What happens to those who have never heard the Gospel?
The question posed in this week’s Vox Apologia represents one of the most frequent challenges to biblical Christianity and, in my estimation, will be THE great issue facing evangelicalism in coming years. Of course it isn’t a new question, but with a shrinking world and an increasingly “post-Christian” worldview dominant in our own culture, the charge of narrow fundamentalism, intolerance, and arrogant judgementalism is often leveled against those who believe, as I do, that the Bible teaches that we can only be reconciled to God through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In what follows I will briefly sketch out the three major positions taken on this issue, followed by what I think are some of the misguided presuppositions that lead to an erroneous understanding of Scriptural teaching.
There are 3 major understandings of this issue:
Particularism. This view is often labeled “Exclusivism,” but this title is too pejorative – it is intended to stack the deck against the view simply by definition and bias. Obviously, those opposed to this view were the first to define terms! Simply put, this view is that those who have never heard the Gospel are nonetheless condemned by their sinful rebellion against God and will spend eternity apart from Him. The only way of salvation is by explicitly trusting in Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and reconciliation with the Father.
Inclusivism. This view seeks a midway point between the other two. Basically an inclusivist holds that those who have never heard the Gospel may yet be saved through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even if they have never heard of Him. Because they have never heard the Gospel and have not had an opportunity to respond, they will either be judged according to whatever revelation they had (i.e. general revelation in creation), or, as some suggest, they will be given an opportunity to respond at the point of death. They are still saved by Christ’s sacrifice; they just might not realize it. They are, as Karl Rahner famous describes them, “anonymous Christians.”
Pluralism. This view believes that all people will ultimately find salvation irregardless of their religious beliefs. Thus, obviously, those who have never heard the Gospel will be fine, thank you very much. So will Hindus, Muslims, etc. All roads lead up the same mountain and we will all find ourselves at the summit together. The most widely known (and philosophically sophisticated) advocate of this view is John Hick. I discussed John Hick in a previous post.
I think most people really want to believe in inclusivism or pluralism because it just makes a very difficult reality go away. It is difficult for us to stomach the idea that a nice and well-meaning person living quietly in a town somewhere in rural Mongolia may be condemned in his sin never having even had an opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can a loving God allow this to happen?
I suggest that our perspective needs to be adjusted. In short, such a view, while understandable, has an elevated view of man’s goodness and a diminished view of God’s holiness. It may not be popular or even couth to say it, but man is not inherently and intrinsically good. Man (every man and woman) is steeped in sin, actively in rebellion against the Creator. And we are without excuse. Scripture is very clear on this matter, perhaps nowhere moreso than Romans 1, which teaches,
“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
So we have an elevated view of man’s goodness, and we also have a diminished view of God’s holiness. The fact is that we cannot really comprehend the grandeur and majesty of God, nor His purity and holiness. He is utterly without sin, perfect in every way, abounding in goodness and power and glory. Scripture teaches that our righteous deeds are as filthy rags. No matter how much we do, we can never measure up to His righteousness, which is why, by grace, He provided Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for our sins, that we may be reconciled to God. In John 10:10, Jesus proclaims: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, NO ONE comes to the Father EXCEPT through me.” In Romans 10:9, Paul teaches that to be saved we must confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.
Of course, in subsequent verses in Romans 10 Paul launches into a discussion of the importance of taking the Gospel message to people who have not heard. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
So it seems to me that there is no way around the fact that those who have not heard the Gospel are yet condemned. God is not capricious in this matter for we are all rightly condemned by our sins. It is purely through the free exercise of His grace and mercy that some are saved. God is holy and we are sinful and rebellious. We should fear Him and exult in His mercy to us, and we should likewise be burdened for others that they may also come to know Him as we have. 2 Corinthians 5 teaches that all of us have been given the ministry of reconciliation, that we are Christ’s ambassadors sent forth to plead with others to be reconciled to the Father.
There is no other way.