What About Those Who’ve Never Heard of Jesus? Would a chance even after death change anything?

When it comes to the question of the eternal state of those who’ve never heard of Jesus, at last three views have gained attention over the years, all of which entail Christ’s redemptive work.

1. Good works release Christ’s benefits.

2. The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ.

3. People will get a chance to receive Christ after death.

Let’s take a brief look at these views, though there are others.*

1. Good works release Christ’s benefits:

Evangelicals believe Christ’s redemptive work is the basis for man’s pardon and right standing before God. Notwithstanding, some evangelicals maintain that those who by no fault of their own never hear the gospel can be justified apart from faith in Christ. The work of Christ is necessary for salvation but because one cannot possibly believe in a Savior who remains unknown to them, there can be no faith by which the benefits of Christ’s saving work can be appropriated. Consequently, something other than faith in Christ is needed to release the benefits of the Christ. By framing one’s life according to the light of nature, it’s believed the un-evangelized can be saved. (Roman Catholicism teaches a similar view.)

There are many exegetical and theological problems with such a view, not the least of which is man’s depravity. Given that (a) without the grace of faith it is impossible to please God, and (b) unregenerate man can do no spiritual good – we are correct to infer that works of the flesh cannot be looked upon with divine favor. (Hebrews 11:6; WCF 16.7) Since the flesh profits nothing, we simply cannot righteously frame our lives according to the light of nature. (John 6:63) Apropos, even the good works unbelievers perform are a fruit of sinful passions that seek respectability and enlightened self-interest, not God’s glory and Fatherly approval. Consequently, framing our lives according to the light of nature apart from regeneration cannot result in divine favor and the reward of Christ’s redemption no matter how magnanimous the rewarder.

2. The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ:

This invites the question of whether regeneration unto union with Christ and all his saving benefits ever occurs apart from the ministry of the Word. In other words, since the works of the flesh can only accuse one who remains outside of Christ, might we expect that where the gospel has not been preached the Holy Spirit operatively unites some people to Christ and all his saving benefits without self-consciousness?

In response to this proposal, Scripture informs that we receive the rebirth through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) Moreover, it is God’s will that fallen sinners are brought forth into the new creation by the word of truth. (James 1:18) Consequently, the Word-Spirit principle doesn’t bode well for hope of union with Christ apart from saving faith in Christ.

We’re not out of the woods yet. We must reconcile the promise to elect covenant children who die out of season with the promise to the elect who are afar off.

Although it is normative that the Holy Spirit works life by giving increase to the intelligible gospel, we may not dismiss salvific hope for the un-evangelized in a way that would undermine the salvation of elect infants dying in infancy. In other words, if elect infants dying in infancy are regenerate and united to Christ apart from cognizant faith, then why can’t unreached people groups be saved in the same way as infants? We must do justice to the hypothetical. May we expect that God sometimes unites to Christ those outside the covenant community apart from the ministry of the Word?

Given their cognitive limitations, infants of the faithful cannot be born again by means of the Spirit granting increase to a gospel message that is intelligible to them. Notwithstanding, we have biblical precedent to regard children of the faithful as God’s heritage in Christ. (CoD 1.17; WCF 10.3) Consequently, the Reformed tradition rightly maintains that God may be pleased to regenerate covenant children, those incapable of being called, and elect infants who die in infancy apart from them ever understanding the gospel and exercising saving faith. (2 Samuel 12:23; Psalm 103:17,18; Luke 1:15;41; CoD 1.17; WCF 10.3)

However, there is no biblical precedent whatsoever that suggests the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the cognitively mature that are providentially outside the orbit of gospel ministry. Moreover, it’s not merely pure speculation that some who abide in unreached lands ever live regenerate lives – the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten would seem to settle the matter. Scripture alone must set our boundaries of expectation. God reaches the nations with the gospel. (Acts 18:10; Mt: 28:19,20)

3. People will get a chance to receive Christ after death:

Other evangelicals believe that faith in Christ alone is necessary for salvation but that those who of no fault of their own never hear the gospel can nonetheless be saved, but not by their good works! It is believed that Christ will be offered to the unreached after death. The rationale is grounded in God’s love for sinners and a subjective sense of fairness.

Such a position is decidedly undermined because it has been appointed for a man once to die and then the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) And as before, the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten precludes any other means of salvation for the nations other than God calling sinners to Christ through the preaching of the gospel between Christ’s two advents.

What’s behind such speculation?

What is perhaps most intriguing in all of this are the theological assumptions that seem to underpin such speculation. Since exegetical arguments don’t always persuade, we might want to consider briefly some of those assumptions in a more general way.

Would God be unjust or unloving to judge each one according to his works even if Christ is not preached to all?

Do all people deserve a salvific lifeline, or does the meaning of grace dispel such a notion?

