What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

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?

19 thoughts on “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

  1. I too am in # 3 (see _Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions_ [IVP, 2004]). The work of Gerald McDermott indicates that Jonathan Edwards may not belong in #1. On the other hand, I am surprised to see Aquinas in # 2, since I have considered him representative of # 1. A citation to indicate that he belongs in # 2 would be welcome.

    Terrance Tiessen

  2. I’m sorry the citation wasn’t clear but it comes from What About Those Who Have Never Heard that is linked to in the post. I have not studied it thoroughly myself to see if those views are accurate historically.

  3. I fall firmly into category #3… although I hate putting myself into categories 🙂

    I was surprised to see the name James Oliver Buswell Jr. in among so many famous theologians and great spiritual minds…

    I knew Mr. Buswell for years, as his wife taught piano lessons to me and several others in our Pasadena community growing up. It makes me want to look up more of what he wrote and taught… I never knew him as a theologian.

    small small world,

    -James T.

  4. Thanks for commenting James…while I didn’t know any Buswells I went to Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and their library is named after him.

  5. Marcus, my original post to your blog came as a question to “Stump the Pastor”, and I really had not seen your prior posting about this issue. So…from your posting just above – “Frankly, I don’t know for sure.” Does this qualify as a “Pastor Stumped”?
    Whether yes or no, I have more “S-t-P” questions to offer, so I hope you are still accepting these. I’m certainly learning a lot, both from the posts to your blog and from my own pondering about these issues. Thanks for the stimulus.

  6. I wish it were #5 but to me that would be an excuse not to live your life for God and his will. I am not sure I understand #3 meaning at what point in life or at the end of life or after life can they have this “revelation”. I am trying to read the bible more but to be honest I have not studied it enough to be able to refer to scriptures and articulate. I like #2. I think God is universal and I believe he would give all people the opportunity and he certainly has the power to deliver the gospel any way he chooses so it seems logical and feasible to me coming from Angels, dreams etc. I have seen some pretty amazing things in particular signs and message’s after a loved one has died. My Catholic friend says the more you sin the longer you are in pergatory but eventually we all go to heaven. I know very little about catholicism but kinda like that idea too.

  7. Bill…I’m not stumped by saying, “I’m not sure.” It means that I’m not close minded on the issue. I am willing to hear more evidence but the Scripture isn’t entirely clear on the subject so I can’t either. That’s why I showed all of the views in Christendom and who the advocates have been.

    Michele…#3 means that we are only accountable for what we know. Someone who has never heard of Jesus cannot be expected to “follow Jesus.” But Romans is clear that everyone has a knowledge of good and evil deep in their hearts. So everyone is accountable to God…but only based on the information they have. Is that any clearer?

  8. Yes thanks Marcus I believe the Romans theory I understand #3 more, #2 I like the best and still like the pergatory theory……does the bible reference that? Also as Christians it appears we are more accountable to God? Do you think it is possible that some parts of all of those apply or do you think they contradict each other? I know that is kind of a broad question I am mainly referencing 2, 3 & curious what the bible says on pergatory……

  9. There is nothing, in my opinion, and I mean nothing in the Bible that would suggest a “purgatory.” As for there being more than one correct answer above, I guess God could use different ones for different people based on different circumstances but that seems kind of random. The point is that we need to share God’s love with because we enjoy it and because there eternal consequences.

  10. I guess I’ll be the lone voice for #1. If the issue is the fairness of God (not saying it is, and nobody has made that case here), then it would be fair of God to condemn everybody except Jesus –Romans 1-3.

    So, God’s beneficence is not in view. He is perfectly just to condemn every person, for all have sinned and fallen short of his glory.

    The only way to be saved, then, it seems to me, is to be found in Christ and his righteousness and blood, which is not an arrogant statement. No Christian is better than the most profligate unbeliever –we were just like the rest –Eph 2.

    The problem with the other 3 positions is they appear to make evangelism unnecessary. Why seek the lost, if they will all hear anyway?

    • I don’t think position #3 suggests that evangelism is unnecessary. There still has to be revelation from the true God and a real faith response. I guess #3 allows more openness to people’s understanding of the Savior without knowing Jesus by name. I’m thinking Old Testament saints. But of course, that doesn’t hold much because I know position #1 doesn’t exclude them but my suggestion is that there may be more people who’ve heard the gospel without hearing the specifics of the gospels.

  11. And I don’t like the name restrictivism!! It seems to prejudice the case against #1 before it is even considered.

    And the historic evangelical position deserves a bit more credence than that.

  12. But what the Old Testament saints saw was sacrifice, the death of the innocent for sin, belief in the prophecies, etc.

    IN short, as Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day.” They were saved by hope in a coming redeemer.

    We live in a different day in redemptive history. God now calls all men everywhere to repent. In times past he passed over sins committed in ignorance. That’s Paul, not Ken!

    That suggests that there is great accountability to the church to preach the gospel to every living creature.

    Humans aren’t condemned because of their response to the gospel, in the first place, they are condemned in the first place because they are sinners, prone to hate God and neighbor.

    The Russian novelists have really helped me think this through, of late!

  13. Marc, not trying to be argumentative here, just askng for information.

    There is the position that would say that all men are saved by response to the knowledge they have, so a “good” Muslim could be saved.

    Then there are those that say they must know certain gospel facts, even if they don’t know Jesus, like:

    I cannot be good enough for God, but in fact, just the opposite is true.
    If I am to be saved, it is by God’s mercy, not my deserving.
    A holy God, in his mercy, must provide a way to maintain his holiness, even as he saves the sinner –so someone innocent must take my place. (like the Peace Child proto-gospel Don Richardson describes)

    Etc etc.


  14. I certainly wouldn’t go there…I don’t think we are saved by “faith” but redeemed by Christ by grace through faith. Faith is only as good as the object that our faith is placed in. The reason I went with #3 has more to do with limiting how God may act in lands where the actual gospel has never been reached. So this is no excuse for us not to share our faith at all. But I’m thinking more along the line of some tribes that have “scape goat” concepts of which I know very little but may some of those people be “saved” by their faith in God who saves them from sin through the use of “Christ-like” understanding without ever hearing of the actual Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, I wouldn’t BET on that so as to actually intentionally limit the spread of the gospel. That would be clear disobedience to the Great Commission.

  15. Pingback: Top 10 Posts from 2010 (as determined by you) « Small Town Pastor

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