What happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel?

One of the hardest issues that the Christian can face is the fate of the unevangelized. At a time when we are aware of both the religious diversity in the world and the fact that many people have yet to even encounter Christianity, it can seem arrogant and intolerant to defend Biblical texts like John 14:6 (“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.””) and Acts 4:12 (“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”). For many, the idea that God could condemn individuals who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel is repugnant. And it is this revulsion at this traditional understanding that has made answers such as the one put forward by Rob Bell in Love Wins even more popular.

In an interview with Colin Hansen, Christopher Morgan has offered a good overview of the debate concerning this question. Morgan, professor of theology at California Baptist University and author of the excellent book Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan, 2004), outlines three major viewpoints:

  • Exclusivism: the view that faith in Jesus through the gospel or special revelation is necessary for salvation.
  • Inclusivism: the view that faith in God via general revelation is sufficient for many.
  • Pluralism: holds that all paths are valid and true.

Of course, none of these are nicely defined positions with clear boundaries. Each category can include many different views. Morgan distinguishes nine:

  1. Church Exclusivism: the view that outside the church there is no salvation.
  2. Gospel Exclusivism: the view that only those who hear the gospel and trust Christ are saved. The gospel is the content of faith.
  3. Special Revelation Exclusivism: the view that God can extraordinarily save some through a direct revelation from God. The gospel is still the content of faith.
  4. Agnosticism: the view that we cannot know with certainty the answer to this question (which further breaks down into an optimistic and a pessimistic version).
  5. General Revelation Inclusivism: the view that some can be saved by responding to God through seeing enough of who He is in general revelation.
  6. World Religions Inclusivism: the view that some can be saved by responding to God through general revelation or their religion, since their religion contains some truth.
  7. Postmortem Evangelism: the view that those who have never heard the gospel will have an opportunity to trust Christ after death.
  8. Universalism: the view that everyone will ultimately be saved.
  9. Pluralism: the view that Christianity is not unique and all major religions are equally valid and therefore offer the same potential for salvation.

Read how he unpacks each view in the whole interview here.

While it is a difficult issue, Christians must first seek to listen to what the Bible says. It will not do to follow Rob Bell and others such as John Sanders, Karl Rahner, and Clark Pinnock, who appeal to the love of God in a way that ignores both what the Bible actually says about God’s love and undermines important doctrines that are clearly affirmed by the rest of the Bible. As D.A. Carson points out, hard inclusivists and universalists actually end up distorting the love of God by pulling certain themes out of the Bible, creating a grid, and using the grid to eliminate or at least domesticate other biblical themes. We all agree that God is a God of love but we must understand that love not according to contemporary notions, but in the context of all that God has revealed about Himself, and especially within the context of the biblical storyline. We are in need of God, not just because of what we do, but because of who we are. We are not just lost, but guilty, and our guilt before God justly invites his wrath. If we are not consumed, it is only because of His sheer mercy. Should even one sinner be rescued, that salvation would be due wholly to the love of God. According to the Bible, therefore, God’s love is radical, surprising, and undeserved. Yet by starting the discussion without recognizing these important themes, the discussion gets turned around so that if God does not try harder, the blame for anyone’s destruction is God’s fault. What starts out as a defense of the love of God instead becomes an indictment of God. Worse, the storyline becomes so twisted that instead of being seen as guilty idolators we are viewed as the victims of an unjust God. We must not ignore the fact that in the Bible, God’s love is great because our sin is great.

For a proper defense of the traditional understanding of gospel exclusivism, check out the Ronald Nash’s article Is Belief in Jesus Necessary? or the free audio download for John Piper’s book Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved? (only available till the end of March).

Notes

D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Zondervan 1996)

12 replies
  1. Ash
    Ash says:

    God defined the parameters of reality as we know it, including the forces which shape human nature, yet Jesus said "Narrow is the way and few shall enter the kingdom of heaven" nearly 2,000 years ago.

    Now, my understanding was that God created the Universe as a habitat for a specie to worship him, namely us.

    I simply don't find it convincing that most of humanity is mere chaff, whose consciousnesses are destined to suffer forever so that God could find a righteous few amongst them, who would ultimately escape damnation on account of accidents of birth (geography, parents, genetics, etc). Yes, that works for a Calvinistic metaphysic, but I don't believe that is what you are espousing.

    Easier to accept that humanity just had too many unanswered questions, and gladly took what was offered by 'holy men' over uncertainty, and that this collection of memes morphed and mutated into the mass of religions we have today.

  2. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Ash, a few thoughts:

    1. Hell isn't a place only for consciousness. It is a physical place, just as the new earth is.

    2. God doesn't "find" a righteous few. There is no one righteous. Rather, God gives us the righteousness of Jesus.

    3. There are no accidents in God's universe. Geography, parents, genetics, etc are all decided by God himself. So if these are relevant factors in determining who will be saved by determining who will have faith in Christ, then they are factors controlled by God.

