Maybe you’ve agonized over the question yourself. Surely you’ve heard it from someone probing for vulnerabilities in Christianity, In a world with constant awareness of our global neighbors, the question, “What about those who haven’t heard the gospel of Jesus Christ?” demands an answer from Christians. But as we’ve been reminded in recent days, not everyone who claims the name of Christ answers the same way.

Once again we turn for help to Christopher Morgan, who previously guided us into a deeper understanding of hell and counseled us on relating to other religions. His nuanced explanations will help you understand the historical, biblical, and theological context of our current disputes over what happens to those who persist in their sin and do not trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Be sure to read through to the end where Morgan, a theology professor at California Baptist University, explains how he teaches the Bible’s difficult doctrines to skeptical audiences today.

A related issue often comes up in conversations about other religions: What is the fate of those who have never heard the gospel? What has the church historically held on this, and what are the varied views?

Three views normally receive the focus. Exclusivism is the view that faith in Jesus through the gospel or special revelation is necessary for salvation. Inclusivism is the view that faith in God via general revelation is sufficient for many. Pluralism holds that all paths are valid and true. Yes, these same terms “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” are used to depict views toward distinct questions. To demonstrate the height of confusion, we note that some call themselves exclusivists when discussing the question of other religions and inclusivists concerning the question of the fate of the unevangelized. [1]

There are also important subsets of these views (often distinguished according to means) as well as other views of the fate of the unevangelized. In my study of this issue, I found at least nine.

1. Church Exclusivism One of the earliest responses to this question in Christian history is, “No, ‘outside the church there is no salvation.’” Cyprian (ca. 200-258), bishop of Carthage, made this statement with reference to heretics, schismatics, and apostates from the church. Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533) applied this teaching to Jews and pagans, and this extended application was accepted and formalized by the Council of Florence (1431-1438). The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) firmly announced: “There is indeed one universal Church of the faithful outside which no one at all is saved.” This is the traditional exclusivist position of the (pre-Vatican II) Roman Catholic Church.

2. Gospel Exclusivism A second major response is, No, they must hear the gospel and trust Christ to be saved. James Borland, a proponent of this position, asserts, “Everyone must hear and believe the gospel to be saved.”[2] Borland states that the content of faith in the Old Testament was special revelation, but in the progress of revelation and since the cross of Christ, the gospel is the content of faith.

John Piper also holds this view:

Are there devout people in religions other than Christianity who humbly rely on the grace of a God whom they know only through nature or non-Christian religious experience? The answer of the New Testament is a clear and earnest No. Rather, the message throughout is that with the coming of Christ a major change has occurred in redemptive history. Saving faith was once focused on the mercy of God known in his redemptive acts among the people of Israel, and in the system of animal sacrifices and in the prophecies of coming redemption. . . . But now the focus of faith has narrowed down to one Man, Jesus Christ, the fulfillment and guarantee of all redemption and all sacrifices and all prophecies. It is to his honor now that henceforth all saving faith shall be directed to him.[3]

Piper later clarifies that general revelation may be used as one step in the process of salvation but that it still serves as a preparation for the gospel.

3. Special Revelation Exclusivism Third, some answer, No, unless God chooses to send them special revelation in an extraordinary way—by a direct revelation from the Lord, dream, vision, miracle, or angelic message. Due to the emphasis on salvation being through special revelation alone, I call this “special revelation exclusivism.” That also distinguishes it from gospel exclusivism. Timothy George critiques inclusivism and suggests:

From the standpoint of biblical theology, however, this theory trivializes the tragic consequences of the Fall and thus exalts too highly the possibilities of common grace. The specific message of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection is not an extra “add-on” to what is already present to the human psyche through creation and culture. Rather, it is an absolutely decisive factor in bringing lost sinners into right relationship with God. . . . Should we then dogmatically declare that no one could be saved apart from the preaching of the gospel through human missionaries and evangelists? Biblical particularists who believe in the sovereignty of God will be cautious in making such a blanket claim. God is God and can work by extraordinary as well as ordinary means to accomplish his purpose.[4]

George then cites the Second London Confession of 1689, a Baptist confession which closely parallels the Westminster Confession of Faith on this issue, and speaks of the salvation of elect infants and “other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” He then reasons that if the risen Christ appeared to Saul and if an angelic messenger can bring the gospel (2 Cor 11:14; Gal 1:8), then it is theoretically possible that “special communications of the gospel” could be “extended in the gracious providence of God.”[5] George clarifies that there is nothing in Scripture that indicates that this actually occurs but that if it did the content of the communications would be identical with that of the apostolic witness—salvation by grace alone, received by faith alone, and on the basis of Christ’s finished death on the cross alone.

