God is an includer. When you read about Jesus in Paul, you see that God’s great “plan-through-Israel-for-the-whole-world” (à la N.T. Wright) is being enacted. And Jesus is the coup de grâce. It is safe to say that God wants as many people in heaven as possible (even though some Christians might not). And yet if salvation is by Jesus alone, “God is a bit of an underachiever” as Woody Allen said.
So now the question arises: what about those who have never heard, and will never have the opportunity to hear about Jesus? If he is the only way to heaven, it seems like large swathes of humanity are doomed to hell, simply by accidents of time and place. This is the problem of the unevangelised.
Admittedly, this is a purely theoretical exercise. Anyone who asks has already heard anyway. Furthermore, we don’t know what the answer to this question is. And that is probably a good thing. The reason we speculate about it is to try to come up with possible scenarios where we can keep all seemingly disparate threads of what we do believe, together. It is an attempt to sketch a coherent picture of theism in answer to people who may use these objections as excuses for disbelief.
As with most of Christianity, it’s all pretty easy until you read the Bible.
The Bible is generally regarded the Christian’s authoritative source of information (and also confusion) about God. Even though all of these verses should be read carefully within their context, we seem find both the universality of God’s plan with humanity, and the exclusivity of Jesus as the way to salvation.
Firstly, there is God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 15 – 22); the lynchpin of Paul’s argument that through Jesus, God’s kingdom has been opened up to all nations:
…in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.
Then in the prophet Ezekiel, for example, we find the following:
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
In the serious theocomedy Jonah we find that the prophet is sent to warn Nineveh, a great pagan city of more than 120 000 people. But Jonah hates them, rejects his mission and flees to Tarshish (the opposite direction). That is the setting for the whole fish episode. Jonah ends up warning them and they all repent – “great and small” – and then:
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly,and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
We find this all through the New Testament as well: Paul writes:
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,
…it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
…[The Lord] not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,
For so loved God the world…
However, all through the New Testament it is made clear that hearing about Jesus and trusting him is a necessary condition for salvation. According to Peter:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
And according to John
Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life,
and in Jesus’ own words:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.
Paul also writes of Jesus:
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
Traditional Christians solutions to this paradox generally involve reinterpreting the first set of verses to say that the “world” God wants to save isn’t really the world, but excludes some people, or reinterpreting the second set of verses to say that the “everyone who believes” is really just “everyone” in the end, with pluralists and universalists only arguing about how many speed bumps there are along the way to certain salvation. Even though I haven’t read the robust defences such as The Evangelical Universalist (yet), both treatments I’ve come across so far involve just a bit too much hermeneutical gymnastics and dodgy theology to be convincing, and the question remains. What of those who have not had the opportunity to trust?
First, we must notice that the person who asks the question has heard, and his concern is therefore for other people – most probably people he has never taken the trouble of meeting before – like the proverbial child in India. This may be a loving concern, but he assumes that he loves this proverbial child more than God loves this proverbial child, and on that basis rejects God for being unloving. He also presupposes that even if God did love this person (whom the questioner doesn’t know) then God would be incapable of communicating with this person, but will send him to hell all the same. To this, Christians can only reply that they also reject this petty god as yet another skeptical fantasy. Could we really think that we would be more just in judging these persons than God would be? At worst, although we know that God took it seriously enough to die on man’s behalf we simply don’t know how God will treat the inculpably ignorant. However, I think we can do better than this, and perhaps sketch a scenario where these paradoxical themes in scripture may be reconciled. Enter the Christian idea of general and special revelation.
General revelation is God’s proclamation of himself through nature and conscience, available to all men – Immanuel Kant’s “Starry heavens above, and moral law within.” We find this, for example, in Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
For what can be known about God is plain to them [all people/Gentiles], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
…or when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
And Acts 14:17
…that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
Although general revelation talks about God and informs people of his existence, you still need to trust God as revealed specially through Jesus Christ, according to the Bible. This has led some to argue that all of those people who have never heard are eternally damned. A more sophisticated view espoused by many contemporary philosophers is called Molinism, after the medieval Jesuit Luis de Molina. Luis asserted that God not only knows past and future truths, but also subjunctive truths; he not only knows what you did and will do, but also what you would do in any given situation. (This in no way negates free will, but that is a different discussion.) The way in which this is normally fleshed out is to say that God knows that those who never get the opportunity to hear the gospel, would not have responded anyway even if they had the chance. They are like some atheists in Christianised countries today, except that they are not in Christianised countries. Although this is philosophically sound and makes sense of God’s sovereignty (predestination and election, as some call it) it is existentially unsatisfying. We are still condemning whole people-groups to hell on this model. It doesn’t make sense of God’s love, and it just doesn’t sound like the God written about in the Bible.
There are other particularist philosophers who argue that if indeed a person responds to general revelation, God would infallibly send someone (a missionary) to preach the gospel to them so that they might be saved. Certainly this is closer to the truth, but they are effectively still condemning the unevangelised to hell, albeit through the sophisticated mechanism of the subjunctive tense: ‘those who are never reached would not have responded anyway’.
What I am arguing for is not the sufficiency of general revelation for salvation, but rather the effect that general revelation might have in some people, which is to cause them to seek special revelation.
What we could rather say is that since God has middle knowledge and knows how every person would react in any given set of circumstances, he takes special care of those (like me) he knows would not respond adequately to general revelation, and need special revelation. As much as I love nature and enjoy creation, I suspect that if I were not born into a Christian family, I would probably not have responded positively. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined as Paul says. Again, this does not negate free will. It only means that those who are slightly more epistemically challenged (like myself) are given a fair chance through special revelation. Persons in Christianised countries could thus be thought of as the remedial class in God’s great school of life; an incorrect but useful metaphor.
What then of those who do not have access to special revelation? William Lane Craig uses the example of Walking Bear, an American Indian on the great plains, who looks up at the stars, senses the Great Spirit, looks within himself, senses trouble, and attempts to follow the great Spirit. When he dies, he sees Jesus, and exclaims “Yes! This is what I have been searching for all my life!” and bows and submits his will to Jesus, thereby accepting Christ’s atonement. Would God refuse this man entry into heaven? I don’t think so. Are there many such people, among those who have heard and those who haven’t? Sadly, I don’t think so either. The universalist has far too optimistic a view of man, in my opinion. Looking around me, I just don’t see that many people willing to submit and serve when they could rather be doing their own thing. This is the Christian idea of hell. (It is not better than fire and brimstone; it is worse. But that is a discussion for another time). I also see no reason why God would be more persuasive in purgatory. Why would the omnipotent, omniscient God needs to give some people a “supplementary exam”, if he knows he will make them all surely pass (by ‘Love winning’) anyway. Not that life is a pass/fail test at all, but simply that those who prefer to live without God, don’t just need “more time” or “more of God’s love”, as if the Infinite had to try again.
Therefore we could say that God places those who need special revelation in times and places where they have the opportunity to hear. The unevangelised are not automatically saved or damned, but endowed with the faculties to respond to the light given them by their infinitely loving Father. This in no way diminishes the missionary imperative (“Go out and proclaim the good news to everyone”) because those people to whom we proclaim the good news really do need it. Neither are missionaries adding to their guilt by evangelization, as if those people would have been better off with only general revelation. We are taking part in the cosmic rescue plan, and the gospel is ultimately euangelion – evangel – good news. But it also means that those we are not able to reach are in loving hands.
I hope this is not the final answer, but it does make sense of God’s love and sovereignty whilst not diminishing the biblical view of human dignity and responsibility. Everyone stands in a relationship with the Creator, whether they respond positively or negatively. In the end, no-one is unevangelised.
Those who never hear do not exist.
NOTE: A follow-up to this post has been published here