The fate of those who’ve never heard the gospel
What happens to those who’ve never heard the gospel? It’s hardly fair that they be damned, you know.
Believe it or not, I disagree. It’s perfectly fair. But before we get to that, let’s consider the possibilities:
* The orthodox view is that those who’ve never heard the gospel are damned, if they’ve attained the age of accountability.
* The “available light” view is that they’re saved, if they’re good people.
* The universalist view is that all are saved.
* Finally, some argue the agnostic view that we really can’t know who is and isn’t saved, based on the Parable of the Tares and similar passages. This is pretty close to an effective universalism, with the expectation that God will sort it out at the end and we have no busy trying to do God’s sorting for him in this life.
Now, if we’re serious followers of Jesus, we really have to test these theories against the Scriptures. Each view can be supported by a handful of verses ripped out of context, and so, if we’re serious about submitting to Jesus as Lord, we’ll be serious about interpreting the text.
Thanks. It’s helpful to lay the competing theories out. I think I can name at least one congregation in town that supports each of those views.
But what’s the big deal? Don’t they all lead to the same result ultimately? I mean, we’re saved by grace, and why would we be upset that someone disagrees on such an esoteric question? Can’t we all just get along?
If you consider evangelism an unimportant part of Christianity, then maybe the theories don’t much matter. Under each theory, you can hold church, have members, maybe even grow a congregation, and do good works.
But what is the impact of each theory on evangelism? What is the price of each theory in souls?
That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think? None of those theories hurts anyone!
I have to disagree. Let’s take them one at a time.
* The orthodox view certainly pushes hard toward evangelism. If you’re an honest student of history, all the great evangelistic movements were driven by exactly that theory.
* The available light view seems compassionate, since it allows those who’ve never heard the gospel to be saved, but if good people in distant lands are already saved, why spend our fortunes and risk our lives to save them? They’re already saved! Or, at least, some are, and why risk damning the good people by insisting that they accept the gospel?
I guess you could argue that you’ll bring them the blessing of knowing Jesus (truly an incomparable blessing!), but does that blessing justify the risk that most who hear the gospel will be damned?
* With universalism, the desire for evangelism is eliminated entirely. There’s no sense pretending that the typical, good Christian will be motivated to preach Jesus to the already saved — just so they’ll have a better life today. And, in fact, in churches with weak teaching on damnation, I find that the motivation is to do good works, to relieve suffering, but not to preach the gospel.
* The agnostics have the difficulty of expressing a good reason to go to a land where people might or might not be damned. Indeed, that school of thought seems to overlap with the available light theory enough that it would seem literally counterproductive to preach the gospel to the good and honest pagan.
I’m sure those who argue for the unorthodox views have answers to your questions!
I’ve not found them. I mean, it’s easy to argue that we can do a great deal of good without evangelizing, but that argument won’t be persuasive to those of the orthodox view.
Rather than chasing down rationalizations, we should ask the question we began with: Which viewpoint leads to the most good behavior by Christians?
Plainly, the orthodox view — but you’re assuming a lot. And isn’t it enough that preaching Jesus today will provide people with a better understanding of the world, a better example of moral living, and even a better life? Wouldn’t that motivate gospel preaching?
There’s no need to speculate, you know. Those denominations that take unorthodox views of salvation — how effective is their mission work? How many churches do they plant? After all, the truly theological liberal have long rejected any notion of damnation.
Well, you’ve got me there. They are declining rapidly and just don’t do missions very well.
And so it matters. We can’t pretend that this is some small think-and-let-think thing. I would argue that the future of Christianity hinges on this question.
If the orthodox view is right, we need to urge that view so the church will send out missionaries, church planters, and their members to teach the gospel. If not, we can take that energy and do other good — indeed, better — works.