Editor’s Note: Recent controversies have swirled around the fate of those who never hear the gospel, arising in no small part because of the searching, even searing, questions posed by many, both Christian and non-Christian. This essay represents a compact, biblical restatement of the urgency and necessity of the call to proclaim the gospel to all the nations so that people may believe in Jesus Christ and be saved.
Lately there has come out of cold storage a question that has been hibernating among conservative evangelicals for some time. That question has to do with the status of people who live and die without ever hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Will God consign them to everlasting punishment? If so, where is his sense of fair play—they never had a chance—let alone his love for them? If not, through what means and at what time does he give them opportunity to be saved?
1. Reasons for Challenges to the Traditional View
This question of theodicy (divine justice) needs open discussion. We can easily identify reasons for its acuteness: (1) the relative fewness of the saved under the traditional view that apart from evangelization in their lifetimes people have no hope;1 (2) the guilt of Christians in failing to evangelize them; and (3) the eternality of punishment in the hereafter. These considerations have always troubled pious minds.
In recent times historical factors have heightened sensitivity to the question. The downfall of monarchism and the rise of egalitarianism in the political realm have made it hard for people to continue thinking of God as a king who exercises his sovereignty at what surely looks to be the outrageous expense of vast hordes of humanity. Add the lingering myths of the happy heathen and the noble savage; the modern syndrome of self-pity, evident in the anti-heroes of literature, drama, and cinema and in the attribution of human failings to genetic and environmental factors; the current emphasis on love without holiness, on tolerance without convictions; the exchange of “convictions” (connoting objective truths) for mere “values” (connoting subjective preferences); and the cosmopolitanism of the global village, in which people all over the world have a more immediate awareness of one another than they ever had before. This mixture offers a witches’ brew to anyone who would dare defend the traditional view, which sat a little less uncomfortably in provincial society.
2. Ruling Out Universalism and Annihilationism
Let us rule out the doctrines of universal salvation and of the annihilation of the wicked (also called conditional immortality). The former solves our problem by positing the salvation of all people in the end but runs aground on texts that describe the eternal punishment of unbelievers (e.g., Matt 25:46; Rev 14:11; 20:10, 15) and on Jesus’ explicit statements—in the Sermon on the Mount of all places!—that “wide is the gate and broad the way leading to destruction, and many are the ones who enter through it” and “how narrow is the gate and confined the road leading to life, and few are the ones who find it” (Matt 7:13–14). The reconciliation of all things (Eph 1:10; Col 1:19–20) refers to the new creation in Christ (Eph 1:22–23; Col 1:17–18), outside of which fall the unsaved (see Eph 2:3; 5:5–6; Col 3:5–6, 12;2 Rev 21:8). In view of the contrast between “those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing” in 2 Cor 2:14–16, the reconciling of “the world” to God in 5:19 cannot imply universal salvation as a coming actuality or even as a possibility—rather, salvation as available on condition of accepting “the word of reconciliation”: “we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20). Similarly, justification “for all people” in Rom 5:18 makes justification available for all, but not actual for all, because 2:2–6, 8–9 has previously spoken of suffering God’s wrath at the Last Judgment. And again similarly, Jesus’ drawing “all people” to himself according to John 12:32 cannot imply universal salvation; for 5:29 has referred to “the resurrection of judgment” as opposed to “the resurrection of life,” and 3:36 has said that God’s wrath “remains” on unbelievers, so that “all people” in 12:32 has to mean all kinds of people, such as non-Jews, “the Greeks” who had just asked to see Jesus (12:20–21; cf. Rev 5:9; 7:9). So settling for “tension” between supposedly universalistic texts and obviously nonuniversalistic texts amounts to ignoring the first rule of interpretation: Take account of the context.
The destruction of both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28) connotes devastation and ruination, not annihilation. Compare the underlying Greek word’s frequent use for lostness, as in the cases of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son, none of them annihilated (Luke 15:4, 6, 8–9, 24). The doctrine of annihilation also runs into the difficulty that a shortening of punishment does not at all answer the question, Why does God not give everybody an equal opportunity to be saved? Besides, eternality characterizes future punishment to the same degree that it characterizes future bliss (note the parallelism in Matt 25:46).
