| |

Inclusivism and the Heathen

I was getting geared up to write about salvation, because of various comments on my views that I’ve received here and in real life, but as I was doing so, John at Locusts and Honey weighed in on the issue, giving preliminary assent to exclusivism. He does outline the three major positions quite well, even though I disagree with the exclusivist conclusion and practically all of the logic that lies behind it.

Though I’d already started my other post (<a href="it’s here) I thought I’d respond to his more specific case first, and then make some further comments on salvation generally. He says the following near the conclusion. (You can go to John’s blog to see the nifty picture he put with this!)

Let us say that that the state catches two brutal serial killers who terrorized a community for years. Dozens of people have died slowly and savagely, and hundreds of people have seen their loved ones face their last moments in agony. Both murderers are tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. They are brought to the gallows on the day of their scheduled execution. As the nooses are placed around their necks, suddenly and unexpectedly, a telegram arrives from the governor pardoning one of them. One walks free; the other is executed immediately.

Is this outcome unjust?

We have done absolutely nothing to merit God’s forgiveness, and absolutely everything to merit his wrath. Ignorant pagans are not damned because they have never heard the Gospel; they are damned because of their sins. Christians are not saved because of their goodness; they are saved only by the inexplicable pardon of God.

With our standard Christian theology that understands salvation as the result of grace, unmerited favor, our initial reaction to such an illustration is good. But it seems to me that such a reaction comes from a position of safety. We are people who have heard and accepted the gospel and received the pardon. We’re the guy who is walking away from the gallows free. I have to shake my head occasionally when my Calvinist brethren rejoice in their salvation, knowing all the time that just as God has predestined them to salvation, he has predestined numerous others to be lost. What type of a person can take the pardon, look at the guy who didn’t receive one, and walk away without having any question? Surely you accept your pardon, but do you not wonder about what happened?

But I think the illustration misses the mark by quite a bit in discussing the Christian view of God’s salvation. I’d suggest a different illustration. Let’s suppose that in an empire there is a province in which conditions are so bad that every single person there will commit a crime worthy of death (in the Emperor’s view) by the time they reach the age of responsibility. No, let’s back it off from that. Let’s suppose that this place is so awful that when those people are born, they already offend the emperor so much that they are regarded as worthy of death. Now supposing that the emperor decides that this place is so offensive that everyone there must die, but because he doesn’t really like killing people, he will pardon anyone who simply asks. (Note that unlike our serial killers, they haven’t come to stand out from one another by specific misdeeds–they all share a common condition.) In order to inform people of the need to make this request he sends a few messengers, but he knows that either through carelessness or laziness, or perhaps because there are too few of them, not everyone will get the message.

Now the people, at least by the Emperor’s definition, do not deserve a pardon. None of them do. So those who do receive a pardon receive grace, and those who never hear have not been unfairly executed. How can they complain?

Well, if the Emperor proclaims that he is merciful (Joel 2:13), compassionate (Psalm 116:5), just (2 Thessalonians 1:6), and doesn’t desire anyone to perish (Ezekiel 18:32), then one can claim that the Emperor is a liar! He let many people die when all that was necessary was for them to hear about the pardon and accept it. Yet due to the Emperor’s negligence–he knew the nature and number of his messengers–some people died. He doesn’t have to save those people, yet he has claimed that it is his nature to do so.

So when I say that God would be unjust should he send people to hell who have never heard of him and of his way of salvation, I’m not simply expressing my discomfort with God’s plan–I’m taking God at his word! For some reason that I cannot fathom, people think that the verses about burning people in hell forever have more weight than the ones about justice, mercy, and compassion. But even more, when God doesn’t really specify just what he does with people who haven’t heard the gospel, though there are hints, we are somehow quite quick to accuse him of frying the whole lot. I know I’m being rather blunt here, but I want to be sure I’m being heard. This is not a matter merely of me being uncomfortable with what God says, and so choosing something different. I’m comparing what God is commonly accused of doing with what God claims about himself, and bluntly, if God behaves in that way, then he is a liar. (I know somebody will accuse me of calling God a liar, so let me make it clear that I believe God is telling the truth when he passed on the message of love, mercy, compassion, and yes justice, through the prophets.)

