The Island Savage: What about Those Who Never Hear?

If the sheep know His voice, then tell me what is the choice

For the ones who haven’t heard and have no need to rejoice?

Father, help me understand.

“Hearts Safe”, Tenth Avenue North

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. “Amen!” we say. But what about those who have never heard the Gospel? That is, for many, a tough question, for some because they find it hard to answer and for some because they’re scared of the answer. If all have sinned, and fall short of God’s glory, and Jesus it the Way, then how can people who have never heard of Jesus be saved? And if they can’t, is that fair? Is it their fault that they never heard the Gospel to believe it?

I won’t waste too much time pontificating, but instead would like to cite a handful of relevant Scriptures before explaining the major positions on this, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

Relevant Texts

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

Romans 10:13-14

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Romans 1:18-20

Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?

Genesis 18:25

(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

Romans 2:14-15

Christian Universalism: Come on In, Everyone!

I might as well get this one out of the way first. One of the oldest theories which speaks on this point is universalism, which is a broad term including various theologies in which everyone will be saved. There are many different forms, from the more liberal “God is love, so Hell is stupid, so everyone goes to Heaven” to the moderate “Hell is temporary and everyone will eventually be taken to Heaven” to the more conservative “God will bring everyone to saving faith in Christ at some point.” Generally, universalism is regarded as heresy in all least some forms. This has been the case since at least AD 553, when the Fifth Ecumenical Council reportedly condemned a form of universalism held by Origen.

Universalism is a broad term including various theologies in which everyone will be saved. Generally, universalism is regarded as heresy.

Naturally, universalism deals with those who have never heard quite simply: they are saved just like everyone else. This is an exciting prospect, and certainly a lovely idea. Of course, the major problem with universalism is that it really just doesn’t square with Scripture. While there are a handful of groups which will defend it from the Bible, they are not very convincing, and the repeated Biblical emphasis on the punishment of the wicked and the eventual extermination of the unrepentant speaks convincingly against this option. In most forms, I would say universalism decimates the Gospel, and even in more conservative ones too much is lost.

Universalism Summary

  • Holds that everyone will be saved.
  • Comes in many various forms, from radical to nearly reasonable.
  • Usually considered heresy.
  • Some forms deny Hell, others say only demons will go there, others make it temporary before Heaven.

Major Text

That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

1 Timothy 4:10

Inclusivism: Some Open Doors

A less radical idea that universalism is inclusivism. Basically, inclusivism holds out hope that some people who never hear the Gospel can still be saved. Like universalism, there are different forms of inclusivism. Probably the most well-known form is that of C. S. Lewis, who demonstrated this theology in the end his Chronicles of Narnia series. C. S. Lewis’s inclusivism holds that every religion besides Christianity contains at least a hint of truth, much like every convincing lie starts with a little truth, and that there is some truth to be gained from natural revelation as well. Because of this, those who have never heard the fullness of the Gospel may still embrace whatever right knowledge of God they do have and follow in faith, unaware that they are actually following Christ. A less nuanced version of inclusivism simply would say that everyone who has not explicitly rejected Jesus might be saved.

C. S. Lewis’s inclusivism holds that those who have never heard the fullness of the Gospel may still embrace whatever right knowledge of God they do have and follow in faith, unaware that they are actually following Christ.

There are problems with inclusivism, though. For one, the entire New Testament, especially Romans, makes Jesus Christ personally the center of saving faith. The message was always to believe in Him. Maybe I’m just picky, but to me it seems that when faith in Christ is required, this means to imply knowledge of Christ as the object of faith, and not just a vague commitment to a hazy kernel of truth. On the other hand, we could argue from the possibility of infant faith (John the Baptist was, after all, filled with the Spirit in his mother’s womb and leapt for joy at Jesus’ presence) that ignorant faith can still be enough. Testimonies also abound of people who called out to God without knowing the Gospel, only to be given the truth soon afterwards whether by evangelism or visions of dreams, and they were already committed to it in faith (these stories are especially frequent in Muslim countries and some far-flung tribal regions). So one could imagine that they had already been born again as soon as they called out to God, with knowledge coming later, much likes works sometimes do. This brings up the question of if they had died in between the two events. Then what?

Lest I seem like I am actually arguing for inclusivism, because I’m not actually convinced, these accounts of people who called out to God and then received the Gospel actually work against inclusivism in another way. After all, if God sent missionaries to these people, or gave them visions or dreams, to tell them the Gospel so that they could believe it, then what reason is there to believe that He would at some point save someone and never do any of these things? If God would save people in ignorance for a time and then make sure to bring them understanding, why would He sometimes skip the second part? It seems more likely to me that if anyone is saved in ignorance, God will provide a way for them to know the truth.

If anyone who does not reject the Gospel can be saved, then evangelism is basically terrorism.

As for the branch of inclusivism which holds that anyone who does not reject the Gospel can be saved, we have another problem. If this is the case, then evangelism is basically terrorism. Everyone who has never heard would be on their way to eternal life with Jesus Christ, but by sharing the Gospel with them we would be opening the door to their condemnation. Witnessing to people would be like playing Russian roulette with their soul. Given the urgency with which the apostles spread the Gospel, I doubt this is the case. Finally, Scriptures like John 14:6 and Romans 10:13-14 seem to argue against this quite directly.

