What happens to people who never hear about Jesus? (4 Views)

What happens to people who never hear about Jesus? (4 Views) April 26, 2018

Before getting to a guest post, which is written by Bonnie Kristian (author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What it Means to Follow Jesus Today), let me take this time to thank all of you who have taken the step forward to support my work (The Pangea Blog, Theology Curator, Rapture Drill, The Paulcast) via PatreonContributing as little as $3 per month makes a huge difference. Currently we have about 45 people supporting this work. It would be amazing to get this number up to over 100, so I can cover all the costs associated with maintaining my online ministry and cover some of the time I invest into this labor of love.

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Now, let’s get to our question: What happens to the people who never hear about Jesus?


Guest writer bio:

Bonnie Kristian is a writer who lives in the Twin Cities. She is a graduate of Bethel Seminary, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. Bonnie is the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, from which portions of this article are adapted. Learn more and pre-order at bonniekristian.com/book.



The following is written by Bonnie Kristian:

Even if every Christian in every church in every country throughout all of history spent every waking hour of every day on evangelism, some people would still fall through the cracks. Whether because of accidents of geography or miscommunication or other circumstances they can’t control, some people would still never hear about Jesus before they die.

What happens to them? Is it fair for God to treat people who have honestly never heard this stuff the same way he treats people who knowingly reject him? Is ignorance as bad as an intentional embrace of evil? Christians have historically answered these questions three ways, positing theories that are today called exclusivism, inclusivism, and postmortem evangelism. I’ll also cover a fourth theory called universalism, which has sometimes—but not universally, if you’ll pardon a bad pun—been labeled heresy.

Exclusivism

Exclusivism gets its name from the fact that it depicts salvation as an exclusive thing, only available to people who explicitly avail themselves of the offer of reconciliation Jesus extends. It’s not enough, exclusivists say, for someone ignorant of Jesus to respond in faith to what God reveals of himself in the beauty of nature or to the Holy Spirit’s speaking to their own hearts. Only those who are told the gospel message and consciously accept it can be saved.

This perspective is supported by Bible passages like John 14:6, which underscore Jesus’ role as the only way to God. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The conclusion for exclusivists is that the unknown billions upon billions of people who never hear about Jesus are utterly without hope. They cannot be saved and must be damned after death.


Inclusivism

Inclusivism begins by recognizing the injustice of damning billions because of circumstances outside of their control but remains committed to Jesus as the one route to salvation. As C.S. Lewis expressed it, “the real God, of His infinite courtesy, readdresses the letters [to false gods] to Himself and they are dealt with like the rest of the mail.”

The central thing to understand about inclusivism is that it isn’t saying anyone can be saved without Jesus, just that some people are saved without hearing about Jesus. Inclusivism relies on Scripture passages like Paul’s sermon in Athens, Greece, recorded in Acts 17, where God is described as revealing himself to everyone in all times and all places, drawing any who will listen into loving relationship with him. That relationship is possible because of the saving work of Christ, but God doesn’t require us to know all the details of what Jesus did to be saved. Evangelism remains vital in this view, because it will always be more difficult to respond to God without hearing the gospel message.


Postmortem Evangelism

The way postmortem evangelism works is right there in the title: After death or perhaps at the moment of death (that’s the postmortem part), those who never hear about Jesus while alive will be given an opportunity to understand the work of Christ (there’s the evangelism) and be saved.

Postmortem evangelism rests on two primary arguments. First, the Bible says again and again that God wants everyone to be saved, and he may not make our physical death the cutoff for that to happen. Jesus’ resurrection is described as a defeat of death itself—a victory over the grave—so if God wants salvation to still be possible when we die, he could certainly do that.

The second argument is more an interaction with a smattering of strange verses in the New Testament that are difficult for the other perspectives to explain. The most important passage is in 1 Peter 3–4, which says that Jesus, after dying, “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits” (3:19) and “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead” (4:6). Many Christians, particularly in the early church, have understood these passages to literally mean that in between his death and resurrection, Jesus preached in hell. Some unknown number of souls embraced his message and followed him out, and God can now offer the same opportunity to those who die having never heard of Christ.


Universalism

A fourth way to answer what happens to people who never hear about Jesus is universalism: Eventually, everyone will be saved. To be clear, Christian universalism is not the same as pluralism, which denies that Christianity has any special grasp on truth or that Jesus is the only way to be right with God. A Christian universalist believes salvation is found only in Christ, but that eventually (perhaps after some period of punishment) salvation will be applied to every human who has ever lived.

Even with that distinction, universalism remains controversial. Whether this should be considered an option in orthodox Christianity is the subject of centuries of disagreement, and I have no illusions I can settle that question here. Instead, I’ll simply say that Christian universalism is often unfairly caricatured, and as a serious theological perspective it is more diverse and grounded in the Bible than many realize. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free pass for Hitler. A thoughtful universalist can’t ignore what Scripture has to say about God’s justice and judgment on evil.


Discussion Questions

  1. Which view of the destiny of the unevangelized is most familiar to you? Which one(s) did your Sunday school teachers tell you?
  2. Which perspective do you find most appealing and why? Which do you find most convincing and why?
  3. Is the theory you find most appealing the same as the one you find most convincing? If not, what’s the difference?
  4. Only universalism escapes troubling questions about the fate of the mentally disabled as well as very young children who die before they are capable of understanding the gospel message. Many Christians—even exclusivists—have embraced “baby universalism,” which says people who die without the mental capacity for moral choice will not be subject to judgment. Does that work with the perspective you find most convincing? If yes, how? If no, how do you address this issue?
  5. What perspective we take on the fate of those who never hear about Jesus will deeply influence our theology of evangelism. After considering these options and your own perspective, has your view of your personal responsibility to share the good news changed?

Learn More

If you want to learn more about the destiny of the unevangelized, this reading list will help you get started. I’ll especially highlight Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy’s Across the Spectrum, which competently explains every perspective covered here except universalism. Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist is a compelling read that demolishes strawman versions of Christian universalism, while Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World moves beyond the options mentioned in this chapter to include a sort of hopeful agnosticism about the fate of those who never hear about Christ.

  • Augustine, “Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesiae Plebem” (“Address to the People of the Church at Caesarea”)
  • Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology
  • Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata
  • Cyprian, Epistle 72
  • Dante Alighieri, Inferno
  • Irenaeus, Against Heresies
  • Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies
  • C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
  • Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist
  • Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (editors), Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism
  • Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips (editors), Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World
  • Origen, On First Principles
  • Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions
  • John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized
  • Daniel Strange, The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelized: An Analysis of Inclusivism in Recent Evangelical Theology
  • John Wesley, On Faith

This article is adapted from the book, A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, by Bonnie Kristian. Copyright (c) Bonnie Kristian by Faithwords. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.



Kurt, here. I hope this was helpful today! I highly recommend checking out Bonnie’s book, A Flexible Faith, which deals with numerous theological questions ranging from violence to hell to miracles to baptism to the end times. It will be released May 15th!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Illithid

    Hi, I don’t know how relevant anyone will find this, but I hate to see your post all commentless.

    1. Exclusivism. I’ve been in numerous… spirited discussions with fundamentalist Christians. I’ve never gone to Sunday school.

    2. Universalism is more appealing, because eternal punishment for anyone seems utterly immoral. Finding one option more convincing would entail accepting the underlying premise that the Christian God exists, which I don’t. I suppose inclusivism seems to have more scriptural support, but as the author notes there is support for varying stances to be found.

    3. It seems that this is answered above.

    4. I don’t think the various authors of the scriptures took these problems into account. Later thinkers, trying to impose coherency on a disparate collection of writings, naturally will struggle with some issues. Baby universalism seems like an attempt to avoid some unpleasant consequences of an otherwise convincing position. Some early theologians simply accepted the doctrine of infant damnation even though they didn’t like it; this option is perhaps more honest but also more disturbing. I, of course, find this a nonissue. We die, we’re dead. That’s it. Babies, saints, and serial killers all alike cease to exist.

    5. N/A.

    One passage here brings up some questions of my own, for anyone who cares to answer.

    Is it fair for God to treat people who have honestly never heard this stuff the same way he treats people who knowingly reject him? Is ignorance as bad as an intentional embrace of evil?

    Does this mean hearing the Gospel and being unconvinced, or rejecting it while knowing it to be true? And why would either of those things be the same as “an intentional embrace of evil”?

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    It was definitely good to see at the end there that Christians have a responsibility to spread the ‘good news’/gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus, even if it was a question that was being asked on that point.

    As for the issue of those who haven’t heard of Jesus: It is the understanding and teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses (we absolutely are Christians though not Trinitarians) that the ones such as the mentally ill and those far too young to make any actual mental choice to serve Jesus or not out of understanding. And perhaps even the aborted children will have an opportunity to live. This will happen in what is known as the 1,000 year reign here on earth with Jesus and the 144,000 co-rulers. At this time there will be a resurrecting of the saved believers/disciples in Jesus (the righteous) and those who haven’t heard of Jesus or at least couldn’t understand/comprehend the moral matters and need for Jesus will have an opportunity to come to know things and either choose to follow Jesus in this Kingdom or ultimately choose to serve something else and loose thir opportunity to live at that time and thus prove themselves to be ‘unrighteous’. Though this view isn’t comparable to that of the ‘universalist’ view.

    Scripture does also talk about the fact that Satan gets let out of the pit after this certain period of time to mislead the inhabitants who aren’t following God to the full. This goes on for a very short time and these ones are are brought to full end of God’s ‘searching out’ those who wanted to be among His ppl.

    After these things we humans will be complete in perfection and all wickedness and sin and sickness and death will be removed from the world. Peace and security will be throughout the whole of the universe as it originally was. Jehovah will certainly show that He alone is God and that His name is true in meaning in that ‘He Causes to Become’

  • I am a thoroughly convinced Christian universalist. This came about several years ago while reading a pamphlet on the doctrine of Christ. There were some ads and one caught my attention which dealt with the trinity. I wish I still had the pamphlet because I can not remember what the ad was. Anyway, I searched out a few books and blogs and my journey began.

    I used to belong to FB where I took part in sharing and debating Christian universalism. I was amazed at how many different beliefs there are within CU! Ultimately though I did learn and enjoyed the conversation, I left FB. Rarely did anyone change their minds on anything and some conversations became embarrassingly unchristian.

    Judgement and punishment are there. No one circumvents Christ and the cross work. Christ is ultimately and completely victorious.

    I will not try to convince you. But I will recommend that you at least do some thorough and prayerful research and study! I can tell you it is a life changer.

  • Good_Samaritan

    This post feels more like something I would read in the Evangelical belief area

    The author said: “Is ignorance as bad as an intentional embrace of evil?”

    Thanks for calling me evil because I don’t believe the same thing as you.

    “It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free pass for Hitler.”
    Hitler was a professing christian. There is debate about what he believed in his heart of hearts, but there is no debate about Nazi Germany being 99% Christian (95% after the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia). All four options you gave are get-out-of-jail-free passes for the vast majority of Nazis.

    “What perspective we take on the fate of those who never hear about Jesus …” The “never hear about” part of this question is the problem. Built into it is the assumption that those who do hear the message of the gospel and don’t believe it are damned. Even the current Pope seems to reject this. Least progressive progressive christian post ever.

  • Freethinker

    This is all you need to know about the “logic” of Christian mythology and its obsession with proselytization.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/74cb05b69f1c2dedecdfc7682a23b874935477f22850760b86611f5d33035061.png

  • Darwin C

    The supposedly most important event of all time – god came to earth to die so he could forgive humans for being human just like he created them. And

    1. None of the historians, chroniclers, poets, etc. alive on earth at the time even noticed.

    2. The deity forgot or was too careless to document the conditions for obtaining said forgiveness for being human.

    The real question is why should anyone bother to believe it?

  • Doubting Thomas

    Why not just ask god? If he wants us to know he should be able to give a clear answer to anyone who asks.

  • Milo C

    I find the Universalist position the most palatable, though it does seem to have the least support in terms of acceptance and scripture. What bothers me, though, is that it (most interpretations) assumes that every human will eventually want to be subjects under the Abrahamic god. Will Satan himself be redeemed? What if I would rather go to oblivion? Will I be subject to psychological propaganda until my thoughts and values are completely different from those I held while living so that I can accept a divine overlord? If so, what are the implications of such a fate?

  • Cleanslate

    The scope of most versions of Christian Universalism is too limited. It is primarily concerned with the salvation of humans, and in western Christianity it focuses on the salvation of the individual. This often leads to the necessity of some sort of punishment/chastisement to make them fit for heaven. But the the overarching thrust of the biblical vision of the ultimate reality is not of a dual outcome of heaven or hell (whether it be eternal torment or annihilation: eternal death). Rather it is about life (the Life of God) overcoming death itself. And that involves all of creation, the totality of the space-time universe and all that is in it.

    The Judgment of God is not about giving us what we deserve, it is about God unconditionally giving all of us, and all creation, what we need to be truly human and free to live for each other. It is creative and restorative justice; not the retributive justice of human legal systems and religion.

    The ultimate reality of God becoming all in all; leaves no space for death, pain or separation from God. At Golgotha, God becomes the God of the godforsaken, the godless and the dead. There is no place or state of being where the God, who gives all that he is to all that there is, will not be with his healing, liberating and transforming life.

