Throughout history Christians have wrestled with the question of salvation for those who have never heard of Christ. No single answer to this question has ever won consensus in the church, and committed Christians have espoused widely differing views. An overview of their perspectives is helpful in any discussion of today's encounter with world religions.
The early church-which, until A.D. 313 when Constantine and Licinius made Christianity a fully licit religion, was a minority movement fighting for its place in society-produced a plethora of answers. Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) said, "Those who lived according to reason [the logos] are Christians," even though they did not know about Jesus. Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220) claimed that it had been a common belief since the days of the apostles that Jesus descended to hell and preached the gospel. There was debate, though, as to who benefited from the preaching. Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200) and Tertullian held that Jesus delivered only the believers of the Old Testament from hell. On the other hand, Clement of Alexandria (mid-100s), Origen (c. 185-c. 254), and Athanasius (c. 296-373) taught that Jesus delivered from hell both Jews and Gentiles who accepted the gospel and that postmortem evangelism continues even today.
Augustine (354-430) rejected such ideas, arguing that before we die we must know about Jesus in order to be saved. Consequently, he believed that all the unevangelized are condemned to hell. Much later, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) agreed with Augustine on the necessity of knowing about Jesus, but went further to claim that for those few "brought up in the forest or among wolves," God would send the gospel message through miraculous means.
The "age of discovery," during ...