I have more than one book dealing with those who have never heard the gospel on my bookshelves. Though helpful at certain points, none of them in my view deals adequately with the problem. In the early church many believed that great men like the Greek pagan Socrates who gave his life for what he believed to be the truth was saved. Not all have been convinced, and, given their theological outlook, not without reason. So, can we solve this problem which becomes all the more acute when we consider that most people who have lived on the earth including those alive today are neither Jews nor Christians but heathen? How does this correlate with the most famous verse in the Bible that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes on him will be saved (John 3:16)?
First, it is worth recalling what the standard view of the churches is. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith 10.4 the heathen cannot be saved and to entertain the very idea is ‘pernicious’ (sic)! This view is supported by the answer to Question 60 in the Larger Catechism which again insists that the heathen cannot be saved. The Athanasian Creed which is dear to the Church of England leads us to believe that outside the church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam non salus). After outlining basic Christian doctrine, this creed ends: “This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”
Needless to say, many sensitive modern Christians are worried about the situation. John Stott is one such. He claims to derive much comfort from Revelation 7:9 which refers to the countless number of the saved in heaven. However, he cannot understand how this can be. (1* See Authentic Christianity, Leicester, 1995, p.404). Given his Augustinian theology, this is hardly surprising. He assumes like so many Christians that only those who commit themselves specifically to Christ can hope to be saved, the rest are doomed to hell. In a forlorn attempt to avoid this ghastly conclusion, he along with others apparently calls into question some aspects of his traditional theology, especially eternal punishment, and embraces annihilationism. Needless to say, this is unacceptable in certain quarters and consequently his own orthodoxy is put under scrutiny. But can the long-held view regarding the damnation of the heathen, not to mention the Jews who having rejected their Messiah and were savagely persecuted by the medieval church for their pains, be a reasonable proposition?
Augustine of Hippo
The fact is that given that Augustine of Hippo by whom the church in the West in particular has been so heavily influenced, the difficulties many experience today are hardly surprising. After all, Augustine, who believed strongly in the universal effects of original sin, went so far as to imagine that even unbaptized babies were damned! For him in contrast with Abraham who interceded for Sodom (Gen. 18:22-33), the heathen were a massa damnata (a damned mass) or a massa perditionis (a mass of perdition) without distinction. What is more, since he also taught that on account of original sin it is necessary for a person to be born again in order to exercise faith, he concluded that it was necessary for babies to be baptized. Even today in the 21st century Catholics still believe in the baptismal regeneration of infants. In the past, this of course put great power in the hands of the priests who alone did the baptizing. Along with other aspects of general moral corruption like the dogma of purgatory and the sale of indulgences, it eventually led to the Reformation.
Faith in the Old Testament
If we take a global view of the Bible and develop an appropriate historical perspective, we soon become aware that God made various covenants with men providing them with a basis for faith and ultimate salvation millennia before the dawning of the Christian dispensation. The possibility of the salvation of Adam, for example, is implicit in Genesis 2:17, but it required him to keep the commandment. For all that, we are only too pleased to recognize, as in Hebrews 11, for example, that some among both pagans and Jews, were justified by faith long before baptism and the new birth came into view. In fact in the OT the new birth was never more than a promise (e.g. Dt. 30:6; Jer. 31:33) even though as early as the book of Genesis justification by faith was preached (Gen. 15:6, cf. Gal. 3:7-9). Noah was a man of faith (Heb. 11:7) but he was certainly not born again. Despite this, the apostle Peter maintains that his salvation from the flood corresponds with Christian baptism (1 Pet. 3:21) and thus implies that Noah was ultimately saved even though he could not have had what is recognizably a Christian faith. He at least, doubtless figures among those who surround the throne of God as depicted in Revelation 7:9. Diminished responsibility is not specifically referred to in the Bible but that it is frequently implied seems to be beyond reasonable question. (See e.g. Matthew 11:20-24 and 12:38-42 and further below.)
