For a good part of the past two millennia there has been a debate that has surfaced with intensity at varying times throughout Christian history. To date no major section of the Christian church has chosen to speak dogmatically about the issue, and so the private church member, the local congregation, and denominational bodies have allowed some degree of diversity on the question that will not go away. The question concerns the destiny or fate of those who have never been reached by the Gospel.
The earliest Christians may have believed that Jesus came into our world at the close of human history, but soon it became apparent that Jesus came in the middle of history. They became cognizant that there were millions who had never heard about the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God had elected Abraham and his descendants to be blessed in order to be a blessing, so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed and in turn be a blessing to each other. But the OT is the sad story of the failure of the people of Israel and Judaism to be transformed by its gospel, or to pass the good news on to the surrounding nations. So before Christ came, the church was aware that entire nations had perished, never hearing about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But as the Christian centuries rolled by, the church became also aware of the extent of the world’s un-reached populations beyond the civilized world. As explorers pushed the boundaries, and discovered new regions and new continents, the church knew that there were millions of others who had also perished never knowing about the Gospel of Christ.
The church was also embarrassingly aware that there were many times it botched its evangelism so badly, that though people heard some form of the gospel, its articulation was distorted, and so was rejected out of hand. Often the story of the good news was told by unworthy spokespersons, (TV evangelists with immoral lifestyles?) or came with the sword of conquest in one hand and the Bible in the other (e.g. Conquistadors in the Americas? Crusaders in Moslem countries?), so that the Good News sounded more like bad news and was rejected on those grounds.
In the light of all of these historical realities, the question has increased in intensity: what is the fate of the un-evangelized?
The Old Testament and the New Testament never actually raised that question and so gave no definitive answer. There were hints and intimations of a possible answer, but the hints in one set of texts were cancelled by intimations in other passages. The Eastern Church and the Church in North East Africa tended to favour a more generous approach to the issue, while the Church of Europe and Western Africa tended to be more restrictive. Those that took their lead from Augustine (d.430) were less optimistic of the fate of the un-reached, while those that took their lead from Irenaeus (d.195) believed God was doing more than we could ask or think.
In the centuries since those influential theologians, the views on this matter have multiplied into variations on variations. The outline below gathers the Christian responses to the question into five major positions.
All of the views below accept that salvation is only possible because of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is only on this basis, (and not on the basis of our obedience or acts of piety) that anyone can be accepted by God and forgiven their sins. A fully Christian view of salvation requires that salvation comes to us only by grace through faith. Therefore, the following views all differ from religious pluralism; none of the following views denies the reality of hell. Only one of the following views believes that all persons will be saved; but even that view holds that there are terrible consequences for those who reject the grace of God. All of the following views have been held by people who believe in “Sola Scriptura, Sola Christos, Sola Gracia and Sola Fides”, and desire above all to bring glory to God and salvation to the world. None of these positions is villainous. None of them need sever the nerve of missionary endeavor.
This position insists that salvation requires a conscious, explicit faith in God, through Jesus Christ, prior to death. Therefore, only those who hear the gospel before death can be saved. Because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, through Adam’s sin, God would be just even if he condemned everyone who ever lived. But his mercy is shown in that he does save those, who believe in their hearts and confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord. All persons will therefore be judged on the criterion of whether or not they have put their trust in Christ as personal saviour.
In the ancient church the phrase that gave focus to this position was “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus.” “Outside the church, there is no salvation.” One of the interpretations of this phrase means, that where the church has not borne witness, evangelism of the lost in those places becomes impossible.
There is inside this position some diversity, however. Some believed that any infant who was unbaptized, and who died, would not go to heaven. In the medieval church of the West, Limbo was proposed as a milder form of hell, for those who had not “deserved” heaven, but had not “deserved” hell. Others in more recent years, though holding a restrictivist position, believe that all infants and all who are infantile in mind, would go to heaven, because they had not actually personally sinned having no capacity for understanding or faith, and that the guilt of original sin had been removed in the atonement of Christ.
Scripture passages that inform this position are found in John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-17; and I John 5:11-12.
