What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

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.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?

Endnotes

  1. 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.
  2. Wikipedia, s.v. “Universalism,” last edited May 1, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universalism.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Samples, God among Sages, chapters 9 and 10.

  One thought on “What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

  1. June 9, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Thoughtful and plan descriptions of these views make it easy to ponder.

    • June 9, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks, DN.

      Ken Samples

  2. JAMES KEITH HENDERSON
    June 10, 2020 at 6:51 pm

    Certainly the clear presentation of the gospel is ideal, but for those who die without hearing the name of Christ there is hope if they have followed the light of their conscience and the Holy Spirit working in their heart, right?

    For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:14-16 NAS)

    • June 10, 2020 at 7:07 pm

      James:

      Did you read my article?

      Some commentators see Romans 2:14-16 as a confirmation that even those who have never heard will nevertheless be judged. These commentators see faith coming through the explicit Gospel message (Romans 10:17).

      Ken Samples

  3. June 10, 2020 at 8:13 pm

    Another good one, Ken.

    There might be a more optimistic exclusionism in the context of Reformed theology, under which God saves whomsoever he chooses. Chapter 10 of the Westminster Confession seems to allow for people being saved who don’t hear the gospel:

    “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”

    I’m not sure this could be an option in Arminianism.

    • June 10, 2020 at 8:18 pm

      Thanks, Steve.

      Ken Samples

  4. Tom Breese
    June 23, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    So, how much does God love those who never otherwise heard the gospel? Is His message only to be transmitted optically or sonically? I picture a young man in a cannibal society, deeply troubled at the horror of having killed an enemy and eaten his liver at the behest of tribal elders, and questions his life’s purpose, and the beauty and order of his environment, and senses a better way. He leaves his village, sits under a tree, and refuses to leave until his questioning spirit is answered. Does God hear this man? Does God love this man, and comforts him, and makes Himself known? And the man’s heart leaps for joy?

    Jesus said “I am the Way…”; it seems there are ways to the Way.

    • June 23, 2020 at 5:26 pm

      Tom:

      Greetings.

      Did you read my article?

      At minimum it doesn’t seem biblically clear and explicit that God will in fact save people who have never heard the Gospel. He might but biblical support for such a view doesn’t seem categorically clear and evident. At least is doesn’t seem clear to many conservative biblical scholars.

      For Scripture also says: “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14).

      On the other hand we do know from Scripture that people can and do respond when they hear the explicit message of the Gospel (Romans 10:17). That’s why many people deeply support evangelism, missions, and apologetics ventures. God’s love motivates them to reach or help others to reach the previously unreached people.

      Ironically though because the world has become more ethnically diverse many people who were once far away from Gospel have now moved much closer to areas where the Gospel is explicitly preached. Yet evangelism and world religions apologetics are still much needed.

      In your example (picture) you seem to be referencing Siddhartha Gautama under the Bodhi Tree. See my book God among Sages for a comparison of Jesus and Buddha as well as Christianity and Buddhism.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  5. July 10, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Very nice summary, Master Ken. Personally, I take the position of optimistic exclusivism and was glad for that to be affirmed as “orthodox” in some sense. Thanks for all you do at RTB.

    • July 10, 2020 at 11:27 am

      Thanks, Lawrence.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  6. RGB Rao
    July 25, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    I want to add a comment regarding Inclusivism. We here in he West might find it to be quite a palatable doctrine, however folks in other lands do not. They do not like the idea of an “anonymous christian”. To see why consider, suppose that you are having a chat with a friend who is either a Mormon or a JW, what would you do if you friend said

    “Hey. Its ok. I consider you to be an anonymous JW. In many ways you are just like us. You just did not know it.”

    • July 25, 2020 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks, RGB.

      Ken Samples

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