The Fate of Those Who Never Hear

Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (January-March 1995): 3-15

The Fate of Those Who Never Hear
Millard J. Erickson

At various times in the history of the church, different areas of doctrine have been disputed. The situations leading to these debates have varied considerably. In a sense Pelagius’ desire that people live a good life led to the debate over human goodness and sinfulness in the late third and early fourth centuries, the debate known as the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy. Disagreement over the selling of indulgences in the 16th century led to the dispute between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church over the nature and basis of salvation. One of the burning issues of the present day is the extent of salvation, occasioned by increasing cultural and religious pluralism in what have formerly been ’Christian’ nations, and by the discussion of the fate of those who never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

From its very beginning, Christianity has been evangelistic, holding its adherents responsible to share with others the good news of Jesus Christ and salvation through faith in Him. This in turn entails certain concepts. One is universal sinfulness, guilt, and condemnation. Another is the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, involving a certain element of information that must be believed. While there never was exact agreement on the relative percentage of the human race that would be saved, there is consensus that not all who have lived will receive eternal life.

However, in recent years controversy has arisen about these concepts. The uniqueness, exclusiveness, and necessity of Jesus Christ and belief in Him for salvation are being questioned. In light of this and other considerations, it is important to investigate carefully the question of who will be saved, and on what basis. The study of this question is especially important at this time for several reasons.

Widespread Confusion

First, it is important to address this subject because confusion has arisen regarding salvation and Christ, even in circles where this has traditionally been given the highest value. The Barna organization’s polling data published in 1992 indicated a rather high degree of correct understanding of the basis of salvation. When asked to describe their belief about life after death, 62 percent of the respondents agreed that ’When you die, you will go to heaven because you have confessed your sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior.’ Only six percent said people go to heaven ’because God loves all people and will not let them perish.’ However, when asked to respond to the statement, ’All good people, whether they consider Jesus Christ to be their Savior or not, will live in heaven after they die on earth,’ those who disagreed outnumbered those who agreed by less than a five to four ratio! Probably this means that the emotional factor has overwhelmed the rational. Perhaps this conflict results from a sympathy for others, a desire to see others receive the same benefits of salvation they themselves have received, rather than relating this belief to rational or doctrinal considerations.

Effect on Other Doctrines

A second reason for addressing this subject is that doctrinal considerations in this area affect other doctrines. Doctrine is organic, so that the position taken on one doctrine influences conclusions in other areas as well. Even when this is not consciously done, and a doctrinal scheme is internally inconsistent, sooner or later the logic of the matter prevails, producing a modification in the other beliefs.

The Incarnation

One obvious connection is between one’s view of the extent of salvation and the doctrine of the Person of Christ, specifically, the Incarnation. If, as Christianity has traditionally claimed, Jesus is the unique Incarnation of God, then one’s relationship to Him is potentially also unique and indispensable to a proper relationship to God. Hick has edited or coedited two books whose titles bear an interesting similarity: The Myth of God Incarnate and (with Paul Knitter) The Myth of Christian Uniqueness. The parallel in titles is not surprising, for if God has become incarnate in Jesus, then the Christian faith is unique. Hick puts it this way: ’If Jesus was literally God incarnate, the second Person of the holy Trinity living a human life, so that the Christian religion was founded by God-on-earth in person, it is then very hard to escape from the traditional view that all mankind must be converted to the Christian faith.’ The logical flow may of course move in either direction. If for some reason a person is convinced that all humanity need not necessarily be converted to belief in Jesus, then He was not the unique Incarnation of God.

The Trinity

Another doctrine closely and logically connected with this issue is the Trinity’a concept that causes the Christian view to stand out as unique among the world’s religions. On the one hand, it contrasts with strictly monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam, and on the other hand with pantheistic Eastern religions such as Hinduism. Thus any attempt to say that people may be saved by any one of several religions because they are basically all the same would appear to founder on the unique doctrine of the Trinity, which cannot simply be assimilated to the doctrinal views of these other religions. As a result, some people challenge the legitimacy of the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming that the Bible does not really teach such a doctrine. Others call into question the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, maintaining that parallels can be found in other religions.

God’s Character

Other aspects of the doctrine of God relate to and are affected by this matter. Does God have the right to do whatever He chooses, or must He follow and be judged by some antecedent standard of right and wrong? Does He have a right to condemn those who by their circumstances are at a disadvantage in meeting the requisite conditions for salvation? Some consider that God’s omniscience (i.e., His knowledge of what is good and right), and, even more, His justice need to be rethought.

