Condemned for Rejecting Jesus?

When talking to people about faith in Jesus Christ and the hope of salvation I sometimes get hit with something like this: "So people go to hell because they don't believe in Jesus? What about the person who has never heard about Jesus? He doesn't even get a chance to believe, but he's still going to hell?!" My response is always something like: "No. The person who has never heard the gospel is not going to hell because he hasn't believed in Jesus. He, like all sinners, goes to hell for all his sins. He is not condemned for not believing in him of whom he has never heard. A man is condemned for who he is and what he has or has not done. A man is condemned because he is a criminal. And let's get back on point. You are hearing this message. And should you ignore the offer of forgiveness in Jesus you will suffer the wrath of God for all your sins, and this will include the grace he is extending you now. Rejecting what you have heard today tells me that you do not yet understand the seriousness of sin. Until you understand the seriousness of your sin, you will not see your need for a Savior." This is of course more of a conversation, but you get the idea. In 1900 a book edited by J.M Frost addressed a number of theological concerns of the day among Southern Baptists (one of the cooperative efforts our church is happy to be a part of). W.M. Harris's essay, "Why Missionary and Not Anti-Missionary," addresses this very question. It's worth a read for everyone, especially my Baptist brothers.

The Question

But one says, “Can it be possible that God will condemn people for rejecting His Son, when they have never heard of Him?”

No, it cannot be possible. God will not condemn people for doing what they did not do. They are lost because they are in sin. To be in sin is to be out of harmony with God, and out of communication with Him, and to be so is to be lost. But this question about rejecting Christ brings up a popular fallacy for which the pulpit is largely responsible--that “unbelief is the great damning sin of the world.” If people are condemned and eternally lost for rejecting Christ, then it is perfectly plain that if He had never offered Himself nobody would have been lost. Did Jesus endure all His sufferings that He might save the world from the penalty of rejecting Him? He could have stayed in heaven with the Father, suffering neither humiliation nor death, and done that. Really His death gives opportunity for rejecting Him, and so according to the notion at this moment under consideration, He not only suffered unnecessarily, but actually occasions that condemnation of human beings for rejecting Him, which would have been impossible had He never suffered.

No, unbelief is not the great damning sin of the world. It is not for the rejection of Christ that people are condemned, and finally cast into hell. Let us illustrate: You have pneumonia. You call in a physician. He prescribes veratrum and a blister. We will suppose for the sake of illustration that it is an infallible remedy. You reject the remedy and die. Now, you die because you reject the remedy, and yet it is perfectly clear that the pneumonia kills you. Sin is a great fact before there is any need of a Savior. It is a virus and fever of the soul. Jesus Christ is the only remedy. If you reject that remedy, or if it does not reach you, is not known, is not offered, you are gone. But it is the preexisting sin, the thing that made a Savior thinkable and needful, the disease for which He is the remedy, that destroys you. Unbelief or the rejection of Christ is a sin and augments the already existing sin whose penalty is death.

W.M. Harris, Baptist Why and Why Not, pp. 64-65