3. Considering Inclusivism
On to forms of so-called inclusivism, then. Usually hallowed with a supportive reference to the opinion of C. S. Lewis—though his associated belief in purgatory goes unmentioned—three inclusivistic answers to our question have captured more serious attention among conservative evangelicals:
1. Salvation is possible through the revelation of God in the visible creation and in the human conscience. People who respond to this general revelation have the benefits of Jesus’ redemptive work applied to them without their hearing and believing the gospel in this lifetime. 2. All those who did not hear the gospel before their death will hear it after their death. Then they gain the opportunity of which they were deprived during their lifetimes. 3. Of those who did not hear the gospel before their death, only those who responded well to general revelation before dying will have an opportunity after dying. In view of their good response to general revelation, post-mortem belief in Christ will probably follow as a matter of course.
3.1. Various Appeals to Scripture
Proponents of these views make a number of appeals to Scripture.
3.1.1. Gentiles such as Melchizedek, Balaam, and Job
The Gentiles Melchizedek, Balaam, and Job (not to mention Adam, Abel, Seth, Enoch, and Noah, who lived prior to God’s special revelation distinguishing Gentiles from Abraham and his offspring through Isaac and Jacob) are marched out as examples of salvation through general revelation. But the appeal to them overlooks the possibility that their knowledge of God derived from an original special revelation of himself to humanity, a revelation that started the practice of religion and passed on to succeeding generations of the whole human race.3 The missionary drive of the early church and, even earlier, the wholesale prophetic and other Jewish attacks on pagan religions imply that by the time of Jesus God’s special revelation of himself at the dawn of human history had long since suffered dysfunctional corruption.
3.1.2. Matthew 25:31–46
Matthew 25:31–46 indicates that all nations will receive judgment according to their exercising or failing to exercise charity toward the wretched of the earth, whom Jesus identifies as his own brothers, not according to their hearing and believing the gospel or failing to do so. Thus it is claimed. But this interpretation, which has proved irresistible to many a Christian humanitarian, stumbles against Jesus’ own definition of his brothers as those who do the heavenly Father’s will (Matt 12:50) as revealed specifically in the teaching of Jesus (see Matt 7:21 with 7:24–27; 28:20), and even more seriously stumbles against the parallel in Matt 10, where the persecuted little ones needing shelter, food, and drink are not the world’s needy in general but Christian missionaries in particular (see especially v. 42)! When viewed in its Matthean context, in other words, the passage turns out to militate against the view for which it is cited; for “one of these littlest brothers of mine” (v. 40) is seen to be a messenger of the gospel.
3.1.3. John 1:9
John 1:9 says that the Word enlightens every human being. But the context deals with the incarnate ministry of Christ as providing light, and John later shows awareness that the disciples need to be sent in order for the saving effects of that light to be felt (John 20:21–23). Furthermore, the gaining of Christ’s light links with believing in Christ (John 1:9–13; 3:16–21; 8:12–30). We do better to say that John jumps from the old creation at the beginning (1:1–3) to the new creation, dating from the incarnation (1:4–18), than to think that he writes concerning a preincarnate and continuing general ministry of the Word through the light of reason and conscience. Therefore, John 1:9 means that Jesus the Word as preached in the gospel brings the light of salvation to everyone who hears and believes.
3.1.4. Acts 10:1–2, 34–35
To appeal to God’s acceptance of Cornelius, his household, and others like him (Acts 10:1–2, 34–35) is to forget that Luke and Peter are not talking about people deficient of special revelation, but about God-fearers, that is, about Gentiles who know and follow the special revelation of God in the OT. Such Gentiles frequented the synagogues, where they regularly heard the Scriptures read. Moreover, God sent Peter to preach the gospel to these people. Hence, they hardly support the possibility of salvation for the unevangelized.
3.1.5. Acts 18:9–10
According to Acts 18:9–10 the Lord said to Paul, “I have many people in this city [Corinth].” But in view of Acts 13:48b (“and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed”), it is worse than gratuitous to take the Lord’s statement as referring to ignorant but acceptable people rather than to those foreordained to salvation through hearing and believing the gospel in their present lifetime. And again, the very fact that God sent Paul to preach the gospel to these people in Corinth takes away support for theories of salvation through general revelation and post-mortem belief in Christ.
