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 which the voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and Drake brought Christians into contact with other cultures, revived the issue, but the Reformers were not able to give it a great deal of attention. Martin Luther held out hope for the salvation of the unevangelized (especially the Roman orator Cicero), but he did not dogmatize this view. Ulrich Zwingli believed that pagans like Socrates and Cato were saved.
John Calvin took a more restrictive view, believing that all unevangelized and those of other religions (primarily the Turks) would be damned since "apart from Christ the saving knowledge of God does not stand." Dutch Reformed controversialist Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) taught that anyone who had not heard the gospel would receive an opportunity even if by direct revelation from God.
The topic was also broached in several early Protestant confessions. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) asserted that, while it would be unusual, God could send the gospel to whomever he wills through miraculous means. The Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) and the Calvinistic Westminster Confession (1647 and 1649) did not rule out such views, but they did rule out the idea that non-Christians are saved by their religion instead of by Christ. Later, some Anglicans like highchurchman Edward Pusey (1800-82) interpreted this to mean the possibility of the unevangelized being saved in their religion, but by Christ.
Since the eighteenth century the topic has received much discussion. John Wesley believed that many of the heathen were taught by the "inward voice" of God and that no person should "sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation." Jonathan Edwards took the opposite view, holding that no one can be saved unless he had explicit knowledge of Jesus.
Then, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rapid expansion of American and British influence coincided with the establishment of Bible societies and mission efforts. This missionary expansion brought the issue to the fore. European Protestant divines such as Johann Lange and Frédéric Godet suggested that the unevangelized will receive an opportunity to accept Christ after death. The Princeton Calvinists Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield ruled out all hope for those ignorant of the work of Christ; whereas William Shedd, the noted Calvinist defender of orthodoxy at Union Seminary, and Northern Baptist theologian A. H. Strong believed otherwise, arguing that the unevangelized would be saved if they accepted the light God had given them.
Each of the views mentioned above is represented in contemporary evangelicalism, but two positions are especially popular. Perhaps the dominant view, espoused by L. S. Chafer, Carl F. H. Henry, and R. C. Sproul, is that no unevangelized person will be saved. The other popular evangelical position, held by J. N. D. Anderson, Clark Pinnock, and Charles Kraft, is that if any unevangelized person repents and desires God's mercy, he will be saved by the work of Christ even though ignorant of that work. Other perspectives include that of Norman Geisler, who says that anyone who follows the light he has will receive an opportunity to hear the gospel before death, and Donald Bloesch, who affirms the possibility of conversion after death. John Stott believes that multitudes of the unevangelized will he saved, although he has not advanced a theory of how this may come about. J. I. Packer, and Roger Nicole allow some possibility for the salvation of the unevangelized but say that instead of speculating about it, we should leave it in the hands of God. Although God's decision on this issue is final, the church has never agreed on the nature of that decision.
This article originally appeared in the May 14, 1990 issue of Christianity Today.
At the time, John Sanders taught at Oak Hills Bible College, Bemidji, Minnesota. He is now Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Huntington College in Huntington, Indiana.
See today's Books & Culture Corner, " Who in Hell? | Theologian John Sanders considers the eternal fate of non-Christians."
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