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T HE third and final view which we consider advocates that:
We have now arrived at those viewpoints which may be termed "orthodox" in the sense that they deny that the heathen can be saved apart from a knowledge of Christ. However, we may again distinguish three variations on this theme.
This stance depends upon a concept of "the honest searcher after truth." It is held that there are those who respond positively to the light of natural revelation, and that God in turn responds to such sincerity by ensuring that the message of Christ reaches them in some form: they must then accept it in order to be saved. The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10) are cited as examples. Missionary J. Oswald Sanders says:
"...God will always respect sincerity where it exists, and will grant further light and lead those who respond to the impulses of the Holy Spirit to a knowledge of Christ."
This view in effect proves too much. The unevangelised pagan eventually becomes a gospel-hearer, and is saved or lost on an identical basis with those in evangelised lands. But we must disagree with this notion of a sincere seeker: the Bible declares emphatically that "There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11), i.e. the mind and will of fallen man are so corrupted that no sinner naturally desires and searches for the living and true God. When we encounter a "genuine" seeker, we are not meeting one who has improved upon general revelation, but one in whom God has already worked by His Spirit, and will certainly lead to a saving knowledge of Christ (Psa. 65.4; Hos. 11.3,4; John 6.44,45).
Essentially these related teachings maintain that unbelievers (for some these include the unevangelised, for others not), cannot be saved but that they cannot be damned either! Those who have not believed in Jesus Christ during this life are not admitted to heaven, but neither do they suffer the everlasting conscious punishment traditionally held to by orthodoxy: rather they cease to exist altogether.
Dean Farrar records Justyn Martyr and Irenaeus among the early Fathers holding to conditional immortality. Post-Reformation, he cites Anglican divines, including Archbishop Whately, and Isaac Watts among the non-conformists. Such views have been revived recently among evangelicals.
A. Conditional Immortality. This theory maintains that immortality is not inherent in man's being but is a gift that God bestows only upon believers. Unbelievers do not survive death. The Anglican commentator Philip E. Hughes latterly propounded this viewpoint. In posing the question, "Is the Soul Immortal?" he answers in the negative, concluding:
"Too late will they (the unregenerate) then wish they had lived and believed differently. The destiny they have fashioned for themselves will cast them without hope into the abyss of obliteration. Their lot, whose names are not written in the Lamb's book of life, is the destruction of the second death."
B. Annihilation. This idea holds that all men survive death, but that unbelievers will eventually be annihilated after the general resurrection. Anglican evangelical John Stott has made public his support for this view. Before detailing four arguments in favour of annihilation, he says:
"...emotionally, I find the concept (eternal conscious torment) intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But...As a committed Evangelical, my question must be...what does God's word say?...we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that 'eternal conscious torment' is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture."
These ideas clearly both hinge upon whether the soul of man is immortal. Stott writes: "...the immortality – and therefore indestructibility – of the soul is a Greek not a biblical concept." But the Church historically has affirmed the innate immortality of man's being:
"After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls..." (Gen. 1:27; Gen. 2:7, Ecc. 12:7, Luke 23:43, Matt. 10;28). ( West. Conf. of Faith, IV.ii.)
John Murray wrote:
"The Scripture provides us with copious evidence to establish the thesis that there belongs to man a subsistence or entity distinguished from the body and characterised by qualities in virtue of which it does not undergo the dissolution that befalls the body in death. The Scripture designates this as spirit or soul."
Some passages often appealed to by annihilationists have been well covered by Arthur Pink.
That this has been the traditional stand of the Christian Church is acknowledged even by those who oppose it, and of course it is well covered in literature. Only those responsible adults who consciously respond to the Christ proclaimed to them in the gospel can be saved. The conviction that the unevangelised are eternally lost goes back to ancient Judaism. Calvin felt that a lack of opportunity to hear the gospel was one of the marks of reprobation: "That they (the reprobate) may come to their end, he sometimes deprives them of the capacity to hear his word."
There is no difference in this respect between those who have rejected the gospel and those to whom it has never come. The difference lies in the degree of punishment that the two classes will receive, which is in accordance with the light or knowledge they have been given (Luke 12:47,48). The destiny of the unevangelised is therefore embraced in the following sombre creedal statement:
"...but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." ( WCF, XXXIII.ii.)
After our survey and critique of the evangelical viewpoints on this vital subject, we conclude by setting out the following axioms in defence of the traditional view that the unevangelised are eternally lost.
1. The heathen have heard. While the peoples of evangelised lands have been exposed to the written Word of God, or special revelation, the heathen partake of the unwritten word, or natural revelation (Psa. 19:1-4). There is no gospel preached in this revelation, for the gospel is "the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began" (Rom. 16:25): but there is sufficient information to render men responsible before God (Rom. 1:19,20).
2. The heathen are guilty before God. The unevangelised are not blameworthy for refusing the Saviour of whom they have never heard, but for turning aside from the witness of creation and conscience (Rom. 1:21-23). Natural law, or the light of nature as reflected in the conscience of man, provides the ground for the judgment of God upon the unevangelised. This is the standard by which sin in the pagan is measured (Rom. 2:14,15). No heathen does not sometimes violate his conscience, or come short of his own creed (Rom. 3:9).
3. The heathen are perishing. Because pagans are guilty before a holy God, and because the light of nature affords them no basis for saving faith in Christ, they are indeed perishing eternally (Rom. 2:12). Paul's observations on the Ephesian Christians' former state are applicable to all the heathen peoples: "...having no hope, and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). The ground-rules of redemption force us to conclude with Hodge that the unevangelised are entering upon a lost eternity:
"The heathen in mass, with no single definite and unquestionable exception on record, are evidently strangers to God, and going down to death in an unsaved condition. The presumed possibility of being saved without a knowledge of Christ remains, after eighteen hundred years, a possibility illustrated by no example."
4. The heathen must be the object of the Church's missionary endeavour. While God has not categorically stated that He never extends His salvation to sinners except by Christian evangelistic effort, every Bible teaching and inference obliges us to assume that this is so. The commission of the risen Christ to His disciples is the Church's mandate to labour as though everything depended upon her agency (Mark 16:15,16).
We must never slack in our zeal to reach the unevangelised multitudes, perhaps secretly influenced by the belief that they are not really perishing, or that somehow for them to hear and reject the gospel will render them guilty before God, whereas previously they were innocent. That will surely make us lukewarm, or even silent, in our presentation of the only way of man's redemption. Rather we should adopt the clear logic of Scripture itself:
"For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!" (Rom. 10:13-15).
Calvin, J., Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, U.S.A., 1960, III.xxiv.12.
Hodge, A.A., The Confession of Faith. Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1983, p.176.
Murray, J., Collected Writings of John Murray. Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977, vol.2, p.19.
Pink, A.W., Eternal Punishment. Evangelical Press,Welwyn, Herts., n.d., pp.8-10.