“What About Those Who Have Never Heard?” is a book divided into three sections. Each section presents a particular view on whether the unevangelized can go to heaven after bodily death. John Sanders, Gabriel Fackre, and Ronald Nash present three views—restrictivism, divine perseverance, and inclusivism—on whether souls can go to heaven if they never heard about Jesus. Even though all three authors searched through Scripture to find answers, the interpretations and handling of particular verses varied. Each author attempted to build a biblical case for his view, but each case seemed to add his own interpretation of what he thinks John 14:6 is saying. The strongest case came from the most assertive author, Nash, while the most accurate case for salvation came from Sanders. The weakest case came from Fackre.
Two more views are briefly presented on just one page of the book. Universal Opportunity Before Death is a view where all people are given an opportunity to be saved, by God sending the Gospel message through human messengers, angels, dreams, just before death, or by middle knowledge. Universalism is a view where all people will eventually be saved by Jesus somehow someway, and no one goes to hell. Universalism is heretical, and it is known to officially be condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 553. Universalism is unbiblical because it is contrary to God’s justice and the biblical teaching on hell.
Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Represented by Nash
This view limits God to only working a certain method of salvation throughout history. An extreme version of this view basically tells God who God can let into heaven. This view also says, in a rather harsh way, that each individual, before he dies, must have Jesus as his Savior or he will go to hell.
Nash seems to mishandle divine redemption throughout the ages. Salvation has always depended on God’s mercy (Ro. 9:6). While John 14:6 sounds like salvation-through-Jesus is a guarantee, John 14:6 is not stating the negative where all people throughout history who do not have Jesus as his Savior will go to hell. Salvation is offered to all people, but individuals need to personally receive divine mercy and believe by faith.
Postmortem Evangelism PME (Divine Perseverance)
Represented by Fackre
This view claims God will provide a second chance to the unevangelized people after they die. PME says salvation will be declared to all even after an unbeliever dies.
At best, this is only a man-made hope, not a direct biblical teaching. While it is possible that God could offer a second chance, the Bible does not teach it probably because people would take advantage of it in this life by living a self-centered life instead of a God-honoring life.
Represented by Sanders
This view generally explains God’s great love and amazing grace as being a divine gift, extending to all people everywhere throughout history (including unlimited atonement – John 3:16). Just knowing Jesus is not the way to salvation—even the demons believe. Like the other two views, inclusivists believe salvation today is through Jesus alone. God is the only one who offers his plan of making atonement for human beings who all have a sin nature. Apart from God, we have no salvation. The Trinity is the means of salvation. Jesus is the one and only Savior because Jesus is God. Apart from Christ, we have no mankind redeemer. Inclusivists usually say salvation can also be found in general revelation, in addition to a special revelation of Jesus Christ.
The problem to the question at hand begins with the title question itself. “Those” are the people who never heard the good news about Jesus offering eternal life. We are essentially asking what happened to all the dead people who never had an opportunity to receive Jesus as his or her personal Savior. A leading evangelical theologian in America, John Walvoord, explained one dilemma as such. “The Old Testament saints did not believe in Christ in the same way and with the same comprehension that believers with the New Testament do for the simple reason that they were not in possession of the same information.” Walvoord went on to explain Old Testament salvation as trust in Jehovah himself while animal and grain sacrifices could not save. The act of sacrifices performed a work which demonstrated faith in God as his Savior. The Old Testament saints recognized and held to the promise of the future Son of God. Old Testament salvation “was still a work of God for man, not a work of man for God.” In addition, the pre-flood people did not know about Jesus who died on the cross one dark afternoon at Golgotha, a place known as the skull outside Jerusalem where capitol punishment was carried out. How did any of the Adam-Noah people get into heaven? Is getting into heaven only about knowing Jesus? Satan knows about Jesus, but Satan has been kicked out of heaven. There must be something about getting into heaven other than just knowing about Jesus. How then can any person be certain if his loved one has been accepted into heaven apart from knowing about Jesus?
Next, let us present the bad news – all people inherit Adam’s sin nature, which means all people are in need of getting in a right standing with God. No matter how good a person is, he falls short of God’s holy standard, which means all people are in need of receiving divine grace. The good news is that God loves everyone (John 3:16). The question remains. Can a guilty sinner get into heaven if they do not know Jesus? A simple answer says God is the one who judges each human heart. The question still remains, though. Can a soul get into heaven if they never accepted Christ as his Savior who paid the penalty for all human sin on the cross? The shortest answer is maybe. If the answer is maybe, then how exactly can a person get into heaven if they do not have Christ as his personal Savior? This is the point of the whole book, “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?”
Sanders, Fackre, and Nash agree on the following:
1.) God is all-loving and divinely just.
2.) It is God’s desire that He wants all human beings existing today to receive a saving faith in Jesus Christ as his or her personal Savior.
3.) Jesus is the only Savior of the world (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).
4.) The one true God is revealed in the Trinity.
5.) By his nature, God is loving. He cannot be not loving.
6.) Jesus is the only way to the Father.
7.) The answers are found in the Bible.
The three views seem to struggle with a biblical explanation on why God would not give mercy to someone who does know Jesus, such as in the case of Satan. In addition, the views differ on how God extends his mercy on people today, and the three authors often misunderstand each other.
The main conflict in the title question usually comes from how one is supposed to interpret John 14:6. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The main difference between inclusivism and the other two views is that inclusivism significantly honors the Trinity as the Savior of the world whereas the other two views limit salvation to man’s idea of what God needs to do for salvation. “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ” is understood by Nash in Nash’s restrictive sense of how he thinks God must offer salvation. Exceptions are given to the mentally incapable. I would guess that all three authors would, once again, affirm their belief in Jesus being both fully God and fully man and the only way to the Father. While I am not stating that Nash and Fackre deny the nature of the Son of God, they both seem to cut short the ability of the Father and the Holy Spirit offering salvation even if a person is ignorant about Jesus. Nash and Fackre both seem to limit historical salvation to accepting Christ as his personal Savior, with the exception of infants and the mentally challenged, all the way back to Adam. There is salvation in no one else which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Yes, all three views agree that Jesus is the only Savior. All three authors affirm Acts 4:12, but out of the three views, inclusivism welcomes and honors the salvific work of the Trinity, even if a person is ignorant about Jesus. In other words, it is correct to say, “No one comes to the Father except through God.” It is more clearly understood to say, “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus.” Walvoord affirmed, “the Savior of the Old Testament is the Savior of the New Testament.”
Sander’s book reveals a tension that exists among three different Christian beliefs. You very well might hear two Christians clashing, due to different ways the verses are interpreted and due to different conclusions that are drawn. Sanders, Fackre, and Nash each believe his own view about the unevangelized is the correct view and the others are wrong. The correct understanding of who goes to heaven is found in God’s historical work of biblical salvation and the actual act of divine redemption.
All five views below agree that Jesus is the only way to the Father. Listed below are five views strategically positioned on the Destiny of the Unevangelized Spectrum. Beginning with the heretical side of the spectrum, universalism says all people go to heaven. Ending with the most abrasive side of the spectrum, restrictivism says if Christ isn’t your Savior, you go to hell.
Destiny of the Unevangelized Spectrum
1 – Universalism – All people go to heaven. God figures out how to get everyone to heaven. CS Lewis alluded to this heretical view when he said, “It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in heaven and everything is all right – leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption.”
2 – Divine Perseverance (Postmortem Evangelism) – The unevangelized will get an opportunity after death to receive Christ as his Savior.
3 – Inclusivism – The unevangelized will be accountable to God and might get to go to heaven, based on the revelation they had.
4 – Universal Opportunity Before Death – All people get an opportunity to be saved before they die, by God’s Gospel message, through human messengers, angels, dreams, at the moment of death, or by middle knowledge (God knows what the individual would have done if he had an opportunity to receive Christ as his personal Savior).
5 – Restrictivism – Anyone who does not receive Christ as his personal Savior will go to hell.
In my experience, I have found that most Christians I know are either a 3 or a 4. In summary, God has provided salvation in the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. Forgiveness, righteousness, eternal life, abundant life, and a right relationship with God are found in no other name.
If you are not sure if your soul is going to heaven after you die, please take a moment right now and admit that you fall short of God’s holy standard (Ro. 3:23). The gift of eternal life is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro. 6:23). Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Ro. 10:13). Thank God for the finished work He did for you at the cross since Jesus paid the penalty for all your sins. Now go and repent from sin and tell someone that you received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. Find a good Bible believing church, give your salvation testimony, and make a commitment to grow as a believer in the Word and as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Assurance of salvation:
CS Lewis gave the following analogy for a stubborn, unthankful man who received an offer of atonement by God. “If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back, between gasps, ‘No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage. You’re keeping one foot on the bank’? That advantage – call it unfair if you like – is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself? Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the atonement.”
Geisler, Dr. Norman. Systematic Theology: Volume Three – Sin, Salvation. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2004.
Lewis, CS. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1952.
Sanders, John. What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1995.
Walvoord, John F. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1969.