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The Destiny of the Unevangelized



Can the unevangelized be saved? The unevangelized are people who have never heard about Christ or have insufficient information about Him. Can they be saved even though they have no opportunity to hear about the Gospel?

We believe that they can, and such a view is known as Inclusivism. Inclusivism teaches "that the unevangelized are saved or lost on the basis of their commitment, or lack thereof, to the God who saves through the work of Jesus. They believe that appropriation of salvific grace is mediated through general revelation and God's providential workings in human history. Briefly, inclusivists affirm the particularity and finality of salvation only in Christ but deny that knowledge of his work is necessary for salvation. That is to say, they hold that the work of Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation (no one would be saved without it) but not epistemologically necessary (one need not be aware of the work in order to benefit from it)" (John Sanders, No Other Name, p. 215, emphasis added).

John Sanders defines terms 'finality' and 'particularity' as follows:

The term "finality" refers to the unsurpassibility and normativity of both the work (e.g., atonement) and the revelation of Jesus. The term "particularity" refers to the fact that the salvation provided by God is available only through Jesus. Jesus, as the Son of God, is the highest, clearest, and absolutely normative expression of the character of God. Furthermore, Jesus is the savior. There are no others. (John Sanders, No Other Name, p. 26)

What follows are excerpts from John Sanders' classic work No Other Name - An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. After introducing Sanders' biblical arguments for Inclusivism, we will deal with various objections.
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Excerpts from John Sanders' classic work No Other Name

In making their case, inclusivists typically cite not only those texts affirming universally accessible salvation but also a variety of texts dealing with the character and will of God and his dealings with Gentiles.

The first group of texts

The first set of texts dealing with God's character and will focuses on God's extension of grace to all who believe in him. For example, 1 Timothy 4:10 ("because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe") is interpreted as meaning that the living God saves all who believe in him and that the specific content of saving faith may vary so long as it is grounded in an essential trust in God. Texts referring to the fact that Jesus came into the world to save sinners rather than condemn them (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:15, John 3:16-17) are cited as evidence of God's universal salvific will. Jesus is the light that came into the world and enlightens every person (John 1:9). Not all respond positively to this light – it is not irresistible – but every person experiences the illumination of the Logos to one degree or another.

Inclusivists maintain that through the power of his resurrection, the light of the world is seeking to draw all people to himself (John 12:32). This same Jesus was successful in drawing to himself those specifically considered outcasts in Jewish society - publicans and sinners (Luke 15). The term sinner in the synoptic Gospels denotes a Jew who willfully refused to follow God's instructions as laid out in the Mosaic covenant. Such people were considered worse than Gentiles by Jewish religious leaders. Luke 15 contains three parables illustrating God's compassion for and willingness to save them. If God is indeed not willing that any should perish but wishes all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), and if he does seek the lone lost publican and sinner in this way, is it credible that he would create billions of people without any hope for salvation? The one who prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34) would not leave the unevangelized without hope.

The second group of texts

God's dealing with other nations

The second group of texts focuses on God's attitude toward and relationship with the Gentiles outside the covenant with Israel. The OT contains specific declarations that God's benevolent activity is not restricted to the Hebrew people. Deuteronomy mentions several nations for whom God provided land by driving out the previous inhabitants (Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19, 21-22; cf. 2 Kings 5:1). The prophet Amos declared that God had performed events similar to the exodus of Israel for other nations (9:7). Inclusivists see in these texts an indication that God did not cut off his gracious activity among the nations just because he elected Israel for a special task. God's salvific will is universal, and that is clearly manifested in the universal covenants of Genesis, which were neither revoked nor replaced by later covenants.

Universal covenants

The first covenant mentioned in the Bible is one made between God and the human race, not God and Israel. God created human beings in his own image and gave them responsibilities (Genesis 1:26-28). After the fall, God promised Eve a "seed" who would provide deliverance from the curse (Genesis 3:15). This promise, which is fulfilled in the work of Christ, is destined for the benefit of all people. Noah's sons are considered the fathers of the nations, and the Noachic covenant, which is made with "all flesh" (Genesis 9:8-19). When God selected Abraham for a special work, he still had the blessing of "all the families of the earth" in mind (Genesis 12:3). We can get a sense of the considerable importance of this universal blessing from the fact that it is mentioned four more times in the book of Genesis (18:8; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). All the covenants that God made after these were intended not to abrogate but rather to bring to fruition his universal blessing.