4. Agnosticism (as to the fate of the unevangelized) The fourth response is that we cannot know for certain the answer to this question. Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips refer to two forms of this approach: “pessimistic agnosticism” and “optimistic agnosticism.”[6]

Those sometimes designated “pessimistic agnostics” sound much like exclusivists. Such proponents often maintain that although a theoretical possibility exists that those who have never heard the gospel could respond to God via general revelation, there is little biblical warrant to expect that people actually do. In fact, many who hold to this position emphasize that the biblical evidence shows that people reject the communications of God in general revelation (Rom. 1:18-32). J. I. Packer speaks to this possibility:

We may safely say (i) if any good pagan reached the point of throwing himself on his Maker’s mercy for pardon, it was grace that brought him there; (ii) God will surely save anyone he brings thus far (cf. Acts 10:34f; Rom. 10:12f); (iii) anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ. But what we cannot safely say is that God ever does save anyone this way.[7]

Packer stresses that the Fall has rendered us unable to respond to God in faith apart from divine grace, but he remains agnostic concerning the remote possibility that God may save this way. Still, he is clear that “we have no warrant to expect that God will act thus in any single case where the gospel is not known or understood.”[8] Moreover, Packer asserts, “Living by the Bible means assuming that no one will be saved apart from faith in Christ, and acting accordingly.”[9]

John Stott exemplifies the “optimistic” version:

I believe the most Christian stance is to remain agnostic on this question. . . . The fact that God, alongside the most solemn warnings and about our responsibility to respond to the gospel, has not revealed how he will deal with those who have never heard it. . . . [H]owever, I am imbued with hope. I have never been able to conjure up (as some great evangelical missionaries have) the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but will inevitably perish. On the other hand . . . I am not and cannot be a universalist. Between these extremes I cherish the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved.[10]

5.  General Revelation Inclusivism A fifth view answers the question, Yes, they can respond to God through seeing enough of who he is in general revelation. This is traditional inclusivism. John Sanders is a proponent who carefully delineates his position and that of other inclusivists:

Some advocates of the wider hope maintain that some of those who never hear the gospel of Christ may nevertheless attain salvation before they die if they respond in faith to the revelation they do have. . . . Inclusivists 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 not need be aware of the work in order to benefit from it). Or in other words, people can receive the gift of salvation without knowing the giver or the precise nature of the gift.[11]

With conclusions similar to Sanders but holding a different theological framework, Terrance Tiessen proposes that Jesus Christ is God’s sole means of salvation and that salvation is “accessible” to people who do not receive the gospel. He believes that non-Christians can be saved but is emphatic that he and many evangelical inclusivists conclude that other religions are not to be viewed as God’s instrument in their salvation.[12] Tiessen states that while other religions are not means of salvation, people in them may be saved through general revelation even while remaining in them: “Given the perspective that I have put forward, I grant that the member of another religion may be personally in saving relationship to God, in spite of the fact that their religion, as such, is erroneous and, as a system, is counterproductive for people seeking God.”[13]

6.  World Religions Inclusivism A sixth answer to the question is, Yes, they can respond to God through general revelation or their religion, since their religion contains truth from general revelation and possibly remnants of special revelation. This position too is often called “inclusivism” and is similar to the fifth position in regarding general revelation as a possible means of salvation. But this position differs from the fifth in holding that world religions too are a sufficient means of God bringing people to saving faith.

