The Destiny of the Unevangelized


The Destiny of the Unevangelized

What happens to people who don’t hear the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Introduction

In this sinful world we are often left wondering why bad things happen.  Why doesn’t God just prevent the horrible evils of this world? Why do innocent people suffer?  Elmer Towns states, “First of all, no one is completely innocent.  We are born into this world sinners (Ps. 51:5), and as sinners, we have a sin nature and are introduced into a world that is infected by sin (Gen. 3:1–21).  So at birth we take on the liability of sin and live in an atmosphere of sin, where the consequences of sin (disease, accidents, vicious people, etc.) will affect us.”[1]  The main focus of this paper will be Gods providence.  In order to understand his providence, we must have a working definition.  Erickson states, “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.”[2]  In this paper we will examine the four main views of the destiny of the unevangelized.  We will also examine the biblical evidence and the effects this may have on our culture today.   There are many questions that surround whether or not a person who has never heard the name of Jesus or the Word of God will go to heaven.  This sometimes leaves us wondering about children who die young and whether or not there is an age of accountability or not.  The Bible has no scripture that references an actual age of accountability and it also never states whether a child will go to hell.  The Bible reveals to us that God is love and because of His love He sent His son to die for us.  John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”[3]  Are we to believe then that an unengaged unreached people group may have an ability to go to heaven without actually ever hearing the Word of God?  The core of this paper will center on God’s love and the path to which salvation is given to all.

 

Approaching Providence

Jesus is the only way in which we are saved. In John 14:6, Jesus states, “Jesus told him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”[4]  The Bible is very clear on the teaching of justification by faith.  Paul explains this in Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed–a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’,”[5] and in Romans 3:22, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.”[6]  God loves us all and He sent his son as our salvation for our sins.  The Bible says in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  When the fall of man occurred, sin and death entered this world.  Humanity has this ironic way of trying to figure out what kind of works they can accomplish in an attempt to redeem us of our condition.  There are three methods used for approaching providence: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.  Boyd defines exclusivism, “this view holds that Jesus is the only Savior for all humanity and that it is not possible to attain salvation apart from the explicit knowledge of him.”[7]    In other words, you have to know Jesus and have a knowledge that you know Jesus.  Boyd defines inclusivism, “this view maintains that Jesus is the only Savior for all humanity but that it is not possible to attain salvation apart from explicit knowledge of him.”[8]  In other words, you have to know Jesus, but you don’t have to know that you know him. Boyd defines pluralism, “this view holds that Jesus is only one of many saviors available in the world’s religions.”[9]  In other words, wide is the gate to hell and wide is the gate to heaven or you do not have to go through Jesus, you can go through any deity available.  We will look further into the four views of destiny of the unbeliever, of which three are based on exclusivism and one is based on inclusivism.

The Restrictivist View

This view maintains that those people who are now believers (because they heard the gospel) and made a conscious decision to accept Jesus Christ as there Lord and Savior will be saved.  They also assert that anyone who has not heard will be judged on what they do know; based upon Romans 1:18-20, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”[10]  They believe that this verse is saying that God has revealed to all people who He is and that it is made evident to them in His creation and all things around them.  The issue with this interpretation is it stops short of the remainder of the verse. Look at the very next three verses that follows in Romans 1:21-23, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”[11]  Explain to me this, how is it possible for an infant or a disabled individual to already know God and not honor him, as well as profess to be wise?  It is different when you insert the whole verse.  Towns states Romans 1:18-20, “The Bible is very clear that the heathen who have never accepted Jesus Christ are lost and going to hell.”[12] Is a an infant a heathen through original sin, because if we do not assert this understanding then we are only left to surmise that even Dr. Towns is speaking only of a person capable of rejecting God.  I believe this is a case of us in our humanity trying to extrapolate more in the Word of God the God is actually saying.  As if we in our infinite wisdom can assert an authority wise enough to fully understand Him.  We already know from John 14:6 that no one goes to the father except through Jesus.  Kenneth Allen states, “The grounds of justification are the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was without sin in His person and conduct and during His earthly life He kept the law perfectly.”[13]  No Jesus did some amazing miracles when he came to earth and one of them is he did talk about the Kingdom of God.  In Matthew 19 the disciples asked Jesus a question that I believe completely solidifies the redemptive power of Christ!  Matthew 19:25-26 states, “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’.”[14]  Do you see how Jesus answered this question?  Do you understand the response not just to the historical audience, but to the generational audience.  Scholars have a tendency to look over this passage of scripture into its generational meaning and the theological bridge it forms.  Many scholars look past this verse by stating it references only the historical audience and they forget this contradict this authority of the canon that it must speak to all generations.

The Universal Opportunity View

Boyd states, “That is a person is willing to accept Christ as Lord, the all-powerful God will find a way to give that person the opportunity to do so.”[15]  This view hinges on to basic truths that God is all-powerful and that he wants everyone to be saved.  This view is supported by two main points of scripture.  The first is 1st Timothy 2:4, “who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”[16] The second is 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”[17]  We can see that God can reach people in unique ways.  God spoke to Balaam through a donkey in Numbers 22:28, “Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times’?”[18]  God can use any number of ways he wants in which to reach us or call us.  Boyd states, “In the case of the Gentile Cornelius, who had a heart to believe, God employed special messengers and visions (to Peter) to ensure that he and his household heard the Word of the Lord (Acts 10:1-48). God spoke to pagans through dreams, visions, and/or angels (e.g., Gen. 20; Dan.2).”[19]  The largest issue with this view seems to be obvious; a person must be willing to accept Christ.  How can a person be willing to accept Christ if they have never heard of Christ?  It does not solve the issue of an individual who is unevangelized anymore than the first view.

