by Malcolm McVeigh
There is a subtle assumption in some circles that evangelicals are one mind and speak with one voice regarding the ultimate destiny of persons who go through life never having heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a subtle assumption in some circles that evangelicals are one mind and speak with one voice regarding the ultimate destiny of persons who go through life never having heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Both evangelicals and liberals often share the assumption. Some evangelicals are thoroughly convinced that there is only one solution to the problem, and some make this a point of testing as to whether a person is evangelical or not. Many resting on the more liberal side of things also share the view that evangelicals are united on the question. They may personally disagree, but they are convinced that there is no disagreement among evangelicals.
In his recent comparative study of ecumenical, evangelical, and Roman Catholic mission theology, Rodger Bassham says this:
The distinctive evangelical emphasis has been on the need for repentance and faith as the decisive step in accepting what God offers in Christ. From this premise it is further argued that those who do not have explicit faith must suffer eternal damnation-such is the implicit presupposition of the statement that the "repudiation of universalism obliges all evangelicals to preach the gospel to all men before they die in their sins" (Bassham 1979:350).
The quotation cited at the end of this statement comes from the Wheaton Declaration of 1966, but two questions are raised concerning Bassham’s use of it. First of all, does it mean what he implies? That is, is Bassham’s ‘implicit presupposition’ correct or not? And second, are all evangelicals in agreement? Of special importance to us here is Bassham’s identification of this position as the evangelical position, with the clear assumption that evangelicals are united on the question. We need to bear in mind also that Bassham is talking about "explicit faith," that is, faith consciously focused on Jesus Christ as known in the flesh and acknowledged by name.
To fortify what seems already implied in the Bassham quotation cited above, namely, that there is a single evangelical view on the subject, we may quote further from him:
The evangelical position, which apparently condemns some two-thirds of the world’s population to no chance of salvation at all, is quite contrary to what other theologians understand of the will and intention of God (Bassham 1979: 351).
But the question needs to be asked again: Has Bassham properly understood the situation? Can one in reality talk, as he does, about the evangelical position and the distinctive evangelical emphasis? Are the issues that clear and fixed in evangelical circles? Are evangelicals in agreement on how these questions are to be answered?
The thesis of this study is that Bassham’s generalization cannot be justified. To be sure, the view that he identifies as the evangelical position exists, but it is by no means the only evangelical view. The literature provides other possibilities, suggesting that the issue is much more in flux and debatable than Bassham and others who argue in a similar vein would suggest.
What are these varied evangelical views? In this study I propose to mention four, each of which I am identifying with a well-known evangelical figure: Harold Lindsell, Donald McGavran, J. Herbert Kane, and Norman Anderson. Of these four, only one, Harold Lindsell, is representative of the thesis advanced by Bassham. All the others depart from it at significant points. I do not propose to present here an extensive and critical analysis of each of them. My purpose rather is to call attention to them and thus to open the door to wider discussion.
In a very important article entitled "Fundamentals for a Philosophy of the Christian Mission," Harold Lindsell lays out five presuppositions that he considers to be essential to a "conservative" theology of mission. He suggests that there may well be others, but these are vital and indispensible. The first concerns the Bible as the infallible Word of God; second, the gospel of Christ as the way to bring about reconciliation between God and man; third, the problem of sin which underlies the need of the gospel; fourth, the inability of non-Christian religions to provide a solution; and fifth, the role of the church in God’s plan for the world.
All of these presuppositions, and how Lindsell develops them, are worthy of serious consideration; but one of them, the third, takes on special significance in the light of the particular issue before us in this study. And it is to this that we want to direct our attention.
Lindsell’s treatment of the third presupposition, dealing with the predicament created by man’s sin, concerns not only the human condition and need of the gospel but also, and most importantly for us here, the question of man’s destiny.
Man as sinner is separated from God by his own will and deed and is completely lost. He cannot save himself. All his striving leads only to condemnation. What he needs most therefore is salvation, and that is found in only one place, Christ. Salvation cannot spring from within him, but can only be received as a gift of God’s grace, which is made available by the spread of the gospel and appropriated by an act of personal faith.
Man’s condition is indeed desperate, but not without hope. Nevertheless, it is important to know the dimensions of this hope. The hope is not within man but in Christ. Christian faith is neither excessively pessimistic nor excessively optimistic, but rests between the two. Some will be lost and some saved, but the possiblity of salvation is open to all who accept Christ.
