I have heard it in malls, I have heard it on college campuses, I have heard it at my work, and I have heard it on the streets. Whether it be strangers, coworkers, fellow soldiers, or friends, the question that comes up over and over again in many of my evangelistic conversations is: “What happens to the good guy who lives on an unknown island who has never heard of Jesus Christ? How can it be fair to send that good man to hell, just because he has never had anyone tell him about Jesus? Can a good man on an unknown island go to heaven if he has never heard of Christ?”
Often times the question is a distraction thrown out by the questioner to avoid the implications of the gospel on his life (seeing as the questioner has heard of Christ). But at other times it is an honest question and it should be answered. Not to mention, the answer will bring the conversation back to the core truths of the gospel. The following is a brief attempt to answer the question, and to answer it using only the book of Romans (this will allow you to easily show the answer from scripture).
Everyone Stands Condemned for Rejecting the Creator
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Everyone knows the “eternal power” and “divine nature” of the creator. Everyone. Even the people who have never heard about God from the Bible know about the eternal creator God. They all know about the creator because of “the things that have been made.” Creation is a universal witness to God. You cannot look at the sun rising behind two beautiful snow covered mountains, or stand in an empty field and stare out at thousands of stars brilliantly shining in the night sky, or examine the complexity of the human body, or hear birds sing, or people talk, or smell a rose, or feel the ocean splashing against you, and not know there is a God. You cannot experience creation and not know there is a creator. People who deny the true creator God are completely “without excuse.”
But not only does all humanity know about God, they have also all failed to “honor him” or “give him thanks.” Instead of worshiping the true creator, they have chosen to worship creation. So every person on the planet, including the ones who have never heard of Christianity, are held accountable to God because they have rejected God. Every person knows about the true God, and every person has rejected Him and chosen to worship creation instead. Thus, every person on earth deserves to have the “wrath of God” poured out on them. Every person deserves to be judged.
Everyone Stands Condemned for Breaking the Law Written on their Hearts
12 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. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 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. 15 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 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
In the second chapter of Romans, Paul is showing that both the Jews and the Gentiles are sinners who have broken God’s law. The Jews had been given God’s written law in the Old Testament and thus they were “under the law.” The Gentiles had not been given any written revelation from God, thus they were “without the law.” Paul explains that “all who have sinned under the law” (the Jews) will be condemned, and “all who have sinned without the law” (the Gentiles) also stand condemned. Both those with God’s written word and those without it stand condemned. God can condemn those “without” the law because they have the law “written on their hearts”, as they all have a conscience that informs them of the basics of the law.
In other words, people know instinctively that murdering your mom is wrong, that stealing from your neighbor is bad, and that lying is evil. All people know basic morals and their own conscience will “accuse” them on judgment day. Even the person on the unknown island, who has never heard God’s written law, knows the basics of what’s “right and wrong” and has deliberately done things that are wrong. Thus, every person deserves to be judged.
Salvation Only Comes by Faith in Christ
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God has shown us a righteousness that can be granted to us apart from obeying the law. We can receive God’s righteousness by putting our faith in Christ. We can receive this righteousness because of what Jesus Christ did for us. Jesus was a “propitiation” for us, meaning: Jesus satisfied God’s wrath against sin by becoming a sacrifice for us. God can be considered “just” and yet still “justify” unrighteous people, because our sins were put on Jesus and he was punished in our place.
So rejecting the God of creation and breaking the law of God can be forgiven. Those sins can be forgiven when a person has faith in Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished through his sacrifice. The unknown person on the island can be saved
Salvation Only Comes through Hearing the Gospel
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved….13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 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? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”….17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
A person must hear the facts of the gospel to be saved. They must know that they need salvation, they must know about the death and resurrection of Christ, and they must know of Jesus as Savior and Lord. And they must respond by acknowledging his lordship and turning to him in faith. They must hear and respond in order to be saved.
No one can miss Paul’s logic in this passage: people must call on the name of the Lord to be saved, but they can’t call on him unless they believe in him, but they cannot believe in him unless they hear about him, but they cannot hear about him unless someone preaches to them, but people cannot preach to them unless they are sent to them. Conclusion: people can only be saved if others go to them and preach the gospel and they respond in faith. This is the only way people can be saved. If someone does not hear the gospel, then they cannot go to heaven. Thus, the people on the unknown island who have not heard the gospel and responded in faith cannot be saved. They will stand condemned.
So, going back to our original question: “Can a good man on an unknown island go to heaven if he has never heard of Christ?” Yes! The good man on the unknown island will go straight to heaven. The only problem is…there is no “good” man out there. Every person has knowingly rejected the creator God and has deliberately broken God’s law. Thus, every person stands condemned and deserves hell.
But, there is good news! If someone goes to that man on the unknown island and preaches to him the gospel and that man responds in faith, then that man will be saved!
So tell your unbelieving friend that this is why Christians send missionaries all over the world. This is why Christians have been willing to suffer and die in their efforts to reach unbelievers in remote areas. This is why millions of Christians continue to pray for and give their money to people who are preaching the gospel to those all over the globe…and this is why you are telling him the gospel…because you want him to him to put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.