The Heathen and the Jews
The fact that the heathen were without hope (Eph. 2:12) does not mean that they were entirely devoid of faith in such manifestations of God as they had through creation and their own deliberations (cf. Acts 14:16f.; 17:24-28; Rom. 2:15). By contrast, the Jews were prisoners of hope (Zech. 9:12) and without a messiah remain so to this day. As Christians we have a better hope (Heb. 7:19), that is, Christ himself who is the hope of glory (Col. 1:5,27). But while the Jews cannot be saved as Christians are, we cannot believe that they, the chosen of God, are all to the last man and woman damned. While willful rejection of light given them may well result in final personal rejection (1 Sam. 3:14, etc., cf. Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31), we need to reckon with the truth that in the purpose of God a veil lies over the eyes of the nation as a whole but that it will eventually be lifted.
Three Covenant Peoples
Paul intimates in 1 Corinthians 10:32 and elsewhere that there are three races or ethnic groups who each live under different covenants, respectively one with Noah, Moses and Christ, though there is obviously some overlap. (Noah’s covenant remains in place to the end of the age, Gen. 8:22; that with Abraham was not nullified when the covenant made through Moses tended to preoccupy Jewish hearts and minds, Gal. 3:17.) And it is these different peoples who become one when they commit themselves to Christ as Saviour and Messiah (Gal. 3:28; cf. Heb. 11:39f.). The inference we draw from this undeniable fact is that though the journey (or pilgrim’s progress) to perfection is not attained by all, not least for historical, chronological and theological reasons, those who like Abraham have embarked on it are nonetheless saved (Heb. 11:39f.). As Jesus somewhat enigmatically asserted, Abraham rejoiced that he would see his day (John 8:56). And since he believed the gospel preached to him (Gal. 3:8), he was to prove a blessing to the world (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:14,28f.).
This brings us back to Revelation 7:9 which John Stott like many others cannot understand.
First, we need to recognize that only those who personally accept Christ in person are in fact saved in the present. Only they can legitimately claim eternal life now as John 3:16 (cf. Eph. 2:5; Tit. 3:5) makes indisputably clear. Only they can experience reception of the Spirit now poured out by the ascended Jesus and the assurance that comes from believing (contrast Heb. 12:21). But that does not mean that those who have never heard of Christ are therefore left out of account in a world that God himself has created with salvation in view (John 3:17). They all live under the law of nature and, if they are Jews, the law of Moses. But these can still exercise faith which, contrary to church tradition, comes first in the order of salvation (ordo salutis). (2* See further my The Order of Salvation, Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology.) It is not a little significant that Hebrews 11 starts with reference to faith in God himself as Creator (Heb. 11:1-3). The implication of this is that anyone who is rational and capable of sinning against the law/commandment can exercise faith in him (cf. Acts 14:16-18; 17:24-28). This is why faith is regarded as being of prime importance in Scripture. It appears throughout except at the very beginning, and that for good reason. What is more, the apostle Paul indicates that sometimes the heathen are more righteous than the Jews who, having the law, saw themselves as superior (Rom. 2:26-29).
This leads to another implication: there are good and evil in all societies and recognition of the difference is of paramount importance. Abraham, in contrast with Noah, realized this when he interceded on behalf of Sodom, though in the event only Lot and his daughters were rescued. So, if we think that regeneration must come first, we must also take into consideration its implication which is that it involves a case of all or nothing. You are either born again or you are not. If you are not, you are lost, hence church tradition. But if faith which is relative comes first, even a little faith is enough as Jesus intimated when he talked of faith like a grain of mustard seed (Mt. 17:20, cf. 13:31f.). Even children who are not personally capable of a credible profession of faith in Christ fitting them for baptism can exercise it.
This of course points to something else. Mankind is made up of various races, but what is frequently forgotten is that considered as one race he is like one man (cf. Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:15; 4:13). Just as in the course of the history of the race in general, a dispensational covenant is made with Noah, Moses and Christ respectively (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32), so each individual who attains to maturity progressively experiences life under these different covenants. (3* Gentiles, of course, are not specifically under the law of Moses. However, as the KJV felicitously, if somewhat inaccurately, puts it they are under a schoolmaster, Gal. 3:24.) In other words, the individual epitomizes the race, or in modern parlance, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. (4* See my Recapitulation in Outline.)