Inclusivism Summary

  • Holds that some people who have never heard the Gospel can be saved.
  • Two most common forms: people can be saved if they follow the light they have; anyone who does not specifically reject the Gospel can be saved.
  • Makes salvation possible for the island savage or a Muslim who lays down his life for his friends.
  • Some forms can make evangelism basically evil.
  • Believed by some prominent teachers, such as Billy Graham and C. S. Lewis.

Major Text

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Acts 10:34-35

One More Point: Is Inclusivism Heresy?

I would also like to address the question of whether inclusivism is heresy, since I do not believe it to be true. To cut to the chase, no. Inclusivism does still affirm that Jesus Christ is the only way to God; what it denies is that conscious, knowledgeable faith is the only way to Jesus. While I am not sure this is true, there are certainly places in Scripture from which you could get that idea, and the Gospel is not compromised. Everyone is still a sinner, corrupt from birth through their father Adam. Jesus still died to save humanity, and He is still the only way to be saved. Works still cannot save, and salvation still comes through faith. The only difference is that inclusivism holds that ignorant faith, trust in what someone does understand of God, can still count. And while I am not convinced of this, I see no reason to condemn those who are, especially since I, along with many others, do hold out this hope for infants and some others like the mentally handicapped who cannot receive the Gospel.

Exclusivism: One Way to the One Way

After explaining universalism and inclusivism, exclusivism is pretty easy to define, because it is basically the other end of the spectrum. For exclusivists, conscious faith is the only way to be connected to the only Way. If you do not hear the Gospel and believe in Christ, you will not be saved. Many will make exceptions, however, for those who die in infancy and sometimes the severely mentally handicapped.

For exclusivists, conscious faith is the only way to be connected to the only Way.

Exclusivism is, for the majority of people, hard to swallow. There are billions of people who have never heard the Gospel. Many of them are decent people, and very many struggle to survive. Some only manage to suffer a few miserable years before they die without having believed. A number lay down their lives for their friends. Yet the exclusivist position would hold that they are all condemned, for they have not believed the Gospel.

Now, having given that picture, I do not mean to make exclusivism sound horrible. After all, few exclusivists believe that people are condemned because they never believed what they never heard. This scene is not how it works:

God: Did you believe in Jesus or not?

Bob: No, God, but no one every told…

God: I don’t care! Guilty! Toss him to Hell!

No, for the exclusivist, people are condemned because of their sinfulness. Whether someone has heard the Gospel or not, all have sinned. And, as I pointed out recently, we are not simply people who messed up a little, but monsters. Whether we know the Gospel or not, we’re really messed up and God is justified in destroying us if He wishes. The Gospel is a special offer of grace, undeserved. So if the island savage is condemned, it is because his soul is black as night, not because he never heard the message.

Whether we know the Gospel or not, we’re really messed up and God is justified in destroying us if He wishes. So if the island savage is condemned, it is because his soul is black as night, not because he never heard the message.

Still, some will argue that it is not fair that some can hear the Gospel and be saved while others never have the chance. Yet as I mentioned earlier, there are many testimonies of people who called out to God and then did receive the Gospel, whether by evangelism, vision, or some other means. So it seems likely to say that if someone is truly willing to repent and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, then God will provide a way. If we know anything about God, we know that He will never abandon anyone who is truly seeking Him.

Of course, there does remain the matter of infants and the mentally disabled. Why should (as very many exclusivists do) they get an exception? Really, the reason is that we think they should based on God’s mercy. After all, worse than those who grew up and never heard, these people have never even had the ability to understand the Gospel, and neither have they had the chance to recognize right and wrong. They have a certain level of innocence which seems unique. But I’ll be honest. Besides 2 Samuel 12:23, there’s really no Biblical evidence for this (and basing a belief on one verse in an Old Testament story which was spoken by a grieving person instead of God or a prophet is probably a bad idea). Yet I and others cling to the belief that God somehow lets these people be born again and share in Jesus’ salvation. So should we really be inclusivists? Eh, I don’t know about that. I do trust, though, that God will do what is right.

[fquote align=”left]Why should infants and the mentally disabled get an exception? Really, the reason is that we think they should based on God’s mercy.

Despite its difficulties, I think exclusivism makes the best sense of the New Testament teaching on faith and salvation in Christ. The entire thrust of “believe” seems to be based recognizing and trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ, which requires at least some knowledge of them. I also think that exclusivism is the only position which takes the utterly sinful state of the unsaved heart seriously. Inclusivists especially seem to forget that we’re all monsters underneath before being reborn. So whether someone has heard or not, God is just when He condemns.

Exclusivism Summary

  • Holds that no one may be saved without explicit, conscious faith in Jesus.
  • Often provides an exception for infants and the mentally disabled.
  • Has been the dominant position of most of the church for ages and ages.
  • Recognizes that God will provide a way for those who truly seek Him.
  • Considers most of the world throughout all history condemned.

Major Text

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.

Acts 4:12

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.