This is a common question, and sometimes reflects misunderstandings about a number of issues, including God’s character, the “free gift” of salvation, and how the Bible talks about both.
God’s will is that all people would be saved—he wants each person to make the choice to receive the free gift of eternal life and of the Holy Spirit. Scripture makes this clear in 1 Timothy 2:3-6:
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (NAS)
But how does that work? If God desires “all men” (and in today’s language that means “all people”) to be saved, why doesn’t he just save everyone and be done with it?
God’s Character is Complex
First, it is important for us to understand that God is a complex being, and that though He loves each person and has a will for their salvation, He also allows people the freedom to reject Him.
This reflects the reality that God’s character is complex and multifaceted (see, e.g., Exodus 34: 3-7). While God is Love, God is also a holy and righteous Judge—the Supreme Judge of the World. These characteristics aren’t contradictory, they just mean that God is complicated. Kind of like you.
Receiving The Free Gift
Now, how does this relate to salvation and damnation? I once heard an older preacher use an example to explain the way God gives people the gift of eternal life, and it has stuck with me for many years.
Did you pay for the gift card?
No, someone else paid for it.
What if you don’t use it? Do you get to enjoy that gift?
No, the gift card just sits there.
If you don’t use the gift, you haven’t really received it, have you? It has been given, but not received.
In order to enjoy the gift card, you must choose to receive it and use it.
Jesus’ gift of eternal life to us is the same way. He died so that every person who ever sinned can have eternal life and fellowship with the Father. But every person must choose to receive the gift and use it.
[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name. (John 1:11-12)
Just as God loves every person so much that he was willing to sacrifice His son for them, He loves them so much that he won’t force them to bend to His will. That is, each person gets to makes their choice, and live (or die) with the consequences of their choices.
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)
So God’s just-ness in His character means that people who choose to receive the gift, live eternally. His just-ness also means that people who choose not to receive the gift also choose eternal punishment.
But what about those who haven’t heard?
Many critics of Christianity complain that this is profoundly unjust and unloving. They point out the situations of people who have never heard of Jesus, who lived their whole lives and died never even having the opportunity to accept or reject him.
There are at least two responses to this criticism. First, it makes the Great Commission a very urgent task! Second, over the last two millennia there has been a standard response, because The Bible tells us what the resolution is. In Romans 2, Paul writes about the Gentiles who didn’t receive the Law (the Old Testament), but who managed to live righteous lives anyway.
14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
Paul argues that when the Gentiles instinctively lived righteously, they demonstrated that the Law was written in their hearts (that is, their minds and wills), and that God will judge them according to that criterion. They, however, face a much more uncertain judgement than those who accept the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. The problem for the Gentiles in this situation, is how much obedience is enough? How much compliance with the Law written on their hearts is needed to balance of their disobedience to that Law?
Uncertain though it is, Paul seems to be arguing that this is the opportunity for salvation for those who have never heard the name of Jesus. But it is still a clearly worse option than the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
How much better to accept the free gift when you hear about it!
Check out Sean McDowell’s video on another important dimension of this question.