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Spring 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 1 · pp. 54–63 

The Destiny of Those Who Have Never Heard: A Bibliographical Essay

Walter Unger

Due to the rapid rate of globalization and the growing pluralism of our society, Western Christians are encountering other religions in an unprecedented way. In response to this reality, theologians have reexamined basic Christian attitudes and beliefs vis-a-vis other religions and revisited the issue of the destiny of those who have never heard the gospel.

One of several issues is whether there is salvation for the unevangelized.

And so the questions come. Are sincere Muslims or Buddhists who have never been exposed to the message of Christ excluded from grace? Do religions other than Christianity have any truth in them which might somehow lead to salvation? Is the majority of humankind ultimately to be excluded from the presence of God and are only a few saved?

EXPOSURE TO PLURALISM

A good starting point in surveying the field of religious pluralism in general and the fate of the unevangelized in particular is to read Harold A. Netland’s Dissonant Voices - Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (1991). The author studied under John Hick and is currently a missionary to Japan and assistant professor of religious studies at Tokyo Christian University.

Netland writes a vigorous defense of exclusivism, i.e., the basic claims of Christianity are true and where the claims of other religions conflict with those of Christianity the claims of {55} other religions are to be rejected as false. Salvation is only available through the person and work of Christ; followers of other religions must accept Christ in order to be saved (p. ix).

Dissonant Voices provides a thorough critique of Hick’s pluralism (chaps. 6 & 7) as well as of the pluralistic views of Paul Knitter (ch. 7). Chapter seven also deals with the question of those who have never heard of Christ.

Although Netland writes as a convinced exclusivist, he does not seem to hold to a stringent restrictivism regarding those who have never heard. He defines restrictivism as the view that “only by consciously and explicitly responding to the proclaimed gospel of Jesus Christ can one be saved” (p. 265). He reviews the restrictivist arguments (pp. 265-68), but then presents three other views which allow that some who have never heard the gospel might be saved (pp. 268-76). He doesn’t propose to settle what he calls this “thorny question” but says evangelicals must grapple with the issue through “careful and rigorous investigation of Scripture” (p. 277).

Such serious grappling and rigorous scriptural study of the destiny of the unevangelized has been done in a number of other recent books.

The Copernican Revolution in Theology

A “must” read is William V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos, eds. Through No Fault of Their Own (1991). The foreword notes that the volume was written by a group of “solid evangelical scholars-specialists in their fields” discussing the crucial questions raised by the topic of the fate of those who have never heard the gospel (the subtitle of the book).

Through No Fault describes twentieth-century developments in theology: pluralism, universalistic inclusivism, universalistic exclusivism and annihilationism (Millard Erickson, ch. 1, “The State of the Question” and Timothy Westergren, ch. 14, “Do All Roads Lead to Heaven? An Examination of Unitive Pluralism”). The latter deals extensively with Paul Knitter’s theology and the former summarizes John Hick’s views, Hick being “probably the most outspoken advocate of pluralism” (p. 27).

Through No Fault introduces readers to the pluralist view of offering hope to the unevangelized. Hick and Knitter, it is said are leading the way in a “Copernican revolution” in theology - a shift from a Christ-centred model to a God-centred model giving all religions equal footing.

Knitter, a Roman Catholic, engages evangelical concerns fairly. What conservatives are saying about Christ’s uniqueness and normativity may be true, he writes, but he remains unconvinced. Traditionalists have misunderstood the Bible, states Knitter. There are many ways to the centre {56 - God. While we may start with what the Bible has to say about other religions, no final conclusions about their ultimate truth or value should be reached without an equal dependence on shared human experience.

Knitter agrees that the New Testament authors did experience God in the man Jesus and were inspired to communicate this to others. But, he adds, God is encountered not only in Jesus. “Although the witness of the New Testament writers is Christocentric, Jesus Christ himself is theocentric.” The core of Christ’s message was the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the New Testament statements about Christ are “mythic-symbolic.” The seemingly exclusive claims about Christ have been accidentally interpreted by traditional Christianity in that way because of the love language used.

