What of Those Who Never Hear?
What of Those Who Never Hear?
For different reasons, some will never hear the gospel in this life, and as a result, they will never have a chance to respond to the gospel.
Setting the Stage: Where We Were
To get at the answer to this question, though, it helps to begin with context. The early church was born into a pluralistic world. Polytheism was the norm. And even before the church was born, the Israelites had dealt with polytheism for well over a millennia. So, when Jesus makes the claim that he is the only way of salvation, and when Paul and other Christian leaders write letters to various church bodies to stand firm in this truth, there is not a gray area. The question for the early church wasn’t one of understanding what to do, but was instead about having the fortitude to follow through and do the right thing.
As the church grew, it spread out geographically. Not only that, but it proved to have a special kind of resilience. Islam, which would bloom several centuries later was precipitated on tribalism and violence. But Christianity’s growth was based on humility and peace. In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine saw the political advantages of this and used Christianity as a kind of glue to keep his fragmenting empire together. This ushered in what has become known as Christendom. Christianity was not only becoming the predominant religion, it was also becoming enmeshed within the legal system, too. Heads of church were now becoming heads of state and vice versa. What began as a religion based around Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” became, in part, a center of power. As a result, when a part of Christendom conquered new lands, it brought with it not only its political rule, but its religious rule, too. Many conquered people adopted the label “Christian” because their conquering nation was Christian, not because they personally decided to follow Christ. Of course, along the way, there were still many true followers of Christ, both in leadership and among the people. But these dynamics, how Christianity spread and then became the dominant way of life in Western Europe, are helpful to understand where we are today.
At this point, it is important to frame this picture by remembering something almost too obvious to note: During all of this, the internet had not yet been invented. Travel to a foreign land was both dangerous and costly. And very often it was a one-way trip. It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth century, during the Industrial Revolution, that the interconnected world we know today began to take shape. This factor helps us understand why the church made some of the decisions it did. For instance, when we look back at the great work done by the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with their dedicated emphasis on God’s Word as being prominent in the Christian life, it may seem odd that most of them, by and large, did not give much emphasis to passages like the Great Commission. Today, beside John 3:16, Matthew 28:18-20 is one of the most popular passages among evangelicals. The last thing Jesus does before leaving his disciples is to commission them to pick up where he left off. This seems like quite a significant oversight of the Reformers and the earlier church.
I have glossed over quite a bit of history in the last few paragraphs, and so perhaps that last point was not fair. The point is not to criticize the Reformers, but to paint a picture of why their conclusions made sense for them in their time. The Reformers were coming out a thousand years of Christendom. To their knowledge, most of the world had already been reached. In other words, the primary work of the church was no longer to reach the heathen who’s never heard the name Jesus, but to convert their Christian neighbor to biblical, saving faith.
So, what does this have to do with the question of those who have never heard? To the committed evangelical, some form of exclusivism would seem to be the obvious answer. That is, unless a person hears (or reads) the gospel, repents, and specifically chooses to follow Jesus with their life, that person will not be saved. This, after all, is the clear teaching of Scripture. Why then do so many Christians today posit inclusivism or pluralism over exclusivism as viable options to this question of the unevangelized? Theologian James Beilby (an exclusivist who opts for a postmortem opportunity) explains this tension well. For him, part of his story of coming back to faith “was a belief that there might be an answer to the question of the destiny of the unevangelized.” That there are people who didn’t have the opportunity to make a choice to follow Jesus was a deeply vexing and emotional problem for him (as it is for many others). And, it should be noted, exclusivists do have an answer to this question. But it was not one Beilby could accept. And so is the tension for many today. From the time of the Industrial Revolution to now, the connectivity of the world seems to have increased exponentially. To put it pointedly, it’s no longer possible to avoid the vast number of those heading (and who have already gone) to Hell. Many of which, by all appearances, have never heard the gospel.
An Expanded Menu: More Solutions
As I alluded to above, to paint the range of answers as only exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, at this point would no longer be an honest evaluation of the landscape. There are other positions, as well as nuanced positions of these listed.
