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? In my last post, I focused on infants and the unborn and asked why Exclusivists, like John Piper, make exceptions for little babies but not pagans?
In this post, I want to focus on another group of people that pose problems for the Exclusivist: the saints, prophets, and patriarchs of the Old Testament.
If explicit faith in Christ and public profession of Christ are necessary to salvation, what happened to Old Testament believers who did not have such explicit knowledge?
Again, our options are limited:
- These Old Testament believers did not have an explicit knowledge of Jesus and His work, and perished.
- These Old Testament believers had some equivalent, though not explicit, knowledge of Christ, and were judged thereby.
- These Old Testament believers were all given an explicit knowledge of Christ and His finished work, professed Him, and were saved.
Once again, the Exclusivist acknowledges that Old Testament believers, like babies, are a unique category, and adjust accordingly. My question is why such concessions are not made for pagans and unreached people groups.
On one hand, there are those like one commenter on THIS lengthy Facebook thread who, regarding Israelites in the Old Testament, admitted that
“Most were not saved, even in the Jewish nation “
If one ascribes to an explicit understanding of the post-crucified, post-resurrected Christ, this makes sense. Very few would be saved in the Jewish nation, much less the pagan world. Then there are those who make concessions. Like the concept of Abraham’s Bosom, a place believed by the Jews to be a holding tank where the righteous dead await judgment, which some Christians apply to Old Testament believers. Some, like commenter Becky, grant that while the Old Testament saints still needed more than just general revelation, pull up short admitting that revelation need not be explicit about Christ’s redemptive mission. Writes Becky:
All these [O.T. believers] had specific revelation. God Himself told Abraham he would father a son who would be a blessing to all the nations. How specific was He in saying out who Jesus would be and what He would do? I don’t know. But I know that however much He told him, Abraham believed God. He demonstrated that belief every time God told him to do something or to believe something.
David was filled with the Holy Spirit, so clearly he wasn’t relying on general revelation. God spoke to the prophets and showed them visions. Again, how much He revealed to them of Jesus, we don’t know. Some, obviously, or there wouldn’t be Messianic passages in their prophecies and Peter wouldn’t have been able to say to Cornelius that the prophets bear witness to Jesus.
To me, what’s most telling is Becky’s concession that “how much [God] revealed to them of Jesus, we don’t know.” She says that twice: “I / we don’t know.” This aligns, as I see it, with an Inclusivist position; explicit knowledge of the post-crucified, post-resurrected Christ may not have been a requirement for salvation. Point is, there’s no hard and fast rules.
In fact, Scripture seems to suggest a large contingent of Old Testament believers will be in heaven. Hebrews 11 is often called “The Hall of Faith.” It begins:
11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the men of old gained approval.
Verse 2 is huge. “For by [faith] the men of old gained approval.” Faith gained them approval. Who were these “men of old?”
- Abel (vs. 4)
- Enoch (vs. 5)
- Noah (vs. 7)
- Abraham (vs. 8)
- Sarah (vs. 11)
- Jacob (vs. 21)
- Joseph (vs. 22)
- Moses (vs. 23)
- Rahab (vs. 31)
But that was just the beginning!
32 And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets
So there is obviously a long line of people here. A group that the writer will go on to describe as “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). And all these people gained “approval” (vs. 2) through their faith. But faith in what? What was Rahab’s faith in? Who did Enoch place faith in? How did Samson’s faith gain him approval? Did they have faith in the crucified and risen Christ? Faith in an explicit understanding of the Gospel?
13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance
The chapter ends punctuating that point:
39 And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised
So they died in faith, looking for a country they had only glimpsed, but not walked in. They died having not received the promises in full. Their faith, though rudimentary and incomplete, was enough to gain them approval.
Again, what the Old Testament believers force us to do is to reconsider other categories of people and their proximity to the finished Gospel. We (by that I mean mainly North American Christians) have the luxury of viewing this subject retrospectively; the basic message of the Gospel is practically common knowledge to most of us. But is it fair to superimpose our knowledge of the Gospel upon everyone, both past and present?
I like how Mark Pickering sums it up in his essay What About Those Who’ve Never Heard the Gospel?
If [Old Testament believers’] lack of knowledge before Christ’s first coming was not an absolute barrier to salvation, is there any reason why sheer lack of knowledge after this time should be an absolute barrier? Those who have really never heard the gospel today are in a similar position to those who lived before Christ. Is it not possible for them to respond to the knowledge of God they do have in the way those heroes did?
Hebrews 11 reminds us that the Old Testament believers were saved in the same manner that everyone is — by faith.
So is faith in Christ necessary for salvation? Absolutely. However, how Christ chooses to reveal Himself to individuals, the degree of specificity of that revelation, and what kind of faith He receives is not definitive. If the Old Testament believers are any evidence, people can die “without receiving the promises,” and yet still gain approval. Their knowledge of God, Christ, or the Bible need not be explicit, in order to be salvific.