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The destiny of the unevangelised

Vast numbers of people die without ever getting to hear about Jesus Christ and the salvation that God has made available through him. Are they all therefore destined for hell-fire, or do they have an opportunity somehow to find salvation? This book looks at the options: No Other Name: An investigation into the destiny of the unevangelized by John Sanders (Eerdmans, 1992, ISBN 0-8028-0615-5).

The book examines—with courtesy and even-handedness—the extremes of restrictivism (that they are damned) and universalism (that everyone in the end will be saved). It then looks at the variations on the ‘wider hope’, that is, a middle way by which, by one means or another, every person has at some point an opportunity to respond to Christ.

Can we believe that God is just and loving if he fails to provide billions of people (including infants who die) with any opportunity to participate in salvation through Jesus Christ? Why did God create so many people if he knew that the vast majority of them would have no chance of ultimate salvation? On the other hand, if the unevangelized do have an opportunity for salvation, how is it made available to them?  (p xvii)

It seems safe to conclude that the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived never heard the good news of grace regarding the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In terms of sheer numbers, then, an inquiry into the salvability of the unevangelized is of immense interest and importance. (p16)

Orthodox Christianity uniformly affirms the ontological necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation: if it were not for his atonement, we would all be left in our sins without any hope of reconciliation. But the matter of epistemological necessity – the question of whether a person must know about Jesus in order to benefit from the salvation he provided – is something else altogether.  (p30)

Augustine believed that hearing the gospel of Christ was necessary for salvation, and he considered all those dying unevangelized to be damned to hell. Regarding the numbers of those in heaven and hell, he states that “many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all.” (p55)

Why do restrictivists speak of the great power and will of God in other doctrines but when speaking of the unevangelized prefer to emphasize the power of human sin over the power of God’s love?  (p61)

The third major criticism of restrictivism concerns the claim that general revelation is sufficient for condemnation but insufficient for salvation. This sort of assertion prompts many to ask, “What kind of God is he who gives man enough knowledge to damn him but not enough to save him?” (p68)

The major difficulty with the universalist, Calvinist, and atheist views is their concept of God. It is my contention that all three views build on an idea of God that is foreign to what we find in the Bible. The Bible presents us with a God who makes himself vulnerable by creating creatures who have the freedom to reject him. (p112)

If one holds (1) that salvation is universally accessible, (2) that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary for salvation, and (3) that the only reason anyone is condemned to hell is for rejection of Jesus Christ, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that the unevangelized must receive some kind of opportunity after death to respond to Christ. (p180)

Inclusivists reject as inconceivable the assertion that the Son of God who forgave those who hated him and persecuted him to death would simply condemn with the wave of a hand all the unevangelized. They maintain that when all people stand before Christ in the eschaton, the question will not be “Do you know Jesus?” (as restrictivists believe) but rather “Does Jesus know you?” (Matt. 7:23).  (p218)

By arguing that believers are saved without knowledge of Christ, inclusivists imply that the unevangelized “may receive a gift without knowing from whom it comes or how much it has cost.” [Strong: Systematic Theology]  Children who believe they are receiving gifts from Santa Claus can enjoy them even though ignorant of the true giver. And, just as we hope they grow up to know the real giver, inclusivists express the hope that believers will come to know the source of their salvation – Jesus Christ. (p232)

I have given reasons why I prefer the wider-hope views to either restrictivism or universalism – chiefly because they do a better job of upholding my two preeminent theological axioms of salvation only in Christ and God’s universal salvific will. I consider the wider-hope views superior to restrictivism especially because they better represent the loving, saving God we find in Scripture – the God who was crucified for all sinners. (P281)

[I have prepared a fairly detailed summary of this book. It is 26 pages long, but you might prefer that to reading the 300 pages of the original. Click here to open the PDF file—give it a moment to download.]

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