Daniel Strange, in his monograph The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelised, defines the “unevangelized” as “any person in history who has lived and died without hearing and understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ from a human messenger.” As Strange notes, this would seem to include at least four groups of people: (1) children who died in infancy and those mentally unable to respond to the gospel; (2) those who lived prior to the time of Christ and thus before the formulation known as “the gospel”; (3) those who have been presented with a less-than-adequate version of the gospel; and (4) those who have not received a presentation of the gospel, such as because they lived in a geographically remote area.It is not our purpose here to deal with the first question (although important) which is not directly addressed in Scripture. Regarding individuals in the other three categories, we may draw the following conclusions from our study of the gospel in the Old Testament, the Gospels, the book of Acts, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament.
(1) The gospel is God’s saving message to a world living in darkness and a humanity lost in its sin. The gospel is not a human message, nor was its conception a function of human initiative, but its origin and its impetus derive solely from God. For this reason our role with regard to the gospel is not that of evaluation, criticism or reformulation, but that of grateful acceptance and obedience. Humans are not equal partners with God as far as the gospel message is concerned; they are rather his commissioned representatives, charged with proclaiming the gospel in the exact form in which they received it (e.g., Jn 17:20; 20:21; 1 Cor 15:3-4).
(2) Acceptance of the gospel is not optional for salvation but rather required, owing to pervasive human sinfulness. As the Book of Hebrews states, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”; “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time … to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb 9:27-28). Apart from believing in Jesus Christ, “God’s wrath remains” on people (Jn 3:36), and they are spiritually dead (Jn 5:24; Eph 2:1). People must be “born of God” (Jn 1:12; 3:3, 5; 1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), that is, be spiritually regenerated (Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3). As Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians, “[a]nd you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit …” (Eph 1:13). Inclusion in Christ comes only by hearing and believing the gospel.
(3) The gospel is not vaguely theological, as if it were amenable to various ways of salvation depending on a person’s belief in a particular kind of god, or depending on the degree to which people were able to hear the gospel presented in a clear way; it is decidedly and concretely Christological, that is, centered on the salvation provided through the vicarious cross-death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence Paul is able to speak of “the gospel … regarding his [God’s] Son … Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:2-4). Significantly, this gospel is not a New Testament novelty but was “promised beforehand through his [God’s] prophets [such as Habakkuk, Rom 1:17 citing Hab 2:4] in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2). Abraham already had resurrection faith (Rom 4; Gal 3; Heb 11:8-12).
(4) The messianic motif pervading all of Scripture and centering in the Lord Jesus Christ coupled with the risen Jesus’ “Great Commission” for his followers to go and disciple the nations inextricably link an understanding of the gospel as the exclusive message of salvation in Jesus Christ with the Church’s mandate to engage in missionary outreach. This is clear especially from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John, the book of Acts, and several of Paul’s writings. Conversely, any messages proclaimed in the name of Christ that feature a “different gospel” or a different Christ (such as compromising his simultaneous full humanity and deity, e.g. 1 John 4:2-3) are rejected. The church must engage in missions, because “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). If anyone confesses with his mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead, he will be saved (Rom 10:9; see also vv. 10-13).
(5) In light of the clear biblical passages examined above, and in light of the strong and pervasive trajectory of references to the gospel throughout Scripture, there seems no proper biblical foundation on which to argue for the salvation of anyone on a basis other than explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture makes clear that humanity is universally sinful, and that God’s wrath remains on every individual who has not placed his or her trust in Jesus Christ on the basis of his substitutionary death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. While there may be philosophical or larger theological objections to such a notion (such as the difficulty experienced by some of reconciling this notion with the love of God), while there may be commonsense concerns on the basis of human conceptions or “fairness” or other similar considerations, there can be little doubt that Scripture nowhere teaches, or easily allows the implication, that there is a way to salvation other than through explicit faith in Jesus Christ during a person’s lifetime (e.g., Heb 9:27-28). In fact, this is not an obscure topic; it is the central contention of the biblical message concerning the gospel, that “[s]alvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
NOTE: The above post is an adaptation of the conclusion of my essay “The Gospel for All Nations,” published in Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 201-19.
FOR FURTHER STUDY:
Daniel Strange, The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelised: An Analysis of Inclusivism in Recent Evangelical Theology (Paternoster Biblical and Theological Monographs; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001); David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), Chapter 2: “Restrictivism and Inclusivism: Is This Missions Trip Really Necessary?”; and Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A biblical theology of mission (NSBT 11; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001).