Notable individuals

These universal covenants are not the only source of information in the OT concerning God's dealing with the Gentiles. The Bible contains numerous indications that God showed favor to Gentiles and other individuals who lived before the establishment of the covenant with Abraham. Not a few of these individuals occupy prominent place in the biblical narrative – Abel, Enoch, Lot, Job, the Queen of Sheba, and Ruth, for example. Of particular significance are such Gentiles as Melchizedek, Jethro, Rahab, and Naaman. Melchizedek is elevated above Abraham and it is the model of the ideal priesthood. Remarkably, Scripture ascribes the establishment of Israel's judiciary system to Moses' father-in-law, the pagan priest Jethro (Exodus 18:17-23). Rahab is singled out as an example of faith for all people to emulate (Hebrews 11:31), despite the fact that her faith was clearly not theologically well informed.

The case of the Syrian military officer

The case of the Syrian military officer Naaman is quite interesting. The Bible affirms his faith as genuine, despite the fact that he came to it reluctantly. When Elisha told him to rid himself of leprosy, he initially refused, skeptical that such a ritual would bring a response from any god (2 Kings 5:11-12). In the end, however, he did as he was told and was healed. In response he confessed his faith in the God of Israel and asked forgiveness for when he would have to go into the temple of the god Rimmon in Syria. Elisha gave his blessing upon this. The interesting point here is not only that Naaman came to faith in God reluctantly but that he also labored under a serious theological misconception. Even after his confession of faith he seems to have persisted in a geographical god concept (different gods for different lands), and the fact that he took dirt from the land of Israel back with him to Syria for sacrificial purposes (5:17) seems to suggest a touch of animism in his beliefs as well. Inclusivists view God's acceptance of Naaman despite his errors in belief and his persistence in entering a pagan temple as evidence that God is more inclined to grant salvation to those who exhibit faith than to those who simply adhering to a detailed set of doctrines or liturgical practices.

Other examples from the OT

Elsewhere we learn that God worked through Cyrus the king of Persia and desired Cyrus to acknowledge this fact (Isaiah 45:1-7). Daniel expected Nebuchadnezzar to know who the God of heaven was and acknowledge him. In the story of Jonah, and faith of pagan sailors who "feared the Lord greatly" and who "offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows" (1:16) is hailed as exemplary, whereas the theologically well-informed faith of Jonah is called into question. God announced through the prophet Amos that though he had chosen Israel for a special work, he did not show favoritism (9:7): his gracious activities were present in other peoples as well. And while it is true that God did sometimes call the Gentile nations to account, the judgments he leveled against them were primarily for moral failures than religious failures as such (Amos 1:1-2:8; Obadiah 15; Nahum 1:2; Zechariah 9:1). Furthermore, the fact that God did hold them accountable is testimony that they did have genuine knowledge of God and obligations to him even though their religion did not line up exactly with that revealed to Israel.

Examples from the NT

In the NT, we have several examples. Matthew appears to have considered the account of the magi quite important, inasmuch as he devoted a considerable amount of space to it. And he cites them as examples of faith despite the fact that they were pagan astrologers who had a very limited understanding concerning Jesus: they were seeking a king, not a savior. The Gospel of Matthew also notes that Jesus found "great faith" in such unexpected individuals as a Canaanite woman (15:21-28) and a Roman centurion. Regarding the centurion, Jesus said, "truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel" (Matthew 8:10). Yet, what was his faith? Did he acknowledge the divinity of Jesus? Did he formulate in his own way the essential beliefs expressed in the Apostles' Creed? No! He simply believed that Jesus had miraculous powers and a benevolent character. Although his understanding was not theologically developed, it was commended for its existential quality.

Cornelius was a God-fearing uncircumcised Gentile who prayed continually. An angel informed him that his prayers and alms were a memorial offering of which God took note (Acts 10:4). It is generally the understanding of the Christian community that Cornelius was a "saved" believer before Peter arrived and that he became a Christian after receiving Christ and being baptized. Cornelius had already subjectively appropriated the merits of Christ's objective redemption through genuine faith in God. He was already worshiping God who saves through Jesus Christ.

God's righteousness

Inclusivists do not claim that people are saved by their righteousness; they contend that people like Cornelius are saved because they have the "habit of faith," which involves penitence. But inclusivists do claim that it is not necessary to understand the work of Christ in order to be saved. G. Campbell Morgan wrote, "no man is to be saved because he understands the doctrine of Atonement. He is saved, not by understanding it, but because he fears God, and works righteousness. Oh, the glad and glorious surprise of those ultimate days when we find that there will be those who walked in the light they had, and wrought righteousness, and were acceptable to Him; not because of their morality, but the infinite merit of the Cross, and by the fact that they yielded themselves to the light they possessed."
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Comments on John Sanders' work