Sometimes a related question is raised: Does God have the ability to condemn people? To say that He does, it is argued, would conflict with human freedom, which is considered indubitable. This calls into question His omnipotence.

Biblical Authority

The nature of biblical authority, or the doctrine of Scripture, is also affected by this doctrine. Apparent tension arises when one examines certain Scripture passages that seem to teach that relatively few will be saved, such as Jesus’ statement about the small gate and narrow road, which few find (Matt. 7:13-14). If on other grounds one is convinced that many, perhaps a majority, of the human race are to be saved, then one must interpret those passages differently. One ploy may be to assert that the Bible indeed teaches that relatively few will be saved, but that the Bible is wrong on that point. Another may be to say that there are varying, and even conflicting, motifs in the Bible. Either of these approaches calls for revision of the usual understanding of Scripture.

Another point in which the doctrine of Scripture is affected is in the uniqueness of biblical authority. The traditional understanding of the Bible is that it is the sole authority in matters of faith and practice. If this is the case, then what of those who have no access to the content of the specially revealed truth preserved in the Bible? Some believe that salvation may be possible through ’implicit faith,’ or by responding to what can be known about God and the human predicament from general or natural revelation. If this is the case, then what is the unique status of special revelation? Is it really necessary?

A further point at which tension arises in this area is the complex of factors known as religious (or in this case specifically, Christian) authority. Some varieties of Protestantism, such as the scholastic orthodoxy of the 17th century and some streams of 20th-century fundamentalism have emphasized the Bible exclusively. More classical Reformation thought speaks of a twofold authority, the external or objective authority, the Bible, and the internal or subjective authority, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Roman Catholicism and, to a lesser extent, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy emphasize tradition as a channel of divine authority. Other movements, usually on the fringe of Christianity, have emphasized a direct speaking by the Holy Spirit. In the 20th century, Pentecostalism, followed then by the charismatic movement and the so-called ’Third Wave,’ has been of this variety of approach. Methodism, following the lead of John Wesley, speaks of a fourfold basis of authority: Bible, reason, tradition, and experience. In recent times the emphasis on personal experience has grown, both in extent and in intensity. However, if personal experience plays a major role, then logically the Bible’s authority must be downgraded to some extent. Thus the controversy over the saved at least potentially creates controversy over the Bible and its authority.


Another and more obvious point of effect of the discussion relates to the nature of salvation. What is the nature of salvation? What does it mean to be saved? This raises a whole complex of issues in contemporary thought. Whereas traditionally salvation was thought of as restoration of fellowship with God, canceling guilt and condemnation and bringing about positive favor with the Lord, this is now being challenged. The various nuances of liberation theology see salvation as at least in part a deliverance of a person or group from oppression, with this oppression being seen as racial (black theology), sexual (feminist theology), or economic (third-world liberation theologies).

Also in recent years some writers have emphasized salvation as holistic. Rather than simply a spiritual matter, affecting the spiritual standing of the person relative to God, salvation, it is argued, involves the whole person. For example Clark Pinnock, says Acts 4:12 (’There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved’) includes physical healing in the concept of salvation.

These definitions of salvation that include physical healing or freedom from oppression either as supplements to or substitutes for the older idea of salvation as primarily justification, regeneration, and the like, create or encounter broader problems. For if God’s failure to provide salvation in the older sense to all persons is a difficulty, then the failure to provide these other dimensions must be an even more severe problem, since many who are devoutly religious and even devoutly Christian suffer ill health or injustice. The nature of salvation relates to divine justice, and thus the matter is in need of further discussion.

Truth and Logic

This problem also bears on the nature of truth and of logic. An earlier view of truth held that the truth of a proposition also means the falsehood of its contradiction. One way to refute a statement was to verify its contradictory. Conversely, arguing for the truth of a proposition might require refuting what contradicted it. This was because logic was believed to apply.

This position encounters some difficulty in the current discussions on salvation. Traditionally Christianity and its competitors, the other major world religions, have been seen as contradicting each other in sufficiently significant ways so that both could not be simultaneously true in the same respect. If, however, contemporary pluralism is correct, these apparently contradictory views are actually the same thing. To say this, however, requires one of two tactics. One would require a criticism of one or both of the religions, concluding that they do not teach what they have been thought to teach, or if they do teach that, people are not bound to accept that teaching. The other tactic would be to revise logic, so that two statements can actually contradict each other, and yet both be true. On this basis, the locus of truth would not be objectively within the propositional statements, but subjective or in terms of the effect produced in the person exposed to them.


