One of the toughest questions I get from Christians and non-Christians alike is what happens to those people who never even hear about Jesus, they never get to CHOOSE to follow Jesus. Good question. Frankly, I don’t know for sure. But I do know the following: Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But exactly how that works is unclear. Obviously the Old Testament saints didn’t know Jesus as the disciples did or as we do. But they did have the law and the Temple so apparently they were able to know God and have faith by knowing even the SHADOW of Jesus.
This is a big question for the emerging generation because they don’t like the traditional answer of “Jesus is the only way.” It sounds exclusive and even arrogant. And that’s exactly right; they don’t like it because we have made it sound exclusive and arrogant. It’s not the viewpoint itself that’s the problem but the way it’s been communicated in the past. When I have been able to communicate the all-bounding grace of God through Jesus, reaching all tongues and tribes, when I admit that I don’t know all the answers, then people are receptive. God is not exclusive. Maybe people who have never heard aren’t accountable and responsible like we are. Regardless, Jesus was clear in commanding us “to make disciples” and “to preach the good news.”
Historically there have been 5 viewpoints. Here they are (as found in the book “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?“. You be the judge.
1) Restrictivism: God does not provide salvation to those who fail to hear of Jesus and come to faith in him before they die. Key texts: John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 5:11-12. Adherents: Augustine, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Carl Henry, R.C. Sproul, Ronald Nash.
2) Universal Opportunity Before Death: All people are given opportunity to be saved by God’s sending the gospel (even by angels or dreams) or at the moment of death or by middle knowledge. Key texts: Daniel 2; Acts 8. Adherents: Aquinas, Arminius, J. Oliver Buswell Jr., Norman Geisler.
3) Inclusivism: The unevangelized may be saved if they respond in faith to God based on the revelation they have. Key texts: John 12:32; Acts 10:43; 1 Timothy 4:10. Adherents: Justin Martyr, John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders.
4) Divine Perseverance (or Postmortem Evangelism): The unevangelized receive an opportunity to believe in Jesus after death. Key texts: John 3:18; 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. Adherents: Clement of Alexandria, George MacDonald, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre.
5) Universalism: All people will in fact be saved by Jesus. No one is damned forever. Key texts: Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22-28; 1 John 2:2. Adherents: Origen, F.E. Schleiermacher, G.C. Berkouwer, William Barclay.
At this point I am in camp #3. What about you?