Proponents of this view assert God has chosen to use world religions as a means of salvation. Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity” is an example of this position:

Therefore no matter what a man states in his conceptual, theoretical, and religious reflection, anyone who does not say in his heart, “there is no God” (like the “fool” in the psalm) but testifies to him by the radical acceptance of his being, is a believer. . . . And anyone who has let himself be taken hold of by this grace can be called with every right an “anonymous Christian.”[14]

Hans Kung was even clearer. He proposes an “ordinary” way of salvation within world religions and an “extraordinary” way within the Christian church.[15]

Since God seriously and effectively wills that all men should be saved and that none should be lost unless by his own fault, every man is intended to find his salvation within his own historical condition . . . within the religion imposed on him by society. . . . A man is to be saved within the religion that is made available to him in his historical situation. Hence it is his right and duty to seek God within that religion in which the hidden God has already found him.[16]

7.  Postmortem Evangelism A seventh reply is, Yes, those who have never heard the gospel will have an opportunity to trust Christ after death. This view is traditionally called “postmortem evangelism.” It concurs with exclusivism when it stresses that faith is a conscious and explicit trust in Christ but sides with inclusivism when it contends that the love and justice of God require that everyone be given an opportunity to trust Christ. J. P. Lange urges: “Holy Scripture nowhere teaches the eternal damnation of those who died as heathens or non-Christians; it rather intimates in many passages that forgiveness may be possible beyond the grave, and refers the final decision not to death, but to the day of Christ.”[17] Though preferring the designation “divine perseverance,” Gabriel Fackre concurs: “Sinners who die outside the knowledge of the gospel will not be denied the hearing of the Word.”[18] Donald Bloesch and Jerry Walls offer similar proposals.[19]

8.  Universalism The eighth opinion is, Yes, everyone will ultimately be saved. Historically known as “universalism,” this view exists in multiple forms, but in each the outcome is the same: Every human being whom God has created will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now.

Universalists such as John A. T. Robinson have argued that the biblical revelation of God’s love for his world entails a purpose of saving everyone, and that God must achieve that purpose. Novelist Madeleine L’Engle states this idea clearly:

I know a number of highly sensitive and intelligent people in my own communion [i.e., Anglicanism] who consider as a heresy my faith that God’s loving concern for his creation will outlast all our willfulness and pride. No matter how many eons it takes, he will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to him, until there is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love. . . . I cannot believe that God wants punishment to go on interminably any more than does a loving parent. The entire purpose of loving punishment is to teach, and it lasts only as long as is needed for the lesson. And the lesson is always love.[20]

Another recent proponent is Jan Bonda, who holds that God wants to save all people and that he will accomplish that purpose. None will suffer endlessly in hell, he maintains.[21]

9.  Pluralism The ninth major response to the question is, Yes, those who have never heard may experience “salvation” as they understand it because each embraces their version of the real, though the question is erroneous because it assumes that Christianity is ultimate. Whereas universalism teaches that everyone will be saved, while maintaining the uniqueness and finality of Christianity, pluralism contends that all major religions are equally valid and thus denies the uniqueness of Christianity. Pluralist John Hick explains:

The great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to the Real [the religious ultimate] from within the major variant ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place. These traditions are accordingly to be regarded as alternative Soteriological “spaces” within which, or “ways” along which, men and women find salvation/liberation/ultimate fulfillment.[22]

Paul Knitter, Gordon Kaufman, and Langdon Gilkey, among others, also represent this pluralist viewpoint.

Historically, the church has primarily taught church exclusivism, gospel exclusivism, special revelation exclusivism, or pessimistic agnosticism. They have typically regarded optimistic agnosticism as problematic, general revelation inclusivism as an error, and world religions inclusivism, postmortem evangelism, universalism, and pluralism as very serious errors.

How do you, then, as a committed Christian, professor of theology, student of church history, and pastor living in California explain the Bible’s teaching to skeptical audiences today?

We would be wise to listen to missionaries on this. Essentially, we contextualize the gospel. That means, first and foremost, we seek to communicate the gospel. The context does affect how we communicate it, but the content must remain intact. We cannot allow the hard questions lead us to dilute the gospel.

We also must communicate the gospel in a way people can understand it. We must be clear, use illustrations, tell stories, and point to how the gospel speaks to them about their condition. We must realize that using the right language is not enough. We must strive to understand how the listener is interpreting our message.