3.1.6. Romans 1:19–20
Yes, the heathen do—or at least did—understand general revelation (Rom 1:19–20); but the whole thrust of Rom 1:18–3:18, 23 is that they along with the Jews stand under God’s wrath because of their sin. Paul brings up general revelation to show that humankind has rejected it. Therefore, the passage poses a liability, not an asset, to the views under discussion.
3.1.7. Romans 2:14–16
Romans 2:14–16, combined with vv. 6–7, 10–11, 13, has been thought to describe the good works of the Law as performed by conscientious heathen and to ascribe to such heathen salvation. But more than once in the early chapters of Romans Paul sets out brief statements that he later interprets in detail,4 and in 8:1–4 he indicates that only those who are in Christ by faith and consequently have the Holy Spirit can fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law. Therefore, 2:14–16 refers to Christian Gentiles.5
3.1.8. Romans 10:18
Certainly Paul’s quoting Ps 19:4 (“Their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world”) in Rom 10:18 does not substantiate the possibility of salvation through the general revelation enjoyed by unevangelized people. For although the psalmist has general revelation in mind, Paul reapplies the phraseology to “the gospel . . . the word of [= concerning] Christ” (vv. 16–17). As is well-known, reapplications of OT passages typify Paul’s style.6 Furthermore (though not essential to the argument), those who have heard (v. 18) are probably the Jews, so that now God is turning his attention to the Gentiles, who have not yet heard (vv. 19–21 and the whole of Rom 9–11).
3.1.9. 1 Peter 3:18–20
Even though we were to construe Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Pet 3:18–20) as an offer of salvation to deceased human beings, the problem of the ignorant heathen would still beg for solution. For the text limits the proclamation to the spirits active during the antediluvian generation of Noah and then confined to prison. Moreover, these spirits were “disobedient.” They were not the open-hearted kind of heathen the possibility of whose salvation some current theologians are exploring. And disobedient to what? General revelation alone? Can we be sure that the special revelation of a destructive flood formed no part of Noah’s preaching of righteousness (cf. Gen 6:9–22; Heb 11:7; 2 Pet 2:5)?
But, of course, 1 Pet 3:18–20 probably does not at all refer to an offer of salvation to deceased human beings. The context favors a proclamation of triumph over demonic powers. Just as Jesus gained such vindication before them, so too at the Last Day his persecuted followers will gain vindication in the presence of their persecutors. As usual, when lacking qualification to the contrary, the term “spirits” refers to spirits of an angelic or demonic kind, not to the spirits of disembodied human beings.
3.1.10. 1 Peter 4:6
Differences of phraseology distance the preaching of the gospel to the dead (1 Pet 4:6) from Christ’s proclamation to the once disobedient spirits in prison. This latter text specifies the gospel and deceased human beings. But who are these deceased people, and when did they hear the gospel preached to them? Apparently they are deceased Christians who heard and believed the gospel prior to suffering martyrdom. For Peter writes of their suffering in the flesh as Christ did, that is, to the point of death (v. 1; cf. 3:17–18). The gospel was preached to the martyrs. This happened before their deaths, naturally; otherwise they would not have suffered martyrdom for the gospel. During the present interim between their martyrdom and resurrection they enjoy a disembodied life with God (cf. 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). Peter designs his comments to steel living Christians against the possibility of their own martyrdom. The passage does not afford good grounds, then, for conversion after death.
3.2. The Problem of Appealing to Equal Treatment
Those who see an out for the unevangelized do so out of concern to avoid impugning the justice of God and sacrificing his love. A laudable concern! But do the suggestions of salvation through general revelation and of conversion after death in fact do the apologetic job they are intended to do! No, they fail. We must ask whether the preaching of the gospel to people in their present lifetime gives them a better opportunity to be saved than they would have had apart from such preaching. If it does, God remains unfair and unloving to let some hear while some do not hear. For then a very large proportion of human beings will suffer eternal loss because he did not give them so good an opportunity as he gave to others.