Among the major theologians who have held this view are: Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, Calvin, Melanchthon, Cranmer, Pascal, The Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, A.A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, Charles Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, Carl F. H. Henry, Roger Nicole, Missouri Synod of Lutherans, Harold Lindsell, R.C. Sproul, and Ronald Nash. The Reformed branch of Protestantism is often perceived to be the major stakeholder of this position today.
Universal Opportunity before Death
A second position holds that salvation requires a conscious, explicit faith in Jesus Christ before their death. But God will be sure, in his justice, in his love for the whole world, and in his desire for all to be saved, to offer the gospel to everyone who lives.
That witness may not come through the church, but may come directly from God in the form of a dream, a vision or in a still small voice. When the church is unable or unwilling to be the evangelist, God will be sure to articulate enough of the gospel to any that seek after God, so that they can respond in penitence and faith, prior to their death.
Those that hold this view, say that God would be unjust to condemn anyone for rejecting a Gospel that they had never heard. But no one can be saved without believing specifically in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, God will be his own evangelist, through the church when the church is present, and without the church when it is absent. All persons will be judged on the basis of their response to the revelation that they receive in this life.
Some who hold this position are prepared to believe that if the church did not arrive, and no vision of Christ was received, then just prior to death, or in the very moment of dying, a revelation of Christ would be given, with a response called for in that moment.
A sub-set of this position says that God possesses “middle knowledge.” This means that God knows what choice a person “would have made“ if an opportunity had been given to them. To those, and perhaps only to those, God gives a revelation of himself prior to their death.
This position allows that when infants or the infantile pass away, in “the hour and article of death” infants and the severely retarded are either “made adult” and given the revelation of Christ, with an option for choice, or, God knows what choice they would have made and brings them into salvation.
There is, however, no opportunity for conversion once death has taken place. This position, along with the restrictivist position, insists that a person’s destiny is sealed at death.
Among the scriptures that are referred to by proponents of this view are, Genesis 20; Daniel 2; Acts 8:26-40; and Acts 10.
Among the major theologians who participate in this position are: Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Dante, Arminius, John Henry Newman, William Craig, and Norman Geisler.
Though this third position insists that salvation requires a conscious, explicit faith in Jesus Christ, this faith need not be active prior to death. Because of the failures of Israel and the Church to go into all the world, after death, every person who has ever lived will see God as he is, in Jesus. Much of our witness to the world has been flawed, or was never passed on at all. But after death every person will be offered a complete and perfect evangelism. God will be sure, in his justice, in his love for the whole world, and in his desire for all to be saved, to give the gospel to everyone who has ever lived even after they have died.
Some inside this position insist that this does not offer a “second chance” but it does offer a first chance to those that had never heard or never heard clearly enough.
But even this witness is not coercive. True choice will still operate, and those that have fled all their lives from God will still not want to choose God even then. (The irrationality of evil!) Those that have sought God in the best ways they could, will be found of him and will rejoice, and be saved.
This position allows that when infants or the infantile pass away, after death they are “made adult” and given the revelation of Christ, also with an option for choice.
The scripture passages that are often applied to this position can be found in John 5:25-29; Phil 2:9-11 and I Pet 3:18-4:6. (Jesus’ “Descent into Hell/Hades/Sheol” is the most critical text and enjoyed wider discussion in the ancient church than it does today.)
Well known theologians who have held this view include: Clement of Alexandria and other Alexandrian theologians of the ancient church, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephraem the Syrian, John of Damascus, Carl Braaten and some branches of Lutheranism, P.T. Forsyth, Donald Bloesch, C.E.B. Cranfield, G.R. Beasley-Murray, W. Pannenberg, and Gabriel Fackre.
A fourth position holds that salvation requires a conscious, explicit faith, before death, in the grace given by God through Jesus. But this faith need not be consciously in the name of Jesus, as it is not in infants, the mentally handicapped, or in Israel prior to the advent of Jesus. Though some will never hear about Jesus Christ, he died for them nonetheless (unlimited atonement) and God will, in his justice, in his love for the whole world, and in his desire for all to be saved, offer his redeeming grace to everyone who lives, in one form or another.
All persons will be judged by God, in the light of what they did with what they knew. To whom much is given, much will be expected. To whom little is given, little will be required. God, however, who is omnipresent, has been and is still involved redemptively in the life of every person and every community, urging them to acknowledge and trust him. God has not left himself without a witness, either through “general revelation” or “special revelation” and draws all persons to himself by his Spirit. He may even be involved in other religions, though all religion (including Christianity) can become corruptive and demonic and deviant. But other religions might also serve as a preface to the Good News found in Jesus, as the religion of Israel was a preface to the fuller revelation of God in Christ.
This position suggests that “not all believers are Christians, though all Christians are believers.” Some trust God but have not heard of Jesus. They are like pre-Christian Jews who believed in God, but who needed to receive the fuller revelation of God found in Jesus. Paul announces to the Athenians, “God has overlooked the times of human ignorance,” but upon the Gospel being clearly announced declares, “now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)
All persons will be judged on the basis of their response to the grace of God in this life; there will be no opportunity after death. The exception to this might again have to do with the salvation of infants and the infantile. The presumption is that all children, prior to the indefinable age of accountability, are safe without the need to express personal faith in God prior to or after death. After all the God of omnipotent love can do what ever he pleases, and show mercy to whom he will show mercy. (See Jonah 4:11)
Beside the scriptural passages that speak about a “wider hope” the following are often used: Amos 9:7; John 12:32; Acts 10:43; Acts 17; I Tim 4:10 and II Peter 3:9.
Among the theologians of the church, holding some variant of this position are: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Abelard, Zwingli, Erasmus, Milton, Quaker Robert Barclay, Matthew Henry, John Wesley, Fletcher of Madley, William Booth, G. Campbell Morgan, C. S. Lewis, Augustus Strong, D. Elton Trueblood, E.J. Carnell, Clark Pinnock and the Openness of God theologians, Bernard Ramm, Alister McGrath, George E. Ladd, N.T. Wright, John Sanders.
Apokatastasis: Christian Universalism
The fifth position is one of the most ancient as well as one of the most controversial views held by the church. Though salvation requires a conscious, explicit faith in God through Jesus, this faith need not be before death, though that is desirable. After death every person who has ever lived will see God as he is, in Jesus. This will be a complete and perfect evangelism because Jesus and the salvation he offers will prove to be all convincing, and in consequence every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. All will eventually be saved.
All persons will, however, be judged on the basis of their response to the revelation of God in Christ in this life, and God’s judgment will be experienced by all who reject his grace. Their judgment means that they will live their lives without the resources of God, and suffer the consequences of their choice in life, and also in death and beyond. But, even if it takes ages, hell will one day be emptied, as the love of God & the power of Jesus’ resurrection conquers all evil and “restores all things.”
The word “apokatastasis” is the word that means “recapitulation.” The Eastern Church taught that all that was broken in Adam will be restored in Christ. The fall and the curse that affected all humanity and all creation from the very beginning, will be more than matched by the restoration of all in and through Christ.
This wider hope, this view holds, is necessary if love is to win the great war against evil. If only a few are saved, it means that the God of love did not succeed in his goal of human redemption and the restoration of all things failed. But, as in Adam all died, so in Christ all will be made alive, though not until the close of the story of human probation. So hell becomes a purgatory for those who refused to trust God, and God will use this experience as punishment, and continued opportunity, and then rehabilitation. But hell is temporary, though it exists for a million years, and in the consummation of all things, all will be healed, and hell will be annihilated, and heaven and its residents will be all that remains for all eternity.
Scripture passages used to support this view include Acts 3:19-21; Romans 5:15-21; I Corinthians 15:20-28 and I John 2:2.
Among the theologians who have held this view are: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, William Law, John Murray, F. Schleiermacher, F. D. Maurice, George MacDonald, John Baillie, William Barclay, William Temple, Karl Barth (?) Emil Brunner (?) Hans Kung, Madeline L’Engle, Jacques Ellul, G. C. Berkower, Karl Rahner, and Helmut Thielicke.
There is a position, however, widely held in Canadian culture, which is unacceptable to orthodox Christianity. This is religious pluralism that denies the uniqueness of Jesus. It denies a divinity to Jesus that is any different than that of all who are made in the image of god. In this perspective, Jesus is not The Saviour: he is only one of many. He may be one way to God, but there are many ways to God, if God exists at all. In fact, faith in Jesus may be a diversion from faith in God alone or faith in humanity’s potential. To insist upon the uniqueness of Jesus Christ limits God because we identify him too closely with Jesus and his church.
Theistic pluralists believe that God exists, but is manifest in many persons and many religions, that have varying degrees of value. There is often an awareness that beliefs are connected to national histories so that each nation may be best served by a religion that is tailor made to fit their world view. Often Theistic Pluralists will try to show the common denominator of all major religions, and espouse that to be the best insight we may ever get of religious truth.
For some pluralists, the existence of a “god” is less essential to faith. What saves humanity from utter selfishness is “faith in something” that transcends their personal lives. Salvation is often perceived to be a gradual transformation from natural self-centeredness to a new orientation of loving others. In fact, salvation may not be eschatological at all. Death may be the ultimate end of all persons and things. Since there is no after-life at all, religion is intended to simply improve the way humanity lives its life.
For the Theistic Pluralist, if this salvation does not take place prior to death, it will take place in some fashion, post-death due entirely to the goodness of God (Sola Gracia, but not Sola Fides.) Salvation will be universal and will take place in the religious, the irreligious and the anti-religious. There will be no eschatological hell: the only hell will be hell on earth as a consequence of personal and corporate wrongdoing.
This position argues that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have no authority on such questions. They are simply the thoughts of the devotees involved in one religion, and have no binding authority outside their own faith community. They are, at best, mere guesses about what cannot be known this side of death.
Among those who deny the uniqueness of Christ are all atheists and the adherents to all non-Christian religions, who tend to make their own leaders the final arbiter of truth.
But there are some pluralists who identify personally with the Christian faith, but still deny its uniqueness, taking what they will from the Christian faith and leaving what they do not like. Listed among these are David Strauss, Alexander Pope, John Hick, Nels Ferré, & Paul Knitter. This view is antagonistic to Christ and Christianity, and is inadmissible for those who take the scriptures of the Christian canon seriously.
- A Case for “Christian Agnosticism” – Personal Reflections
Over the years I have been urged to abandon the “old orthodoxy” that came out of the more fundamentalist tradition, and to exchange it for a “new orthodoxy.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Restrictivist position has long held grave difficulties for me because it seemed to minimize the extravagant love of God clearly demonstrated in Jesus. But I find a reluctance to adopt any one of the above position as “final” when each of the other views also contain something of value that can be drawn from the scriptural accounts. I find myself more comfortable with holding such antinomies in tension.
I do not feel this way about many issues in theology. On matters that flow from the great creeds I find myself in easy agreement. But on some issues, (baptism or dedication of infants, global eschatology, the nature of the eucharist, the mode of baptism) the evidence for one opinion over another often seems quite flimsy. On secondary and tertiary matters, I have always preferred to suspend judgment. On the question before us, each argument when stated in the positive, is quite attractive. But when challenged by the other positions, appears less convincing. Some preferences I wish were true, (such as Christian Universalism) but the cautionary evidence against them makes me hesitate, and wishing a thing were true does not make it so.
Another reason that makes me pause is my awareness that my basic theological position may cause me to adopt a position that is compatible with my prior beliefs. I am a Wesleyan. I have a deep admiration for John and Charles Wesley. That alone causes me to resonate with their position (Inclusivism). I have also been a 40-year admirer of the insightfulness of C.S. Lewis, and because he makes so much sense to me on so many issues, I am prone to vote with him on this issue too. But even though this makes the Inclusivist position attractive, I recognize the danger of adopting a position because of who holds it, or because their way of thinking makes intuitive sense to me. I am flawed enough to know that I may be “deaf in one ear and blind in the other” so that I am not able to appreciate what others find compelling.
