Some thoughts on those who "haven't heard"

Despite my hesitancy to use selective passages of Scripture to “make a point” and my general aversion to bullet-points, I felt it necessary to include a more detailed presentation of a biblical alternative to exclusivism for the benefit of those readers who are themselves searching for one. I should mention that I am forever indebted to the scholarship of Clark Pinnock on this subject. His book, “A Wideness in God’s Mercy” (Zondervan, 1992) opened my eyes to the theme of God’s universal love too often overlooked in Scripture. 


I’ve organized my thoughts under the headings of “Some Things I Know,” “Some Things That Give Me Hope,” and “Some Things I Don’t Know.” 

Some Things I Know:

  • If the God of the Bible is true, then His love is universal, and His grace is not limited to certain people groups or nations. (Genesis 9:17; Psalm 82:8; Isaiah 25: 6-8; John 3:16; 1 John 4:14; Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:11; I Cor. 2:19)


Some Things That Give Me Hope:

  • To the same degree that the Fall devastated mankind, God’s grace is able to redeem it, “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (I Cor. 15:22) God did not lose his hopes and dreams for humanity to Satan when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Total depravity, though devastating, is not beyond total redemption. (See also Romans 5:12-21)
  • God does not appear to relish in the damnation of the unsaved, but desires that all receive His mercy. (Isaiah 30:18; 2 Peter 3:9; 2 Timothy 2:4; Romans 11:32)
  • God may have determined when and where people would be born, but He did not leave Himself without a witness among them. (Acts 17:26-27) He created people in such a way that “they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” (Acts 14:16-17)  This is commonly called general revelation.
  • Since creation, God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” have been revealed to all. Those who practice unrighteousness are “without excuse” because they have access to enough general revelation about God to know better. (Romans 1:20) Exclusivists usually stop there, but as Dale Moody comments, “What kind of God is he who gives man enough knowledge to damn him but not enough to save him?” It is reasonable to assume that just as God has revealed enough of Himself for people to reject Him without excuse, He has revealed enough of Himself for people to accept Him without rejection.
  • Scripture makes it clear that people are justified by faith. It does not stipulate how much a person needs to know about God in order to be saved, but simply qualifies that the fruit of saving faith is good works. Paul writes that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” People who have no knowledge of the Law but who “do instinctively the things of the Law,” will be judged, not on the basis of how much they know, but on the basis of how they respond to their conscience. (Romans 2:9-16) Many exclusivists themselves concede that people living before the time of Christ were made righteous by faith without explicit knowledge of Jesus.
  • Throughout Scripture, we find evidence that God worked in the lives of people who were neither Jews nor Christians. Take, for example, Job, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedeck, Abimelech, Jethro, the Queen of Sheeba, the Magi, and Cornelius. The famed Hebrews 11 passage includes several of these so-called “pagan saints,” in its elite  “cloud of witnesses,” emphasizing that they were saved by faith in a God who “is a rewarder of those who seek him.” 
  • Although God revealed Himself uniquely through the person of Christ, God’s grace  is not limited or exhausted by Christ. If we truly believe in the Trinity, then we know that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are also at work in the world, and that the breath of God is free to “blow where it wishes.” (John 3:8) Looking at things from this Trinitarian perspective, it is reasonable to assume that one can maintain a saving relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit without necessarily knowing the name of Jesus Christ. Just as a right relationship with Jesus results in a right relationship with God, a right relationship with the Father is, in effect, a right relationship with Christ. (John 8:19, 42)
  • Jesus says that when it comes time to “judge the nations,” (perhaps including those without the gospel), the Good Shepherd will separate the sheep from the goats based on their treatment of “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46) We forget that Jesus Christ is indeed present in every nation. He is present in the hungry,  the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned. Perhaps many will choose to reject or accept Him in that unlikely incarnation.
  • The book of Revelation paints an extremely optimistic picture of the universal scope of God’s salvation. The prophet writes that great multitudes will worship God in heaven, “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.” (Revelation 7:9; see also Revelation 15:4; 21:24-26; 22:2.)
  • Throughout the Bible, the consistent theme concerning judgment is that of God separating the wicked from the righteous, not separating the elect from the non-elect or the Christians from the non-Christians. The focus is on justice. Isaiah wrote that “a throne will be established in loving kindness, and a judge will sit on it in faithfulness…He will seek justice and be prompt in righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5) The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the day when the unrighteous will finally receive justice and the oppressed mercy. (Psalm 1:5; Psalm 94:15;Ecclesiastes 3:17) James writes that “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) 