On the other hand, if for the sake of equal treatment God does not allow the preaching of the gospel to enhance the opportunity to be saved, we have no reason to preach the gospel, at least not so far as the eternal destiny of people is concerned. In fact, on the principle that the servant who knows his master’s will and disobeys will receive many lashes but the servant who does not know it will receive few (Luke 12:47–48), it would be better not to preach the gospel to anybody. None would suffer disadvantage, and—since we know by observation that where the gospel is preached the majority usually reject it—many would escape a worse punishment for sinning against greater light. Oddly, the merciful thing would be not to preach the gospel; and the suffering and martyrdom of witness-bearing Christians becomes a cruel mistake if the unreached can be saved equally well without hearing the gospel in this lifetime.
Besides, what of the many who have heard the gospel in their present life, but only from those whose conduct does not recommend the message or only from those who in other ways have failed to make it clear and convincing? We might also wonder about people whose backgrounds make them less susceptible to evangelism. The list of inequalities could go on and on. If we demand equal treatment of those who have never heard, others cry out for equal treatment too. The attempts to justify God’s ways in salvation cannot stop with the ignorant heathen. The facile solutions here criticized rest on a philosophical view of the problem that is too simplistic and restricted—and on a theological view of our ability to justify God’s ways that is too inflated (cf. Rom 11:33–36).
Given the complexities of the case, we might also doubt our ability to recognize perfect equality even though we saw it right before our eyes. Who knows? Maybe the inequalities are only apparent. But we can make no such claim, since appearances run to the contrary. It is enough to say that intellects properly chastened through recognition of their own limitations and of the complexities attending our question will hesitate to mount either an accusation against God or an apology for him. We can hardly improve on Paul’s statement that the fate of the lost demonstrates the wrath and power of God just as the salvation of believers demonstrates his mercy (Rom 9:22–23). At this point it becomes evident whether our thinking centers on God—from whom and through whom and for whom are all things (Rom 11:36)—or whether anthropology has encroached on theology.
4. Staying within Scripture: The Necessity of Evangelism
The Scriptures stand alone as our source of information concerning the status of the unevangelized. As we have seen, the notions of salvation through general revelation and of an opportunity after death find no solid footing in Scripture. More than that, Scripture indicates the hopelessness of people apart from hearing and believing the gospel now. In Adam all human beings stand under condemnation (Rom 5:12–21). They have rejected general revelation (Rom 1:18–32). God’s wrath remains on them apart from belief in Jesus the Son (John 3:36). The present is the time for such belief: “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time’; behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor 6:2). Most clearly of all for our question, Paul puts all these pieces together in Rom 10:9–16 by writing in uninterrupted succession about the necessity to salvation of confessing Jesus as Lord and calling on his name, about the necessity of believing in Jesus for calling on him, about the necessity of hearing of him for believing in him, about the necessity of our preaching the gospel for people’s hearing of him, and about the necessity of sending for preaching. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). We can hardly fail to notice Paul’s focus on the specific message preached concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. And the repeated rhetorical questions, each beginning “How shall they . . .?” show this way of salvation to be the only way. Without the human witness here and now, an essential link is broken; the chain of salvation will not hold.
Since Scripture makes the unevangelized lost and our preaching the gospel to them necessary to their salvation, those who propose contrary views need to adduce more cogent biblical evidence in favor of those views. Otherwise, we should have to move to a decanonized view of revelation as an ever-ongoing process. Biblical particularism and evangelistic necessity, which may have been good enough for olden times, could give way to post-biblical revelation of a theodicy supposedly more just and gracious and conveniently easier to swallow.
But the new truths of salvation by general revelation and of post-mortem conversion would doubtless yield to the even “better” truth of universal salvation. For someone is bound to ask why God even bothers to create beings who he knows ahead of time will respond neither to general revelation nor to special revelation, and why he allows many of them to increase their damnation by giving them more and more revelation that he knows very well they are not going to accept. Either we settle for a technically fair God (he gives everybody an equal opportunity) notably lacking in kindness (he creates people who he foresees will not take advantage of their equal opportunities). Or we save his kindness with the excuse of ignorance (he did not know that many of his creatures would destroy themselves, and even yet he mindlessly keeps on willing them into existence). Or, ironically, having rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of particular election, we universalize the Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible grace. By this time we have strayed so far from Scripture that the whole problem, having lost its biosphere, ceases to exist. Staying within Scripture, however, we discover behind the Great Commission a reason to evangelize the heathen more compelling than the desirability of bringing them into the joy of salvation a little earlier than otherwise they would enter it. The reason is that apart from our preaching to them the word of Christ, they have no hope. So let us urgently and compassionately rescue the perishing.