Many Christians, evangelicals included, believe that the heathen who have never heard the gospel can potentially be saved, relying primarily on Romans 2. (I think there are other passages, but that’s a long subject, and this is already a long post.) I believe there is good reason for that choice. It is simply not consistent with the idea of a just, merciful, compassionate God who doesn’t want anyone to perish to condemn numerous people to hell simply because they have never heard.

Personally I go somewhat further than this, but that is a minimum case, in my view.

Similar Posts


  1. Interesting post, I was intrigued since my comments begun this talk of inclusivism. If pressed I would say that the way that I know God and have experienced God, it is through the gospel of the trinitarian God that we are brought into salvation. Yet, I also will follow that up by reiterating that if we say this is the be all, end all way to know God we have place God in this trinitarian box and we have limited God. I just don’t think it is possible to limit God. As the landowner tells the workers in the vineyard, what is it to you if I am so generous, is it not mine to do with it what I wish?


  2. John –

    But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Do you deny that God’s grace is greater than our sin?

  3. Nope. I just deny that people are damned because they have never heard the Gospel. They are damned because of their sin.

  4. I may be wrong, and I appreciate the teaching method by which Henry approaches his posts, and I look for instruction from others to learn (thus my blog title), but I still believe those that read this passage and use it as an example on inclusiveness are mis-representing the text.

    Paul is speaking to the Romans about living in the law as called to by God in the Jewish tradition as well as the inner law, as defined by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity as a your conscience. This is within each of us, regardless of the reception of the Gospel. The reception of the Gospel becomes a fulfillment of the natural law (conscience) pushing us to do what is right and good in God’s eyes without knowing God. It is then defined in the Gospel as an understanding of the Truth of Jesus Christ, which gives fulfillment and meaning to the conscience. The ultimate proof of that fulfillment then makes more sense when one professes their faith in Christ and begins to do works. James makes sense when he discusses faith and works and the intermingling of the two. Works without faith is just as empty as faith without works. (not going to open that BIGGER can for discussion)

    In the end, the judgment of man, regardless of following the law inside himself, comes down to “the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16) as set forth in the teachings to the Romans by Paul. For man to fully be in Jesus Christ, he has to accept Him. In the acceptance, a transformation, shedding of the old self, for a new one in Christ Jesus. Realizing the peace in the completeness of reuniting one’s fallen soul with God, Himself.

    Without knowing Christ, and living the Gospel, the fullness of what God has called us all to be is never realized. I believe all of God’s creation is ultimately given an opportunity to receive the Gospel. Some will accept it, some will not. I do feel for those that have not heard the Gospel, but I feel even more sorry of those that blaspheme the Spirit by knowing the Gospel and the fulfillment of the Truth through Jesus and choosing not to follow it because of some notion that it may hurt someone’s feelings or keep them from truly being happy.

    These are my thoughts. I am throwing them out there because I want to know what some, more well read people than me, have to say on this subject in a way that is conducive to learning and not attacking or mocking. I may not agree with your take, but I will agree to ultimately, respectfully disagree. .


    “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own
    understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your
    paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

  5. I think the interesting thing is that in general God’s authority to do as he wishes is presented in the context of God’s generosity, not in terms of limitation.

  6. Well, John, let’s keep logic alive. Unless the saved are damned, then one factor is whether they have received the gospel. If the gospel does not reach everyone, then one of the causes of their continued/final damnation is the failure to get the message.

  7. These are my thoughts. I am throwing them out there because I want to know what some, more well read people than me, have to say on this subject in a way that is conducive to learning and not attacking or mocking.

    Actually, if I read your comment three or four more times I might find something to argue about, but at the moment I’ll just say I think you said it better than I did.

Comments are closed.