Imagine this story. John does not believe in Jesus. But Jason does. Jason tells John about Jesus, and John is interested.
Jason feels God wants him to get back to John soon, but does not find time to get back to John. John dies without hearing more. What was John’s status before John died? To be saved, did he need more information about Jesus?
Paul Copan asks: “Was his eternal destiny in the hands of [someone] who happened not to respond to an inner prompting? Could it be that God is more interested in a person’s spiritual direction or responsiveness than in his spiritual ‘location’ on a continuum?”
Theistic philosopher Copan does an excellent job of presenting the issues and suggesting answers to the question: what if someone has never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus? The points below are from Copan’s book True for You, But Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith. Read the book for more detail and explanation, especially regarding Copan’s “middle knowledge” position.
Here are the relevant points.
1. God’s desire is that all be saved.
2. All who desire to be saved will have the opportunity to be saved.
3. We can trust that God is loving and just. We can trust that the eternal outcome of every person is in the hands of a loving and just God.
4. Persons who have self-inflicted “transworld depravity” will not want God, or God in Christ. So God is not unjust in applying eternal justice to them; viz., everlasting separation from his presence. (1 Thessalonians 1)
5. God has given persons free will. This is risky. Some will likely freely choose to reject God’s offer of salvation, and his revelation in creation and the moral law within (Romans 1 and 2). As C.S. Lewis wrote, re. this, there are two kinds of persons: one who says to God “Thy will be done,” and one to whom God says “Thy will be done.”
6. If God has middle-knowledge (knowledge of future choices) and knows that John will reject Him in any possible world, then God is not unjust in not presenting John with the opportunity to be saved.
Here are five views on the question "What about those who have never heard?"
1. The Agnostic View.
a. Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer are agnostic on the matter.
b. If God really loves the whole world, and if Christ died for all without exception, and if God commands all to repent, and if God does not want any to perish, “then it follows that his initiating grace, though resistible (Acts 7:51), is directed toward all without exception. This would include the unevangelized.” (Copan)
c. We can trust that God has the question of the unevangelized figured out.
d. Further, God has done so much to reach us all, even to suffer with us in a world filled with evil and misery, that we have good reason to believe the unevangelized are in excellent hands.
e. We can trust that God is loving and just. So God won’t condemn anyone for being born at the wrong time and place (viz., in a time and place where the message of the Gospel of Jesus was not known).
f. God is able to reach people in ways we don’t expect. For example, he can reveal himself – and has done so – through visions or angelic messengers. Copan cites examples of Jesus appearing to Muslims who had never heard of him.
g. In the end we can trust in a good God to do no wrong. “We should not think about the unevangelized apart from God’s character, motives, and good purposes.” (Copan)
2. The Inclusivist (Wider-Hope) View
a. In Romans 2:7 Paul writes: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, [God] will give eternal life.”
b. Could some unevangelized people fit in this category?
c. Inclusivists say: Salvation is exclusive in its source – Christ alone as God’s full, final revelation. Salvation is available to every person – even those the missionary can’t reach.
d. One criticism of this view is that accepting it would diminish missionary zeal. Why bring Christ to the nations if the nations can be saved without hearing of Christ?
e. The inclusivist responds by asking why anyone’s fate should solely depend on evangelists who are not always available and/or faithful?
f. Belief in the sovereignty of God makes us think God will not really leave the destiny of unreached people in the hands of imperfect, fallible missionaries. Can’t God work beyond the boundaries of the gospel’s proclamation and our expectations?
g. What about those in the Old Testament who didn’t know about the historical Jesus and his death and resurrection? “Clearly they were saved on the basis of what Jesus would eventually accomplish (Rom. 3:25; see Acts 17:30).
h. And what about infants and those who are mentally incapable of grasping the gospel message?
i. The inclusivist believes that human beings are guilty and helpless before God, separated from him, and cannot be saved apart from Christ.
j. The inclusivist believes that God wants all to be saved. This seems to imply that he makes salvation available to all.
k. The inclusivist claims that salvation through Jesus’ “name” doesn’t necessarily imply knowing the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth. While Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation, he is not epistemologically necessary.
