If faith in Jesus is the only means by which we can be saved, how can God judge the person who has never heard about Jesus? This common challenge appears to strike at the heart of God’s divine justice.
Paul reflected on this question in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans. He tells us, “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). There are two groups of people in this world. There are those who have the law and those who don’t. Those who have the law will be judged by it. Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:19-20).
But there are those who do not have God’s law. Will they be judged by a standard they have never heard about? No, they will be judged by a different standard. Those without access to God’s special revelation will not be judged by what they don’t know. They will be judged by what they do know. They will be judged by the revelation of God in nature and conscience.
Speaking of God’s revelation in nature, Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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 world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20). There is enough knowledge of God through what He has made to condemn a person for rejecting it.
In addition, God has given everyone a conscience to bear witness to His moral character: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Rom. 2:1-2). Paul continues, “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. 2:14-15).
God will judge every person who has drawn breath according to the light available to them. This doesn’t get anyone off the hook because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23). This means everyone needs Jesus to be saved, but not everyone will be judged for rejecting Jesus, whom they never knew of.