The Abrahamic attitude

Reading John Sanders' biblical examples, what becomes clear is that there were people who were not part of Israel or the Church, but who were met by God's saving grace. God extended His grace to them even though they did not show a deep theological understanding. We also learn that God had guided other nations besides Israel, e.g., the prophet Amos declared that God had performed events similar to the exodus of Israel for other nations (Amos 9:7). But the most salient point is that all people from every nation and tribe are influenced by God, "because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them" (Romans 1:19). On the basis of their response to the divine influence in their hearts, they will be judged accordingly. The pertinent question is, "Why would God exert His benevolent influence if not to save them?" He works in human hearts precisely because He wants to save them. There is no point for God to work in people's lives if there were conditions for salvation that were impossible to fulfill. God's benevolent influence working in the unevangelized represents an illuminating light of knowledge that would reveal their moral shortcomings, i.e., their sinful condition, and their need for reconciliation with Him (cf. John 16:8). In other words, the inner divine influence at work in all human beings is God's call on people's lives to acknowledge their sins and their need for Him. God's light that works in all people is the light of an inner understanding of their own insufficiency to attain fellowship with God. This means that every human being has an opportunity to respond to God's call, i.e., a response in accordance with the light of their understanding. Those who positively respond to God's inner call exhibit something that is appropriately called an Abrahamic attitude, the kind of attitude that Abraham had when he responded to God's call to leave his city and follow Him. It is the attitude of faith: having trust in God. It is precisely by such faith that we are justified before God.

Just as Abraham "believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham... So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. (Gal. 3:6-7, 9)

And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)

The interesting thing is that Abraham was justified before God even when he was uncircumcised. Abraham became the founding father of Israel by the covenant of circumcision, where circumcision was a sign of belonging to God's people.

[Abraham is] the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised. (Romans 4:12)

What kind of faith is in focus here? It is the kind of faith "which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised." And to whom is Abraham the father? Is he the father of Israelites only? No, but also to all who follow Abraham's example and attitude of faith. People who have this kind of Abrahamic faith exhibit an Abrahamic attitude. Inclusivists believe that people from all nations and tribes can have an Abrahamic attitude if they respond to God's inner call with trust and commitment, in accordance to the light of knowledge and understanding they have. Why do we call it an Abrahamic attitude? It is fittingly called so because it is the same kind of attitude Abraham had when he responded to God's call.
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Saving faith

Restrictivism teaches that one must respond positively to the Gospel in order to obtain saving faith. Inclusivists agree with Restrictivists that saving faith is necessary for salvation, but disagree that saving faith is obtained only by responding positively to the Gospel. Both Inclusivism and Restrictivism affirm that faith is necessary. To have saving faith is to exhibit the kind of attitude that Abraham had, as we have seen in the previous section. An Inclusivist, such as John Sanders, would say that "faith involves three elements: truth, trust and effective action":

Genuine faith in God contains some truth about God, whether that truth comes from the Bible or from God's work in creation. Faith means that a person responds in trust to the giver of the truth. If people genuinely trust God, they will seek to live it out in their lives. (John Sanders, "Inclusivism" in: What About Those Who Have Never Heard? - Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized, p. 37)

Most Christians have no problems with this understanding of faith. Differences do arise, however, over what one has to know in order to have saving faith. What is at issue is the degree of knowledge necessary for having saving faith. Inclusivists maintain that the central problem of salvation is not knowledge of God but faith in God: "Having a right attitude toward God is much more important than doctrinal information" (John Sanders, Ibid., p. 38). But the problem remains that 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" (Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 843).

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. It is true that if believers are saved, their understanding of the nature of salvation must nevertheless remain quite limited and their assurance of salvation be virtually nonexistent. But inclusivists contend that assurance and fullness of understanding regarding salvation are not required for salvation. (John Sanders, No Other Name, p. 232)

For this reason, Inclusivists maintain the distinction between Believers and Christians. Believers are all who have saving faith (or an Abrahamic attitude), but lack the knowledge of Christ and His atoning work. Christians are believers who have the knowledge of Christ and His atoning work.
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Replies to Restrictivist objections

Inclusivism undermines the uniqueness and necessity of Christ (Gospel)

This is not true, since all Inclusivists strongly affirm the particularity and finality of salvation only in Christ (see the definition of Inclusivism together with the definition of terms 'finality' and 'particularity' in the Introduction). The unevangelized who have an Abrahamic attitude are saved precisely because of Christ -- Christ died for them as well. Those who reject Christ would be condemned indeed. It is unfair of God to condemn people who have never heard about Christ, but have lived according to the light of understanding and knowledge they have received.
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Inclusivism reduces the mandate of the Great Commission

John Sanders has several observations concerning missions. First he notes one problematic aspect with the Restrictivist view of missions. If Restrictivism is true, salvation is entirely dependent on human preaching. Consequently, some people will suffer eternal damnation due to cases of insufficiency and disobedience among Christians -- any kind of human failure with respect to spreading the word of the Gospel. In other words, their damnation is the result of the sin of Christians. Is this divine justice? But why should we go to preach to the unevangelized if they can be saved without the knowledge of Christ and His atoning work? John Sanders cites several reasons, the most important of which are as follows:

  1. We have to be obedient to Christ's command to preach the gospel to all nations (cf. Matthew 28:18-20).
  2. We wish to share the blessings of the Christian life to those who are ignorant.
  3. Unbelievers need to hear about Christ so that they can know the love of God.

