What happens to those who never hear the gospel? It’s a fair question to ask, and Christians throughout the centuries have answered it in different ways. In today’s Seven Minute Seminary, Dr. Ben Witherington tackles the problem by drawing a parallel to how God will deal with his people Israel at the end of the age, a theme treated in Romans 11.
How we answer this issue, sometimes framed as the destiny of the unevangelized, remains consistent with the consensus of historic Christianity and Scriptural teaching if we acknowledge that Jesus is the means of salvation—whether a person has explicit knowledge of Jesus and the gospel (exclusivist or restrictivist view) or whether a person has faith based on God’s general revelation made available to everyone (inclusivist view). On the other hand, the pluralist view, asserting that Jesus is just one of many ways to God, should be rejected (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5-6).
Several challenges present themselves for each view. For those who argue that a person must somehow hear the gospel in order to be eternally saved, they must answer how exactly the saints in the Old Testaments will attain life everlasting (see this thought experiment by Roger Olson). Furthermore, they must deal with the fairness of their perspective. For those who affirm an inclusivist view, they must struggle with maintaining the centrality of repentance and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in salvation, and the urgency of missions around the world. In the end, our Father, who has a holy and loving character that we can trust, will ensure that all is made right.
People of note throughout church history who taught inclusivism: Justin Martyr, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Clark Pinnock.
More Scripture to consider: Psalm 19:1-4; Ezekiel 33:11; Luke 16:19-31; John 1:9; 9:12; 10:16; Acts 14:17; 17:26-27; Romans 1:20; 10:9-18; 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:10; 2 Peter 3:9; Hebrews 9:27.
See also: “What Happens to Those Have Never Heard the Gospel? How Prevenient Grace Makes a Difference” by Brian Shelton.