What About Them? (Part 5)

(Continued from previous blog post)  Other evangelicals have proposed a theory of “eschatological evangelization” as a consequence of their affirmation of the “wider hope.”  Evangelical theologians like Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackre believe that some people will be given an opportunity “after death to hear about Jesus Christ and to accept or reject him” (Sanders 177).  Again, the “control beliefs” in this affirmation are the particularity of Jesus Christ and universality of God’s salvific intent.  People who have never heard the Gospel, or who have never been given a sufficient opportunity after death.  This is not a “second chance” theory, but the “universality of a first chance, and opportunity for salvation for those who have heard the Gospel in its fullness” (Sanders 193).  This idea is usually based on arguments from I Peter 3:18-20 and the creedal affirmation of Christ’s descent into hell.  Doug Harvey in his August 1988 Disciple Renewal article, “Salvation in Christ Alone,” entertained a least the possibility of this kind of eschatological evangelization.

The New Testament is not completely clear on the fate of those who had no chance to accept Christ.  It never directly tackles the issue.  I find the possibility of some hope for them in the passages about Christ’s descent into hell.  I Peter 3:19 speaks of Jesus who “went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”  I Peter 4:6 says “For this reason the Gospel was preached even to those men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.” These brief statements are not sufficiently clear to allow us to make any absolute statements, but seem to suggest that for those before Christ who had no access to the Gospel, there was an opportunity to respond in the afterlife.  We should note that there is nothing either way said about those who die in the Christian era, just those before Christ.  Most importantly, even if we construct some kind of “second chance” for those who never heard the Gospel out of these passages and other similar ones, it mediation of Jesus Christ. (7)

Finally, evangelical theologians like Clark Pinnock, David Watson and Sir Norman Anderson have articulated a view of the “wider hope” that has been called “inclusivism.”  Inclusivist evangelical theologians argue that-

A belief in the uniqueness of God’s act in Jesus Christ does not have to imply that God is not at work elsewhere in the world, or that those who through no fault of their own are prevented from learning about it suffer loss on that account.  (Pinnock and Brown 155)

Beginning with the clear affirmation that salvation has been made possible only through the person and work of Jesus Christ, evangelical inclusivists then go on to draw the crucial distinction between the “ontological necessity” of Jesus Christ providing for our  salvation and the “epistemological necessity” of actually knowing that it is Jesus Christ who has provided for our salvation.  It is not faith as information that saves, but faith as trust and obedience.  And this means, as David Watson explained, that-

Those who put their trust in God’s love and mercy insofar as they understand him, will be accepted by him.  As a motorist may cross a bridge on a motorway without realizing that the bridge is even there (let alone any details about it), so it may be possible for a person to come to God “over the bridge” of Christ without knowing anything about him.  That person’s understanding, joy, assurance, faith, and hope will all naturally be limited, until he does discover the truth about Christ.  But personally I do not doubt from the Scriptures that there is no hope at all for those who do not, or cannot, call themselves Christians.  If in their hearts they have truly responded to God, however a little they know about His Son or the gift of salvation, God may well accept them on the Day of Judgement. (166)

In this system, evangelical inclusivists take seriously the dynamics of faith wherever it is found.  Hebrews 11:6 (“Without faith it is impossible to please God.  For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”) is often cited by evangelical inclusivist theologians as a place where the Bible teaches the ontological efficacy of the faith principle in salvation without reference to one’s explicit knowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior.  Melchizedek and Job are two of the Biblical examples often pointed to as people who lived by faith principle and were accepted by God even though they were not part of the covenanted people of God.  Sir Norman Anderson affirmed the faith principle when he explained-

I believe there’s a partial revelation of God, and through the Holy Spirit, a person may feel a certain sense of need.  He or she may then throw themselves on the mercy of God and may still call themselves a Buddhist or a Hindu or what you will.  And I wouldn’t deny that that person is saved.  I would believe that he or she was, though I would believe that such a person would lack true assurance. (10)

Crucial to the high Christology of evangelical inclusivism is the idea that people who are saved by the faith principle eventually learn that it is through Jesus Christ that they have been saved.  In a postmortem encounter, people who have sought and loved God according to the limits of their knowledge in this life will make the discovery that it was Jesus Christ who actually saved them.  At the end their knees will bow and their tongues will confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord.                                                                         DBS+

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