While I was preparing this week to be on a panel for the discussion of theological issues I came across a very difficult question that pushed me to spend some time solidifying my own doctrine on a certain issue. The question came from a student in our youth group: "How can a person who has never been exposed to the gospel (through no fault of his own) be expected to come to a saving knowledge of Christ?" This simple question has been discussed for centuries and divided denominations since the first denomination was formed. Dr. Ken Keathley, now a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary wrote an interesting work on this very question. His paper delineates the differences between the three schools of thought on the issue presented. The excerpt presented below is from his paper titled, "None Dare Call it Treason: Is an Inclusivist a Paul Revere or a Benedict Arnold?" appearing in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 No. 2.
"Exclusivism holds that an explicit response of repentance and faith to the preaching of the Gospel is necessary for salvation. Until recently, this has been the dominant position of the church and still is the majority position in conservative evangelical circles. Pluralism looks upon the non-Christian religions as alternative and valid venues for the salvific work of God. Unlike the classic liberal of times past, the pluralist does not see the various religions as expressions of the same religious impulse, but as unique systems in their own right, believing there should be no attempt to reconcile or judge between the competing truth claims. Offered by its proponents as a mediating position, inclusivism posits that even though the work of Christ is the only means of salvation, it does not follow that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary in order for one to be saved. In contrast to pluralism, inclusivism agrees with exclusivism in affirming the particularity of salvation in Jesus Christ. But unlike exclusivism, inclusivism holds that an implicit faith response to general revelation can be salvific. God expects from man a response proportional to the light given. Saving faith is not characterized so much by its cognitive content as it is by its reverent quality. Perhaps pluralists are the most fond of the threefold taxonomy since the terms cast them in the most positive light. This should not be surprising since the pluralist Alan Race coined the terms."
So in light of this article here is my response to the question posed by our student.
Paul was very clear that mankind has no excuse for its sinful state. He reminds us that God has revealed Himself to us through natural revelation (Rom. 1:20) and thus we cannot plead ignorance in our sinful state. So knowing this, what happens to those who die never having heard the Gospel? Let’s first examine Christ’s command to all of us as believers. He commands us to go out to preach the Gospel message to all people everywhere (Matt. 28:19-20). Paul then has the same concerns that we do in Rom.10:14-17. How will people believe unless they hear the Gospel message? This should spur all of us on to spread the Gospel wherever we are. As to the fate of that person who lived 1,000 years ago who did not hear the Gospel message. What happens to that person? First we must remember that God works in incredible ways, so we can in no way pass judgment on someone’s salvation. We know not the absolute destination of any one person. What we do know is that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ so consequently if someone doesn’t believe in Him then he or she will not be saved from the wrath of God for his sin and will go to Hell. Many times we get so concerned with that man or woman who lived 1,000 years ago who may or may not have been saved while our friends or neighbors who we see every day most certainly do not have a relationship with Jesus. We all have so much work to do.
What are your thoughts on this topic?