There is a further reason why I would prefer to be agnostic on this question. God has chosen not to answer many of the questions that we have raised, whether it is the question of Job regarding underserved suffering, or guidance on the matter of the ordination of women, or clarity on the issue of free will and determinism. If God had intended us to be dogmatic on such things, he would have communicated more clearly. The issue before us this day has vexed the church because one clear answer does not seem to have been given. We live with many mysteries as we share the universe with God and each other. On this question I am prepared, even after four decades of non-stop cogitation, to embrace the mystery, and to say, “I do not know.”
My recommendation then is that we allow each other liberty of conscience on this question that never goes away. I urge a humility towards one another that will listen to one another without demonizing those whose views we cannot understand or share. I recommend that we become a community that responds with the words, ”That’s interesting!” rather than “You’ve got to be kidding!”
- The implications for Missions in each and all of these perspectives
But after suggesting that we allow diversity of opinion on this matter, the question itself matters to us all, because it may affect us in fundamental ways. Those who share the Restrictivist viewpoint often fear that if any could be saved, without the church’s intervention, then the whole reason for missions would be eroded. I am not sure that need be true at all. But let me offer us a caution.
Some of us may choose a way of responding to this question because we are cavalier about the lostness of the world. We may adopt a position simply to release us from the uncomfortable obligation to evangelize. Each of us may want to evaluate the motives behind our preferences in this ongoing debate. On the other hand, when a choice of positions is made, or not made, it is my conviction that there is nothing inherent in any of the Christian positions, that need sideline our reaching out to those who need to hear the best news the world has ever heard. So in conclusion let me give you a handful of reasons why holding with integrity any of the Christian views discussed above should not hinder our fulfilling the great commandment and the great commission.
First of all, the Christian church has done a poor job in reaching its world, regardless of the position it holds on this matter. There is no evidence that the Restrictivists are better at evangelizing their community and their world, than the Inclusivist or the Christian Universalist. Sad to say, none of us can brag about the consistency of our performance.
Secondly, if Jesus is Lord, (and he is!) then the command of Christ (Matt 28:18-20) to “go into all the world,” should be enough motivation to evangelize, regardless of our theology regarding the destiny of the unevangelized. We have been asked to be workers together with God, and none of us ought to put our theological reflections ahead of his clear command to go to the harvest. No other reason should be needed by the servants of the Most High God.
Thirdly, in the truly converted, there is a love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, along with joy and peace and the liberating power of Christ. These alone should be sufficient to propel us, naturally and supernaturally, into conversations of glad testimony and sacrificial stewardship.
Fourth, the least effective way of evangelizing the world is to threaten people with a fate worse than death. To inform the world, directly or indirectly, that Jesus is the only way to God and that the church is the only way to Christ, often appears to be overly dogmatic and arbitrary. On the other hand, the most effective way of evangelizing is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, educate the ignorant, cast out the demonic, break addictions to social evils, and to bring hope into the midst of human despair. If we did the work of the kingdom, people would see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. Whatever our theology of the un-reached is, it should not affect that kind of activity and those kinds of results.
- Terrestrial salvation is the primary concern of OT and NT and should be ours.
There is one final conclusion I would draw. The Old Testament scriptures are primarily concerned with our being in a right relationship with God, so that in consequence he could teach us how to live life in community, in the here and now. There is hardly a whisper of teaching about life beyond death for the righteous or the wicked. In fact Israel stood alone in her disinterest in matters eschatological. The law, the prophets and the writings gave no clear guidance on this issue. The concern was entirely “how then shall we live, since God has redeemed us from our foes?” The response of God was that Israel would take the blessings he had freely given them, bless others around them, so that all persons on the face of this planet would share in a “saved life.”
In the New Testament, though we are now introduced to a salvation that is eschatological as well as terrestrial, the focus is still on living life together in the Kingdom Community, where we offer ourselves in servanthood to the world, that it might find life in the middle of life.
All of that to say, the preoccupation with the eschatological destiny of the un-evangelized, may be less crucial to God than our living lives in the power of the Spirit that will influence the transformation of persons, families, communities, nations, and cultures. We might want to leave the destiny of all persons, including ourselves, in the hands of God, and give our focus to the immediate healing of what has damaged life for so many already. If we do that, we may find ourselves fulfilling the great command and the great commission in the way he intended.
David N. Ashton