Having ably laid out the Hick-Knitter viewpoint, Through No Fault does not, in this reviewer’s opinion, do an extensive or thorough enough critique of it. The key essay (ch. 14) only devotes four pages to evaluating unitive pluralism.

A Spectrum of Evangelical Approaches to the Unevangelized

Some contributors to Through No Fault while rejecting pluralism hold out hope for the unevangelized. In answering the question “Is Special Revelation Necessary for Salvation?”, David K. Clark (ch. 2), advances what he calls “the implicit-faith view.” He sees this as an alternative to both the traditional Reformed view of exclusivism and to universalism. The implicit-faith view denies that the only way to know Jesus Christ is by coming into contact with special revelation. Information sufficient for salvation can be found outside special revelation.

In this approach, people who have never heard of Christ see through nature that a God exists. Their conscience tells them that they are out of touch with this God. They are prompted to cast themselves on God’s mercy. “They are saved objectively on the basis of Christ’s work of atonement; they are saved subjectively in that God elicits a faith response to the glimmer of light in natural revelation” (p. 42).

Clark amplifies this position by differentiating between knowing Christ and knowing about Christ. People must know Christ. i.e., have a personal relation to God in Christ to be saved. But they do not need to know about Christ, i.e., have their own mental awareness of Christ, to be saved. “They are in right personal relation to God only because of the necessary objective reality of the cross, but their own intellectual grasp of the historical event by which they benefit is nil. Since they do not know about Christ, their faith in Christ is real, but implicit” (p. 42). {57}

Other contributors to Through No Fault also advance some hope for the unevangelized. In chapter five, R. Bryan Widbin addresses the question “Salvation for People Outside Israel’s Covenant?” He reminds his readers that Israel believed Yahweh created and sustained the universe and thus controlled all nations, not just Israel. Amos (9:7) stressed that Yahweh cared about the destinies of all peoples. The possibility of divine mercy is open to all who repent.

Widbin draws attention to “God-fearers” such as Job, Melchizedek and Jethro. Although Israel believed Yahweh was active in the world independent of her covenant, “Israel did reject, it seems, the notion of entire God-fearing nations.” He concludes that the Old Testament treats “God-fearers,” by and large, as an anomaly. No explanations are offered for how they came to acknowledge the transcendent God. “For the writers these matters were best left in God’s hands” (p. 82).

Frederick W. Schmidt, in “Jesus and the Salvation of the Gentiles” concludes from his study of the synoptic Gospels that there is no evidence that Jesus transcended the particularism of his contemporaries or tore down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. Therefore, because the synoptics never tell us what Jesus taught about other religions, “we must be cautious in our conclusions. We must beware of forcing ancient texts to answer modern questions” (p. 104).

Clark Pinnock takes a similar approach to Acts 4:12 (ch. 8), affirming that this text does not speak to the question of the fate of the unevangelized. It does speak “forcefully about the incomparable power of Jesus’ name to save (and heal) those who hear and respond to the good news, but it does not comment on the fate of the heathen” (p. 110). People read into such texts meanings that are not there because of their restrictivist presuppositions, says Pinnock.

RESTRICTIVISM

Other contributors to Through No Fault clearly hold to the restrictivist view. Darrell L. Bock addresses the subject “Athenians Who Have Never Heard” (Acts 17:16-34). He regards the listeners on Mars Hill as a highly cultured and respectable pagan audience, the biblical equivalent of those who have never heard. Yet even the highest form of religious paganism falls short of the knowledge of God, states Bock, citing 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

He states further, that Paul established a fundamental approach to the “religious” world of those who do not know Jesus, i.e., all are called on to repent because God has fixed a day of judgment and he has appointed a judge. Everyone is ultimately responsible to God and to Jesus, “the {58} resurrected and exalted Lord who exercises authority at the side of God (Acts 10:12-43). . . . Because Jesus is God’s appointed judge, if we are subject to God, then we are also subject to Jesus. . . . To get to God, one must go through Jesus” (p. 120). Ignorance and God-fearing devotion do not alter the reality that no one can enter God’s presence outside of Jesus. Devotion to God must be according to knowledge. One must repent and believe in the righteousness that comes from God through faith in Jesus (Acts 17:30-31).

