What About Those Who Have Never Heard (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  September 28, 2011

What About Those Who Have Never Heard: Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized
Contributors: John Sanders, Ronald Nash and Gabriel Fackre
2 Stars (out of 5)

In my journey to reconcile within myself how inclusive the Gospel is I came across this book (published 1995) which examines three views: inclusivism (John Sanders), restrictivism (Ronald Nash), and divine perseverance (Gabriel Fackre).

I like John Sanders, a lot. Most of what I read by him is so persuasively argued that even those who oppose him in writing sometimes feel compelled to applaud him in the process. Furthermore I have always believed intuitively that as far as those who have never heard (like say, a small village of barbarians living in no-man’s land who have had no contact with outsides in 3000 years), that God’s grace and mercy must extend to them in some way. So going into this book I pretty much assumed that Sanders would buttress a view that I was already inclined to believe. Certainly in some ways he has done that. But in other ways I found myself scratching my head and thinking, “that interpretation is a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?” Yet having said that, I must say that as someone who was raised a restrictivist (i.e. exclusivist), I found Sanders interpretation of Matthew 22:14 (“many are called, but few are chosen”) to be genius and uncompromising.

Gabriel Fackre’s essay, divine perseverance, was fascinating. Until recently I was blissfully unaware of a doctrine of “Postmortem Reconciliation” (which is another way of saying “divine perseverance”), and now in this book we get to read an essay by a scholar who holds to this view and attempts to make a case for it, philosophically, historically and biblically. Yet I came away more convinced than ever that if postmortem reconciliation is true, it certainly is not taught in the bible.

Ronald Nash’s chapter delivered strong mixed feelings. First of all, he broke with the purpose of this book. Rather than setting about presenting a positive case of restrivism, he spends his space attacking the other views. This is disappointing on every level. The format of these “perspective” books are such that after one author presents his view the other authors are allotted a space to criticize it. But not Nash. When it comes to his turn to criticize the other positions he directs the reader back to his article where he devotes all of his energy on the attack. He believes that by taking this approach, destroying the views of his opponents in the mind of the reader, that the reader will be left with no other option than to accept an exclusive reading of scripture. He also takes his position so for granted, citing passages about Jesus being the only way, that he forgets that a conservative inclusivist would agree that Jesus is the only way. Yet on the other hand, I say this reluctantly which is why I have mixed feels, scripturally I believe Nash does have the strongest case.

Still, if someone asked me to reference a good multi-view book on the destiny of those who have never heard, I would not recommend this one.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/Commonplace_Holiness/Blog/Blog.html Craig L. Adams

    Thanks for the review. Too bad it wasn’t a better book.

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.blogspot.com Les

    I agree that the biblical evidence for divine perseverance is slim and that restrictivism probably has the strongest biblical support. But as with the doctrine of unconditional reprobation, there doesn’t seem to be any way to resolve the contradiction between a perfectly just God and one who would condemn people to eternal torment because they happened to be born in that “small village of barbarians.” Maybe there’s a book out there that does a better job of exploring the issue. Let me know when you find it.

  • Ken Stewart

    Plainly Ronald Nash let down the ‘exclusivist’ cause in this book because a winsome expression of this view, with wide birth given to the kind of hard cases including those who never heard because of place/time, because of abortion/stillbirth/cribdeath or because of mental handicap, is still better than the alternatives you describe.
    It is the inadequacy of an unmodified exclusivism for dealing with such hard cases that drives thoughtful evangelicals into postulating such things as the ‘age of accountability’ theory, according to which no one can be condemned unless they reach the stage of moral development at which they sin consciously and knowingly. A variant of this (without the theory of moral development) is to postulate that all who die in infancy are redeemed. Yet another variant is to allow that the Holy Spirit may quicken favored disadvantaged persons (for various reasons ‘out of range’ of the Gospel) by regenerating them without the aid of the spoken Gospel. All of these represent softened or mitigated exclusivism and Ronald Nash might have obliged by explaining them.

    The inclusivist position goes beyond this in postulating either the presence of a redemptive message in general or natural revelation, the presence of redemptive elements in the non-Christian religions (which while themselves incapable of offering redemption might conceivably prepare people for a redemption from beyond themselves) or some such provision.
    Better than to postulate in a systematic way how whole populations or civilizations can be saved by Christ without ever hearing about him, is the circumspect view — consistent with a mitigated exclusivism — that God the Holy Spirit has the freedom to apply the benefits of redemption where and how He pleases. This can be so not because of the inherent values embedded in the non-Christian religions, but because of the freedom of God. Does not this approach find vindication through the now-frequent reports from the Persian Gulf region of devout Muslims receiving visions of Jesus, and who tells them to accept the gift of a holy book when it is offered to them soon thereafter; and who tells them that soon a certain person will cross their path to explain more about Jesus. There is no ‘system’ of such appearances; only discrete divine acts. This phenomenon too can be linked with a chaste exclusivism.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Hi Ken,

      Q: is this last option that one you would subscribe to?

  • Ken Stewart

    I hold to a gentle or soft exclusivism which distinguishes between God’s ordinary or conventional ways of working and his supreme freedom to work differently in unconventional circumstances such as the kinds I named This, in my judgment, is less fraught with danger than inclusivism. The difference between the soft or gentle exclusivism I recommend and inclusivism is that the latter extrapolates from what may only be God’s occasional ways of working in discrete cases and, by inferences concludes that God routinely or customarily works in this way. But why extrapolate to this degree? We dare not suppose that because numerous devout Muslims report visions of Jesus that visions of Jesus are universal or routine in the Muslim world – and thus generally available. A gentle exclusivism merely reserves to God the freedom to work unconventionally as He sees fit.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      What you call “soft exclusivism” others might call “conservative inclusivism”, maybe? Above when I said that I intuitively held to some sort of inclusive understanding, I hadn’t worked it out in my mind, so what you suggest seems just as palpable. It also seems to me that a “soft exclusivism” is open to (almost) the same bible critiques by exclusivist as inclusivists.

      In any case, what you present I never heard presented before. I’m going to ponder it. Thanks.

  • Ken Stewart

    It is helpful to think of the three main views (exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism) as though on a continuum or a dial with the positions displayed adjacent to one another. The ‘edge’ of exclusivism which rubs up against inclusivism could be called soft exclusivism or, alternately (as you suggest) conservative inclusivism. To continue the analogy, an extreme inclusivist will have difficulty showing that his/her position is not, in effect a kind of pluralism. I wish there was more honesty in admitting that these soft boundaries existed. The soft boundaries exist inasmuch as the same pastoral and moral difficulties must be faced no matter which side of the divide one stands on. But what emerges is that we deal with the difficulties in reference to our first principles.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      I like the way you think. :)