Is there any distinction between those who have heard the gospel but rejected it and those who have never heard it? Lindsell does not shrink from addressing himself to that difficult question, nor does he attempt to avoid giving a clear and unequivocal answer to it:
Regeneration is the real need of man. But man may not be regenerated either because he has never heard the gospel without which regeneration is impossible, or because he has refused to avail himself of the benefits of the gospel when he has heard it. Whichever it may be, the end is the same. He is permanenetly separated from God. Heaven and hell, then, are the competing options which the unredeemed man faces. The knowledge that the man who has never heard of Christ is separated from God is a prime factor in stimulating conservative missionary zeal. Knowing that his only hope lies within the gospel, it follows that man must be given the opportunity to make a rational choice. (Lindsell 1961: 246).
In this quotation, Lindsell makes it clear that there is no distinction whatsoever between those who have heard the gospel but rejected it and those who have never heard it. They are both in the same situation and face the same fate. It would be hard to over-emphasize the vital and urgent significance of missionary outreach within the context of Harold Lindsell’s theology of mission. Man must be given the choice of accepting or rejecting Christ, and that choice can only become operative through missionary outreach.
It is clear that the position and argument of Lindsell has had wide currency and acceptance in evangelical circles, and one can understand, therefore, how and why Bassham came to the conclusion that he did, namely, that the view represented by Lindsell is the evangelical view. If Lindsell’s position were in fact the only evangelical position, we would have to agree that Bassham is right in his conclusion. However, Lindsell’s view is not the only one held by evangelicals. Let us turn our thoughts then to look at some other possibilities.
The position of Donald McGavran is similar in many ways to that of Harold Lindsell. That is not surprising. Both are evangelicals and share much in common. Nevertheless, as it relates to the subject of our particular concern here, the destiny of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ, McGavran’s view does not coincide exactly with that of Lindsell. In what sense is that true?
McGavran’s position on the question is perhaps best expressed in his article, "Contemporary Evangelical Theology of Mission," which is included in the book that he edited jointly with Arthur Glasser, entitled Contemporary Theologies of Mission, and which was published in 1983. In that article McGavran presents what he calls "The Main Doctrines or Axioms" of evangelicalism’s theology of mission. He lists eight, dealing with such matters as the authority of Scripture, the soul and eternal life, the lostness of humankind, Christ as the only Mediator, the church, the end time, evangelization, and the Holy Spirit.
If one compares the articles by McGavran and Lindsell referred to, one can see many points of convergence in their argument. The parallelism is not exact, but they obviously stand on common ground.
McGavran’s analysis of the human condition and need of the gospel is basically the same as that of Linsell. Sinful man is estranged from his Creator and is both fallen and lost. The solution to man’s problem is not through living a good life or by allegiance to one of the world’s religions. Only faith in Jesus Christ can make that a reality. He is the only Mediator between man and God, and thus it is only by him that persons can come to God and only in his name that they can be saved. Any notion of universalism is vociferously rejected by McGavran.
McGavran is well aware that there are problems involved in this position, especially as it relates to those who have never heard the gospel. And this leads him to pursue the argument further. He comes very close to Lindsell’s solution, but he cannot go all the way with him. Still, he cannot rest in universalism which he rejects even more explicitly. What is the solution? McGavran says this:
Evangelicals are well aware of the problem which this doctrine raises concerning those many millions who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or are not in touch with his church. Yet evangelicals cannot believe that God will save such men and women, counting their belief in Baal, Ashtaroth, modern civilization, Rama, Krishna, Gautama, Marx or money as sufficient to win them salvation. Rather evangelicals believe that, according to the teaching of the Bible, those who do not believe in Christ are lost. Evangelicals also believe that God is sovereign. Should he so choose, he can bring those who know nothing of Jesus Christ back into fellowship with himself. But the means by which he might do this (and whether in point of fact he ever does do it) remains hidden. God has not chosen to reveal this in Scripture (McGavran 1983:103).
The problem is obvious, and McGavran takes it seriously. One can sense his agony as he talks about the "millions who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ." Nevertheless, it is not possible to go to human solutions as an answer. Salvation cannot be won by such means, since this is only possible through faith in Christ. Still, McGavran has difficulty in pushing his conclusion as far as Lindsell. He comes close, but he cannot make the final step. He cannot say explicitly, as Lindsell does, that all those who have never heard of Jesus Christ are automatically and irretrievably cut off from any hope of salvation.