Is there reason not to believe that God has seen fit to ensure that all who would believe (by grace) will be reached with the gospel in this life? My focus is on Calvinists. How biblically sensible is it to believe in unconditional election but not the ordained means of reaching those who have been chosen in Christ?

Let’s assume a free offer of the gospel after death. Would it make a difference?

To reject the gospel is to deny its prophetic validity. Those who do so, do so willfully. They suppress the impending judgment and scorn God’s redemptive love for sinners. They put off in disbelief their only hope in this life and the next. Whereas we who embrace the Savior are as unworthy as they. Some receive grace; others receive justice.

With our Calvinism in place, let’s push the mental reset button and imagine a depraved sinner who has never heard of Christ yet is offered salvation for the first time as he gazes into the fiery abyss, standing before Christ seated on a great white throne. Surely the truth of the gospel couldn’t be made plainer! Just imagine the scene. From the face of Christ both the earth and heaven have fled away. There is no place to hide. All men and women, boys and girls who were ever conceived are now at once standing before Christ on his throne. Imagine further all those who never heard of Jesus being given not an alter call but a call to the visible throne of God. Before the great white throne all who’ve never heard of Jesus are given a chance to receive the same Christ who was already freely offered in the gospel to all the rest.

If such a vivid and profound gospel invitation is warranted for those who for no fault of their own never heard the gospel, then given such an exceedingly more persuasive display of the message of repent or perish, would it not be “fair” for all to have a chance such as this? In other words, if it can be somehow deemed unfair, or out of character for God, not to give everyone a chance to receive Christ, how would it be fair not to give each person this same vivid offer and advantage to receive the Savior? In other words, would it be fair to grant some the sight of heaven and hell while others are only presented in this life the gospel in words, perhaps even badly through an impersonal gospel tract? Indeed, if the unreached are given such a chance as this to receive the Savior not by faith but by sight, then might it be more loving not to preach Christ at all so that all might benefit from such an extraordinary opportunity? After all, what would be more convincing, (a) Jesus on the throne and hell itself yawing before the unbeliever, or (b) the gospel declared by even the best of human preachers?

Back to our Calvinism:

Given the theology of electing grace, there is no more persuasive power to save vis-à-vis the experiential visual of the final judgement than there is when redeemed sinners share the good news of Christ with far less urgency at a coffee shop. It’s God who persuades, not circumstances.

Are we even asking the right question?

The question at hand is will the gospel be offered after death? Let’s contextualize the question within biblical Calvinism.

There will be no more suppression of many gospel truths at the final judgement. The incarnation along with the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ will no longer be denied in unrighteousness. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus is Lord, all to the glory of God the Father. Moreover, we can expect that every person will cry out for mercy on that great and terrible day! Yet what I think is sometimes overlooked is that there’s a significant difference between crying out “have mercy on me” and contritely crying out “have mercy on me a sinner.” The first cry is of one who repudiates God’s just sentence against him. Whereas the second cry for mercy is from one who has been sovereignly granted the grace of repentance and faith.

So, with respect to those like Tim Keller and James Beilby who tenderly hold out hope for the unreached in this way, what do they think might occur? The only plea for mercy that will gain God’s attention is one in which God sovereignly grants repentance. So, the question we should be asking is not whether Christ will be offered at the judgement, but is there reason to believe that God will be pleased to convert at the judgment those who are still defying him? Perhaps more strikingly put, will God be drawing unconverted elect persons to himself after death while leaving other unconverted souls in their sin?

If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus tells us anything, isn’t it that death is final and mankind will still try to instruct God even while in torment?

And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

Luke 16:30

No matter how vivid – whether at the final judgement or through the preaching of one from the dead – no amount of chances to bend the knee and flee God’s wrath can soften the heart of fallen man. Enmity is a deep seated condition, while salvation through faith is the gift of God.

Some lose ends tied around the question of equitable punishment:

It is often wondered, how can a just payment for sin be everlasting given merely a lifetime of sin? The pat answer is that what seems disproportionate at first glance gains its proper proportion once we consider the infinitely holy and benevolent One who has been sinned against. That satisfies me. There’s a difference between sinning against one who has provoked us and sinning against One who is perfect and has only done good toward us. What also satisfies me is I see no reason to doubt that the damned will continue to store up an increase of wrath as they curse God forevermore. So, aside from properly proportioning our sins against an infinitely good and holy God, we have another answer for the professing atheists who have claimed along with annihilationists that it would be unjust to serve an infinite sentence for a mere lifetime of sin. Sin will continue throughout eternity, and those additional sins may be justly dealt with by God.

Lastly, nobody will have served an “infinite amount of time” in hell at any point throughout his entire sentence. Throughout eternity nobody will ever have suffered but a finite number of days. Eternity cannot be exhausted or traversed. So, the idea that a finite number of days oughtn’t deserve an infinite number of day’s penalty is a meritless complaint.