Douglas Moo, in his submission “Romans 2: Saved Apart from the Gospel?” rejects the interpretation of Romans 2:7, 13-15 and 26-27 which states that Paul here opens the door to the possibility that people after Christ’s coming, who have never heard the gospel in any form, can be saved by a sincere and obedient response to the light they have received. The writer insists that Romans 2 can in no way be interpreted that Paul allows for salvation by works in light of other texts in the same letter (3:20 and 28; 4:5).

In the concluding section of Through No Fault, Carl Henry forcefully affirms the traditional restrictivist view based on his understanding of election and God’s nature. He draws an analogy between how God has dealt with fallen angels and how he will deal with fallen and unredeemed humans who have never heard of Christ. God has not provided redemption, nor does he offer it to Satan and rebellious spirits whom he consigned to judgment without mercy (2 Peter 2:4). They are judged “solely for what they have done with the light of God’s general revelation; so also are unregenerate humans who have never heard the gospel” (p. 253).

Henry concludes: “God is not obliged to save any morally rebellious creature. His nonprovision of redemption for some fallen humans does not compromise his justice, any more than does his nonprovision of redemption for all fallen angels. God is not obliged to redeem all or any rebels; his elective intervention is a voluntary expression of his holy love. . . . God in his sovereign will elects certain individuals in Christ (John 6:37; Eph. 1:4-5)” (p. 253).

To those who protest that this view makes God discriminatory and is therefore a violation of justice, Henry replies that they have been caught up with contemporary theology’s preoccupation with love as the core of God’s being. Modern theologians have subordinated righteousness to love and denied it equal ultimacy with love in the nature of deity. In the final volume, the editors echo Henry’s view that we do not really have a proper biblical view of fairness or justice. We have projected American ideas of egalitarianism over the Scriptural concepts of justice.

Crockett and Sigountos conclude that much work remains to be done to produce a balanced evangelical theology of religions. We need a view {59} which steers between two extremes. One extreme holds that all truth resides in Christianity and that non-Christian religions have none. The other extreme states that non-Christian religions are just as valid as Christianity. To plot a course between these two extremes is the difficult task remaining.

A MIDDLE PATH

Three authors who have begun the search for the kind of balanced approach Crockett and Sigountos call for are Norman Anderson in his Christianity and World Religions: The Challenge of Pluralism (1984), Clark Pinnock in A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (1992), and John Sanders in No Other Name: An Investigation Into The Destiny of the Unevangelized (1992).

Sir Norman Anderson writes out of lengthy experience working among Muslims. He has lectured in Islamic law for many years. He is the author of Christianity: The Witness of History, The Mystery of the Incarnation, and the editor of The World’s Religions. In Christianity and World Religions, Anderson highlights the uniqueness of the Christian proclamation, salvation and disclosure vis-a-vis other world religions, and ends with an excellent chapter on proclamation and dialogue in our pluralistic society.

It is the pivotal fifth chapter “No other name?”, the longest in the book, which breaks some new ground in the direction of offering the hope of salvation to those who have never heard of Christ. While he solidly affirms that the only way to God is through Christ and the only basis of forgiveness and acceptance is the atonement effected at the cross (pp. 145-46), Anderson asks the question: Is there any basis on which the efficacy of the one atonement can avail for those who have never heard about it? Rather than remaining with the “reverent agnostic” position advocated by many Protestant theologians (i.e., leave the issue unanswered because the Bible does not seem to provide any explicit solution), Anderson suggests an approach which he says “has increasingly commended itself to me in recent years as one which is compatible with our biblical data” (p. 148). This has led him to affirm “I cannot believe that all those who have never heard the gospel are inevitably lost” (p. 175).