This teaching or this set of issues also affects hermeneutics. One solution to the problem of the apparent conflict of biblical teachings, either with the teachings of other religions or with the contentions of a theory such as pluralism or inclusivism, is to interpret exclusivist passages, such as Jesus’ words, ’I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’ (John 14:6), as metaphorical, rather than literal. When one takes this approach, however, there are other potential complications. Does one interpret all biblical teachings in this metaphorical fashion? If not, on what basis does one distinguish among them? Is there a consistent basis for this, or is it simply ad hoc in nature? One’s hermeneutical theory and practice are put to the test by these issues.

The Nature of Religion

This discussion also raises and sharpens the question of the nature of religion. In the past, religion has been considered largely a matter of doctrine or of ideas, so that what separated different religions from one another was their teachings. Faith was then also thought of in a corresponding fashion. Being a Christian, or being Christianly religious, involved what one believed, believing the doctrines of Christianity rather than those of some competing religion.

The 19th century opened this issue to debate, however. Immanuel Kant said human experience includes three areas: (a) pure reason, or the cognitive, the domain of rational ’sciences’; (b) practical reason, or the volitional, the domain of ethics; and (c) judgment, or the emotional, the domain of esthetics. Whereas religion had usually been thought of largely as belief, Kant placed it in the second realm, ethics. Albrecht Ritschl largely followed him, but Friedrich Schleiermacher made religion a matter of feeling.

It is apparent that the ideological content of the various world religions differs considerably. If, however, religion is a matter of certain feelings and experiences, rather than ideological concepts, then the various religions may have a more generic quality than has been thought. Indeed, this seems to underlie the pluralism of John Hick, who describes at some length worship experiences of different religions, and who documents those descriptions with excerpts from religious literature of various sources. This point is also found in the writing of Raimundo Panikkar, who claims that the Trinity is not distinctively Christian, and who interprets each of the Persons of the Trinity in terms of experience, showing how each of the three types of experience is found in several religions. Thus the whole question of the nature of religion, whether it is an autonomous sphere of human experience, or whether it can be assimilated into some other type of experience, becomes part of the agenda generated by this discussion.

Global Changes

Another reason this subject or set of issues needs to be addressed is the changing world situation. One major phenomenon is ’globalization,’ the fact that individuals living in one part of the world are in contact with and influenced by things transpiring elsewhere in the world. For much of the history of the world, most people lived their entire lives without coming into contact with individuals of drastically different persuasions or cultures. In such a setting it is easy to be ethnocentric, to think of one’s own way as being the right way and indeed the only way. If there was contact with something different, it was immediately thought of as wrong by virtue of its being different.

But this is now changed. A large portion of the earth’s population now has had contact with individuals in other religions. This happens through international travel or through refugees from other countries immigrating to one’s own nation, bringing their customs, language, and religion with them. And, in fact, missions activity is not restricted to Christianity. Islam has become aggressively evangelistic and missionary on a worldwide scale. One can no longer assume that a person who stays at home will have no contact with followers of other religions. Other religions are now coming to one’s own country and community.

Traditionally Christians have tended to be condescending toward other religions, regarding them either as idolatry, or as clouded or mistaken constructions of the revelation that has been given to all persons. However, as a result of a closer contact, Christians need to ask about the status of these individuals and their religions. What should be the Christian’s attitude toward them? Should they be evangelized, or should they be regarded as ’fellow travelers,’ who though they express themselves differently, are bound for the same place?

This question has become more urgent because of the missions crisis. Especially in mainline denominations, missions has retrenched. The number of missionaries under appointment by the mission boards of those denominations has steadily declined over the years. At the same time, evangelical missions has grown rapidly, compensating for the decline of these other organizations’ missions programs.

This prosperity of evangelical missions may soon come to an end, however, for changes are taking place within evangelicalism. One is the strong orientation of ministry toward the consumer. This has resulted in large numbers of people coming into the church, but the nature of their commitment differs somewhat from that of earlier generations of evangelicals. In particular, their support of missions differs. Rather than supporting a program, they prefer to support individual missionaries. More recently, evangelical baby boomers have shown reluctance to make long-term commitments to mission activities of which they have only secondhand information. They want personal, direct acquaintance with the work they are asked to support, and they are more inclined to give to limited, concrete projects rather than ongoing programs.

