Gospel & Culture blog
We get off track when the question is framed (by skeptics) like this: “Would God really send people to hell because they have never heard or had a chance to accept the gospel?” This is a straw man argument. Neither the Bible nor church fathers have ever taught that failure to believe is the infraction that condemns people to hell. The Bible teaches that all people are deserving of hell, and headed there with certainty, because of their own sinfulness (Rom 3:23). Yet surprisingly, Vatican II reified this straw man argument, by asking about the fate of some who “through no fault of their own” but by simple bad luck of being born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, “without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but strive to live a good life” (Abbott, 1966, p. 35). Vatican II seems to have forgotten that it is not the rejection of the gospel or lack of hearing it that condemns people; it is their sinful state that condemns them. Hearing the gospel allows them an opportunity to be saved (Rom 10:9-10).
The debate over the fate of the lost never seems to progress, because it is not really about the fate of the lost. While evangelicals are supremely concerned about the fate of the lost, those with a more liberal hermeneutic see discussions about evangelism and hell as outdated or triumphalist. Theologians who do not believe in supernatural revelation (and therefore, do not believe in divine commands or sin as the breaking of those commands), obviously are not spending time pondering, “How can one be saved?” for there is nothing to be saved from. Therefore the “fate of the lost” debate is about much deeper issues like the nature of religious truth, the source of religious knowledge, and the underlying problem with humankind. So a conversation about the fate of the lost is only possible for those who already agree that humanity stands in judgment before God because of sin. It is really just a question for evangelicals. Nonetheless, three broad theological camps - universalists, inclusivists and exclusivists - have addressed this question.
Exclusivists hold that people must have explicit faith in Christ to be forgiven for their depravity. They consider special revelation (which we access today in canonical texts) to be the only certain source of religious knowledge. The “noetic effects” of the fall have rendered general revelation (as God may be known through nature or rational thought) as incomplete, cursed, and subject to decay (Spencer 1991).
Historically, exclusivism has been the normative Christian understanding of salvation, from Augustine onward. But astute critics may point out that if Augustine found it necessary to debunk universalism and annihilationism, then both of those interpretations were in fact being argued in the fourth century.
Note that exclusivists do not hold their position because they are jerks or are “holier than thou.” They begin with the presupposition that there is a supernatural world, so miracles like the miracle of specific revelation are possible. If God can communicate, then it is possible that He did indeed reveal Himself through the events recorded in the OT and finally through his Son as recorded in the NT. And His Son said that He is the only way (John 14:6). God’s miraculously-revealed word also says that there is no other way by which people can be saved (Acts 4:12). The more certain one becomes the Bible is God’s accurate communication to humankind, the more certain they are that Jesus is the only mediator between humans and God (1 Tim 2:5).
Crockett (1991) argues that exclusivism was endemic to the first century Palestinian worldview. Paul’s language reinforced a social boundary (p. 162), and Jews would not have conceived of pagans as part of this community. “The exclusive claim is not a footnote to the gospel; it is the gospel itself” (Peters, 1986, p. 147). In fact, one of the major points in Chris Wright’s (2006) theology of mission is that the prophets railed on idolatry because it thwarts God’s mission: God’s mission is to make Himself known, and idolatry obscures him. This is of missiological significance because the world’s religions are examples of idolatry: trusting in that which we 1) want, 2) fear, and 3) need. If idolatry is this bad, we cannot settle for a missiological theology that resorts merely to interfaith dialog.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor