Is There Hope for the Unevangelized?
by Jon Dybdahl
What is the fate of those who have had no opportunity to hear about Jesus? Are they saved or lost?
These questions lead to other important issues. How does Christianity relate to other world religions? Is Christianity really unique? Should Christians be missionaries? Isn't mission a colonial concept?
These are not new concerns. They have been pondered and debated for centuries. But with the globe becoming a village, with its population soaring beyond five billion, and with its religions becoming the faith of the neighborhood, the issue assumes more importance today than at any other time in history. In this complex situation, Christians must remain faithful to their Lord and at the same time find answers that can satisfy their own minds and make sense to those outside their faith.
Over the years Christian theologians have developed three basic answers to the questions listed above.1
Answer 1: Restrictivism
Restrictivism holds that all the unevangelized are damned. Unless people hear the message of Jesus and respond, they have no hope. This has been the most widely held belief through Christian history. Augustine taught this view, as did the Reformation theologian John Calvin. Many modern evangelicals continue to believe and preach it.2 However, many Christians today do not accept this position.
The strength of this concept lies in its powerful motivation for mission. J. Hudson Taylor, the great British missionary of the past century, founded his missionary society on this premise. By graphically portraying the millions of Chinese going into Christless graves doomed to eternal death, Taylor moved thousands to give of their money, time, and even lives to work for inland China. Many 20th-century mission societies continue to do the same.
Restrictivists find support for their position in such Bible passages as John 3:36 ("He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him") and 1 John 5:12 ("He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.")*
The restrictivist has a problem. How can one believe in a just and loving God if people will be lost because they have not had a chance to hear the good news of Jesus, through no fault of their own?
Watching a film series on missionaries produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation brought this home in a vivid way. The setting was a clearing in the dense New Guinea jungle. A young evangelical missionary couple sat side by side as they were interviewed.
Questions were asked about their work with a tribe that had never before been reached by Christian missionaries. Having seen the interviewer in action earlier, I could sense what was coming. He did not disappoint me. Looking squarely at the young wife the reporter asked, "Do you really believe that this tribe would be lost eternally if you had not come to teach them about Jesus? You have earlier declared what lovable people they are. Why would God do this?"
The camera zoomed in on her face, which showed agitation and uncertainty. Clearly she had been taught that her answer should be "yes," but it was so hard to say it and defend it in such a situation. In desperation she turned to her husband who did his best to provide an answer. The interview went on, but the point had been made.
Answer 2: Universalism
Universalism maintains that all sincere religious seekers will be saved. Most Christian universalists see this as taking place through the work or merit of Jesus. While there are many differing explanations of how this occurs, one thing is certain: in the end all unevangelized--even those who are now rebellious--will be rescued.
A minority of universalists believe that God will save all people in spite of their choices. A larger number hold that God will continue working with people until all finally are convinced that His way is best.
Universalism was advocated in the early church through the writings of Origen. It fell into disfavor and was revived only after the Reformation. Since 1800 it has been gaining strength among both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Part of this development is due to the revulsion many Christian feel toward the restrictivist position. Well-known 20th-century proponents include British Bible scholars William Barclay and John A. T. Robinson, as well as American theologian Paul Tillich.
Among the universalists' favorite texts are: 1 Timothy 4:10, where Paul speaks of God "who is the Savior of all men"; Titus 2:11, "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men"; and John 12:32, where Jesus declares "'And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.'"
The strength of the universalist position is its view of God. A divine Being who in the end saves everyone can easily be seen as loving, caring, and long-suffering.
On the other hand, universalists, if they take the Bible seriously, have a difficult time explaining why Jesus commands His followers to take His saving message "to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8) "and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Why witness if all people everywhere will in the end be saved?
Answer 3: Inclusivism
Between the two extremes of restrictivism and universalism is inclusivism or the "wider hope." This view holds that because of what God did through Jesus Christ, all sincere religious seekers will be saved. While Jesus is the basis for salvation, He can save true seekers of other religions or of no religion at all who may never know about Him. Inclusivism differs from universalism in that people who are not true seekers of salvation are lost.
At present, inclusivism is gaining adherents, often at the expense of restrictivism. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and C. S. Lewis, the popular Christian writer, are among those who have supported inclusivism.
What do inclusivists believe about how salvation takes place? Some maintain that God in some way gives all a chance to hear about Jesus and make their decision. One group sees a special evangelization taking place after death, while others see it occurring before death. Still another group believes God doesn't need to evangelize these people. Since He knows all things, He can simply judge them on the basis of how they would have responded if they had heard the message.
Probably the largest group feels that sincere seeking after God and doing right are all that is needed for salvation to take place. All viewpoints agree that God can save people without actual contact with a flesh-and-blood Christian missionary or witness.