    • Elephile

      Thank you for putting this so well, Cleanslate.

      Once you see that God never rejects or abandons even the smallest part of the creation,
      that he will give all of his himself, endlessly,
      to free everything and everyone,
      and make all whole…

      You can *never* un-see it.

    • TS (unami)

      This is beautiful, @Cleanslate:disqus.
      Thank you.

  • Ed Senter

    I learned as a child that the only way to God was through the Catholic Church and that praying for the heathen was my burden.
    Reason tells me that if there is no God, then the only alternative is nothing.
    After years of studying the Bible and the various sects along with studying other religions not Christian, I have concluded that Jesus is the SURE way to salvation. Is it the only way? God is sovereign so He can do anything He wants. I will leave that to Him.
    As far as evangelism goes, a careful study of prophecy tells me that the gospel of Jesus Christ will be preached to the world during the millennium. That is still future. However, I share the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen simply because Truth is just to big to keep secret.
    Universalism seems to me to be antithetical to free will. I think the truth is that Jesus paid the price to buy the whole field in order to get the treasure out of the field. The choice is there for all of those who seek. whether in this lifetime or the next.

    • glenbo

      >>”Reason tells me that if there is no God, then the only alternative is nothing.”<>” Jesus is the SURE way to salvation.”<<

      Salvation from what?

      • Ed Senter

        What we know (science) is that every “living” thing dies. The oldest human alive today is less than 120 years old. We know nothing about whether or not there is an after life. So when information is provided that discusses an after life, I listen. The challenge is discerning the wheat from the chaff. The Bible happens to be the best information I have found that is reasonable.
        Jesus Christ promised that whoever believes in him will have life everlasting. He will save us from the eternal death.

        • glenbo

          >>” The challenge is discerning the wheat from the chaff. The Bible happens to be the best information I have found that is reasonable.”<<

          What process does one use to determine the bible is true?

          • Ed Senter

            You start by reading one. Then study it- not as an instruction manual- but as an unraveling mystery.

          • glenbo

            >>”You start by reading one.”<<

            Already have…several times.
            Not convinced an imaginary God exists.

          • Ed Senter

            That’s too bad.
            Perhaps if you would consider that a real God exists instead of looking for an imaginary God that by definition can not exist.

          • glenbo

            >>”Perhaps if you would consider that a real God exists “<<

            A "real' God wouldn't exist only in the imagination.

          • Ed Senter

            That is what I said. An imaginary God does NOT exist.
            A real God DOES exist.

            I have studied the Bible and it is the reason I believe God exists.

          • glenbo

            >>”A real God DOES exist.”<<

            In what manner?

          • Ed Senter

            What do you mean by “in what manner”?
            Try to keep up.
            A real God does exist because he is REAL. An imaginary God does not exist because he is IMAGINARY.

          • glenbo

            >>”A real God does exist because he is REAL.”<<

            What makes him "real?"

          • Ed Senter

            He exists apart from your imagination.

          • glenbo

            >>”He exists apart from your imagination.”<<

            How so?

          • Ed Senter

            He exists like everything else- through His power.

          • glenbo

            >>”He exists like everything else- through His power.”<<

            So now we are back to where we started.
            My question is:
            How do I know he exists?

          • Ed Senter

            First of all, I don’t know what you mean by “know”.
            Second, I don’t know what it would take for you to “know”.
            I think the maxim, “seek and ye shall find” is key.
            I believe God exists because I have studied the Bible. Perhaps, I won’t know until I wake up in the after life in His presence as promised.

          • glenbo

            >>”I believe God exists because I have studied the Bible”<<

            How does one determine the bible is true?

          • Ed Senter

            The Bible is true if what it says comes to pass.

          • glenbo

            >>”The Bible is true if what it says comes to pass.”<<

            Such as?

          • Ed Senter

            One is the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the nation state of Israel in 1948. Jesus said the end of the age is near when you see the fig tree put out leaves. The fig tree, of course, represents the Jews. He had previously cursed the fig tree because the Jews did not recognize him as Messiah.

          • glenbo

            >>”One is the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the nation state of Israel in 1948. “<<

            That is not evidence that the bible is true.

          • Ed Senter

            Sure it is. The regathering of the Jews to Jerusalem is only one of hundreds of fulfilled prophecies. The Bible is not an instruction manual. It is a book of revelation. It is the story of God reconciling the world to Himself. The fact that Jews have maintained their religious beliefs for over 3000 years is remarkable enough. Now that the specifics are in place is even more remarkable.