    4. You're right that a Calvinist metaphysic makes sense of this. I believe you'll find Jason is a Calvinist.

    5. Regarding the notion that humanity just took the answers "holy men" offered in favor of having no answers at all—that's a pretty common kind of theme, especially among people who have at one stage been involved in some church or other but then asked questions their elders couldn't answer. But it's not really borne out by history, or even psychology. If anything, man's extraordinary tendency to always ask spiritual questions suggests exactly what Christianity asserts: that there are real answers to these questions, and that we ask them because we are made in the image of God.

  3. Quiescer
    Quiescer says:

    Bnonn,

    1. Hell is a physical place. Sure, if you say so. It seems tangential at best to the discussion.

    2. Call them 'the saved' if you will; it seems like esoteric detail to me. I was appealing to the non-Calvinist's sense of justice (perhaps evinced in Jesus' words "All men are created equal") and the misapprehension that all should have roughly equal opportunity to hear the gospel, understand and retain some of it, and finally have an opportunity to consider it disinterestedly. I was not raised a Calvinist, but it's the only form of Christianity that I think fits the realities as I see them.

    3. Right. I tend to conceptualise the Universe as being a deterministic place also, but a determinism emerging from the interplay of natural laws. And I agree that many are "disadvantaged" in their access and receptiveness to the gospel, owing to a host of factors beyond their control. I hink the majority of those calling themselves Christian are not Calvinists though, so I like to draw attention to what seem to be their misapprehensions.

    4. Okay. so the upshot of that in relation to the OP would be that missionaries are vital, presumably?

    5. Could you elaborate on how memetic natural selection as a mechanism for explaining the plethora of mystical beliefs and metaphysics "is not borne out by history, or even psychology". Where do you suggest the myriad belief systems originate?

  4. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Hey Ash

    I was not raised a Calvinist, but it's the only form of Christianity that I think fits the realities as I see them.

    Same (:

    I tend to conceptualise the Universe as being a deterministic place also, but a determinism emerging from the interplay of natural laws

    As a Christian, I'd say that naturalistic determinism is a logical result of theological determinism. And I'd also point out that a purely naturalistic determinism wreaks havoc with notions of human agency, ultimately reducing us to physical creatures with no capacity for genuine beliefs, attitudes and the like. I'm actually presenting the case for this in another thread at the moment.

    I hink the majority of those calling themselves Christian are not Calvinists though, so I like to draw attention to what seem to be their misapprehensions.

    True enough, and honestly, I'm with you on that. I can't defend a form of Christianity I think is logically and biblically untenable. That said, you seem to be arguing more against a kind of open theism than the more typical Arminianism you'll find in the average Christian. Arminianism also holds that God decides all the details of everyone's lives. It just has this internal tension where it denies theological determinism, even though theological determinism seems to be a logical implication of Arminianism as much as Calvinism.

    Okay. so the upshot of that in relation to the OP would be that missionaries are vital, presumably?

    Definitely. That's why it's called the great commission (:

    Could you elaborate on how memetic natural selection as a mechanism for explaining the plethora of mystical beliefs and metaphysics "is not borne out by history, or even psychology". Where do you suggest the myriad belief systems originate?

    Well, as I've said, I think a more reasonable explanation for man's incurable religiousness is that he was created for a relationship with God, but then turned from God. Thus, he tries to make sense of his own obvious spirituality, and God's obvious presence in creation, by inventing other gods, and other kinds of spiritual philosophies.

    The obvious problem with natural selection, from my point of view, is that it's just a reactionary hypothesis. Start with the assumption that God can't exist and the physical world is all there is, and then try to explain everything in those terms. But that's really all it is. It's very tendentious. From a Christian perspective, it's just another example of man trying to make sense of his world without reference to God. Except this time he gets rid of everything spiritual, instead of accepting it. So the evolutionary view is no less religious, in the sense of requiring faith; it's just a different kind of religion than we typically see. You still have to start with the unproven philosophical beliefs of naturalism before the memetic option becomes plausible—but once you start with those beliefs, the memetic option is really all you've got. So it's not so much the best explanation among many, or the most verified explanation—it's neither of those things. It's just the only explanation. That's pretty unconvincing to someone who doesn't buy into the faulty assumptions of naturalism to begin with, though!

  5. Elizabeth_hindmarsh
    Elizabeth_hindmarsh says:

    No matter what any doctrine says, you have to be deeply troubled that an all-knowing God would decide to create people (his choice, not ours) who are going to die and suffer FOREVER in hell. This can’t be called love without much discomfort. I appreciate Rob Bell’s honesty about this matter that is often glossed over and treated with too much simplicity.