l. Natural revelation may have a positive role and may be used by God’s Spirit to show the unevangelized their need for him. For example, Romans 1:20 and Romans 2:14-15 may give us two ways persons can be saved without hearing of the Jesus story. Here inclusivists are optimistic about the role of “general revelation” through the creation, and the moral law within each human heart. Millard Erickson, who is not an inclusivist, says: “If they [persons who know about God through his self-revelation in nature (cf. Romans 1:20) but still reject God] are condemnable because they have not trusted God through what they have, it must have been possible somehow to meet this requirement through this means.If not, responsibility and condemnation are meaningless… Perhaps there is room for acknowledging that God alone may know in every case exactly whose faith is sufficient for salvation.” (In Copan)
m. The Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10) seems to be an example of someone who seems to display the working of God’s Spirit and grace in is life.
n. John Stott summarizes the inclusivist argument: “What we do not know, however, is exactly how much knowledge and understanding of the Gospel people need before they can cry to God for mercy and be saved. In the Old Testament, people were certainly “justified by grace through faith,” even though they had little knowledge or no expectation of Christ. Perhaps there are others today in a somewhat similar position. They know they are sinful and guilty before God, and that they cannot do anything to win his favor, so in self-despair they call upon the God they dimly perceive to save them. If God does save such, as many evangelical Christians tentatively believe, their salvation is still only by grace, only by Christ, only by faith.” (In Copan)
Copan presents an argument against the inclusivist position.
a. Inclusivism can blur important distinctions, which can result in disastrous affirmations. For example, some inclusivists hold that Muslims whoa re seeking Allah can be saved.
b. Romans 1 seems to argue against the inclusivist position. Paul has a pessimistic view of humanity’s ability to turn to God because of God’s revelation in nature.
c. There are people who don’t respond to general revelation yet respond to the preaching of the gospel.
d. Inclusivism dampens concern for missions. “It seems doubtful that inclusivism would actually increase evangelistic fervor.”
3. The Accessibilist/Middle Knowledge View
a. God judges the unevangelized based on their response to natural revelation, which his Spirit can use to bring them to salvation. “Natural revelation doesn’t damn anyone without furnishing genuine opportunities to be saved (Romans 2:7) God’s initiative offers them prevenient (“preceding”) grace to respond. All they need to do is humble themselves before him and repent. God is not only just in his judgment, but also gracious in genuinely offering salvation.” (Copan)
b. God can’t make people freely choose to respond to the gospel. “Some might be like NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel, who said, ‘I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’ Indeed, with every new indication of God’s reality, a person might come to resent or hate him even more.”
c. God knows all future possibilities and free choices of human beings, and whoever would want to be saved will find salvation. God knows all truths – even future ones. God knows all possible future events and human choices – what free creatures could do in various circumstance and what world-arrangements are feasible.” For example, Jesus knew (from the Father) that Peter would deny him three times. God knew that Peter would freely choose to deny Christ under certain circumstances.
d. God takes human free will seriously. Copan says: “No one will be condemned as the result of geographical or historical accident, lack of information, or failure of a missionary to “get there.” All who want – or would want – to be saved do find salvation. Those who would always refuse salvation get their way in the end.”
e. Perhaps there’s no feasible world of persons who all freely choose Christ; this God creates a world containing an optimal balance of fewest lost and greatest number saved. Sometimes people ask: “Why didn’t God create world in which everyone freely chose to love him?” But if humans are truly free, then there’s guarantee they will use their free will to love him. Remember that God does not create out of any need. God desires that none perish; he wants us to embrace him and live. Copan writes: “So it’s reasonable to believe that he wants a maximal number of persons saved and a minimal number condemned. He wants his renewed creation – the new heaven and earth – to be as full as possible and hell as empty as possible. The only thing preventing hell’s being completely empty of people is the human will’s resistance to his loving and gracious initiative. God isn’t less loving because some people are condemned for rejecting him. So why couldn’t this world be the one that achieves this optimal balance?”
f. Some persons possess self-inflicted “transworld depravity” or “transworld damnation”; they would have been lost in any world in which they were placed.
g. Missions motivation isn’t diminished, since God has also providentially arranged fort human messengers to bring the gospel to those he knew would accept it if they heard it.
h. Some individuals may seem “so close” to salvation in the actual world without finding it. But perhaps this actual world is the very nearest the transworldly depraved ever come to salvation.
My two books are
Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.
Leading the Presence-Driven Church
I am now writing Transformation: How God Changes the Human Heart.