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?
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.
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.
* 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).