God’s law): “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).
Paul’s point is that when those who have the law sin, they are judged by the criteria of the law. Conversely, those who are not in God’s covenant community, will not be judged by that law:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:14-16).
While those who do not have the Mosaic law are not to be judged by it, there is a law written on the heart which will judge them. Paul is explaining that murder, theft, and adultery are universally wrong, whether one hears it by the 10 Commandments or by their conscience. They are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Just as Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Ultimately, God’s judgment is not a matter of fear-mongering, but a matter of justice. Because God ascribes justice to who he is (Ps. 9:7-8; Ps. 89:14; Prov. 8:15; Micah 6:8), this means that any injustice, no matter where in the world it is committed, it is ultimately against him. David expresses this sentiment after he sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba. He confesses, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4).
Throughout scripture, it is made clear that judgment is received not because of ignorance to the gospel, but because of sin. In the sense that no one can ultimately get away with injustice, this answers part of our question of ignorance and judgment. But what about the “good people” who have never heard the gospel?
How God Judges
Something to note in discussions like this is that the Bible is not primarily a response to the problems and questions of humanity- it’s not a Magic 8-Ball. It is often our habit to approach the Bible with issues that we want sorting out first before we hear what it’s message is. The fact is, the Bible does not answer the question, ‘what is the everlasting destiny of unreached people group x, y, or z?’ However, before we cry foul, we must look at how the Bible does speak of the other nations who do not know his name.
Even in Genesis, we see God promise Abraham that through his people, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (22:18). In Isaiah, Jesus is even prophesied as the servant who will bring “justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1). He is the one who commissions his disciples, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
The Great Commission is given to the disciples after they ask when Jesus is going to “restore the kingdom of Israel?” Instead of directly answering their question, he says, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
The disciples believe the most important thing they need is their question answered. However, Jesus’ answer reorients them; he shows them who he is, and what he is doing in the world, even now.
As for every unreached people group’s everlasting destiny, we can say that they will be judged, but not by a vindictive tyrant. Though God judges, he is also merciful: “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). What’s more, his judgment is not in conflict with his mercy. Because God is holy and just, he does not, indeed, he cannot judge the way flawed men do (Is. 55:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:13). By taking God's wrath against sin upon himself, Jesus ensures us that both God's mercy and God's justice are never misapplied. They’re not haphazard. When his gavel strikes, we can trust that every one of God’s verdicts is good.
The natural response to this just, holy, and loving God is not to relegate people groups to this destiny or that. No, the Christian’s response is to carry this gospel to the ends of the earth, proclaiming to the nations, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1-3; cf. Matt. 11:28).