The Destiny of the Unevangelized

Posted: November 22, 2010 by Greg Burkheimer in Christ & Culture, Christology, Evangelism, Justification, Original Sin, Uncategorized

I recently had a very thought provoking class on the destiny of the unevangelized. It was our last class for Soteriology through Reclaiming the Mind Ministries. Have you ever been asked the question, “Is Jesus the only way to God?” “Is it necessary to believe in Christ to be saved”? “What about those who have never heard the Gospel of Christ? Can they make it to heaven?”  Now let me ask another question, have you really thought through the implications of your answer? The following will be an overview of what we covered in class. Is Christ necessary ontologically (what he did) and is Christ necessary epistemologically (knowledge of what he did)?

Pluralism and Exclusivism

Two primary views were covered in class, Pluralism and Exclusivism.

Pluralism can be defined as the belief that all religious systems point to the same direction and to the same God, even if the belief systems themselves are contradictory. Pluralism would state that the agnostics, the unevangelized, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and the tribal religions all point to the same God. In Pluralism, Christ is not needed either ontologically (what he did) or epistemologically (knowledge of what he did).

Exclusivism is the belief that Christ is the only way to God. Within Exclusivism there are two views, Inclusivism and Restrictivism.

  1.  Inclusivism would state that Christ’s atonement is the only way that anyone can be saved, but that one does not necessarily need to have knowledge of Christ to have the atonement applied to them. In inclusivism, Christ is needed ontologically (what he did) but not epistemologically (knowledge of what he did).  
  2. Restrictivism is the belief that knowledge of and trust in the Gospel is necessary for anyone to be saved. Most evangelical Christians would hold to this view. In Restrictivism Christ is needed ontologically (what he did) and epistemologically (knowledge of what he did).

Defense of Restrictivism

We used the acronym “GOSPEL” to look at some of the common defenses of restrictivism.

Go: Why have a Great Commission if Christ and the Gospel is not the only way? (Matt 28:19-20; Acts [esp. 1:8]; Rom 10:13-17)

Only-way Passages: (John 14:6; Acts 4:12)

Son of God: the uniqueness of Christ and His works (John 3:16)

Pluralism Condemned: (Ex 20:2-3)

Exclusive Truth: the Bible claims that there is truth and that it can be known (Nature of propositional literature, Luke 1:4; John 1:17, 8:30-31, 14:6; “truth” 109 times in the NT)

Lake Fire: the Bible teaches the destruction of those who do not accept Christ (Rev 20:15; Matt 7:13-14; 25:46)

Restrictivism Case Studies

So, the case for restrictivism seems pretty strong for me, at least at this point from a biblical perspective. But how would I respond to the following situations while still holding the restrictivism position?

Case Study One

You have a friend at work who asks you about your spiritual convictions. Thankfully, your pastor has been preaching on the exclusivity of Christ. You explain to him your belief that Christ is the only way to God. Your friend then asks, “So, you believe that the Bible teaches that Christ is the only way to God and that there is no way to Christ but the Gospel?” You answer with confidence, “yes I do”. “And you also believe that all people, no matter what, must hear and believe in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection to be saved”? “That is what the Bible teaches,” you respond with renewed vitality.

He then asks you, “What about the people in the Old Testament, David, Abraham, Adam, and others? Do you believe they are in heaven?” You tell him that you do believe they are in Heaven. He then asks you, “Did they hear and believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ?”

Possible Responses

  1. “Yes, they had to believe in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.”
  2. “No, I see your point. Maybe belief in the Gospel is not the only way to Heaven.”
  3. “No, the content of what they believed was different, but the basis of their salvation was to trust in the revelation that God gave them.”
  4. “Can we talk about something else?”

Case Study Two

Your new friend Mary, who attends your Church, has been a Christian for a few years now. You have been disturbed by some objections she has been raising to the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ. You decide to confront her and make your case for the exclusivity of Christ while having dinner one evening. You explain to her that Christ is the only way to Heaven and that the only way to Christ is through hearing and believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (the Gospel). Once you have finished, Mary asks if you truly believe that is what the Bible teaches. “You mean the Bible teaches that no one can get to Heaven without hearing and believing the Gospel?” she questions rather defensively. You reply with confidence, “It is what the Bible teaches, there is no way to deny it.”