As a result, missions giving is now declining. In fact, giving of all kinds is declining in many churches. This is due in part to the nature of the appeal. Rather than emphasizing responsibility or stewardship, many of these churches have been built on the idea of the church meeting the needs of those to whom it ministers. In this setting, receiving has not always moved on to giving. In one large contemporary ministry only about 15 percent of those who attend are givers. Some churches are attracting large numbers of ’seekers’ but are not succeeding in bringing them to the stage of being ’finders’ in sufficient numbers to sustain a ministry of the magnitude developed. Consequently the per capita giving of such ministries, especially when adjusted for changes in the cost of living, is not growing.

Even established churches are experiencing such a decline. While it has been popular to attribute this to a reaction against organized religion as a result of the televangelists’ scandals of the late 1980s or to the economic recession and stagnation of the United States and of the entire world economy, the problems seem to go beyond this. With a shortage of financial support, ministries outside the local church are the first to be cut. Thus missions, even in conservative circles, is falling on hard times. As the traditional givers come to retirement age and then die, a financial crisis will confront the churches, and it will hit missions first.

All this challenges believers to rethink their stance toward missions. Some in mainline circles have attempted to be optimistic by concluding that perhaps their inability to send missionaries to evangelize those who have not heard is not such a great tragedy after all. Perhaps these persons, it is argued, possess the truth, so that they do not need to be told of Christ.

Some say the traditional analysis of the status of those who have never heard the gospel is not correct. Evangelism, they point out, is not only unnecessary; it may even be improper, for it is simply exporting one’s own cultural quirks to others. It has not been uncommon to attach typically Western or Northern culture, customs, and tastes to the Christian message. For example some missionaries have taught indigenous persons to dress like Westerners or to build houses of worship that are Western in architectural style. Beyond that, some suggest that missionaries have been provincial or ethnocentric in calling on Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, and other non-Christians to abandon their religious beliefs and practices to become Christians.

Those who find in the various religious practices simply ’variations on a theme’ may have some basis for their interpretations. Some developments within American evangelical popular religion suggest that the uniqueness of Christian practice is more apparent than real. For example some see in certain varieties of contemporary evangelical worship, and especially its music, much that resembles the practices of other religions. A new faculty member at a seminary attended the all-school retreat before the fall quarter. After the first period of singing, he remarked to the academic dean, ’We haven’t sung anything that a Hindu could not have sung!’ Some have seen in the countless repetitions of the words of a song, parallels to the mantras repeated in some Eastern religions. The changing culture of Christian churches and their changing worship practices make this inquiry and discussion all the more pertinent.

Growing Criticisms of Exclusivism

This study also merits attention because of the increasing crescendo of criticisms leveled at the traditional exclusivist approach. One of these, referred to earlier, criticizes the concept of God’s justice. If He chooses to save some persons by giving them opportunity to hear the gospel and condemns others who because of their circumstances have not heard of Him, how can He be called just? Has not the term ’just’ become so elastic as to be virtually meaningless? How can one appeal to others to be just in their human relations when the meaning of justice is not clear? Similarly how can ’love’ be meaningfully predicated of a God who condemns persons to endless punishment because they have never believed, when they have actually never heard of Him in whom they are supposed to believe?

Another criticism directed toward the traditional view is that it has led to injustice within the human race. The missions enterprise and colonialization have proceeded together, or at least in parallel. The brown and black populations of the countries colonized were regarded by Europeans as inferior and therefore in need of a higher guardianship. This categorization was thought of as including their culture and their religions. Thus one moral justification of the imperial enterprise was that it helped raise the level of the people colonized. Political subjugation of a people was justified because, it was argued, it resulted in or accompanied their conversion to a superior religion, namely, Christianity. Hick says, ’But without going into further detail it is, I think, clear that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the conviction of the decisive superiority of Christianity infused the imperial expansion of the West with a powerful moral impetus and an effective religious validation without which the enterprise might well not have been psychologically viable.’

A further criticism of the traditional exclusivist position is that it represents a disregard for other humans, failing to respect other people’s cultures and religions. To elevate one’s own culture and religion above that of others is to elevate oneself. As such, some view Christianity’s exclusivism as another version of Western imperialism, in which exclusivism is seen as an expression of hostility toward others.

Also some leaders accuse Christianity’s exclusivist approach of setting up doctrines or ideas as idols. Its concepts limit what God can do or they stipulate what He must do. It is argued that this mistakes a human concept of what God is like for God Himself. As such, it is an illicit substitution, usurping commitment to God by commitment to particular doctrines.

