What happens to those who haven't heard the gospel when they die? Do the unevangelized go to hell?
Can God be considered loving and just if He fails to provide large numbers of people with an opportunity for salvation through Jesus Christ?
If the unevangelized have an opportunity for salvation, how is it made available to them?
A variety of answers have been given to questions about the fate of those who've never heard of Jesus. Some, of course, refuse to even seriously consider the question. For instance, one internet site scorns the question:"Are the heathen lost? This is the question of the college campuses, the skeptic and the agnostic. This is the question of those who wish to deflect making a personal commitment to Christ. This is the question of those who like to play mental gymnastics with God."
That author of that paragraph is wrong. It is a good question and deserves a thoughtful answer. It's not even enough to throw out one or two Bible verses and say, "The Bible says . . ." Scriptural support can be found for almost every position people have taken on the eternal destiny of the unevangelized heathen.
Does it really matter which position we take on people holding other religious ideologies? Yes, it does. Our belief on the fate of the unevangelized will determine what we think the ultimate purpose of missions to be.
"Unevangelized" means those outside of Christianity who have never heard the gospel. It does not mean simply those who haven't responded positively to the gospel.
Here's a listing of the major positions with Bible passages used by their proponents.
Differing viewpoints on the eternal destiny of the unevangelized
1. Restrictivism or particularism: all the unevangelized are damned. The uniqueness of Christ means that He alone is the way.
- 1 John 5:11-12
- And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
- John 14:6
- Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
- Acts 4:12
- Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
- Romans 1:20-21
- Men are without excuse. For 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.
- 1 Corinthians 3:11
- For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
- Zechariah 10:2
- The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.
- Psalm 16:4
- The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods.
2. Universalism: all the unevangelized are saved.
- Luke 3:6
- All mankind will see God's salvation. (Isaiah 40:5)
- John 12:32
- But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
- Romans 5:18
- Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
- 1 Cor. 15:22-28
- For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
- Philippians 2:9-11
- Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
3. Religious instrumentalism: non-Christian religions have a positive saving potential similar to Judaism in the Old Testament
- Matthew 5:17
- Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
4. Universal evangelization: God ensures the gospel will somehow get to those who are searching
- John 4:23
- Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
- Acts 8:26-40
- Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."
So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch,an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.
"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth."
The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?"
Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
- Hebrews 11:6
- And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
5. Universal opportunity at moment of death.
- Known as the "final option" theory, it has been held some Roman Catholics. Its proponents have not used a lot of Scripture for support.
6. The "If" theory: God will save those who would have accepted Christ if they would have had the opportunity of hearing the good news of salvation.
- Matthew 11:21-23
- Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.
7. Postmortem evangelization and outreach: people will receive an opportunity to hear about Christ and to accept or reject him after death.
- Proponents say Mark 16:15-16 indicates that only those who explicitly reject Christ will be damned.
- Matthew 12:40
- For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
- Mark 16:15-16
- He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."
- John 15:22
- If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:8
- He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
- 2 Timothy 1:16-18
- May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.
- 1 Peter 3:19-20
- Through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago . . .
8. Inclusivism or wider hope: salvation is possible apart from evangelization. The unevangelized are saved or lost on the basis of their commitment to the one true God. A variation of this position is called Accessibilism which means that God enables everyone to respond to His self-revelation in faith, on at least one occasion in their lives, in a way that leaves them accountable for their response.
- John 1:9
- The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
- John 3:16-17
- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
- John 12:32
- But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
- 1 Tim. 1:15
- Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst.
- 1 Timothy 4:10
- . . . and for this we labor and strive, that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe. [ What is the Nazarene position? ]
The Biblical texts here are from the New International Version.
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.
What about Christianity and other religions?
Some books to read
Clarke, Andrew and Bruce Winter, eds.. One God, One Lord: Christianity in a World of Religious Pluralism
D'Costa, Gavin, ed. Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions
Fackre, Gabriel, Ronald H. Nash and John Sanders. What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized
Knitter, Paul. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions
Neill, Stephen Charles. Christian Faith and Other Faiths.
Netland, Harold. Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
Nicholls, Bruce. The Unique Christ in our Pluralist World
Okholm, Dennis, et. al. Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World
Pinnock, Clark. A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions
Ramachandra, Vinoth. Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World
Sanders, John. No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized
Shenk, Calvin. Who do You Say That I Am? Christians Encounter Other Religions
Stackhouse, John. No Other Gods Before Me: Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions
Tiessen, Terrance. Who can be saved?: Reassessing salvation in Christ and world religions
In his classic book My Utmost for His Highest Oswald Chambers has a devotional entitled "The Key to the Missionary's Work." In that devotional Chambers says, "The key to the missionary's work is the authority of Jesus Christ, not the needs of the lost. . . He does not say that the lost will never be saved if we don't go -- He simply says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."
|Diamond (or diamante) poems are great ways to express two contrasting ideas. [ read more ]|
Howard Culbertson, Southern Nazarene University, 6729 NW 39th, Bethany, OK 73008 | Phone: 405-491-6693 - Fax: 405-491-6658
Copyright © 2000, 2001 - Last Updated: February 7, 2012 | URL: http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/heathen.htm