The Postmortem Evangelism View

This view is exactly as the name suggest, after you die you get another try!  This view teaches that people may be given another chance after death.  Those who hold to this view do so on the basis that they feel scripture supports.  God does not willingly bring affliction or grief on anyone, for this is a result of sin.  Lamentations 3:33 states, “For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.”[20]  Because of Christ death on the cross he now holds the keys to death and the grave. Hebrews 2:14 states, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”[21]  This is an interesting way in which to look at Jesus power over death, why would we not assume Christ could raise others as he did Lazarus?  Boyd states, “most evangelicals agree that a multitude of events will defeat evil, the bodily resurrection, and so on. The postmortem view simply adds one more event (or process) to this eschatology between death and judgment: the evangelism of the previously unevangelized.”[22]  The largest issue I see in this viewpoint is that in contradicts free will.  Who wouldn’t want out of hell if you were there and of course you would believe in Jesus at that point. In addition we can look to Hebrews 9:27, “And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment.”[23]  Some scholars believe that this verse is drawing a parallel between Christ death and our own.  They contend that ruling out salvation after death is reading too much into this verse.  There is a correlation, but it is in the old and new covenant complete in Christ.  Wiersbe states, “The writer pointed out again the obvious contrasts between the old covenant ministry and the new covenant ministry. The work of Christ is a completed work, final and eternal. After reading this chapter, the Hebrew Christians who received this letter had to realize that there is no middle ground.”[24]

The Inclusivist View

This view maintains the same teachings as the other three that Jesus Christ is the only way, but that a person does not necessarily have to know that they are saved by Jesus.  Adherents to this view site Acts 14:17, saying that since God has left no one without witness that all have an ability to receive.  This view follows that Gods creation is his witness to Jesus to all who have seen.  The most prominent verses of scripture for this view are what Paul wrote in Romans 2:14-16, “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.”[25]  The greatest issue I see in this view is that it leans toward suggesting a belief in the creation more than the creator.  I believe that all believers can acknowledge Gods creation, but you do not see us worshiping the creation as part of being a follower of Christ.  There is no place in scripture where Jesus performed a miracle and the people worshiped the miracle and not God.  This viewpoint does not clearly acknowledge how the unevangelized seek Christ or how they are saved because of this viewpoint through Christ.

Conclusion

Each one of these views do have some amount of biblical support that gives some weight to a belief in them, however only the postmortem view gives an answer to saving the unevangelized.  I do not believe that the postmortem view can resolve some of its own theological assumptions without changing some larger doctrine.  This leaves us without a conclusive point on how the unevangelized can be saved.  Boyd states, “The Bible does not directly address the issue of what happens to babies who die before being able to make a decision for or against Christ.”[26]  I believe that Jesus came to save us not condemn us (John 3:17).  We can find that when Jesus replied to the disciples in Matthew 19:26 that with God all things are possible.  This does not contradict any doctrine, but it does support that Jesus came to save.  We cannot of our own power save ourselves, so we must rely on the character of God in his love for us that he will save.  I contend that the true answer is not revealed to us.  Look at the ministry of Paul and how much he had to teach the churches on justification by faith so that they would learn that through works they could not reach salvation.  This verse sticks to the very premise that God is all powerful and he can do all things.  I think it is ironic when we dig so deep as to make theological positions that limit the power of God in precepts that make it easier for us to understand him.  We assume to much of ourselves.  The natural disasters that we endure and the horrific nightmare of gunman in our classrooms has infiltrated our very thoughts as to whether or not Jesus could save those children.  As if we could state that Jesus was so limited in his ability.  Jesus holds the keys to death, but he is the key to our salvation.

Footnotes


[1]. Elmer Towns, Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003).

[2]. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998).

[3]. Holy Bible, New International Version® (Grand Rapids, MI: International Bible Society used by permission of Zondervan, 1973, 1978, 1984).

[4]. Holy Bible, the New Living Translation (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996).

[5]. Archaeological Study Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids , MI: Zondervan, 2005).

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Life Application Study Bible, New American Standard Bible – Updated Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Towns, Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions.

[13]. Kenneth W. Allen, “Justification by Faith,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135, no. 538 (April-June 1978).

[14]. Holy Bible, New International Version®.

[15]. Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Second Edition.

[16]. Ted Cabel et al., eds., The Apologetics Study Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003).

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

[19]. Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Second Edition.

[20]. C.I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Study Bible, King James Version (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1909, 1917, 1937, 1945, 1996).

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Second Edition.

[23]. Holy Bible, the New Living Translation.

[24]. Warren W. Wiersbe, The Complete New Testament in One Volume (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2007).

[25]. Life Application Study Bible, New American Standard Bible – Updated Edition.

[26]. Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Second Edition.

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