What happens to people who never hear the gospel message about Jesus Christ?
This vexing question has challenged Christians for centuries, but recently a skeptic raised this inquiry with me. After all, if God is loving and good, how will he adjudicate the destiny of so many people who will never get a chance to hear the way out of their predicament?
Christian theology has offered four answers to the question of the fate of the unevangelized. However, some of these positions are fraught with serious biblical and theological challenges. As you consider each, I encourage you to see the endnote references for further reading.
4 Views on the Unevangelized
1. Universalism: This is the view that God will ultimately save all people through Christ’s sacrifice regardless of whether they believed, disbelieved, or had never heard the explicit gospel message itself.
Also called universal salvation, this position reflects what might be defined as an extreme optimism concerning the redemptive grace of God. Its defenders, though always a minority in church history,1 nevertheless insist that various biblical verses can be understood to support this viewpoint.2
Universalism has been described, at minimum, as a “revisionist challenge to orthodoxy” (including Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) because a version of the teaching was condemned as a heresy in church history.3 Historic Christian orthodoxy has rejected universalism because Scripture indicates that some people will suffer eternal divine judgment because they have rejected God and specifically Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (for example, Matthew 25:32–33, 41, 46; John 3:36; Revelation 14:11).
2. Inclusivism: This view holds that people (among other religions and among the unevangelized) can be saved by responding favorably to God even if they have never heard of Christ. The Catholic theology of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) said people of good will who never hear of Christ could be saved by Christ as “anonymous Christians.”4 Thus, the unevangelized are not excluded merely because they have never heard the gospel. However, this view has been rejected by many traditional Christians because it fails to recognize the depth of sin’s bondage on the human will and the potential idolatrous thinking of non-Christians. Also, Scripture clearly teaches that salvation comes through hearing the explicit preached Word (Romans 10:17).
3. Exclusivism: This position is the traditional Christian view. It asserts that the unevangelized are apparently lost apart from hearing and responding affirmatively to the gospel message because they have sinned in Adam. Therefore, they have no right to divine grace but will be judged by the general revelation God has given to all human beings. At this point of tension, exclusivism must account for the Jews and holy pagans who were saved in the Old Testament before hearing about the explicit message of Jesus Christ. Moreover, there appear to be three versions of exclusivism:5
- Restrictive exclusivism affirms that conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation and therefore the unevangelized are definitely lost.
- Pessimistic exclusivism affirms that while the fate of the unevangelized is not known with certainty, there is no clear evidence in Scripture that God will perform an extraordinary work of grace to reach the unevangelized apart from the normal means of the preached gospel. So the unevangelized are likely lost.
- Nonrestrictive (optimistic) exclusivism affirms that while the fate of the unevangelized is not known, Scripture seems to indicate that God may reach out to those who haven’t heard the gospel in some extraordinary way (dreams, after-death tests, etc.).
4. Agnosticism: On this view humans can’t definitively know the state of the unevangelized and their fate is God’s prerogative.
Responding to the Inquirer
The consensus view among theologically traditional Christians is some form of exclusivism. This news may not sit well with a skeptic, but here’s where empathy and bridge-building skills can help. Show the inquirer that you respect them as a person, even as you explain the gospel in its biblical details (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) that pertain to all of us.
In a practical sense, if you’re concerned about the unevangelized living in today’s world, then winsomely share your faith and support Christian missions and apologetics enterprises.
Reflections: Your Turn
How important is evangelism in your life as a Christian?
- Wikipedia, s.v. “History of Christian Universalism,” last edited May 21, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Christian_universalism; Contemporary Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart defends universalism in his book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation.
- Wikipedia, s.v. “Universalism,” last edited May 1, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universalism.
- J. I. Packer, “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?,” in Hell under Fire, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 170.
- For more about religious inclusivism (Catholic and Protestant) as well as a developed critique of the view, see Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), chapters 9 and 10.
- Samples, God among Sages, chapters 9 and 10.