Now I’m not a biblical scholar, but these passages of Scripture have informed my view of the “un-evangelized” and given me much hope regarding God’s love for humanity and his intention to restore all things to himself.
I’m indebted to Clark Pinnock and his excellent book A Wideness in God’s Mercy for helping me see some of these familiar passages in a new light. I’m also thankful to NT Wright for explaining that salvation isn’t simply about “winning souls to heaven” but about being part of God’s relentless work of restoration, reconciliation, and redemption among all of humanity.
Some Things I Know:
• If the God of the Bible is true, then His love is universal, and His grace is not limited to certain people groups or nations. (Genesis 9:17; Psalm 82:8; Isaiah 25: 6-8; John 3:16; 1 John 4:14; Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:11; I Cor. 2:19)
Some Things That Give Me Hope:
• To the same degree that the Fall devastated mankind, God’s grace is able to redeem it, “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (I Cor. 15:22) God did not lose his hopes and dreams for humanity to Satan when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Total depravity, though devastating, is not beyond total redemption. (See also Romans 5:12-21)
• God does not appear to relish in the damnation of the unsaved, but desires that all receive His mercy. (Isaiah 30:18; 2 Peter 3:9; 2 Timothy 2:4; Romans 11:32)
• God may have determined when and where people would be born, but He did not leave Himself without a witness among them. (Acts 17:26-27) He created people in such a way that “they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” (Acts 14:16-17) This is commonly called general revelation.
• Since creation, God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” have been revealed to all. Those who practice unrighteousness are “without excuse” because they have access to enough general revelation about God to know better. (Romans 1:20) Exclusivists usually stop there, but as Dale Moody comments, “What kind of God is he who gives man enough knowledge to damn him but not enough to save him?” It is reasonable to assume that just as God has revealed enough of Himself for people to reject Him without excuse, He has revealed enough of Himself for people to accept Him without rejection.
• Scripture makes it clear that people are justified by faith. It does not stipulate how much a person needs to know about God in order to be saved, but simply qualifies that the fruit of saving faith is good works. Paul writes that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” People who have no knowledge of the Law but who “do instinctively the things of the Law,” will be judged not on the basis of how much they know, but on the basis of how they respond to their conscience. (Romans 2:9-16)
• Throughout Scripture, we find evidence that God worked in the lives of people who were neither Israelites nor Christians. Take, for example, Job, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedeck, Abimelech, Jethro, the Queen of Sheeba, the Magi, and Cornelius. The famed Hebrews 11 passage includes several of these so-called “pagan saints,” in its elite “cloud of witnesses,” emphasizing that they were saved by faith in a God who “is a rewarder of those who seek him.”
• Although God revealed Himself uniquely through the person of Christ, God’s grace is not limited or exhausted by Christ. If we truly believe in the Trinity, then we know that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are also at work in the world, and that the breath of God is free to “blow where it wishes.” (John 3:8) Looking at things from this Trinitarian perspective, it is reasonable to assume that one can maintain a saving relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit without necessarily knowing the name of Jesus Christ. Just as a right relationship with Jesus results in a right relationship with God, a right relationship with the Father is, in effect, a right relationship with Christ. (John 8:19, 42)
• Jesus says that when it comes time to “judge the nations,” the Good Shepherd will separate the sheep from the goats based on their treatment of “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46) We forget that Jesus Christ is indeed present in every nation. He is present in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned. Perhaps many will choose to reject or accept Him as he appears in that unlikely incarnation.
• The book of Revelation paints an extremely optimistic picture of the universal scope of God’s salvation. The prophet writes that great multitudes will worship God in heaven, “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.” (Revelation 7:9; see also Revelation 15:4; 21:24-26; 22:2.)
• Throughout the Bible, the consistent theme concerning judgment is that of God separating the wicked from the righteous, not separating the elect from the non-elect or the Christians from the non-Christians. The focus is on justice. Isaiah wrote that “a throne will be established in loving kindness, and a judge will sit on it in faithfulness…He will seek justice and be prompt in righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5) The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the day when the unrighteous will finally receive justice and the oppressed mercy. (Psalm 1:5; Psalm 94:15;Ecclesiastes 3:17) James writes that “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
Some Things I Don't Know:
• I don’t know the degree to which God is present in religious systems. I’ve seen both very good and very bad fruit come from organized religion--including Christianity--and prefer to think of each individual as spiritually unique rather than the sum of his or her religious culture. I can only hope that non-Christians would do the same for me.
• I don’t know exactly how God will judge in eternity and I don't presume to know where other people stand in relation to their creator. However, I know that those of us blessed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, should be slow to judge and careful of over-confidence, always heeding Christ’s warning that “not everyone who says to Me on that day, ’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21-23; See also Matthew 12:26; Romans 2:1-5; I Peter 4:17)
• C.S.Lewis put it this way: “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”
• I don’t know how to interpret Christ’s teachings regarding hell. I’ve heard theologians make a good case for the impermanent “trash heap” and a good case for the traditional view of eternal torture.
I'm still sorting it all out.
Rachel Held Evans is author of Evolving in Monkey Town and a forthcoming experimental memoir about biblical womanhood. Read more from Rachel at her website.