Current Widespread Discussion

The discussion of the topics considered in this series of articles is also important because they have never received definitive treatment by the church. No official council has ever given them the concerted attention and authoritative ruling that was given to such doctrines as the Person of Christ and the Trinity, for example. Elements of the doctrine of salvation were certainly treated, but the question of how many will be saved, the ultimate destiny of the lost, or the duration of punishment for unbelievers, did not receive such attention.

There also is a need for this discussion because of the large amount of attention given to this topic in recent years. Not only liberal Protestants, but also Roman Catholics and even evangelical Protestants are wrestling with these issues. Groups as conservative as the Evangelical Theological Society are riven by debate regarding these matters, with Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and others taking more inclusivist positions. Literature has sprung up in response to this. The question of annihilation has proven especially troublesome in evangelicalism in recent years, with such staunch conservatives as John R. W. Stott, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, and John Wenham declaring themselves believers in this view. In fact debate over the doctrine of annihilation broke out at a Consultation on Evangelical Affirmations, and no statement could be adopted by the assembled theologians.

One measure of the level of interest in a subject on the scholarly level is the amount of material being published on the subject in journals. An examination of this topic in the Religious Index One: Periodicals shows that a virtual explosion of writing on this subject has occurred in recent years. Articles have been published in a number of different kinds of journals. Because this not only concerns theology but also deeply affects missions, the literature has come from a variety of sources.

Practical Implications for Ministry

The implications of these topics for ministry call for discussion. This is especially true of evangelism, whether domestic or foreign. Traditionally, evangelism was motivated at least in part by the conviction that all must be reached with the good news of the gospel, because all are lost and are under God’s condemnation for their sins. Now, however, some view the status of the unevangelized differently. Perhaps those who have not heard the gospel are not lost, it is argued. They may be savingly related to God on the basis of the knowledge all humans can obtain from the study of nature and of themselves. Perhaps those who have not heard the gospel in this life will have opportunity to hear it after they die, and such a presentation might well be more convincing than that of an ordinary human evangelist. Thus, if not already ’saved,’ they may well be in the future, even without human instrumentality. Rather than bringing about their salvation, efforts at evangelism and missions may serve only to bring about their condemnation. Further, if some are lost, perhaps they will not experience eternal suffering, but will simply cease to exist.

These discussions are spurring new debates regarding the necessity of evangelism. While the more inclusivist views do not eliminate the need for evangelism, they do suggest the need for rethinking its grounds. Whatever the church has believed in the past, it has always included the conviction that it must take the good news to others. This is no mere ivory-tower theoretical endeavor. It is of the utmost importance for it relates to the church’s understanding of its reason for existence.

Conflicts in Values

The debate is important also because of much wider issues. To some extent, this interaction is part of a larger collision between traditional beliefs and values and those arising in the present day. As such, the struggle between two different cultures will be affected by this. One such belief, as already noted, is the view of God’s authority and justice. Is He bound to follow an external standard of what is right and wrong? Does He have any inherent obligations to humans, other than to fulfill the promises and covenants He has made with them?

Another issue pertains to the nature of responsibility. To what extent are individuals responsible for their decisions and actions? This question does not apply to the matters of implicit faith and so-called postmortem evangelism, for there the question is the justice’or injustice’of condemning persons who have not really heard and thus have not really rejected the offer of salvation. Some of these discussions suggest degrees of punishment in proportion to the knowledge involved. This issue becomes especially provocative in respect to annihilation. Traditionally the sense of freedom and responsibility required the view that one is held responsible for the consequences of one’s actions and that individuals should make such choices enlightened by awareness of those results. More recently, however, modern-day culture has tended to blunt the unfortunate results of poor choices. This is seen in the substitution of ’no credit’ for the grade of ’F.’ It can also be seen in the type of rhetoric being expressed in connection with the ’pro-choice’ position on abortion, often insisting on the right to reverse an earlier decision, whether made consciously or by default. Insisting on being able to make this choice is really a case of ’pro-second choice.’

In many areas of life, one gets one chance, without a second opportunity. True, annihilationism does not give ’lost’ individuals a second chance. However, if the traditional position on this doctrine is correct--namely, that the Bible teaches eternal suffering as the consequence of rejection--annihilation is an attempt to nullify the full extent of the effects of one’s choices.

Forthcoming articles in this series discuss these pressing issues of the extent of salvation, the question of whether opportunity for salvation is given after death, and the question of annihilation versus eternal conscious punishment.

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