As Bible evidence for their position, inclusivists often utilize texts used by universalists and even restrictivists, but interpret them differently. They would interpret "Savior of all men" as referring to accessibility of salvation to all, rather than the necessity of salvation. The texts used by restrictivists speak of the necessity of "having the Son," or "obeying the Son." Inclusivists understand these texts to mean that the unevangelized could obtain salvation without explicitly knowing the name or identity of Jesus.
Inclusivists claim that they are able to defend the goodness of God. Although some are lost, it is by their own choice. God honors that choice by not forcing them to live in heaven.
Important evaluation principles
When we study these varying views, we must keep four crucial principles in mind:
1. Sincere Bible-believing Christians are in all three camps. We must resist the temptation to judge those who disagree with our viewpoint as less than Christian. Articulate proponents of any of these viewpoints could give an extensive Bible study supporting their position. If the Bible were totally clear on the issue, there would probably not be this much variation. For reasons known only to God, Scripture does not address this topic as clearly as we might wish.
2. Christians should maintain the centrality and sovereignty of Jesus. Christians should take seriously the words of 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" (NIV). Unfortunately, some extreme views deny either the power of Jesus and/or the uniqueness of His person.
Many restrictivists seem to limit the power of Jesus. He can, they believe, save only those who have been reached by a missionary. I believe that the risen Christ, the only source of salvation, may in fact have the ability to save people in ways other than this one single method. In striving to take Jesus seriously as the source of salvation, restrictivists may actually deny Him some of His sovereign power.
Some universalists seem to deny the uniqueness of Jesus and suggest that salvation can be found apart from Him. Two popular modern authors who advocate that view are John Hick and Paul Knitter. Hick states: "It may be that one [religion] facilitates human liberation/salvation more than the others, but if so it is not evident to human vision. So far as we can tell they are equally productive of the transition from self to reality which we can see in the saints of all traditions."3
I believe that Jesus is unique and that He is the only way to salvation, but also feel that sincere seekers from other religions can be saved. People who are lost need not necessarily know in this life the exact source of their salvation. In short, we must reject any view that limits the power of Jesus or denies the special place given Him by Scripture.
3. Christians must maintain a balance between God's love and justice, and the clear command to witness. The Bible repeatedly stresses the love and justice of God as essential to His character. It also urges Christians to go and share their beliefs about Jesus with others (see Matthew 9:37, 38; 28:16-20; Luke 24:46-49; Romans 10:13-17; Acts 1:8).
I like to call myself a conservative inclusivist. Such a position seems closest to the right balance of God's love and the validity of mission. Both restrictivism and universalism fail to achieve this balance.
I believe that God usually saves people through human messengers sharing His good news. I also believe that God is fair and loving, and not limited by our failure to give the message. He reads the hearts of people and judges accordingly. While Jesus is always the basis for anyone's salvation, some who have not heard His name may still be saved by Him.
This balanced emphasis appears in the writings of Ellen White. On the one hand, she stresses that people are perishing because of our failure to reach them: "Multitudes perish for want of Christian teaching. Beside our own doors and in foreign lands the heathen are untaught and unsaved. While God has...so freely given to us a saving knowledge of His truth, what excuse can we offer for permitting the cries of...the untaught and the unsaved, to ascend to heaven?"4
On the other hand, Ellen White clearly points out how some heathen will be saved: "Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God."5
4. Careful study shows that at times other questions are more appropriate than the "salvation" question.
Don't get me wrong. I believe that saving the unevangelized is very important. Informed Christians should have a good answer to this problem. But I also believe that in some situations, especially where believers can share their faith freely, other questions are more profitable: How is God working in this person's life? What can I do to advance the process? How is God at work in divergent situations? Such questions leave salvation in the hands of God and lead us to see how we can cooperate with Him.
When all is said and done, Christian evidence should center on Jesus. Situations can become hostile when adherents of other religions think we imply that Christians are better people than believers of other religions. That is emphatically not our claim. What is special about Christians is that Jesus is the unique God-man and the only way to God, the Father. That is good news that has nothing to do with the goodness or badness of any particular person or religious system. Our main task is to tell this story lovingly and persistently, and let God do the deciding about who will be saved.
Our belief must also preserve the centrality of mission. I am not as concerned with what we believe about the fate of the unevangelized as I am about our commitment to obey Jesus' command to proclaim the good news to all people. The church--that's us!--lives and dies on the basis of our obedience to our mission.
Jon L. Dybdahl (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary) is director of the Institute of World Mission at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
*Except where indicated, all Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
1. For an excellent summary of the main positions see John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992).
2. A survey of 5,000 evangelicals who attended the Urbana Missions Conference of 1975 showed that 37 percent could be classified as restrictivists. See Sanders, p. 216.
3. John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), pp. 86, 87.
4. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1942), p. 288.
5. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 638.