  6. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Hi Elizabeth, you say, “This can’t be called love without much discomfort.” Well, I don’t think it can be called love at all. If you tried to characterize God’s actions towards those in hell as loving, you would end up with a contradiction, because then what would his actions towards those in heaven be? Also loving? But they’re diametrically opposed actions.

    Of course, the Bible never claims that God loves those in hell.

  7. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    I disagree with Bnonn on the idea that God does not love those he has to punish. The wrath and hatred of God is reserved only for sin, and humans are caught up and are complicit in it, for which they suffer the consequence on the merit of their own choices. Therfore, God may still love the people in hell.

  8. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Hey Ash. To quote in Disqus is the same as in WordPress: just use the blockquote tag.

    I think it is a contradiction to say that God determines the details of everyones’ lives whilst claiming we must choose to accept salvation and direct our lives accordingly, don’t you?

    Yes, absolutely. In fact, I would go further. I don’t think it is a contradiction; I know it is. I also know that the Bible denies we are to libertarianly choose to accept our salvation. On the contrary, it tells us that salvation is by faith, and faith is a gift of God. We cannot be saved unless God first regenerates us—what Jesus describes to Nicodemus as being born again. We have no control over our first birth; nor our second; and we can’t undo either.

    It might be more internally consistent to say that God animates us and is in fact putting on the whole puppet show for his own satisfaction. Why he felt it necessary to give his puppets consciousness and the ability to suffer in their lives is left as an exercise for the theological determinist, but is anyway academic given God’s documented infallibility, incomprehensibility and lack of accountability to his creation.

    Well, I think you’re contradicting yourself here. A puppet doesn’t have consciousness and the ability to suffer. So we are manifestly more than puppets, just as God is manifestly more than a puppetmaster. But in terms of the general thrust of your comment, the Bible likens us to clay, and God to a potter. And of course he puts on “the whole show”, as you call it, for his own satisfaction. Who else’s satisfaction would he do it for? All things were made through him, by him, and for him.

    Quite right re: purely naturalistic determinism, though your objection seems to be a rejection of the explanation based on the undesirability of its ramifications for prevailing conceptions of Human Nature – is it?

    No, as I thought I made clear, it’s a rejection based on the logical incoherency of naturalistic determinism. If it is true, then there is no such thing as logical inference—or, if there is, we don’t come to conclusions because of it. That’s a self-refuting idea. You need logical inference to get it off the ground.

    Why attribute only the desire for answers to that which was (and often still is) unknowable to a feature of God’s design?

    Why attribute it to natural selection? You see how which view is more reasonable comes down entirely to our presuppositions. I don’t believe we evolved through natural selection, so it makes no sense to attribute our desire for answers to that process. You don’t believe we were made in the image of God, so it makes no sense to attribute our desire for answers to that process. We need to look deeper and find out which presuppositions are workable, and which aren’t.

    What if the reason proponents of naturalism rejected the theistic explanations on offer was that they were found to be unsatisfactory? Surely, in that case a “reactionary” rejection of theistic accounts is perfectly reasonable, nay demanded.

    Sure, but then, in what sense are theistic explanations unsatisfactory?

    Would you agree that whether natural selection as an explanation is reactionary or not is not a very useful evaluation of its merits? Is speculating as to the motivations of an idea’s proponents really a fair or reasonable way to appraise their propositions?

    I think that natural selection being reactionary would be less of an issue if it weren’t your only option. If it had arisen out of a number of competing models, on the basis of strong evidence. But that isn’t what has happened. Speculating as to the motivations of an idea’s proponents is extremely reasonable when the cogency and continuation of that idea rests upon their motivations. If that idea is the only option they have aside from theism, which they despise, then that definitely casts doubt upon their reasoning and their evaluation of the evidence.

    Nonetheless, if falsifiable naturalistic explanations can be found for phenomena, I think they ought to be accepted until the day if/when more credible supernatural explanations obtain.

    Well, I’m not sure what to make of that. Christianity doesn’t claim that natural explanations can’t be found for phenomena. The idea of finding natural explanations is originally a Christian one, if you recall. But thinking that a natural eplanation precludes a supernatural explanation is just an obvious category error.

    In your opinion, is the memetic natural selection explanation of belief systems somehow unable to explain the world’s mystical, spiritual and religious traditions?

    The question presupposes the cogency of natural selection itself. Since I think natural selection is incoherent in terms of allowing us to arrive at truth in general, for several reasons, and since I’m unconvinced that there is good evidence for it on scientific grounds, I’m obliged to say that it cannot explain the world’s mystical traditions, because it cannot be true.

  9. Amir
    Amir says:

    We must understand that mntrsiiy first begins within us as individuals. We need to clean up our own act so that we can effectively see spiritually and hear what the Lord has for us to do. When we do missions, we have to go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us to go. It could be to places where you never have been before or it could be someone close by. However, wherever you are sent, you must remain there until God tells otherwise.

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