Rather, he rests his case in the mystery of God, the hiddenness of God’s sovereignty. God can do as he wishes. He can create another way that we are unaware of. We do not know if this is a reality or not, but it is a possibility. And according to McGavran, this is a legitimate possibility from an evangelical point of view. Indeed, evangelicals do not question God’s sovereignty. It is this possibility that keeps McGavran from accepting in toto the full implications of the kind of position delineated by Harold Lindsell.
J. HERBERT KANE
In his book Christian Missions in Biblical Perspective, J. Herbert Kane devotes a chapter to what he calls "the fate of the heathen." In the first half of the chapter he deals with such questions as lostness and eternal punishment and second chances after death. Basically, he affirms the reality of the first two while denying the third. In the middle of that chapter, however, he addresses himself to the question that is particularly germane to our topic here.
What about the heathen who have never heard the gospel and so cannot be charged with having rejected it? It is the fate of these individuals that has caused the most controversy. The doctrine of everlasting punishment is bad enough when applied to the hardened sinner who deliberately rejects the gospel, but what about those in non-Christian lands who never have a chance to accept Christ? Is it fair to punish them for rejecting a Christ of whom they are completely ignorant? Many of them are seeking souls and doubtless would believe if they had an opportunity. Are all of these people going to be forever lost through no fault of their own (Kane 1976:160-161)?
In speaking to these questions, Kane quotes several New Testament Scriptures (Rom. 1:20-23; 2:14-15; Acts 14:17) to show that, although they are ignorant of the gospel, those who have never heard of Jesus still have the light revealed by God in creation and providence, as well as conscience.
This leads Kane to ask how the heathen will be judged. He suggests that many Christians are perplexed by the question. Why is there such confusion? Kane states the problem in these words:
The popular argument goes something like this: There is only one way to be saved and that is through faith in Christ; the heathen, having never heard of Christ, cannot exercise faith; consequently, he is doomed to everlasting punishment for something quite beyond his capability (Kane 1976:162).
All this, according to Kane, rests on false assumptions and scriptural misunderstandings. It is wrong to suggest that all persons will be judged by the same criterion, whether or not they accept the gospel. On the contrary, Romans 2 clearly shows that all are not judged by the same standard but that eveyone is judged by the light he has. Jews are judged by the light of the law, and heathen by the light of conscience, and those who know the gospel by the light of the gospel.
But that is not all. As one might suppose, the situation is more complex, and Kane pursues the argument further by asking the obvious question: "Do any of the heathen live up to the light they have" (Kane 1976:163)? What follows is a rather pessimistic account of the results of human endeavor, centered on the universality of moral failure. Even Cornelius, although he is described in Acts 10 as a devout and God-fearing man, generous with his alms and diligent in prayer, is unsaved before he meets Peter. Still, Kane asks:
What about Romans 2:6-7 where Paul says: "For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in welldoing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life"? Do these verses hold out any hope that the "moral heathen" will one day win God’s favor (Kane 1976:163)?
In general, Kane’s answer seems to be negative, and he in fact cites here all those familiar New Testament passages (Acts 4:12; John 14:6; I Cor. 3:11; I Tim. 2:5) that show that salvation is possible in Jesus Christ alone. That is not the end of the matter, however. He goes on to one final paragraph, which leaves open the door by placing the final resolution of the question within the mystery and sovereignty of God.
Nevertheless, in the light of Romans 2:6-7 we must not completely rule out the possibility, however remote, that here and there throughout history there may have been the singular person who got to heaven without the full light of the gospel. In that case God is the sole Judge. He is the sovereign in the exercise of his grace. We are not called on to pass judgement in such cases-if indeed they ever occurred. Here, as in many other instances, we must fall back on the sovereignty of God and say with Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right" (Gen. 18:25) (Kane 1976:164)?
In the final analysis, Kane comes out at a point very similar to McGavran, resting the matter in the mystery and sovereignty of God. Nevertheless, at one crucial point Kane diverges substantially and significantly from McGavran. McGavran, it will be remembered, refuses to list any scriptural justification for the possibility of salvation for those who have not known Jesus Christ explicitly by name. Kane, on the other hand, uses Romans 2:6-7 as his basis.
