Classic question: "Are the heathen really lost?"

How will God judge those who never hear the Gospel?

Do the unevangelized go to hell?

What happens to those who never hear about Jesus? Can God be considered loving and just if He fails to provide all people with an opportunity for salvation through Jesus Christ?

What does the Bible say about those who never hear about the Savior? 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 scornfully notes:

"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."

The author of that paragraph is wrong. "Will those who never hear the Gospel be eternally damned?" 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 . . ." Some scriptural support can be found for most of the positions 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. What we believe about the fate of the unevangelized will determine what we think the ultimate purpose of world missions to be.

Note: "Unevangelized" means those outside Christianity who have never heard the gospel. It does not mean simply those who haven't responded positively to the gospel.

Here are the major positions people have taken on this issue with Bible passages used to support each one.

Differing viewpoints on the eternal destiny of the unevangelized

1. Restrictivism (also called Particularism or Ecclesiocentrism): Tragically, all the unevangelized are damned.
Supporting scripture
2. Universalism: everyone, including the unevangelized, will be saved.
Supporting scripture
3. Religious instrumentalism: Non-Christian religions have a positive saving potential similar to Judaism in the Old Testament
Supporting scripture
4. Universal evangelization: God ensures the gospel will somehow get to those who are searching.
Supporting scripture
5. Universal opportunity at the moment of death.
Supporting scripture
6. The "If" theory: God will save those who would have accepted Christ if they had heard about Him.
Supporting scripture
7. Postmortem evangelization: People can hear about Christ and accept him after they die.
Supporting scripture
8. Wider hope (called Inclusivism by some writers): Salvation is possible apart from evangelization. The unevangelized are saved or lost on the basis of their following what light they have.
Supporting scripture

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 the moment of death.

Known as the "final option" theory, it has been held by 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 had had the opportunity to hear 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.

The Biblical texts here are from the New International Version.

The fate of the unevangelized: What is the Nazarene position?

Question: Has the Church of the Nazarene taken an official position on the destiny or fate of the unevangelized? If not, is there any agreement on this issue among our theology scholars?

Neither the General Assembly nor the Board of General Superintendents has given an answer to that exact question. We've been a bit like Abraham in approaching this issue by responding with a question: "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25)

The closest we come to a direct answer can be found at the end of the last one of the 16 Nazarene Articles of Faith, which are doctrinal statements hammered out in the global General Assemblies of the denomination. The final sentence of that doctrinal statement says, "We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell." The bold is mine for emphasis.

Most Nazarene leaders I know would refrain from using that statement to promote a narrow restrictivism or particularism. Most would hold some version of the "wider hope" that at least leaves the door cracked open for someone to follow the grace of God which, scripture says, has reached out in some way to all people (this view is not in any way saying that being a faithful follower of another religious system is enough to save a person).

H. Orton Wiley, the co-author of a classic multi-volume theology work that was a long-time standard work in every Nazarene pastor's library, wrote:

"The heathen will be judged by the law of nature, or the law originally given to man as the rule of his conduct. Some portion of this law has been preserved among them, partly by tradition and partly by reason; and though the traces of it are in some instances obliterated, and in others greatly obscured, yet enough remains to render them accountable beings, and to be the foundation of a judicial trial."1

That statement is within the "wider hope" tradition. [ more on wider hope]

1Wiley, H. Orton. Introduction to Christian Theology, Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1959 edition, p. 433.

John Wesley spoke to the issue in his "Sermon 106: On Faith." In the first section of that sermon, he lists a dozen or so different kinds of faith. The third and fourth kinds are:

"3. The next sort of faith is the faith of Heathens, with which I join that of Mahometans. I cannot but prefer this before the faith of the Deists; because, though it embraces nearly the same objects, yet they are rather to be pitied than blamed for the narrowness of their faith. And their not believing the whole truth, is not owing to want of sincerity, but merely to want of light. When one asked Chicali, an old Indian Chief, Why do not you red men know as much as us white men?' he readily answered, Because you have the great Word, and we have not.'

"4. It cannot be doubted, but this plea will avail for millions of modern Heathens. Inasmuch as to them little is given, of them little will be required. As to the ancient Heathens, millions of them, likewise, were savages. No more, therefore, will be expected of them than the living up to the light they had. But many of them, especially in the civilized nations, we have great reason to hope, although they lived among Heathens, yet were quite of another spirit, being taught of God, by His inward voice, all the essentials of true religion. Yea, and so it was that Mahometan, an Arabian who, a century or two ago, wrote the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdan. The story seems to be feigned; but it contains all the principles of pure religion and undefiled."


Evangelical Christians may approach the question about what happens to those who never hear the Gospel from various perspectives. Here are some of those viewpoints:

Ultimately, different evangelical Christians may hold slightly different views on this matter, but these are some common approaches to addressing the question. The understanding of this issue can vary among individuals and denominations within the same evangelical tradition.

I would like to find quotes from the writings of other Nazarene theologians for this page. Please let me know if you find material in books by authors like Dunning, Lodahl, Purkiser, and Taylor.

How does Christianity relate to 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

Dunning H. Ray. Grace, Faith and Holiness, pp. 168-170

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

arrowIn 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."

Try your hand at writing a "diamond" poem

Click hereDiamond (or diamante) poems are great ways to express two contrasting ideas. [ more ]

    -- Howard Culbertson,


'Heathen" is a term that historically has been used to refer to someone who does not adhere to the dominant religion of a particular culture or society, especially one who follows a polytheistic or non-Abrahamic belief system. It has often been used in a derogatory or pejorative manner, particularly by members of dominant religious groups to describe those outside of their faith.

In modern usage, "heathen" may still carry a negative connotation in some contexts, but it's also sometimes reclaimed by certain groups as a neutral or even positive term to describe their non-mainstream religious or spiritual beliefs. It's important to be aware of the historical and cultural baggage associated with the term and to use it with sensitivity to its potential implications.

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