In closing:

Hell is not a pleasurable contemplation. Those who’ve tried to find a “trap door” for those who’ve never heard of Jesus are, I believe, more keenly sensitive to the idea of eternal suffering than perhaps I. In a sense, I admire and respect such brothers and sisters in this regard. Just the same, we may not go beyond what Scripture teaches.

And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.

Hebrews 9:27

How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

Romans 10:14-15

* Other views of Exclusivism include Universalism (everyone will be saved) and what I’ve labeled Counterfactual Inclusivism (those who would believe if offered the gospel will be granted salvation apart from the gospel).

John Davenant, Another Enticement For The “Reformed” (in name only)

“If it be denied that Christ died for some persons, it will immediately follow, that such could not be saved, even if they should believe.”

I can understand Arminians saying such a thing but when those who profess to be Reformed say things like that, more than bad theology is at play. (And by the way, why do latent Arminians insist upon being considered Reformed?)

At the risk of addressing the obvious, such a sentiment assumes what must be proven, that those for whom Christ did not die can believe. From a Reformed perspective, how does this not deny irresistible grace and inseparable operations of the Trinity?*

“if nothing else is judged possible to be done, except those things which God hath decreed to be done, it would follow that the Divine power is not infinite.”.

John Davenant, Dissertation on the Death of Christ, n.d., 439


God having already decreed that the boulder would fall from the cliff entails that God could not prevent the boulder from falling from the cliff. The “could not” is due not to a lack of divine power but a want of divine will. Because God cannot deny himself (or act contrary to how he has determined he will act), God’s inability to act upon the boulder either directly, or through secondary causes, is ascribable not to finite power in the Godhead but the outworking of God’s internal consistency, from decree to providence.

That God’s omnipotence and decree are not mutually exclusive entailments implies that the latter does not diminish the former, though it will certainly curtail and redirect its decretive unleashing in ordinary providence. Davenant and his recent followers not only miss this. Is there any indication they’ve even considered it?

“The death of Christ is applicable to any man living, because the condition of faith and repentance is possible to any living person, the secret decree of predestination or preterition in no wise hindering or confining this power either on the part of God, or on the part of men. They act, therefore, with little consideration who endeavour, by the decrees of secret election and preterition, to overthrow the universality of the death of Christ, which pertains to any persons whatsoever according to the tenor of the evangelical covenant.”

Davenant, Loc. Cit.

In other words, for Davenant, it is possible for those not elected unto salvation to be saved. Indeed, it is possible for those not chosen in Christ to be baptized into the work of the cross.

Pelagian connotations aside as they relate to faith and repentance, if Davenant is correct, then it is possible that God’s decree not come to pass. It is possible that more are saved than predestined unto salvation. It is possible that God can be wrong! Or does God not believe his decree will come to pass?

Possibility with zero probability of occurring:

Simply try to imagine a possible world in which Esau is not elect but enters into everlasting life contrary to God’s will of decree. In other words, is there a possible world in which some are redeemed yet the elect are less in number than they? If not, then so much for this already rejected view of the atonement that posits incoherence by implicitly denying exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution, and the inseparable operations of the Trinity.** That’s what Davenant “possibility” gets you. (Enter now the sophistry of Molinism with its might-counterfactuals and possible-feasible worlds distinction.)

Confessional?

Regarding confessional status, any extra-confessional teaching that leads to confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards, (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system(s) of doctrine.

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. So, for instance, any view of free will that by necessary implication entails that God is contingently infallible must be rejected as non-confessional. So it is with all forms of hypothetical universalism that lead to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence.

I find it a stretch to call a doctrine “within the Reformed tradition” merely because a delegate held to it. When a confession is not already internally contradictory, let’s not allow it to be! For a doctrine to be considered confessional it must be explicitly taught or necessary implied by the confession and cannot introduce contradictions to other confessional doctrines. Again, we may not introduce teachings that are not inferable or would undermine other confessional doctrines, even though our confession is a consensus document of sorts. After all, what does it mean for a teaching to be “within the bounds of a Reformed confession” if it entails an implicit denial of another doctrine of the same confession? Roman Catholics are often constrained to speak that way (vis-à-vis Trent and Vatican ii) but why should the Reformed make such concessions? Can a doctrine be incoherent and Reformed? How about contra-confessional? We’re discussing what it is for a doctrine to be confessional or Reformed. That should be an objective consideration, unlike whether one wants subjectively to label someone else as Reformed. Is John MaCArthur “Reformed”? He’s certainly not confessional!

Clichés that obfuscate:

It’s inescapable, the atonement is a matter of divine intent, which is equivocally obscure within Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.