Norman Anderson sees the Christian faith as resting on a unique historical event, the self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ. This is no mere theophany. God has come. This, of course, does not mean that God’s revelation is confined to this event. The whole of the Old Testament negates that. God has revealed himself in other ways, but nowhere so fully or adequately as in his becoming man to deal with evil and sin in the incarnation. The Christian faith either stands or falls on the validity of these claims. It is true or false; there is no other possibility. For Christians, Jesus is the decisive and final revelation of God.
Anderson quotes from and discusses in detail the key texts dealing with Jesus as the sole means to salvation, such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12; and he accepts them without reservation or equivocation. Nevertheless, he goes on to ask how they apply to Old Testament personages prior to Christ, such as Abraham, Moses, David and others. His answer is,
that believing Jews under the Old Testament dispensation enjoyed forgiveness and salvation through that saving work of God in Christ (dated, of course, according to the calendars of men, but timeless and eternal in its divine significance) by which alone a holy God can and does forgive the repentant sinner-little though most of them can have understood this (Anderson 1984:144).
Anderson asks: What was the difference between the experience of these ancient Hebrews and that of Christians? They saw the shadow of an image, he replies, whereas the Christian sees, so to speak, "face to face." They were deficient in knowledge, but they were nevertheless forgiven by grace through faith (not by works!), as are Christians.
All of this resolves some problems, but leaves other questions unanswered, especially the one that we are particularly concerned with here.
…if the only way to God is through Christ, and the only basis of forgiveness and acceptance is the atonement effected at the cross, then what about all those countless millions of people in the world today—to say nothing of the millions who have already lived and died—who, to our shame, have never heard of the only Mediator and only Saviour? Are they utterly without hope, as many of your missionary forebears firmly believed? That would be an agonizing thought which did, to be sure, spur them on to much sacrificial witness, as it still does many today (Anderson 1984: 145-146).
Anderson considers, as a possible solution, that they might be judged by a different standard, the truth or light that they know. One thinks of Kane here. For his part, Anderson denies that this line of argument can serve as a real help or solution, because the clear testimony of Scripture and experience is that both Jews and non-Jews fail to live up to the truth and light available to them. It will be remembered that Kane vacillates somewhat on this point.
The way of works cannot provide a solution, according to Anderson; but the way of grace through faith offers a possibility, indeed a possibility similar to that of Old Testament Jews who came in repentance to God seeking his forgiveness. In essence, Anderson sees a link between these two, Old Testament Jews on one hand and those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition on the other; and he uses the problem of salvation for the first to provide a basis for dealing with the problem of salvation for the second. The ancient Hebrews did not earn God’s forgiveness by their act of repentance and faith or by their later obedience. How was the way opened to them? And what does that mean for others? Anderson replies as follows:
It was that their repentance and faith (themselves of course, the result of God’s work in their hearts) opened the gate, as it were, to the grace, mercy and forgiveness which he always longed to extend to them, and which was to be made for ever available at the cross on which Christ "gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time" (I Tim, 2:6, AV). It is true that they had a special divine revelation in which to put their trust. But might it not be true of the follower of some other religion that the God of all mercy had worked in his heart by his Spirit, bringing him in some measure to realize his sin and need for forgiveness, and enabling him, in the twilight as it were, to throw himself on the mercy of God (Anderson 1984:101-102)?
Anderson does not mean to suggest by this that other religions are salvific, but he does believe that God’s Spirit is able to use them. Still, such a view should not in any way lead to a lessening of missionary urgency. Even if one has come to know in some sense God’s mercy, the need for full knowledge and the assurance, joy, peace, and power that only come from experiencing Christ consciously and having personal fellowship with him are vital. Indeed, throughout Anderson insists that salvation is only possible through Christ, although he may not in every case be known explicitly after the flesh or by name.
No more difficult or agonizing question can be asked in Christian theology than the question we are dealing with here. It has perplexed Christians down through the ages, and it continues to serve as a point of confusion and disagreement. As we have seen, evangelicals also share in the perplexities and disagreements. They do not, as some suggest, speak with one mind on the issue. They do not address themselves to this question from a fixed and unified position. That the debate will go on we need have no doubt.
Evangelical missionaries need to be fully informed of the issues and prepared to withstand not only erroneous caricatures of their positions, but also the subtle inroads of universalism that would water down the missionary imperative.
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