Are those who never hear the message of Jesus doomed to eternity in hell?
Have you ever thought of the proverbial man on the island—the man who never hears the gospel or even Jesus’ name? Perhaps you’ve encountered him in a friend’s argument against Christianity. Maybe you’ve even voiced an objection regarding him yourself: How could a good and loving God condemn to hell someone who’s never even heard of him?
When it comes to the emotionally vexing issue of “those who have never heard,” there are two predominant positions among professing Christians: inclusivism and particularism. While both views maintain that Jesus is the only way to God, only one insists on the necessity of conscious faith in him.
Inclusivism is the belief that though salvation comes through only Jesus Christ, there may be persons who are Christians without knowing it. Jesus may save some who never actively hear of him.1
Inclusivists often cite Romans 2:1–16, a passage taken to imply that salvation is possible apart from God’s special revelation. That is, the content of general revelation—both in terms of the created order without2 and the moral law within3—provides sufficient knowledge for salvation. As Millard Erickson explains, “The rise of more inclusive views of salvation, even among evangelicals, is based on a belief in the efficacy of general revelation for a salvific relationship to God.”4
Additionally, many inclusivists appeal to the precedent of Old Testament saints who were saved without knowing the name of Jesus. Erickson writes:
What if someone were to throw himself . . . upon the mercy of God, not knowing on what basis that mercy was provided? Would not such a person in a sense be in the same situation as the Old Testament believers? The doctrine of Christ and his atoning work had not been fully revealed to these people. Yet they knew there was provision for the forgiveness of their sins, and that they could not be accepted on the merits of any works of their own. They had the form of the gospel without its full content. And they were saved.5
But doesn’t this parallel trivialize Christ’s saving work? Not at all, Erickson insists, for Jesus is still the source of every saving benefit: “The basis of acceptance would be the work of Jesus Christ, even though the person involved is not conscious that this is how provision has been made for his salvation. . . . Salvation has always been appropriated by faith. . . . Nothing has been changed in that respect.”6
What matters to God is human faith responding to the “light” he has provided at a given time or place. It’s unwarranted, then, for anyone to claim to know with certainty the fate of the unevangelized. One pastor put it this way: “I believe the most Christian stance is to remain agnostic on this question. The fact is that God, alongside the most solemn warnings about our responsibility to respond to the gospel, has not revealed how he will deal with those who have never heard it.”7
Many inclusivists appeal to God’s character in defense of their view. Because “God is love,” the argument goes, he’d never condemn someone who didn’t even have a chance to be saved.8 As Clark Pinnock states, “Inclusivism is not a central topic of discussion in the Bible and . . . the evidence for it is less than one would like. But the vision of God’s love there is so strong that the existing evidence seems sufficient to me.”9
In contrast to inclusivism, particularism10 is the view that redemption is possible through only faith in the gospel.11 This has been the predominant Christian position throughout church history and remains so among Bible-believing evangelicals today. Several texts are commonly cited in its defense.
First, though inclusivists sometimes employ Romans 1:18–23 to highlight the importance of general revelation, on closer reading the text seems to support the particularist view. Paul’s argument is that God’s revelation in nature is sufficient only to condemn, not to save. Though the man on the island “knows God,”12 he “suppresses the truth”13 perceptible in nature and is therefore “without excuse.”14 Humans aren’t guilty because they haven’t heard the gospel; they’re guilty because they haven’t honored their Creator.
Romans 10 also displays the necessity of gospel faith for salvation:
“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? . . . Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.15
Paul’s chain of logic is straightforward:
- The only way to be saved is to call on Christ’s name.
- The only way to call on Christ’s name is to believe the gospel.
- The only way to believe the gospel is to hear the gospel.
- The only way to hear the gospel is to be told the gospel.
The reality of another means of salvation besides faith in “the word of Christ,” particularists assert, is difficult to square with a passage like this.
Particularists also often point to Jesus’ declaration: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”16 Though inclusivists sometimes object that this statement says nothing explicit about faith, particularists point out that the idea is surely implied. The whole aim of John’s Gospel, after all, is to convince readers to believe and be saved,17 as the preceding context makes plain.18 John addresses belief no less than ninety-seven times throughout the book. In light of the entire context, then, particularists say, it’s likely that “through me” means “through faith in me.”19
Furthermore, proponents of particularism point to a declaration Peter made to the crowd in Acts: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”20 The verse doesn’t simply say there’s no other savior under heaven—something with which inclusivists would agree—but that there’s no other name, implying a specifically expressed identity.
Finally, they cite a story in Acts 10 that is particularly revealing. God hears the prayers of a devout Gentile named Cornelius and instructs him to send for a man named Peter. Arriving the following day at Peter’s house, Cornelius’s men announce: “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”21
Peter then journeys with the men to Cornelius’s house, where the centurion addresses his apostolic guest: “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”22 What’s interesting is that Cornelius wasn’t expecting any random message but specifically—as an angel had told him—a “message through which [he] and all [his] household [would] be saved.”23 In other words, it was a message without which Cornelius would have remained, despite all of his religious sincerity, eternally lost.
Why would particularists point to this story? Because if ever there was a candidate for salvation through general revelation, surely it would’ve been Cornelius. He was as devout and God-fearing as possible given the “light” he’d received. But as the chapter unfolds, it becomes clear that even extraordinary religious sincerity is not enough. It was necessary for Peter to leave his home and travel over thirty miles to deliver a message without which, the story implies, even the most spiritually responsive person in the world cannot be saved.
Why It All Matters
So what happens to those who never hear the gospel? The question isn’t some vague theological abstraction; it is practically relevant and eternally serious. Your view of the missionary task, for example—both in terms of its nature and its urgency—will be directly affected by your view of the man on the island’s everlasting fate.
“Visit many good books, but live in the Bible,” Charles Spurgeon once advised. The most important thing you can do when faced with an emotionally charged topic like this is to open the Word of God, pray for humility and understanding, and then trust what it says.