Perhaps the best example of this is Jesus himself (cf. Eph. 1:10). Stemming originally from Adam (Luke 3:38), as a son of Abraham (Mt. 1:1) he was born to Jewish parents and as such spent time in heathen Egypt like his forebears (Mt. 2:15). Then on his return to the Promised Land he became a true son of the commandment (cf. Luke 2:42-52). Eventually as one, the only One, to keep the law which was the precondition of eternal life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5), he was confirmed as the Son of God he had been proclaimed to be at his birth (Mt. 1-2; Luke 1-2;). As such, having fulfilled all righteousness, he qualified like an unblemished Lamb to shed his blood for his people and thus inaugurate the Christian covenant (Mt. 26:28). It will be noted of course that it was as a child that Jesus lived in heathen territory, as a teenager at his bar mitzvah he came to occupy a firm place as a true Jew in the Promised Land. But it was only as a full-grown man of thirty or thereabouts who had uniquely kept the law that he became the first or foundational Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20; Col. 3:11) committed to fulfilling all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) and laying down his life (spilling his blood, Heb. 9:22) in atonement for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). After his death and resurrection on our behalf, he finally ascended into heaven itself as our perfected pioneer (John 3:13; Eph. 4:9f.; Heb. 6:20; 9:24; 12:1f.). Clearly we as his brothers are called to imitate him and to follow in his steps completing our own pilgrimage from ground to glory, from minority to maturity or from slavery to sovereignty (Gal. 4:1-7; Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 2:10-13; 3:1; 12:22-24; Rev. 3:21).
If all this is true, it is a good idea at this point to take another look at Revelation 7:9. First, its context. (5* I am assuming that Revelation is an apocalyptic summary of the rest of the NT, and, along with commentators like Wilcock, that Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 are especially relevant to it. Also like Wilcock and others I am convinced that the recapitulatory approach to the general interpretation of the book of Revelation is correct. This conviction makes admirable sense of what is otherwise an extremely enigmatic book.)
The chapter begins with reference to the ‘harming’ (cf. Rev. 6:12-17) of the earth, the sea, the trees and the rest. Clearly the reference is to creation in general. It immediately reminds me, if not others, of Romans 8:18-25 (cf. Heb. 1:10-12) where according to modern translation (6* See, for example, RSV, NIV, ESV where ‘creation’ is standard, but contrast KJV where ‘creature’ appears consistently.) and interpretation Paul has in view the effects of the so-called cosmic curse which was the result of Adam’s sin. In other words, Genesis 3:17-19 is said to provide the back drop of Romans 8:18-25. But this is pure inference from a false premise. As I have argued at length elsewhere (7* See my Romans 8:18-25; Romans 8:18-25 In Brief, etc.) Paul is pointing up the God-ordained innately temporal, provisional, corruptible and futile nature of all visible created things (implied in the book of Ecclesiastes) as a comparison between Romans 1:20 and Hebrews 12:27, to go no further, soon makes apparent. But before this divinely orchestrated harming takes place, since it would impact with devastating effects on those who are part of creation, that is, its fleshly creatures, specifically the servants of God, on whom the sun rises and the rain falls irrespectively, these need to be sealed (given a distinguishing mark as in Ezek. 9) by the Spirit for their own ultimate safety or salvation (Eph. 1:13f.; 4:30) when the harvest of the world is reaped (Mt. 3:12; 13; 24:31, etc.). Then, the writer John reveals the number of those who are sealed as 144,000. This is clearly an idealized number signifying the Israel of God, the twelve tribes of Israel and the church built on the foundation of the twelve apostles. (In Revelation 14:1-5 as in James 1:18 these are first fruits for God and the Lamb implying that there are others.)
But then comes Revelation 7:9 which remarkably portrays a great multitude of people from every tribe and nation gathered around the throne of God. Contrary to Wilcock, for example, this multitude and the 144,000 cannot be one and the same (p.80). On the face of it, this somewhat motley if not exactly amorphous crowd transcends the boundaries of Israel to include even the heathen, despite their traditional rejection by the church. This assumption receives even more support when we read in verses 11 and 12 that along with the angels and the twenty-four elders the mysterious four living creatures already referred to in 4:6 and 5:8,14 appear joining in praise and worship of God. Since these like Abraham, the Ninevites, the Queen of Sheba (Mt. 12:39-42), the centurion (Mt. 8:5-13) and others (e.g. Mt. 15:21-28) come from the four winds when creation is significantly harmed, they must surely represent the elect from among the heathen (Mt. 24:29-31). These are arguably the noblest (lion), the strongest (ox), the wisest (human) and loftiest (eagle) from among mankind (cf. Luke 7:9), in contrast with ‘those who dwell on the earth’ (Rev. 6:10, cf. Zech. 11:6, etc.) whose portion according to Psalm 17:14 (cf. Luke 16:25) like that of Ishmael and Esau is in this world or who, in Wilcock’s words, are irredeemably committed to the cause of evil (p.73).