In addition to these, we will give one more reason. We cannot be sure whether an unbeliever will be saved, since we do not know their hearts. However, their acceptance and belief in Christ through a living faith will secure their salvation.

These are more than sufficient reasons for wanting the unevangelized to become Christians.
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Alleged proof-texts for Restrictivism

John 3:16-18

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

It is stated that those who do not believe are condemned, which a Restrictivist understands to mean that a person lacking belief in Christ would be condemned. However, the context makes it clear that "he who does not believe" is in fact rejecting Christ: anyone who rejects Christ will be condemned. But why should we interpret this as meaning a lack of information about Christ, if the whole purpose of Christ's mission is to save mankind, as explicitly stated in vv. 16-17? If one takes into consideration God's benevolence with Gentile nations in the Old Testament times, it seems clear that He would surely continue with such benevolence in the New Testament times as well. Therefore, John 3:16-18 cannot be a proof-text for Restrictivism.
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John 14:6

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6)

It should be clear why John 14:6 cannot serve as a proof-text for Restrictivism. John 14:6 is a statement of the finality and particularity of salvation only in Christ, something all Inclusivists strongly affirm (see the definition of Inclusivism together with the definition of terms 'finality' and 'particularity' in the Introduction). We have also replied to the objection that Inclusivism undermines the uniqueness and necessity of Christ. Jesus' atoning and redemptive work on the cross is the necessary foundation for salvation; any man who is saved is saved because of Christ.
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Romans 10:13-15

For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved." How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!" But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?" Then faith is of hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. (Rom. 10:13-17)

According to the restrictivist understanding, the text says that it is necessary to hear the gospel in order to have a belief in Christ by which we are saved. Consequently, there is an epistemological requirement to have some knowledge about certain biblical facts given by the preaching of the gospel in order to be saved.

There are two considerations that question the restrictivist understanding of the text.

First, does the passage say anything about the destiny of the unevangelized? Paul the Apostle is saying a simple truism, namely that the preaching of Jesus Christ is necessary in order for people to believe in Christ. Believing in Christ is the sure way to salvation. However, the passage does not say that only those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved, but rather it guarantees that anyone who "calls on the name of the LORD" is saved. In other words, the text means nothing more than that confession of Christ is one sure way to experience salvation; Paul says nothing about what will happen to those who do not confess Christ because they have never heard of Him. John Sanders makes this point clear by observing that the text is logically similar to the conditional statement, "If it rains, then the sidewalk will be wet." If the condition is fulfilled (if it rains), then the consequence will follow (the sidewalk will be wet). But we cannot with certainty say, "If it is not raining, the sidewalk will not be wet." Someone may turn on a sprinkler, or there may be a pile of melting snow nearby.

Second, the term 'gospel' is not so clear, especially seen in the light of the verse 18, which should also be taken into consideration: "But I say, Have they not heard? Yes indeed, their voice went out into all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Romans 10:18). If 'gospel' has the narrow meaning referring to the proclamation of the work of Christ, it is quite perplexing of Paul to say that the gospel was spread "out into all the earth" or "to the end of the world." People of remote geographical regions, but known to the Roman Empire, (such as Britain, Scandinavia, China or India), did not hear about the gospel at the time of Paul's writing. How does Paul use the term in his epistles? From Paul's usage of the term, we can learn that the gospel is not new at the time of Paul's writing, but something taught in the Old Testament (Romans 3:21; 4:1-25; 10:5-8), and that it was even preached to Abraham (cf. Galatians 3:8). This certainly was not explicit knowledge of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; it was more of a promise that God would do something great for the Gentiles through Abraham (cf. Genesis 22:18; 26:4). Given the biblical fact of God's gracious activity outside the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 2:5ff, Amos 9:7, examples such as Melchizedek and Jethro), the term 'gospel' has much wider meaning. What is the wider meaning of the term? We can learn its wider meaning from apostle Peter's statement concerning Gentiles: "Truly I see that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he who fears Him and works righteousness is accepted with Him" (Acts 10:34-35). Given this wider meaning of the term 'gospel', the verse Romans 10:18, where Paul boldly states that the gospel is spread all around the world, makes much more sense. Why? Because in every nation around the world, there are people who are led by God's spirit to fear God and work righteousness, but who have never heard about Christ.

Consequently, Paul does not say anything about the soteriological status of the unevangelized, and therefore this passage cannot serve as a proof-text for Restrictivism.
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