What I’m trying to say is, should we presume either salvation or condemnation for the non-believer (who has not heard) with regard to a judgment that has not yet taken place and in the absence of incontrovertible clear specific scripture?
We should presume nothing. We should study the scriptures to learn what they reveal. And we should not avert our eyes from the hard texts, imagining that we can come up with a form of Christianity better than God’s own.
Or just tell the Story of Christ indiscriminately like a sower who has no compunction to stop sowing no matter what kind of soil lies beneath?
You are, you know, changing the subject. Indeed, the understanding I teach is the understanding that has driven mission works across the globe for 2,000 years! Of course, we must tell the Story of Christ! Absolutely! But this is hardly the obvious conclusion to draw from a theory that suggests those separated from Jesus might be saved without knowing Jesus.
About 100 years ago, many within the Mainline denominations began teaching that the lost aren’t really lost because God is too good to damn people ignorant of Jesus — and their mission work died. And now their denominations are dying.
The mainline establishment sees a Third World with churches everywhere as no longer a “mission field” in the classic sense. The planting of churches throughout the world has now been achieved. The relativism and tolerance of a liberal world view now demand a kind of respect for non-Christian religions which precludes overt attempts to evangelize among them. Evangelism, as such, is low among liberal priorities anyway.
Richard Hutcheson, “Crisis in Overseas Mission: Shall We Leave It to the Independents?” Christian Century (March 18, 1981,) pp. 290-296.
They re-created God in their own image and found a God who was much, much easier to obey. “Social justice” stopped being about Jesus and began to be about making this world a better place by the power of human ingenuity. They built a kingdom, but not God’s Kingdom.
Now, we have a nation filled with people who see government as savior, taxes as tithes, and welfare as salvation. And even conservative evangelicals often seek to save the world by the power of the United States Congress. We are worshiping the wrong god — and as a matter of history, part of what has secularized American Christianity is the loss of evangelistic zeal that has accompanied more inclusive theologies.
(This is a buttressing argument. The merits of “available light” depend on Scripture, not experience. But experience tells us why it’s important to have this conversation.)
It’s hard to submit to a theology that teaches damnation to those who’ve never heard of Jesus, because that means that we’ll see in hell people who are more righteous than we, while we enjoy the delights of heaven. It’s a deeply disturbing thought.
We can react, as the hyper-Calvinists do, and declare ourselves the elect and the rest of the world damned by God’s choice. That is, we can blame God.
We can react, as the Mainlines do, and absolve our guilt by pretending that God will save the lost despite our failures — diminishing the sacrifice of Jesus and contradicting the story of Acts and shaming the martyrs. We can blame the Fundamentalists for being judgmental, while we sit back and watch the world go to hell.
Or we can regain the passion of the apostles and the other martyrs for Jesus. We can recognize our role in God’s Cosmic Plan. We are to be image-bearers, proclaimers of Good News, and priests who serve at God’s temple by imploring the lost to come in and be sacrificed along with us.
Indeed, our role is that of the servant in this story —
(Luk 14:23-24 ESV) 23 “And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'”
We’re the servant! We are to go to the highways and hedges. We therefore should cope with the awful news that many people just as good as — if not better than — us will be damned, by getting busy proclaiming the good news.
Yes, God hosts a banquet open to all — but in his wisdom, he’s decided that it’s our job to carry his invitation.
It’s easy to get mad at God for being so foolish as to trust the likes of us. It’s easy to imagine that we aren’t ultimately responsible, because God will do our job for us if we’d rather not bother. But that’s all denial. It’s just not true. It’s not what the Bible says. It’s not how the early church lived.
I completely agree that anyone who has not heard the gospel is in danger of judgment going against them. But, by the way, so are we believers if we hear and fall and reject. There is power in the Story and the promise within it to transform lives and begin the process of salvation right here and now in this life. Yet is that power categorically denied to those who have not heard?
“Is that power categorically denied to those who have not heard?” Yes.
Ultimately, we struggle to see the lost as deserving their fate. Everyone deserves damnation, but damnation is a destruction that is finite and fair. God is just.
And we struggle to accept the free gift we’ve received. We want to feel that we deserve it. We don’t want to feel privileged. But we don’t deserve it, and we are privileged. Faith in Jesus, as central as that is to Christianity, doesn’t merit salvation.
We are chosen. We are elect. We are loyal subjects of the King. No one else is. But anyone else can be. We need only extend the invitation to join God’s Great Banquet.
My views are boringly traditional. And there are very, very smart people whom I greatly respect who disagree with me. I’ve corresponded with some of them, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing case.
Most argue from Romans 2, but Romans 2 is written to demonstrate the truth of Romans 3 —
(Rom 3:9-18 ESV) 9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Which then builds to —
(Rom 3:21-25 ESV) 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
We dare not interpret Romans 2 to say, “Some haven’t fallen short of the glory of God.” Or “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe in love or goodness or Mohammad.” Just believe in something that’s kind of spiritual-ish.
We dare not empty “faith” of the object of faith. To do so is to dethrone Jesus and declare that there are other kings who can also save. We all serve somebody. If it’s not Jesus, it’s the wrong king.
Nor may we declare that Jesus saves those without faith in him, but who are really good people (works salvation) or who believe in something divine (you know, like the Greeks Paul preached Jesus to or the Jews Peter preached to). The idea that faith can be divorced from Jesus is all very much in line with an existential, 20th Century liberal theology that finds salvation in a purely individualized “faith” rather than in an objectively real Jesus of Nazareth. It’s not remotely Christian. It is very Western, very American.
And that’s much of what frustrates me in these conversations. No one seems to want to talk about the Bible. Rather, we assume that the Bible is silent and then fill the silence with philosophies that are utterly foreign to the Scriptures. We become functional Unitarian-Universalists and start looking down our noses at Christians who disagree with us for being “judgmental.” We pull out all the “no judging” verses, and pound the opposition for daring to make a judgment — oblivious to our own judgmental, condescension. I do not enjoy such discussions. I have trouble not getting angry.
On the other hand, when people talk about the Bible, even if we disagree, I enjoy the discussions immensely. Such conversations push me deeper into the text. Rather than pushing me to worship a vague and unrevealed god, they push me to see God more clearly — and I always delight in whom I find.
Can someone go to heaven and yet believe that some who’ve never heard of Jesus will be saved? Yes, if they are in submission to Jesus as Lord. Yes, if they submit to his revealed word —
(1Jo 4:6 ESV) 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
It’s an mistake that’s not outside of grace. But it’s a mistake.
However, for those among us who argue from condescension, who refuse to submit their views to the scriptures, well, they have no business being teachers among the faithful and should not be given a platform to spread their man-made speculations.
(2Ti 2:23 ESV) 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.
Good, righteous, holy Christians can disagree about the Scriptures — provided they submit to Jesus as Lord and allow themselves to stand under the judgment of the Scriptures. Those who consider their opinions more meritorious than the Scriptures have no place in the church’s teaching ministry or leadership.