          • glenbo

            >>”hundreds of fulfilled prophecies.”<<

            Where can I find these prophecies?
            Where can I find evidence that they have been fulfilled?

          • Ed Senter

            The prophecies are in the Bible.
            The evidence is there for all who seek.
            If you are asking me to recommend some good teachers from whom I have learned, I can do that. Because studying the Bible is a process and false teachers abound- just like the Bible said.

          • glenbo

            >>”The evidence is there for all who seek.”<<

            Where can I find evidence that the prophecies have been fulfilled?

          • Ed Senter

            Start by googling “bible prophecies fulfilled”.

          • glenbo

            >>”Start by googling “bible prophecies fulfilled”.”<<

            I asked you a simple question:
            Where do I find biblical prophecies have been fulfilled.
            It appears you don't know.
            Therefore, how can I believe you?

          • Ed Senter

            Don’t believe me. Check it out for yourself. If you don’t seek, you will find what you are looking for- which is nothing.
            I gave you one. Did not the Jews reestablish the nation state of Israel in 1948? That is a current one.
            There are hundreds of others and I gave you a place to start.

          • glenbo

            >>” Did not the Jews reestablish the nation state of Israel in 1948? “<<

            How do you know that’s what Isaiah was talking about?

          • Ed Senter

            Not only Isaiah, but most of the other prophets and Jesus Himself said it in Matt 24. The Jews were scattered to the four corners and they must be back in Jerusalem for the final prophecies to be fulfilled. It takes careful study to understand this because of all of the false teachings. Only you can know if you have the courage and will to understand.

          • glenbo

            How do you know they were specifically referring Israel?

          • Ed Senter

            Because the prophets will tell you to whom the prophecies are referring.

          • glenbo

            >>”Because the prophets will tell you to whom the prophecies are referring.”<<

            So Israel is NOT referenced in the bible.
            Thank you.

          • Ed Senter

            Sure it is. You are just too blind to see.
            And your questions are not insightful, either.

          • glenbo

            >>”Sure it is. “<<

            Please cite the bible verse that specifies Israel.

          • Ed Senter

            Since I first cited Matt 24, who else but Israel is the reference? “6 Instead, you are to go to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” Matt 10

          • glenbo

            I fail to see the connection to the alleged “prophecy.”
            Can you be specific that Israel was the chosen Nation?

          • Ed Senter

            The entire Bible is God’s plan as revealed through His relationship with His people, Israel. Beginning with the promises made to Abraham through Isaac then Jacob. Jacob’s name changed after he wrestled with God- to Israel. Then the promises through the twelve sons of Jacob- Judah getting the right of kingship. That is why Jesus was a direct descendent of Judah through David then Mary. As the apostle John said in Chapter 1 of his gospel, “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” Ultimately, the Jews will realize their error where in Zach 14 it is stated, “They will look upon Him whom they had pierced.” At that time they will finally repent and realize Jesus as their Messiah. Then the Kingdom will be restored to Israel and last 1000 years.
            In Matthew, Jesus cursed the fig tree. That is because Israel rejected Jesus as Messiah at His first coming. “When the fig tree puts out its leaves” -that is, Israel is gathered once again to Jerusalem, “the end is near”. Matt 24

          • glenbo

            >>”that Israel was the chosen Nation?”<<

            So you cannot cite a specific bible verse that specifically states that Israel was the chosen Nation?

          • Ed Senter

            “8 When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.
            9 For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” Deut. 32

          • glenbo

            >>”When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.”<<

            OH MY GAWD!
            GOD IS REAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

            Thank you!

          • Ed Senter

            You’re welcome…

  • Jon Jaroszewski

    I have often wondered why we don’t take Paul at his word from Romans 2. I think it is because it doesn’t fit neatly into our systematic theologies.
    Romans 1 through 3 seems to address the various methods by which we May seek after God. It begins by recognizing God from nature, and climaxes in faith in Jesus Christ.
    Romans 2, beginning in verse 6 says, God will repay each person according to what they have done. to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
    after expanding on the thought for a few verses, he comes back to the main point again in verse 14. indeed when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by Nature things required by the law, they are a lot for themselves, even though they do not have the law.. and their thoughts sometimes sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. this will take place and the day when God judges people’s Secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
    Is God unaware of those who have never heard the gospel? Is he not a righteous and just? he somehow will provide the means to immortality for people otherwise left in the dark, based on their opportunities, beliefs, and efforts.
    if they somehow Attain immortality, it will still be by the same way we attain it, the one name under heaven by which we must be saved, Jesus Christ.