She suddenly and unexpectedly begins to cry. Surprised, you ask her, “what is wrong?” She informs you that she had miscarried her baby boy when she was seven month pregnant. She tells you that her only comfort has been knowing that one day she would be with the child in heaven. “If a person must hear and believe the Gospel, then my child is in Hell because he was never able to hear or believe.”

Possible Responses

  1. Stick to your guns, telling her that while her child may be in Hell, she can do much to help others escape the same fate.
  2. Back off and state that hearing and receiving the gospel is not the only way to Heaven, God may have other ways?
  3. Revert to the doctrine of Purgatory.
  4. Explain that the exclucivity of Christ only applies to those who are able to hear and believe. Therefore her unborn child may be in heaven even though he never herd.
  5. “Check, please.”

Objections Stated

The first objection appeals to the Old Testament Saints. How were they saved? Did Adam, Noah, Rahab, Abraham, etc. trust in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (the Gospel message)? What was the content of their faith (Gen 3:15; Josh 2:1-12)? If they did not know the Gospel as we know it, and they were saved, doesn’t that mean that others don’t have to know the gospel as we know it to be saved? The answer we focused on in class was an understanding of progressive revelation (Key Scripture: Heb 1:1-2).

The second objection is more difficult for me. What about infants who have died (abortions, miscarriages, early deaths, etc.) and those who are mentally unable? Do they go to heaven? Is there such a thing as the “age of accountability”? We looked at some possible solutions and the pros and cons of each one:

1. The mentally unable (esp. children) are innocent and therefore do not need to be saved.

Pro: The mentally unable (esp. infants) go to heaven.

Con: The doctrine of Original Sin. All people are born sinners and are separated from God. (Ps 51:1, Rom 5:18-19)

2. Children must be baptized to remove imputed/original sin (Roman Catholic view).

Con: No Scriptural support.

Con: Misunderstands the purpose of baptism.

3. The mentally unable cannot exercise faith and therefore are not saved.

Pro: Consistent with faith as a requirement.

Con: Does not seem just.

Con: David believed that he would one day be with his son (2 Sam 12:23)

Con: Christ said you must become like children to enter into heaven (Matt 18:3)

4. The mentally unable have a different way to Heaven.

Pro: All infants and mentally unable go to Heaven. This seems just.

Con: John 14:6

5. The mentally unable have the same way to Heaven (Christ), but the requirements are different based on their capabilities.

Pro: Christ is the only way.

Pro: Rightly understands that faith is the first response of regeneration, not necessarily the initiator of it (1Cor 2:14; Eph 2:1-5).

Con: If not understood correctly, could open the door of possibility for God to use different means of salvation for those who have not heard.   

The abiding principles we left with were these. The presentation of the Gospel assumes a capability to respond. Therefore, the Gospel is necessary for all those capable of response. Since Christ, that response has been acceptance of the Gospel. Ultimately, we can trust in the perfect justice of God.

Conclusion

The advantage of this class for me was that I really got my position challenged. I can’t say I am more assured coming out than when I went in. In fact if anything, my position was probably weakened a bit. I appreciated the honesty about the difficulty of this subject. The case studies and real life situations really helped frame the problems that can arise. With regards to the exclusivity of Christ and the question of is Christ needed ontologically (what he did) I am a solid 10 in affirming this position.

With regards to the second question of is Christ needed epistemologically (knowledge of what he did) I am not so sure. I like the idea of the mentally unable having the same way to Heaven (Christ), but the requirements are different based on their capabilities. I also like the notion that the presentation of the Gospel assumes a capability to respond, therefore, the Gospel is necessary for all those capable of response. But if I understand depravity correctly, none of us have the ability to respond to the Gospel. And if  justification is by faith, it seems I would be saying a person can be justified by regeneration without faith.

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