If salvation is accessible to those without an explicit knowledge of Christ, as Inclusivism posits, what do we make of those many passages of Scripture that seemingly emphasize a clear profession of faith in Christ as necessary for salvation? The apostle Peter preached,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” — Acts 4:12
The apostle Paul is equally clear:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. — Rom. 10:9
Scripture is unflinching in its witness of Christ as the only way to the Father. But as explicit as these verses are, they are problematic when considering four groups of people:
- Infants / the unborn
- The mentally ill or deranged
- Unreached people groups / primitives
- Old Testament believers
None of these groups appear to have / comprehend explicit knowledge of Christ and, as such, opportunity to “confess” Him as Lord. So both the Exclusivist and the Inclusivist are forced to grapple with the question: What happens to those who do not hear about Jesus, are unable to comprehend His claims, and have a chance to confess Him as Lord?
The options are limited. Here’s the three most basic:
- Those without an explicit knowledge of Christ and profession of faith in Him, perish.
- Those without an explicit knowledge of Christ and profession of faith in Him, receive an equivalent witness and opportunity.
- Those without an explicit knowledge of Christ and profession of faith in Him, are automatically saved.
Before I begin, let me say that some appear to answer this question with a resounding… shrug. “The Bible doesn’t clearly say,” they suggest. “It’s a subject we should ultimately leave up to God.” To a certain degree, I’d be willing to concede agnosticism. Christians are given their marching orders. Let’s stick to that. However, in assuming such a position, we should not ignore the girth of Scriptures that impinge upon this subject, nor the important existential possibilities they raise. So at the risk of treading into intentionally grey area, let me proceed.
While option #1 — Those without an explicit knowledge of Christ and profession of faith in Him, perish — appears extreme and morally repugnant, especially as it relates to infants, it should be understood that there are those who believe this. For example, one commenter on THIS lengthy Facebook thread admitted,
“Yes, I do believe that the child who has never heard the gospel goes to hell.”
As much as I cringe at such an admission, I applaud the author for being consistent.
Of course, not all Exclusivists apply such a rigid interpretation. Particularly as it relates to children. And this is the point I’d like to make in this post. The fact that Exclusivists acknowledge, and make concessions, for certain categories of people regarding explicit knowledge and faith in Christ, is telling. It suggests that when parsing this subject, we should acknowledge the application is different per individuals. In other words, we can’t ask Is faith in Christ necessary for salvation without acknowledging that the question applies differently to different people groups. Failure to make such a concession leads to responses like the commenter’s above — “the child who has never heard the gospel goes to hell.”
One of the most prominent Calvinists in America, John Piper, in his article Why Do You Believe That Infants Who Die Go to Heaven? concedes that we must make exceptions when grappling with this question. He writes:
I base my belief that God does not condemn babies who die on Romans 1:19-20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them [that is, to mankind] because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. Therefore, they are without excuse.
The “therefore” at the end says that mankind would seem to have an excuse if they had not seen clearly in nature what God is like. And so, because I don’t think little babies can process nature and make conclusions about God’s grace, glory or justice, it seems they would fall into the category of still having an excuse. (bold mine)
Please notice: This is the same reasoning I apply to the “good pagan.” In fact, the question should be asked, Why do Exclusivists make exceptions for little babies but not pagans?
Kevin DeYoung makes a similar concession in Clarifying Inclusivism and Exclusivism:
I am not saying that children who die at a young age, or those mentally incapable of expressing faith, cannot be saved. We know from Scripture that the Spirit can touch children in the womb (e.g., David, John the Baptist) and that the kingdom can belong to children (Mark 10:14). We see in Scripture that children from a believing household are in a different “position” than those outside the fold. They have Jesus as their covenant Lord (Eph. 6:1). When David’s son dies he says “I will go to him” (2 Sam. 12:23), this could mean “I too will die.” But in the next verse we read, “Then, David comforted his wife” (2 Sam. 12:24). I think it more likely that v. 23 was a comfort to David and Bathsheba because David knew he would see his child again in the next life. The juxtaposition of comfort makes less sense if David is simply assured he will join his son in the ground some day.
So I gladly affirm Canons of Dort, Article 1.17: “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” Beyond this, as a confessional Christian, I would not speak too dogmatically. Almost everything concerning salvation in the Bible assumes the presence of sentient human beings. Some of our other questions may not be answered directly.
So even the Exclusivist is forced to acknowledge another category in the discussion of salvation. If we are willing to concede that children are in a different category when it comes to faith in Christ, why not pagans?