One of the hottest topics among evangelical theologians (and theologically interested pastors and lay people) is the destiny of the unevangelized. Put most simply: Does everyone go to hell who never hears the gospel of Jesus Christ explicitly communicated? One traditional and popular answer (especially among fundamentalists) is simply “Yes.” This is called Restrictivism. Strict Restrictivism (I don’t really know any other kind) is defeated if there can be shown to be one individual who died and went to heaven (I’m using informal language about the after life here–I really mean “to paradise”) without ever hearing the name Jesus Christ.
As a side bar: One issue related to this is WHEN this situation became the case. That is, everyone, including Restrictivists, believes that people could be and were saved under the “old covenant” in view of the coming of the promised Messiah of God. So, to the best of my knowledge, every Restrictivist believes there were “saved people” in the world at the time of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Nobody I know says salvation began around 33 AD and nobody was saved before that or at that time except with explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ. Most thoughtful evangelical theologians who are Restrictivists would say people were saved under the old covenant by God’s grace on account of their “Abrahamic faith” or trust in God’s promise or something like that. Examples would be people like Simeon and Anna (Luke 2).
For all Restrictivists that I know the “cutting off point” was Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since his resurrection there has been no salvation apart from an explicit hearing of the gospel of Jesus Christ by name.
Here is my thought experiment that convinces me this Restrictivism simply can’t hold up logically. At the time Jesus died and rose there were people saved by their Abrahamic Faith (like Simeon and Anna and possibly Cornelius) “out there” in the Roman empire. (After all, more Jews lived outside of Palestine than in Palestine during Jesus’ life and at the time of his death.) I don’t know anyone who denies that. But the Restrictivist must answer the question: What happened to those people if no Christian apostle or other witness reached them with the name of Jesus before they died?
Imagine a particular person of Abrahamic faith born in, say, Alexandria, Egypt (where thousands of faithful Jewish people lived and had their own Temple and synogogues, etc.) in 20 A.D. This person, like Simeon and Anna or Cornelius “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” (Luke 2:25–about Simeon)
Again, I don’t know any Restrictivist who denies there were such people.
The question the Restrictivist must answer is: What happened to that devout, faithful Jewish believer in Yahweh and the coming Messiah when he died, say in 50 A.D.,without ever hearing about Jesus? (Now please don’t quibble by arguing that by 50 A.D. he would have heard of Jesus; even if that were probable, all I would have to do is move his death closer to 33 A.D–say 40 A.D.–and nobody would say every faithful Jew in the whole Roman empire and beyond had heard of Jesus by then.)
So, the question is: What did Christ’s death and resurrection do to already saved people? A strict Restrictivist (is there any other kind?) would have to say they all went to hell and thus Christ’s death actually “unsaved them.” Think about that. Can anyone say that with a straight face? Can anyone believe that about the cross? It would flatly contradict everything the New Testament says about the cross but especially John 3:17. I don’t know anyone who says that Christ’s death on the cross unsaved people.
But! If the Restrictivist doesn’t say that, what does he say? If he says our hypothetical Jewish believer in Alexandria died in 50 A.D. without every hearing of Jesus Christ and went to heaven (paradise), then he is no longer a true Restrictivist. He has just opened the door of his own mind to some kind of Inclusivism.
Of course, one attempt to get around this is to say that God simply assured that every person he knew would accept the gospel of Jesus Christ heard it before dying. But let’s just move our hypothetical Alexandrian Jew’s birth and death earlier a couple decades to test that. Would anyone say with a straight face that God assured that everyone who he knew would accept the gospel heard it before dying including those who died with Abrahamic faith one week, one month, six months, one year after Jesus’ death on the cross? That would seem to be a stretch. Who would have taken the message of Jesus to faithful Jews and gentile God-fearers in, say, Rome or Spain one week, one month, six months, one year after Jesus’ death?
So I asked a leading Restrictivist evangelical pastor-theologian about this and his response was “God grandfathered them in.” All I could do was say “Huh?” I guess what he means is that God too to paradise all who were already saved when Jesus died on the cross when they died. But that just pushes the question back to their sons and daughters.
Now, one possible response to this is to say God saves all Jews who have true Abrahamic faith in God like Simeon and Anna. Even today. Even if they never hear of Jesus Christ. But that would be adopting a “two covenants” model of salvation which most evangelicals reject. And it would mean we would not need to evangelize Jews. Very few evangelicals believe that. I know my Restrictivist friend doesn’t believe that. So this possible solution isn’t one most, if any, Restrictivists opt for.
I have attempted to ask many Restrictivists about this mind experiment and to date not one has answered me. Specifically, the question is, IF you believe there is no possibility of salvation apart from an explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ, when did that become the case and what happened to people who were saved at the time of Jesus who died after him without ever hearing about him? And if you say “They were grandfathered in,” what about their sons and daughters?
My argument is that this mind experiment simply falsifies strict Restrictivism. It is impossile reasonably to hold to strict Restrictivism in light of this thought experiment and the inevitable answers it brings forth. An honest, reasonable Restrictivist HAS to admit exceptions to his Restrictivism. And it won’t work to say “Yes, then, but no longer” because then you have to specify when the “then” ended and the “no longer” began.
My own conclusion is, in the light of this thought experiment, no reasonable and honest person can continue to embrace and promote strict Restrictivism without serious qualifications so that it is no longer really Restrictivism but becomes some kind of Inclusivism. That they do tells me they are more committed to a conservative agenda than to being reasonable (i.e., non-obscurantist).
This is perhaps the main problem I have with fundamentalists–obscurantism. In my experience they tend simply to refuse to face the problems with their extremely conservative beliefs and just merrily go on teaching others what they believe without admitting the serious problems. Another example, that I expounded earlier, is strict inerrancy that appeals to the non-existent original autographs. (For the full argument about how unreasonable that is you’ll have to go back to an earlier post.)
My experience of posing this thought experiment and the dilemma it creates for Restrictivism to fundamentalists is this: They always simply refuse to deal with it and turn to quoting Bible verses. The ONLY answer I’ve ever gotten to it from a Restrictivism was the “grandfathered in” answer but that didn’t solve the problem because the Restrictivist didn’t even attempt to answer the question about the offspring of the grandfathered in person.
Promoting Restrictivism without admitting its serious problems seems to me the height of obscurantism–especially once one had been confronted with this conundrum.