The recent tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the ensuing enormous loss of life, have raised again the perennial questions of where God is in the midst of disaster, and what happens to those who lose their lives without the opportunity to hear the Gospel. These are legitimate questions for Christians to wrestle with, because on the surface, such disasters seem to challenge the goodness of God.
The Christian is not called to be a fatalist and assume that whatever happens is `the will of God', especially not when something is so at odds with the revealed character of God as a God of love. What instead we are promised is that "God works all things together for good for those who love God" (Romans 8:28). This does not mean that everything that happens is good, but rather that God has the power to bring good out of even disastrous situations.
What should we think about the issue of salvation and those who die through natural disasters? John 3:16 says God loves the world--not merely believers, but the world. A fundamental Christian principle is that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but rather to save the world through Him (Jn. 3:17). The intentions of God are for good, and not for harm, as is reflected in his salvation plan worked out through Jesus. Jesus did not just come to gather or save the elect, he came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), which includes all of us. Jesus deliberately gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:5).
This same verse also reminds us that there is but one saving mediator between God and us, namely Jesus. There may be truth in many differing religious sources, but the New Testament is clear about the means of salvation--Jesus is indeed the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him (Jn. 13:6). In Acts 4:11 Peter puts it this way: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved."
All can be saved, and God desires it to be so. But God has provided only one means through which one can be saved.
What then are we Christians to think about those who die without hearing the Gospel? Are they automatically lost simply because they have not heard the Good News? Theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries, and equally sincere Christian thinkers have come to different conclusions about this matter. I can only share my conclusions from spending my adult life studying the Greek New Testament.
Paul goes on to say in Rom. 1 that the lost are condemned for ignoring God, and exchanging the truth about God for the lie of false religion. Again I would stress that Paul suggests that no one is lost simply because they haven't heard the Good News. They are lost because they have failed to respond positively to the light they received through creation.
We also have Mk. 10:14, where Jesus says to allow the little children (even infants-see Lk. 18:15) to be brought to him because "the Dominion of God belongs to such as these." The Greek here means that the Dominion belongs to these and those who are like them. This refers to those who are brought into the presence of Jesus. This would not necessarily imply that the children in question had an understanding of Jesus, much less knew he was the Savior. It suggests that Jesus is gracious and receives them even before they can become disciples.
Finally, in Rom. 11, Paul envisions a complex eschatological scenario in which when Jesus returns, a large number of non-Christian Jews will be saved (see vs. 25). It seems clear from this that at the end of time, people will have a chance to respond positively to Jesus. Though there will be lost ones who choose to go on to everlasting destruction rather than to acknowledge God and obey Him (2 Thess. 1:7-10), when Jesus returns "every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord" (Phil. 2:10-11). We must interpret a poetic text like this carefully, since it is likely part of an early Christian hymn. But I take this to mean that while not all will be saved (since other texts make this clear), that nonetheless Jesus will be universally recognized. People from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation--people from every age and stage of life, and from every era of human history--will own their Savior.
This may be cold comfort when we consider the enormous and tragic loss of life in Southeast Asia.We should remember that God desires that none should perish but that all should obtain everlasting life. Though we cannot be sure, the Bible suggests that there will be a further full chance for people to respond either positively or negatively to Jesus when he returns, especially for those who have never heard of him in the first place. This dovetails well with the compassionate and loving character of our God, revealed especially in texts like Jn. 3:16-17 or 1 Timothy (cited above).
The deceased are in the hands of God, and we must leave them there. God does not play favorites or act unjustly. He will deal with them fairly, indeed lovingly. The God of the universe is the God of Jesus Christ, and Jesus, as the spitting image of the Father, came and died so that all might have life and have it both abundantly and eternally. If you want to know the will of God for the lost, consider Jesus, and that he died for them as well as for believers. God will have the last word about all these matters, and that word will accord with what he has revealed through his Son.