What about those who have never heard? Like the problem of evil, the question of what happens to those who die without an opportunity to respond to the gospel can be a thorny issue for evangelical Christians. We wholeheartedly affirm the love God has for all his creatures. We also emphasize the exclusivity of the gospel message—that salvation is found in no one else but Christ (Acts 4:12)—and stress the need for all people everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him.
But what happens to those we fail to reach with this good news? Theologians usually lump the answers to this question into one of three options: exclusivism, inclusivism, or universalism. Most within our ranks embrace exclusivism, claiming that those who die without placing conscious, personal faith in Christ face eternal separation from God in hell. Our unease with this tragic end serves to catalyze our missionary and evangelistic efforts.
Over the past few decades, a minority of evangelical theologians have gravitated toward some form of inclusivism, the idea that some individuals can be saved by Jesus without ever having consciously believed in him. Some inclusivists teach that God saves those who have no knowledge of the gospel on the basis of what they do with general revelation. Others in this group suggest that God saves people according to his foreknowledge of what they would do if they had the opportunity to respond to the gospel.
Some self-professed evangelicals are universalists who believe Jesus will eventually save all people, regardless of whether they believed the gospel in this life or not. Insisting that Jesus is the only Savior, these universalists go to great lengths to distinguish their position from forms of religious pluralism that claim many valid pathways to God.
In his recent book, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death, Bethel University theologian James Beilby makes the case for an unconventional fourth option: postmortem conversions.
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Source: Christianity Today, Rhyne Putman
Rhyne Putman is associate vice president for academic affairs at Williams Baptist University. He is the author of When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity.