The question is usually approached through an analysis of the three major views regarding other faiths. We can’t accommodate that discussion here, but let me point some of my earlier writings that deal with the views, viz pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism or particularism as preferably known.
Theology and Philosophy of Religion
Three Divisions of Philosophical Theology
Poll Results: Are all Mission Fields “Harvest Fields”?
There is also an extension of this discussion around the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism; the Calvinist stance usually maintaining that salvation is the sovereign act of God that involves divine predestination, unconditional election, and irresistible salvific grace. Some may see that such a view can render the preaching of the gospel meaningless, as in the voice of the man who countered Carey’s proposal to evangelize the heathen: “Sit down, young man, if God wants to save the heathen, he will do it without your help or mine!” However, Calvinists affirm that the preaching of the Gospel is much more obligatory because God has appointed it as the means of conveying the Gospel. One may see that the view of divine sovereignty in human salvation will play an important role in any discussion between Calvinists and Arminians (and those in that spectrum) about the condition of those who have never heard the Gospel. If God has chosen someone before the foundation of the earth to be saved, then His sovereignty will render unnecessary the discussion of what happens to those who have not had the chance to hear the Gospel. The conclusion is deductively and analytically arrived: the elect will be saved anyway in God’s own sovereign way.
We’ll refrain from a discussion of who’s right among the both for the present. What I wish to do here is to slightly expand on a simple answer to this question given to us by one of the teachers to our Seminary, Pastor. Matthew Samuel1, several years ago. The answer is a scripture from 2 Thessalonians 1:7,8.
when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We find here that there are two groups of people to be judged here: (1) Who do not know God, (2) Who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This indicates that there are two criteria of judgment since people are only responsible for what they know and not for what they do not know with regard to the way of salvation. Thus, those who have not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel will be judged in accordance to their faith in (knowledge of) God. Will they be saved then? Yes, those who believe in the Gospel of salvation through faith in the salvific work of God. This means that the Gospel is available to all people everywhere in some form or the other, though not in the form that the New Testament teaches; and they are obliged towards it with the same force as the Israelites were obliged to the Gospel they heard in the Old Testament.
Some may ask, did the Israelites have the Gospel? The answer is, yes, though not in the form of the Revelation of Jesus Christ that we have today. Yet, the Gospel was able to save them by faith in Jesus Christ even in the Old Testament. See the following scriptures:
just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (Galatians 3:6-9)
The Bible tells us here that it was Scripture that preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, and that he was justified by faith.
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1Corinthians 10:1-4)
We are told here that the Israelites did experience the salvation of Christ in the Old Testament. But, of course, many of them were not able to enter the rest of God because of their unbelief:
the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 1:5)
For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said:
“So I swore in My wrath,
“They shall not enter My rest,”‘
although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. (Hebrews 4:2-3)
Interestingly, we are told here that “the gospel was preached to us as well as to them”, i.e. the Israelites. The RSV has a better rendering the “good news came to us just as to them”. Thus, there is not a qualitative difference with regard to salvation at all: “the works were finished from the foundation of the world.”
Now, with regard to the “knowledge of God”, Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans that God has revealed Himself to all people of the world in, at least, two ways, and people are judged with regard to what they do with this knowledge:
(1) God has revealed Himself, His nature, to people through the things He has made.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. (Romans 1:19-21)
This Self-revelation of God, specifically in each persons understanding, leaves them “without excuse”.
See also Acts 14:17
(2) God has revealed His Law in the hearts of all people
All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:12-16)
Paul says that the Gentiles who do by nature (Gk. phusis) what the law requires show that what the law requires is written on their hearts. In other words, God has embedded moral knowledge into the very nature of man, that is why man is inescapably a moral being. And, despite all psychological attempts to explain the nature of “conscience”, the fact of the conscience as man’s inner witness remains indisputable. Much has been said and written on this topic which points to its irresistible reality. Wherever man has lived, there has been a sense of morality, justice, and judgement.
The two facts, the knowledge of divine nature and the knowledge of the moral law, are not said to be something that are arrived at by reasoning. They are stated to be intrinsic to the primal experience of man.
In addition to that, the Bible also talks of divine witness among all men through various means: Melchizedek who was the Priest of the Most High, Balaam who was a prophet among the non-Israelites, Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus who were chosen by God and knew Him, Epimenides of Crete who spoke to the Athenians and the Cretans, the Magi who saw the Star and came to Bethlehem. Space permits us not to speak of the many ways in which we are surprised to see that God has been dealing with His people all over the world, regardless of language or nationality. Thus, the no.1 criterion of knowing God is the primary obligation. The Greek word used there is eido which means to see with perception. It carries the sense of being godly minded, the sense of godliness. In other words, the knowers of God are actually those who seek Him. In addition, it also carries the sense of actual, intuitive, and complete knowledge in contrast to a progressive one (ginosko, The Complete Word Dictionary by Spiros Zodhiates); which indicates their passing the test of being those who know God. They are the confirmed godly. In the judgement, they will receive the justice of a God-governed eternity, a godly one. The rest of the confirmed godless will receive the justice of a godless eternity, that is separation from the presence of God.
These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. (2Thessalonians 1:9)
It is destruction because it will be the condition of utter lawlessness (violation of law) and chaos. They will be removed from God’s presence because they can’t stand it owing to their final decisive state.
1. Those who have not had the opportunity to listen to the Gospel will be judged according to their knowledge of God, and their relationship with Him. It doesn’t matter which “religion” or people group they belong to, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of God is active among all people.
2. However, they do not have the experience of the blessing that those who have heard and obeyed the Gospel of Jesus Christ have, and which God desires all people to experience. For He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim.2:4), “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph.4:13).
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
Pastor Matthew Samuel (1933-2016) was a distinguished scholar, teacher, and pastor who served in India for several years before moving to New York where he served as pastor of the Elim Full Gospel Assembly. (Feb 6, 2016)