Anderson makes much of the Old Testament Jews who turned to God in repentance, brought the prescribed sacrifices and threw themselves on the mercy of God. They did this, he says, as a result of God’s work in their hearts opening the gate to the forgiveness made possible by the cross on which Jesus was to give “himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Tim. 2:6, A.V.). {60}

It is true, that they had a special divine revelation in which to put their trust. But might it not be true of the follower of some other religion that the God of all mercy worked in his heart by his Spirit, bringing him in some measure to realize his sin and need for forgiveness, and enabling him, in the twilight as it were, to throw himself on God’s mercy (pp. 148-49)?

Anderson follows this up with an exegesis of Romans 10:12-18 and Romans 3:10-18 to answer the question in the affirmative. He concludes that he “cannot doubt that there may be those who, while never hearing the gospel here on earth, will wake up, as it were, on the other side of the grave to worship the One in whom, without understanding it at the time, they found the mercy of God” (p. 154).

Whereas Anderson opens the door to a biblically-grounded greater optimism of salvation, Clark Pinnock and John Sanders outrightly affirm what they call “inclusivism,” a term they carefully define as distinct from pluralism or universalism. Pinnock and Sanders write from a solidly evangelical perspective. Both, like Anderson, believe that it is only through the work of Christ that people are saved. They hold that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and only Saviour whose redemptive work was intended to benefit the whole world. Both affirm a wider hope and universally accessible salvation.

Both authors reject the view that God created billions of people only to consign the vast majority of them to eternal torment. This judgment befalls them (according to the traditional view) due to the accidents of history or geography. Due to factors over which they had no control, they never received an opportunity to hear of Christ.

Neither author is a universalist. Both reject pluralist theology which affirms that the different religions of the world are all valid paths to God and all lead to salvation. Sanders and Pinnock affirm an optimism of salvation grounded in the love of God and the wideness, not the narrowness of His mercy. Both authors approvingly cite John R. Stott and would agree when he writes:

I have never been able to conjure up (as some great evangelical missionaries have) the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but who will inevitably perish. On the other hand, as I have said, I cannot be a universalist. Between these extremes I cherish the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved (Pinnock, p. 35; see also Sanders, p. 145).

THE CASE FOR INCLUSIVISM

The majority of evangelicals today seem to be hardline restrictivists, believing that only a few will be saved and all the unevangelized will be {61} damned. The only possibility for encountering God and receiving salvation in the restrictivist view is by exercising explicit faith in Jesus Christ in this life.

Sanders and Pinnock, following the lead of Anderson, affirm that the Bible presents a much more hopeful picture than restrictionists present. God includes before He excludes. “All are included in God’s grace and only those who spurn this grace are excluded in judgment,” stated Sanders in a paper given at the 1992 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. “Because of the work of Christ, God accepts all. Only those who decline to accept God’s grace are excluded.”

Inclusivism is presented within the framework of two axioms: The love of God for all humanity, and salvation found only in Christ. People are saved, whether they hear of Christ or not, through “the faith principle” i.e., they fulfill the conditions of Hebrews 11:6: they believe God exists and that he rewards those who seek Him. “Holy pagans” in the Old Testament are cited in Hebrews as examples of faith we should emulate. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Melchizedek, Jethro, Abimelech, and Naaman sought after God and Paul declares that all who do likewise will receive eternal life, because God shows no partiality (Romans 2:6-8).

These God-seekers were saved by faith without any knowledge of Christ, says Pinnock, so in the same way today, people who are spiritually ‘Before Christ’ even though chronologically ‘After Christ’ can trust in God on the basis of the light they have. Premessianic Jews were saved by faith in God even though they knew very little about Christ. Though they never confessed the Saviour, they were nevertheless saved by His redemption.