However, instead of drawing what I, given my understanding of Romans 8:18-25 referred to above, would have thought was the obvious conclusion that these four living creatures are representative heathen, other commentators think otherwise (8* Mounce, for example, following Beckwith, regards them as an exalted order of angels but allows that they may represent ‘the entire animate creation’, p.124). Their view is conditioned of course by their assumption that Romans 8:21 refers to creation not to the creature (the same word in Greek). However, why the inarticulate creation as opposed to the articulate creature should be pictured as accompanying the twenty-four elders in voicing their praise to God for salvation is more than difficult to appreciate. (9* I do not deny that the entire creation, animate and inanimate testifies to the glory of God, Ps. 19:1ff.; Rom. 1:20, etc., but it hardly correlates with the four living creatures described in the book of Revelation.) If we reckon with the fact that three covenant peoples, that is the Greeks (Gentiles), Jews and Christians, constitute the human race, my submission that the four living creatures are the heathen (including children and the immature in general) makes much more sense. Indeed, the assumption that the vast number of pagan people that have constituted the bulk of the population of the earth both in history and in present experience are left entirely out of account appears to me to run counter to the entire drift of a benevolent creator God whose purpose is to redeem his creatures (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). Rather, I would argue that the sovereignty of our redeeming God ultimately requires the unity of all in salvation. (Writers frequently and rightly draw inferences from examples of family solidarity in Scripture. Noah’s family is a case in point, though the defection of Lot’s wife points in the direction of separation. The truth is that the children of believers are often blessed by a genuine if child-like faith, but this does not make them Christian as infant baptism implies. We all become Christian through personal faith specifically in Christ. Judging by Acts 22:3, etc., Paul was a genuine OT believer, but he had to come to faith in Christ. In other words, he had to accept new revelation already implicit in the OT, e.g. Dt. 18:18; John 5:46f.)
The Meaning of Salvation
At this point it is perhaps useful to observe that the word ‘saved’ can be understood in more ways than one. For example, according to the NT even faithful Israelites were not saved in the Christian sense of the term since they were still waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-38). But there can be little doubt that all the true sons and daughters of Abraham were saved in the ultimate sense of the term even though they came short of perfection (cf. Heb. 11:39f.). Thus, if we extrapolate from figures like Abel, Enoch, Noah and even Abraham who was never part of the Israelite nation, we are in a position to say the same with regard to the world’s heathen in general.
Though there is no explicit reference in Scripture to diminished responsibility, it is everywhere assumed. (10* See Acts 17:30 and Rom. 3:25, for example.) Who can read Romans 2 and, on the assumption of impartiality (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11), not conclude that since we are judged by our works but justified by faith, it is implicit?
There is, however, a potential objection to this: it would cut the nerve of evangelism. It can be argued that if it is true that the heathen and the Jews who have not responded to the Christian message can ultimately be saved and will find a place along with Christians surrounding the throne of God, there is no point in supporting the missionary enterprise? This, I believe, is a totally unacceptable reaction.
First, it must be remembered that perfection or maturity is God’s aim from the start (Gen. 2:17; Mt. 5:48; Heb. 6:1, cf. 3:1, etc.). We who are created in his image are called to take on his likeness (cf. Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 5:1f., etc.) as even the devil realized (Gen. 3:5). While only Jesus achieved complete perfection in the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), the rest of us even as Christians are called to it. Paul was concerned that he had not achieved total maturity but was pressing on toward that goal and its prize, the upward call of God in Christ (Phil. 3:12-14, cf. Heb. 3:1). Elsewhere he suggests that he disciplined his unwilling, recalcitrant fleshly body to avoid being a castaway (1 Cor. 9:27, cf. Mark 8:34-38).
