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:
- Church Exclusivism: the view that outside the church there is no salvation.
- Gospel Exclusivism: the view that only those who hear the gospel and trust Christ are saved. The gospel is the content of faith.
- 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.
- 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).
- General Revelation Inclusivism: the view that some can be saved by responding to God through seeing enough of who He is in general revelation.
- 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.
- Postmortem Evangelism: the view that those who have never heard the gospel will have an opportunity to trust Christ after death.
- Universalism: the view that everyone will ultimately be saved.
- 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).
D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Zondervan 1996)