Much is made of the Cornelius story (Acts 10). Pinnock calls Cornelius “the pagan saint par excellence of the New Testament” (p. 165). God had accepted Cornelius’ prayers and alms (Acts 10:4) yet Peter was commanded to preach Christ to him to bring “messianic” salvation to his household. Cornelius was a believer before this and not hellbound. “True,” writes Pinnock, “he needed to become a Christian to receive messianic salvation, including assurance and the Holy Spirit, but not be saved from hell” (p. 166).

Regarding the salvation of babies and mentally incompetent people who die, most Christians believe that such people are saved. But this seems inconsistent with the belief that all must be evangelized. This inconsistency doesn’t seem to bother traditionalists, say these authors. “Why so great compassion for infants who cannot believe and so little for numbers of others perishing without God lifting a finger to help them?” asks Pinnock (p. 167). He contends that we need to apply Christ’s atonement {62} in the same way to the entire range of the unevangelized that we do to infants who die.

Salvation is Accessible for the Unevangelized

Without being naively optimistic by believing all religions are ways to God, inclusivists say we should not think that God cannot work in and through them. We ought not deny that there is some truth in other religions. The point is, God will judge all people fairly in terms of the light they have received in their own historical situation. God, in grace, grants every individual a genuine opportunity to participate in the redemptive work of Christ. Salvation is universally accessible apart from evangelization and people who respond in faith to the revelation they do have will attain salvation even if they never hear the gospel.

Sanders and Pinnock affirm that the unevangelized are saved or lost on the basis of their commitment, or lack thereof, to the God who saves through the work of Jesus. This saving grace is mediated through general revelation and God’s special workings in human history.

The inclusivist view raises the matter of motivation for missions. Sanders argues that even if “belief in the wider hope were conclusively shown to reduce support for missions, this would not in itself indicate that the wider hope view was false; the problem might well lie elsewhere - in an inadequate theory of missions” (p. 284).

A number of reasons are given why proponents of the wider hope are strongly motivated to bring the gospel to the unevangelized. Jesus commanded us to go and preach the gospel to all people. Christians deeply desire to share Christ and cannot keep the blessings of a personal relationship with Him to themselves. The Bible teaches that God wants to bring fullness of eternal life into the lives of all people now. The good news is not only for the life beyond this one, but for the life we live now.

Pinnock suspects evangelicals have narrowed the motivation for missions down to one thing - deliverance from wrath. “Sinners are not in the hands of an angry God,” he writes.

Our mission is not to urge them to turn to Jesus because God hates them and delights in sending them to hell. Jesus did not come to condemn but to save the world (John 3:17). No, our mission is to announce the wonderful news of the kingdom of God (p. 177).

CONCLUSION

It is clear that devout Christians disagree regarding the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus and that the dominant restrictivist stance is {63} not the only orthodox interpretation. Hermeneutical problems exist on both sides of the issue.

The sense this reviewer received from reading widely on the topic is that this question is a serious one and cannot be pursued as a mere academic curiosity but is vital to our understanding of the nature of God and our sense of mission. The conclusions we reach must be consistent with the full-orbed portrayal of God in Scripture, and our theology of the unevangelized must not diminish our sense of urgency in proclaiming the gospel throughout the world.

The Bible is clear about this: only those who personally respond to Jesus in repentance and faith may know the present blessing and assurance of salvation. We long deeply for all to enter in to the joy of Christ’s redemption.

WORKS CITED

  • Anderson, Norman. Christianity and World Religions: The Challenge of Pluralism. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1984.
  • Crockett, William V. and James G. Sigountos, eds. Through No Fault of Their Own. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991.
  • Netland, Harold A. Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Pinnock, Clark. A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
  • Sanders, John. No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
Dr. Walter Unger is President of Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, B.C.

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