Little clichés like Christ’s death is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” have no place in rigorous systematic theology. A sufficient condition entails a state of affairs that if met ensures another state of affairs. In that sense, the cliché implies actual universalism. Sufficient and efficient become functionally indistinguishable and the cliché, tautological. Yet if “sufficient for all” is intended to convey that Christ’s death would save you if you believe, then redemption becomes necessary for saving faith, which isn’t very interesting. That one cannot have saving faith without the work of the cross, although true, doesn’t advance the discussion. Accordingly, we are back to election and irresistible grace, which are anything but sufficient for all! The historia salutis and ordo salutis must coincide.

In closing:

It would be helpful if those with positions of influence (I’m only referring to them), who claim to be Reformed while showing sympathy to Davenant’s view of possibility, would acquire a contemporary philosophical taxonomy and better grasp of modal concepts. If these historical types who promote not just aberrant but incoherent views would improve upon their equivocal notions, and gain a bit more philosophical understanding, consistency and theological trajectory, they might develop some semblance of appreciation for their modal claims; they might begin to see that they neatly align with Molinism and not confessional Calvinism given (at best) a Davenant underdeveloped version of the “logical-possible chasm” of Molinism.

Upon the Reformed (in name only) becoming better informed on necessity, possibility, metaphysical contingency, compatibilism etc., and thereby becoming self-consciously (or at least more consistently) Molinists, non-libertarian Calvinists might then refer these historical types (who too often show insufficient interest in understanding theological compatibilism) to the preponderance of refutations of the most sophisticated form(s) of Arminianism, if not also to some of the better Molinism arguments out there. Until then, we weep and pray, perhaps most of all for the relatively few Reformed institutions that are towing the line, as well as for those institutions that are not equipping the capable while simultaneously enabling the philosophically disinterested to gain a seat at the Reformed table.***

Footnotes that might surprise:

* A similar informal fallacy is committed here by perhaps the most notable popularizer of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: 

“The logic goes something like this: ‘The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.’ For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).

This is another example of assuming what needs to be proven. Consider the author’s proposition:

“God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.”

If the doctrine of limited atonement is true, then it is false that God is “able to forgive *any* person of their sins.” Accordingly, the author has begged the question and traded in ambiguity by not recognizing that God’s “ability” to forgive any particular person is predicated upon full satisfaction having been made for any particular person who would be forgiven. Consequently, the proposition doesn’t establish a doctrine of unlimited atonement. Rather, it assumes it!
** Of course no Davenant disciple will acknowledge her denial of orthodox Theology Proper. But I suppose that’s due to a failure to recognize the implications of one’s own position.

Regarding exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution and inseparable operations of the Trinity in light of the alleged possibility:

If God had known non elect persons would convert, they would have been elect. They were not elect (yet would convert), therefore, God did not know they would convert (though they would). 

If Christ dies for some whose sins will be paid for in hell, then Christ’s sacrifice is not vicariously propitiatory for at least some. 

If the Spirit converts (or aids in converting) contrary to the Father’s choosing, it is unreasonable that the Father acts with the Spirit in conversion. In fact, the Covenant of Redemption is undermined. 

(Molinist might-counterfactuals can’t save this.)
*** I won’t name seminaries or professors but Modern Reformation, Reformation 21 and Greystone Institute are examples of giving credence to Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and consequently a seat at the Reformed table. Why is that not deemed outrageous by NAPARC churches and Reformed seminaries? (Shortly after publishing article, Greystone Institute removed linked article by Mark Garcia that looked favorably upon the incoherence of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.)


Moreover, many seasoned pastors in the Reformed tradition will say things like “God knows the future because he transcends time and the future is all before him.” That’s a direct denial of the determinative nature of divine decree and an implicit affirmation of God being eternally informed by the self-existing wills of uninstantiated essences. Why that is not deemed as outrageous is telling.

Even a relatively recent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith looks favorably upon Middle Knowledge, which is another example of giving non-confessional views a seat at the Reformed table.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that rarely have I read a theological exam of a seminarian seeking licensure or ordination (and rarely have I had a discussion on theological compatibilism with such a person) that demonstrates a minimally thoughtful rejection of libertarian freedom or an understanding of combatibilist freedom and the determinative nature of the Divine Decree. After all, it’s rare for students to be acquainted with, let alone internalize, concepts they haven’t yet been exposed to.

John Frame had similar experiences: “I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.”

Calvinist Paul Manata has noted, “One often finds misunderstandings disseminated by laymen on the Internet. This should not be surprising, for a cursory look at what Reformed teachers have said on the subject gives evidence of at least a surface tension among Reformed thinkers.”

I appreciate my article might come across as contentious to some. My concern that constrains me to write as I have is that I desire not to eclipse the problem I hope to further unearth, which extends beyond this particular stripe of hypothetical universalism. The doctrinal infidelity in “confessional” churches is, I believe, at an all time low. That Reformed folk are entertaining hypothetical universalism is just an indicator of a much larger problem. For more on that, read on.