5. An Extended Note on Eternal Punishment
The NT doesn’t put forward eternal punishment of the wicked as a doctrine to be defended because it casts suspicion on God’s justice and love. To the contrary, the NT puts forward eternal punishment as right, even obviously right. It wouldn’t be right of God not to punish the wicked, so that the doctrine supports rather than subverts his justice and love. It shows that he keeps faith with the righteous, that he loves them enough to vindicate them, that he rules according to moral and religious standards that really count, that moral and religious behavior has consequences, that wickedness gets punished as well as righteousness rewarded, and that the eternality of punishment as well as of reward invests the moral and religious behavior of human beings with ultimate significance. We’re not playing games. In short, the doctrine of eternal punishment defends God’s justice and love and supplies an answer to the problem of moral and religious evil rather than contributing to the problem.
God will finally rectify all the imbalances in the scales of justice. To biblical people no mystery attached to this rectification, as though to say we can’t understand it now—how it could be right for God to punish the wicked eternally—but at the Last Day we’ll recognize his love and justice in punishing them eternally and rewarding the righteous, also eternally. To biblical people it was already clear that by so doing, God will be exercising his love and justice. And it was already clear to them because they had an acute, firsthand awareness of the depth of human depravity, on the one hand, and of the pain of man’s inhumanity to man, on the other hand. Often, moderns think that if only biblical people hadn’t been so insular, if only they’d lived in the times of radio, television, the Internet, international travel, if only they’d been personally acquainted with people of other religions—some Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims—they wouldn’t have come up with the horrible idea of eternal punishment. But the doctrine of divine inspiration of Scripture aside (though it warrants acceptance), biblical people were probably less insular than we moderns are. Most of them had closer and more numerous contacts with people of other religions then we do. As to most of the people we Christians in the Western world deal with, if they aren’t Christians they’ve at least been deeply influenced by the side-effects of the Christian faith that have permeated our culture. But biblical people rubbed shoulders daily with those who diligently practiced other religions, usually a variety of other religions at the same time. They knew what those other religions were and what effects they had on people. So maybe the problem we modern Westerners feel in regard to the doctrine of eternal punishment arises out of our comparative insularity, not out of the insularity of those who wrote the Bible, to our relative ignorance of the realities of human nature, other religions, and their effects on human behavior. At any rate, it’s simply wrong to attribute the doctrine to unfamiliarity with other religions and their devotees.
To reference the righteous and the wicked in this discussion isn’t to imply that people gain eternal life or suffer eternal punishment on the basis of whether their conduct is, on the whole, good or bad. Thinking that they do is probably part of the problem modern Westerners have in accepting the Bible’s teaching of eternal punishment: Non-Christians often seem to be good people. Why should they be punished forever? But people’s conduct isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge of whether their nature is good or bad. Relatively good conduct can be the accidental effect of a good environment in family, friends, teachers, and the surrounding general culture. Put supposedly good people in another set of circumstances—a set in which they can do what they jolly well please, for example, or in which they’re subject to greater temptation—and they may turn into Hitlers. Take Nero. At first, when still under the influence of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, Nero was a fairly good Roman emperor. After Seneca died, though, Nero turned demonic. We just don’t know people’s hearts, or even our own hearts, as God knows them (Jer 17:9–10). People don’t go to heaven because their conduct is good enough. They don’t go to hell because their conduct is too bad, but because they themselves are bad whether or not that fact has come out very clearly in their conduct. Our conduct and our eternal fate aren’t related directly to each other as cause and effect. They’re both the effect of whether or not we’ve been born from above through faith in Jesus Christ and the action of God’s Spirit. What our conduct does determine, however, is the degree to which we enjoy eternal life or suffer eternal punishment (see, e.g., Luke 12:47–48; 1 Cor 3:10–15). Though purely enjoyable, heaven won’t be equally enjoyable for everybody there. Similarly, hell won’t be equally torturous for everybody there, and not so torturous as to impugn God’s justice—yet torturous enough to be avoided at all costs.