Some things I don’t know:

  • I don’t know the degree to which God is present in other religions. I’ve seen both very good and very bad fruit come from organized religion--including Christianity--and prefer to think of each individual as spiritually unique rather than the sum of his or her religious culture. I can only hope that non-Christians would do the same for me.
  • I don’t know exactly how God will judge in eternity. However, I know that those of us blessed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, should  be slow to judge and careful of over-confidence, always heeding Christ’s warning that “not everyone who says to Me on that day, ’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21-23; See also Matthew 12:26; Romans 2:1-5; I Peter 4:17)
  • I don’t know whether the suffering of the damned in hell will be eternal, as traditional orthodoxy holds, or if God, “who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” will in fact do so. (Matthew 10:28) [For several theories on this subject, read “Four Views on Hell,” edited by William Crockett (Zondervan, 1992)]

*For my response to the oft-quoted "I am the way, the truth, and the life" verse, see my comment on the previous post.

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Book Club Discussion: Is Jesus a Christian?

In Chapter 12 of William P. Young’s The Shack, Jesus talks with the book’s protagonist, Mackenzie, about the inadequacy of institutions in bringing people closer to God. 

Jesus says, “Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.” 

Mackenzie asks, “Is that what it means to be a Christian?” To which Jesus responds, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.” 

Young writes, “The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected, and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning. ‘No, I suppose you aren’t.’ 

Jesus continues, ‘Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” 

“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “That all roads will lead to you?” 

“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop, “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” 

I love this sentiment. Christians so often forget that the power of salvation lies not in a religious institution, but in a loving God who reaches out to all people. 

As many of you know, I’ve spent many years struggling with the implications of religious pluralism. Growing up, I was taught that anyone who does not explicitly express faith in Jesus Christ and convert to Christianity is, without a doubt, bound to eternity in hell. 

For many years, I believed that Christians had only two options regarding the destiny of the un-evangelized. They could either be exclusivists or universalists. Exclusivists believe that only Christians are saved, and universalists believe that all people are saved. In college, I was assured that only the first option was biblical, and that universalists themselves were most likely destined to hell along with the Buddhists, and Muslims, and Hindus, as their position was far too unorthodox to make them “true believers.” 

Since then, I have found that there are more than two ways of approaching religious pluralism. I don’t have to choose between believing that God saves only a handful or that God saves everyone, including those who reject Him or practice unrepentant evil. 

Traditional exclusivism holds that 1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and 2) explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. While I agree with the first statement, I have reservations about the second, and prefer instead to hold an agnostic yet optimistic view concerning those who have never heard the gospel or who subscribe to other religions. Peter’s joyful reaction to the unexpected faith of Cornelius best describes my reaction to what Scripture says about the unevangelized: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,  but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

If you want me to get technical, I suppose you might say I am an “inclusivist.” I will readily admit, however, that there is much I do not know about how God works among other people or how He will judge the world. 

More about that in future posts…

The focus here is on the idea that institutions themselves do not have saving (or for that matter, damning) powers. 

I don’t know how God will judge in eternity. However, I know that those of us blessed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, should  be slow to judge and careful of over-confidence, always heeding Christ’s warning that “not everyone who says to Me on that day, ’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21-23) 

I also don’t know the degree to which God is present in other religions. I’ve seen both very good and very bad fruit come from organized religion--including Christianity--and prefer to think of each individual as spiritually unique rather than the sum of his or her religious culture. I can only hope that non-Christians would do the same for me.  

I might be opening a can of worms here, but this is an important issue that I think will draw more and more attention as our culture becomes more global. What are your thoughts? Do you think it is possible to escape the confines of the choice between exclusivism and universalism? Is there a theological “third way” here? 

C.S. Lewis wrote a really beautiful passage that touches on this subject in The Last Battle of the Narnia series. It is written from the perspective of a pagan named Emeth who, until encountering Aslan, had been following Aslan’s enemy, Tash. I’ve always interpreted Tash to represent non-Christian religions, but perhaps, in light of this conversation, it is better to think of Tash as representing any institution (including Christianity) that claims to be a vehicle to salvation. 

Emeth remembers his first encounter with Aslan: 

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him…But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord is it rue, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said. It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites. 

I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? 

I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all of my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me though wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.