“For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” (2 Peter 2:21, AV)
I know of people that struggle with the teaching of the gospel because they worry about those who die that never heard the message of the gospel. They think that God is not fair. How can He punish those who had never had a chance? So, we must answer two questions. “Is God just?” “Is God merciful?” The answer to both of these is yes. God is infinitely merciful and infinitely just. The more difficult question is, “How do we reconcile God’s infinite justice with His infinite mercy for those who never had the opportunity to hear?” The Scriptures give us some clear indications in this area.
Here Peter wrote a statement that sheds some light on this dilemma. He stated that it would have been better for the false teachers and those that follow their teaching to have not known the gospel than to have known and turn away from it. This gives us an indication that there are degrees of sin and judgment for those who have not received Christ.
Before looking at this, we must step back a second. First, we must understand that everyone born on this earth, apart from Jesus, is a sinner who falls short of the divine standard of holiness. Thus, all deserve judgment and punishment for sins. We who have experienced saving grace by faith in Jesus have received a special pardon. We too were guilty, but by God’s grace we have been saved and will escape the judgment, having our names written in the book of life (see Rev 20:15).
However, everyone who has not received Christ will be judged according to their works (Rev 20:11-15). The righteous judge will make this judgment with perfect fairness. Peter indicated that it will be better for those who have not heard the gospel at that day of judgment than for those who have understood but rejected the message. Knowingly rejecting the message that one has understood is a greater sin with a greater punishment. Jesus speaking of those who rejected Him indicated the same.
Regarding greater and lesser sins. “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” (John 19:11, AV)
Jesus regarding greater and lesser judgment. “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matthew 11:20–22, AV)
The writer of Hebrews indicated, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:29, ESV)
It is clear that there will be greater and lesser degrees of punishment, especially for those who have rejected the knowledge of the gospel versus those who have never heard. Exactly how the degrees of judgment will look is not fully developed in the Scripture. Yet, it is indicated. Rest assured, God is fair. He is infinitely just and He is infinitely merciful. It is unlawful for us to question the mercy and justice of God. We must just trust those who have never heard to God’s infinite mercy and justice. Moreover, those of us who have heard and received Christ should rejoice.