One such option is universalism. This is the belief that in the end all will be saved, or, at the very least, annihilated. Some form of universalism has been creeping into Christian theology since at least the third century. Michael McClymond has written an excellent history of universalism. In short, universalism fails to be a viable answer to the question of the unevangelized, because all throughout the Bible we see the opposite picture (cf. Rom. 2:6-16; Matt. 25:31-46; John 3:18, 36, etc.). We see those who choose to follow God and be restored to him, and those who choose to remain in their rebellion and stay enemies of him. Another option, postmortem opportunity, is unique in that it often functions as a modifier of other views. For instance, one can claim a form of postmortem opportunity while still being an exclusivist, or an inclusivist; and, while not as popular, it can also work for some forms of pluralism, too. Some versions of postmortem opportunity can square with a biblically minded exclusivist, if they are willing to allow for some postmortem, pre-judgement option. While Beilby makes an excellent case for postmortem opportunity, the problem is that it is largely an argument from silence. Maybe it is true. But the Bible does not speak to us about that.
The broad labels I’ve been using for “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” are just that, broad. The actual positions are more nuanced. And the differences are important. Considering first exclusivism; the most popular versions are church exclusivism, gospel exclusivism, and special revelation exclusivism. The first, church exclusivism, is the belief that if you’re not on a physical church’s roll, then you won’t be on the heavenly roll “up yonder.” This has traditionally been the position of the Roman Catholic church, but it has roots as far back as the third century. The biggest problem with this view is that it adds an additional requirement to salvation (namely, that some part of the church must acknowledge a person’s status for them to be saved). Next, gospel exclusivism is an option more familiar to most evangelicals. Succinctly put, it is the view that if one does not hear the gospel and respond to it, then that person will not be saved. Specifically, this “hearing” must come from a human messenger. Finally, the last main exclusivist option is special revelation exclusivism. This extends the idea of gospel exclusivism, but instead of requiring one to hear the gospel from a human, any method God chooses is sufficient (e.g., angel, dream, etc.). What all forms of exclusivism have in common is the conscious, personal commitment a person makes to Christ. This and the ensuing repentance results in salvation.
Turning now to inclusivism we have two primary varieties: General revelation inclusivists and world religion inclusivists. Of the first type, John Sanders was a leading proponent. The idea here is that Christ’s work is still just as ontologically valid as it is with exclusivists. And, unlike universalists, not everyone will be saved. But according to the general revelation inclusivist, not everyone needs to hear or even know Christ to be saved. Instead, those who are sincere in their pursuits of higher things will have the opportunity to respond to God’s general revelation when special revelation is not available. World religions inclusivists swap out the general revelation component for other actual religions. So, a Hindu who genuinely worships Lord Vishnu, believing with all his heart that he is following the truth, will one day be counted among the righteous by God. In the twentieth century, Roman Catholicism adopted a form of this view, calling it the “Anonymous Christian.” The famous apologist C.S. Lewis was also a world religions inclusivist.
While inclusivists are consistent with exclusivists ontologically, the big difference is epistemic: How much does one have to know to become a Christian? Mostly, this conversation takes place when considering those who die without ever having the opportunity to hear the gospel. There is also a subtle difference between exclusivists and inclusivists in the terms used for salvation. Most exclusivists will describe salvation as something like a “relationship with Jesus,” and while many inclusivists do agree that that relationship will eventually happen, they tend to focus on salvation as “being saved.” This subtle wording makes the inclusivist’s claims that one doesn’t need to know Jesus to become his follower seem less strange.
Exegetically, exclusivism has the superior position. Jesus tells us clearly, the road to life is narrow while the path to destruction is wide (Matt 7:14). Few inclusivists, universalists, or pluralists will begin with a direct, biblical case. Instead, many begin with a problem, such as how a good and loving God would send some to Hell who never even had the chance to choose or reject him. It’s from this point, or one similar to it, that most will reason backward into a biblical case.
The final position here to discuss is pluralism. It’s hard to really call this Christian, though there are plenty of pluralists who self-identify as Christian. Added to that, pluralism isn’t a single category but a collection of various opinions and beliefs. To summarize, though, pluralism is a bit like “what’s good for you, is okay with me.” John Hick, a leading proponent, sees different faith traditions learning from each other. None are right or wrong, to the exclusion of the others. But instead, they are each ways of touching into “The Real,” as he calls it. In the case of Hick, his view of religion is mostly just a form of Buddhism. Perhaps the biggest problem of pluralism in general is that it struggles to take serious the conflicting truth claims in various religions. If Christianity proposes itself to be the only way, then, logically, other ways cannot also be true.
