THE DESTINY OF THE UNEVANGELIZED: A DEFENSE OF UNIVERSAL OPPORTUNITY
December 10, 2014
The scenario has commonly been suggested: What if there is a native in a tribe somewhere in the jungles of Africa who has a heart to hear and believe the gospel, but never is evangelized? Is that person damned to eternal disconnection from God for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time? This area of theology relates to eschatology, and is sometimes called the problem of the destiny of the unevangelized (Boyd, 2009, p. 198). It is also sometimes called “the fate of the unlearned” by skeptics and is used as an argument against the existence of God (Altstadt & Wan, 2005). The question is a very profound one. The great majority of man kind fall into the category of the unevangelized (Boyd, 2009, p. 197). The question of their fate relates to family, friends, cultures, and societies all over the world, past, present, and future. The question raises a great deal of emotion, and controversy (Altstadt & Wan, 2005). The issue is difficult, but there are several views that seek to answer this complicated question.
Views on the Fate of the Unevangelized
The prominent view is commonly considered “the restrictivist view” (Blowers). For the restrictivist the answer is that anyone who did not come to know Jesus Christ as personal savior in their life is damned to hell (Boyd, 2009, p. 199). This causes a problem regarding the question of the goodness of God. How can a good God arbitrarily allow someone with a heart to receive the gospel to miss that opportunity and burn in hell? The restrictivist justifies this position by claiming that the individual did not go to hell because of anything God did or did not do, but went to hell because of his or her sins (Blowers). A second view is called the Post-Mortem Evangelism view (Boyd, 2009, p. 205). For those of the post-mortem evangelism view, the answer would be that the person in question may have the chance to accept Jesus as their savior after they have died (Boyd, 2009, p. 199). Unfortunately there is little scripture to back up this position, aside from the descent of Jesus into the lower parts of the Earth mentioned in Ephesians 4:8-9 and Romans 10:7 (Boyd, 2009, p. 206). A third view is called the Inclusivist view (Boyd, 2009, p. 209). For those holding to the inclusivist view, it would be suggested that the individual may have a faith in Jesus, though he or she does not know his name (Boyd, 2009, p. 209). This is also referred to as the faith principle, indicating that if one has a faith in God, they can be saved through faith, by Jesus Christ, without actually knowing the name of Jesus (Altstadt & Wan, 2005, p. 4). This view edges very closely to pluralism, or the idea that all will be saved regardless of what they specifically believe. The inclusivist view also fails to show adequate support in scripture and is quite nebulous in it’s description of the faith principle (Altstadt & Wan, 2005, p. 3-5). Of course it remains a reasonable possibility. However, all these views are incorrect theologically and either omit the loving character of God (the restrictivist view) or lapse too far into speculation (the post mortem and inclusivist views).
The correct understanding of the destiny of the unevangelized is the Universal Opportunity view (Boyd, 2009, p. 198). The universal opportunity view is that anyone who can receive the gospel will have it presented to them at some time (Blowers). And those who never hear the gospel, never would have received it anyway. The restrictivist view has paradoxically a high level of support in the scriptures, yet also the most offensive to both the character of God and the worth of man. If a man exists somewhere who would have received the gospel but God ignores him and tosses him into the burning pit, the character of God is diminished (1 John 4:8). In addition, the value of man is snuffed out. If God could treat one man with such little regard, there would be no reason to conclude that another is worth anything but garbage. God the Father gave up his son Jesus Christ, the sinless God-man for the sake of the redemption of his image-bearers (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Therefore man is of value to God (Matthew 6:26). Therefore the exclusivist view is theologically contradictory in it’s depiction of the character of God and the value of man. The restrictivist view fails. The post-mortem evangelism view has some merits. After all, all of those who were justified by faith in God before the coming of the messiah waited eagerly for his coming, so they could be freed from their sins (John 8:56, Hebrews 11:13). Would it be so strange to assume certain little ones, children, or even those outside the scope of the great commission’s range might be evangelized after death? It’s certainly at least possible, though not highly supported by scripture. It’s important to remember that the scriptures are not exhaustive (Towns, 2008, p. 21). God has not revealed everything to his people, he only reveals what they directly need to know, namely, Jesus (John 21:25, John 6:29). The inclusivist view is quite interesting, also known as the faith-principle position (Richards, 1994, p. 89). The notion that one could believe in Christ without knowing his name is intriguing, but hardly supported in the scriptures (Richard, 1994, p. 86). It also tends to step too close to pluralism (Altstadt & Wan, 2005, p. 3). But once again it certainly is possible. However, given the blasphemy of the restrictivist view, and the highly speculative nature of the post-mortem evangelism view and inclusivist view, the universal opportunity view is the most correct theological position.
Universal opportunity is the idea that anyone who has a heart to receive the gospel will indeed come to receive the gospel by the power of God (Boyd, 2009, p. 202). Very simply, no matter where someone is in the world, God will bring a missionary or a book or a dream to them to inform them about Jesus Christ (Blowers). John 4:23 (ESV) says “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” Father God seeks out and finds those who whom he wants and those who will freely choose him and gives them salvation in Christ Jesus. At the same time, the gate is narrow that leads to salvation, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14). It’s always been clear within the pages of the Bible that mankind is not particularly disposed to the message of salvation (Jeremiah 17:9). God the Father draws people to Jesus and that is the primary way that the lost come to salvation (John 6:44). Of course it’s clear many will resist the calls of God to salvation if they choose to do so, evidenced by Acts 7:51 (ESV) which states “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” Never the less, nothing is too hard for God (Jeremiah 32:27). And God desires all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
The Bible is replete with examples of God finding people where they are, people who are searching and wanting to know the truth about life. God uses his disciples to find those seeking him out and they then receive the truth. God has given every Christian a testimony to this very day, a message so important that believers are to forsake personal safety and comfort to deliver it, by the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of God’s presence and power (Elwell, 2001, p. 1280). A clear example is that of the Ethiopian eunuch. In Acts 8:26-40 (ESV) Philip comes upon a man searching the scriptures and attempting to understand the prophecies of the Old Testament. Philip takes the opportunity to tell the man about Jesus Christ the savior. Another example is the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus Christ came to a seemingly doomed person, a sexually immoral Samaritan and she is saved as a result. Another example would be the preacher called Apollos (Acts 18). Apollos had been taught about Jesus but only knew about the baptism of John. He preached regarding the baptism of John. God saw his heart and his actions and sent Paul and Barnabas to help complete his heart knowledge with the fullness of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, in Christ Jesus (Acts 19). There is a great deal of evidence to support the theological principle that God has not left himself without a witness. According to 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV) “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” God has commissioned every believer to witness to his son Jesus Christ, and as a result every one among the nations who might seek God would indeed find him by the power of witnesses, or by dreams, visions, or angels (Acts 22:15, Numbers 12:6, Acts 9:3-6, Hebrews 13:2, Acts 8:26).
There are four key theological arguments that support the Universal Opportunity view of the fate of the unevangelized (Blowers). The first argument is that the natural world is not sufficient for salvation, the natural world and the internal conscience of man is sufficient to communicate the moral law and the existence of a creator; but not sufficient for eternal life (Blowers). In other words, nature and internal knowledge do not equal an explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ. The second theological argument is that man needs a special revelation, a special knowledge of Jesus Christ to be saved, it is not sufficient to simply have knowledge of a loving creator (Blowers). The third theological argument is that no one responds to God aside from through his benevolent grace (Blowers). Those who respond to the little bit of light they have within, to search, to seek, and to knock, then God recognizes that response and gifts them Jesus Christ (Blowers). The fourth argument is that scripture mentions nothing of anything after death, aside from hell for those who go there, or eternal life, and no mention is made of any post-mortem evangelism (Blowers). In addition to those theological arguments, universal opportunity has had strong support in church tradition (Boyd, 2009, 204). Major supporters of universal opportunity have been Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Jacobus Arminius, John Henry Newman, Norman Geisler, Earl Radmacher, J. Oliver Buswell, Robert Lightner, and Robertson McQuilken (Blowers). Given strong theological support and weighty defenders of the universal opportunity view, the conclusion seems sound to consider God as loving and gracious to give eternal life through Jesus Christ all those who respond to the light they have (Boyd, 2009, p. 204).
In conclusion, 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV) says “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God the Father wants all to know Jesus Christ. He desires none to perish. God the Father is the God of those whom he elects and predestines to salvation (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 1:11). God the Father is the God of the seekers, the ones who look for him do find him (Deuteronomy 4:29, Proverb 8:17, Matthew 7:7). Jeremiah 29:13 (ESV) says “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
Returning to the question posed at the beginning of this paper: What about the tribal man in the jungles of Africa who never hears the gospel? The answer is, according to the theological underpinnings of universal opportunity, that as this man wanders through the jungle, staring up at the sky, wondering who made the earth, taking joy in the light within, the internal knowledge of God’s existence; as he journeys he will encounter a missionary amongst the foliage who will tell him about his redeemer, Jesus Christ. Or the man may have a dream where Jesus speaks to him, and he is saved. Or he may have a vision or be visited by an angel. God will always provide a way to be saved to the one who delights in his presence and seeks him with a full heart (Psalm 27:8).
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