I’ve always had a soft spot for soteriological Inclusivism,Â the theory of Christian ultimate salvation (sometimes expressed inÂ different ways) that holds that some can or may be saved apart from an explicit congnitive actÂ of conscious belief in Jesus.
Exclusivism insists on a personalÂ response to the Gospel, but most forms of exclusivism make exception for thoseÂ too young or perhaps lacking the (apparent) cognitive ability to makeÂ an (apparent) response to the Gospel. Â These exceptions prompt Inclusivism’s concern for the fate particularlyÂ of “those who have never heard” the Gospel. But I wonder ifÂ the very notion of ‘those who have never heard the Gospel’ might beÂ challenged by Scripture? Perhaps a Scriptural understanding of revelation, gospel, preaching, hearing and responding is different toÂ at least some of our modern instincts? Perhaps someÂ biblical language suggests that “the (G)gospel” has been preached to everyone; perhapsÂ in a mode that escapes or transcends the modern mind?
It would be one thing to entertain such notions due to some discomfort or fear regarding communicating the gospel or having people not respond to it. Â But it’s quite another thing if Scripture itself actually supports the notion. And whilst we don’t want to alter the Gospel to make it more palatable, we also don’t want to go beyond Scripture and ‘add’ requirements or barriers to God being able to work in ways we don’t understand. Â Two relevantÂ passages among others are: Romans 2:12-16 and 10:9-21; and another I recentlyÂ encountered again is Hebrews 4:1-11.
In interpreting the texts, we have to keep the literary purposes of theÂ authors in mind. Â Both Romans and Hebrews are engaging with the earlyÂ controversy around the attitudes of Jewish and GentileÂ (non-Jewish) Christians toward (among other things) the Jewish Law,Â common faith, and table fellowship. In Romans 2, the Jewish ChristianÂ readers have just had a surprising hard word given to them about their ownÂ failure to keep the Law, which has the result of putting them on even par with Gentiles. Â Interestingly, the Gentles, even without having the Jewish Law, are nonetheless able to followÂ the ‘Law written on their hearts‘, which apparently not only accuses them when they liveÂ contrary to it (1:18-32), but alsoÂ excuses them when they live according toÂ it (2:14). This battlefield of hearing and obeying (or not!) seemsÂ to at times be public and visible, and other times private and ‘secret’Â as Paul’s language suggests in 2:16 (‘God will judge men’s secrets…’).
Oh, sure, but some will say Paul is just getting the foundation of his
argument going in Romans; it’s only chapter 2! But, we have a similar tension in chapter 10, longÂ afterÂ Paul has made his points about both the universality of Sin and theÂ superabounding nature of Grace. Here is actually a favourite verse of
Exclusivists, where it is insisted that ‘faith comes by hearing’; whenÂ the Gospel of Christ preached and heard, believed and finally confessedÂ (10:9-15). However, Paul does not finish there, but then goes on toÂ contrast the unbelief of previous generations of Israel (long beforeÂ Christ) with the Gentiles of old, who along with Israel apparently haveÂ indeed ‘heard’; the pertinent difference being that (‘all’) Israel did notÂ accept the good news due to their disobedience, while the Gentiles wereÂ apparently ‘found’ by God who says ‘I revealed myself’ to them (10:16-21). The context of chapter 10, to state the obvious, isÂ chapters 9 and 11, which all together formÂ a rich tapestry of argumentationÂ exploring the way that God remains faithful to the ‘old’Â covenant with Israel, even when the church mustÂ have looked mostly Gentile at the time of writing. This is precisely the point the authorÂ of Hebrews makes in chapter 4; except only the negative criticism isÂ made of Israel, for having ‘the gospel preached to them’ yet not combiningÂ that with ‘faith’.
The first keyÂ point in all of this is that theÂ biblical authors here seem to be quite comfortable in describing ‘theÂ gospel’ being known to people long before Christ; much like Paul in 1Â Corinthians 10 will, in passing, assert that “the Rock that followed [Israel during the Exodus] was Christ.” The other point is that it seemsÂ those outside of God’s central and standard means of revelationÂ (Law teaching in the Old; Gospel preaching in the New) haveÂ indeed had ‘the Gospel’ preached to them (Colossians 1:23); and their response, arguably in the New as well as the Old, is not always rejection. Indeed (clearly in the Old, and possibly in the New), whenÂ those on the ‘outside’ respond more obediently than those on the ‘inside’, the latter are humbled and (hopefully) broughtÂ to their knees again in renewed repentance; or (Paul hopes in RomansÂ 9-11) ‘provoked to jealousy’ (and hopefully faith).
Similar themes appear elsewhere. Â The Gentile King CyrusÂ was called God’s ‘anointed one’, who was moved by the Spirit to letÂ Israel go home. The pagan Preist Melchizidek was the agent (not theÂ recipient!) of blessing for Abram. And Jesus set the tone for his ministryÂ with a rousing critique at Nazareth, making clear that God’s actionÂ was not limited to Israelites.
So could it be that God is at allÂ times, all ways and in all places preaching the Gospel, through both publicÂ and ‘secret’ channels (one thinks of the many accounts of Muslims havingÂ dreams and visions of Jesus)? Could it be, as inclusivism suggests, that some of these people can respond to such preaching with atÂ least some form of faith?