A Working Framework for the Exclusivist
So, is it morally wrong for God to send to Hell those who have never even heard of him? On the one hand, we know that “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23), and so all are guilty before God. God has no obligation, moral or otherwise, to save any of us. The fact that he saves some of us is both his prerogative and his grace. It is important to remember this from the start. In the abstract, this is not so difficult to accept. But when you know and love someone who has rejected God, and when you contemplate what awaits them after death, what may have begun as a distant, intellectual discussion now becomes deep and personal. And, further, when that person is your own child, the feelings that come with this reality can be downright crushing. But still, in this scenario, as much as we may wish it weren’t the case, these loved ones have rejected God. And beneath the feeling, there’s a logic to it. Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine people in other countries who’ve never heard of Jesus. People who are just as precious to someone else as our own loved ones are to us. These are not IMB statistics. These are real people with unique personalities and passions and senses of humor.
The question floating just below the surface is: How is that fair? But we must be careful here. If we truly take God at his word that “no one is righteous” (Rom. 3:10), then the goodness we see in people is not their goodness as much as it is the goodness of their creator. The love we feel for others does not somehow exempt them from judgment, but instead shows us the picture of a creator who was willing to take their (and our) place. A principal confusion in the question of the destiny of the unevangelized is the place of God relative to man. He’s not merely above man in his value and worth, as if him and us are different degrees of the same thing. No, he is categorically different from us.
This still leaves the question of why a loving God — one who would become one of us and take our punishment on our behalf —would still allow for some to never even get the opportunity to accept his grace. But if we know that some will reject him, and if, say, we even know that most will reject him (cf. Jesus’ warning in Matt 7), then what if God, who knows all and is sovereign over all, organizes the world in such a way that all who do accept him will have the chance to hear, and then, as a counterpart to that, none of those who don’t have a chance to accept him would if they did?
This is a version of Molinism that uses God’s middle knowledge. Natural knowledge consists of everything that is logically possible, or all that could happen. Free knowledge is all that will actually happen. And placed (logically) in between these two is middle knowledge, or what would happen. An example of middle knowledge would be the counterfactual: If I step out into the road, I will be hit by an oncoming car. I will avoid stepping out into the road, and so that scenario will not happen. But it would have happened if I’d made other choices. God knows what choice I would have made. And while that scenario would not be too hard to predict, God in his infinite knowledge knows all of the choices I would have made — even the ones that are not obvious to me or anyone else.
A key follow-up question to this is: Is the concept of God’s middle knowledge biblical? Of course, not everything needs to be biblical if it is logically consistent with biblical principles. But in the case of God’s middle knowledge, it is fair to say yes, it is biblical. We see many examples of these in Scripture, framed in what are called counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are if-then conditionals. Jesus said, “if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, [then] their people would have repented of their sins long ago…” (Matt 11:21). Tyre and Sidon did not witness his miracles and so they did not repent. But if they had, then God using his middle knowledge knew they would have repented. Similarly in the Old Testament, God gives his people a test to determine if someone is speaking on his behalf. “If the prophet speaks in the LORD’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, [then] you will know that the LORD did not give that message” (Deut. 18:22).
The issue of the unevangelized is not a simple one, not because Scripture is not clear about it, but, often, because it is an emotionally difficult topic. People are not cattle, and so there is some value to life. But people also are not God, infinitely good and worthy, and so it’s equally wrong to hold God accountable to his creation. Yet, we also know that God loved us so much that he became one of us and took our place, dying for our sins, so that we can be restored with him. In the case of those who never hear the gospel, how do we rectify these two concepts of God’s holiness and God’s love for his creation? The answer is found in a version of Molinism, by using God’s middle knowledge. Thoroughly biblical, this concept helps us frame the question of the unevangelized, by retaining both God’s sovereignty for all things and his love for all people.
 For the purposes of this paper, Exclusivism is defined as anyone who hears (or reads) the Gospel and decides to turn from their rebellion and follow Jesus’ way. Inclusivism maintains the saving work of Jesus but removes the need for a person to personally know Jesus or even know about him. Pluralism knocks down the barrier and acknowledges that both Christianity and other religions can be salvific. There is more nuance to each of these positions; here I am only giving a broad overview.
 James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2021), 2.
 Michael McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018).