Further, and I think this may be the biggest mistake the church makes, we must display the gospel. People not only need to hear the church state Jesus’ teachings, but they also need to see us embody Jesus’ teachings. After all, communication is verbal and non-verbal. The church that displays Christ through its love for others, through its promotion of social justice, through its holy living, through its unity, and through its commitment to the truth—this is the church that truly communicates the gospel.

As we believe, contextualize, and display the gospel, we also must love people. Hell is not a concept. It is a reality that leads us to be burdened for people without Christ. Sinclair Ferguson captures it well:

When Robert M’Cheyne met his dearest friend Andrew Bonar one Monday and enquired what Bonar had preached on the previous day, only to receive the answer “Hell,” he asked: “Did you preach it with tears?” That we cannot do until we have come to recognize our own great need of grace to save us from the wrath to come, the terrible nature of that judgment, the provision that God has made for us in Christ, and the calling he has given us to take the gospel to every creature in the name of the One who did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it.[23]

This genuine love for people is also reflected in Charles Haddon Spurgeon, as he urges unbelievers: “To be laughed at is no great hardship for me. I can delight in scoffs and jeers. . . . But that you should turn from your own mercy, this is my sorrow. Spit on me, but oh repent! Laugh at me, but, oh, believe in my Master! Make my body as the dirt in the streets, but do not damn your own souls.” He also passionately exhorts the church: “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one person go there unwarned and unprayed for.” Further, he instructs: “The Holy Spirit will move them by first moving you. If you can rest without their being saved, they will rest, too. But if you are filled with an agony for them, if you cannot bear that they are lost, you will soon find that they are uneasy, too.”[24]

[1] Clark H. Pinnock asserts this in A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 15. With the blurring of the classification systems, one could claim to be an exclusivist regarding world religions and inclusivist regarding the salvation of the unreached, an exclusivist and universalist, an exclusivist and a proponent of postmortem evangelism, or an exclusivist and an exclusivist.

[2] James Borland, “A Theologian Looks at the Gospel and World Religions,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (March 1990): 3-11.

[3] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 163.

[4] Timothy George in “Forum Discussion on Inclusivism,” in Who Will Be Saved? Defending the Biblical Understanding of God, Salvation, and Evangelism, eds. Paul R. House and Gregory A. Thornbury (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), pp. 145-48.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, eds., More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 7-27.

[7] J. I. Packer, God’s Words (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1981), p. 210. Packer referred to himself as a “conscientious agnostic” on this subject in a telephone interview on 15 June 2007.

[8] J. I. Packer, “Good Pagans and God’s Kingdom,” Christianity Today 30 (January 17, 1986), p. 25.

[9] J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation,” in Evangelical Affirmations, Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 121-23.

[10] David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), p. 327. For a similar view, see Michael Green, “But Don’t All Religions Lead to God?” Navigating the Multi-Faith Maze (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), p. 81.

[11] John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992; reprint, Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2001), pp. 215-16.

[12] Terrance L. Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004), p. 33.

[13] Ibid., p. 441; emphasis original. For a similar statement by Tiessen, see ibid., p. 393.

[14] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, trans. Karl and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 6:395.

[15] Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved?, p. 44.

[16] Hans Kung, “The World Religions in God’s Plan of Salvation,” in Christian Revelation and World Religions, ed. Josef Neuner (London: Burns & Oates, 1965), pp. 51-53.

[17] John Peter Lange, First Peter (New York: Scribner, 1868), p. 75. For a helpful evaluation of this position, see Erickson, Who Shall Be Saved?, pp. 159-75.

[18] Gabriel Fackre, “Divine Perseverance” in Sanders, What About Those?, p. 84; Fackre, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 232-34.

[19] Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology. 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 1:244-45; 2:225-30. Jerry Walls, The Logic of Damnation (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1992).

[20] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: Seabury, 1977), p. 97. Quoted in Packer, Hell Under Fire, p. 179.

[21] Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, trans. Reinder Bruinsma (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

[22] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 240. See also John Hick, “Pluralism,” in Okholm and Phillips, Four Views on Salvation, pp. 27-91.

[23] Ferguson, “Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell,” in Hell under Fire, p. 234.

[24] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Spurgeon at His Best, ed. Tom Carter (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), pp. 67-68.