Second, we must remember that even Moses, great man of God though he was, lacked the assurance that ought to characterize the Christian and in the event failed to enter the Promised Land. If his life teaches us nothing else, it teaches us to avoid complacency and presumption. We are well advised also to call to mind the Exodus story in general, since it portrays the fate of many who fell by the wayside and died in the desert (Heb. 3:17). Christians are warned not to imitate them but to enter the rest God has provided (Heb. 4:11, etc.).
Third, the same is true with regard to the heathen. While we may generalize and rightly assume the salvation of many (cf. Mt. 8:11), we do not know who they are as individuals. (11* Matthew 13:38 tells us explicitly that the field is the world and that the master’s servants are to resist the impulse to gather its weeds. That task is to be left to the reapers at harvest time, Mt. 13:28-30, that is, at the end of the age, 13:49f.) All men and women enjoy, first, solidarity as flesh and blood and, second, in sin since we all break the law (Rom. 3:23; 5:12; Gal. 3:11), but Scripture is concerned to ensure that we all experience solidarity in faith, holiness (perfection) and good works (see espec. Rom. 2:6-11 where Paul stresses ‘everyone’, cf. 1 Pet. 1:7) desiring that all should be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). As it happens, Scripture also teaches us about separation. While on the one hand it may resemble the separation of Abraham from his compatriots in Ur, or Jesus’ separation from sin, on the other hand, it may involve the general separation of the evil from the good (cf. Mt. 25:31-46). Scripture warns us also of eternal separation from God if we fail to respond to such revelation of himself as he gives us (2 Thes. 1:9). The truth is that all of us live in a moral universe and hence are called to live accordingly. While it is true that we are all sinners and come short, God in Christ has taken care of that aspect of life by means of justification by faith which pervades almost the whole of Scripture (cf. Heb. 11). But the time will come when our appointment with death will be kept and after it will come the judgement (Heb. 9:27; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10, etc.). Evangelism is a pandemic plea for perfection, a universal summons to all to come to maturity that all must heed on pain of death, eternal death (cf. Acts 17:30f.). The danger of our failing as human beings made in the image of God to rise above the animals is seriously possible (2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 10). However, at the end, the tree of man, the vine out of Egypt (Ps. 80:8), will be pruned and dead branches will be thrown into the fire (John 15:6) along with the earth that failed to produce (Heb. 6:7f.) as it did largely before the flood (Gen. 6:11-13) and again at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:23-29, cf. Luke 17:26-32).
A final point must be made. I have argued that having started at the beginning in animal ignorance like Adam and Eve (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.), we must all pass through three covenant dispensations if we are to reach the maturity or manhood God calls us to (cf. Gal. 3:28; 4:1-7; Eph. 2:15; 4:13, etc.). For what is required of the race is equally required of the individual. In other words, the individual (Rom. 7-8; Gal. 4:1-7) recapitulates the history of the race (Rom. 1:16-4:8) in miniature. (*12 I also argue that the mature man according to the flesh is creation in miniature. In line with its evolving pattern we all, including animals, begin or are (pro-) created, gestate, experience birth, babyhood, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, decline and death. And just as the flesh is doomed by nature to destruction, 1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Cor. 5:1, so is creation itself, 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:10-12. See my The Destruction of the Material Creation, The Transience of Creation.) But we do it together so that at the end we have ‘one man’ (or, alternatively, one woman, the bride of Christ, Eph. 5:25-33) who has attained to the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16).
This view of the matter solves some of the most troubling problems associated with the Christian faith. First, it presents us with a God who is at once Creator and Redeemer and who achieves victory through his all-conquering Son (Rom. 8:31-39; Rev. 5:5), the Saviour of the world (John 3:16, cf. 16:33). In light of this, we can freely rejoice along with John Stott in him whom he rightly calls the incomparable Christ (see The Incomparable Christ, Leicester, 2001). Second, it takes care of all the little ones of the world, the heathen, the immature adults, the slain in war, the ignorant, the poor, the persecuted, the sick, the retarded, and even the children who have died but who in the nature of circumstances have never attained to maturity (cf. Heb. 11:39f.). (*13 On babies who have not attained to rationality and self-consciousness, see my Are Babies Saved?, Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?. John Murray in comment on Romans 1:16f. rightly wrote that salvation is not accomplished irrespective of faith, p.27. What he added in a note regarding the order of salvation (ordo salutis) was less satisfactory, especially in view of his later comment on Romans 1:19 that revelation is always to those who have intelligent consciousness, p.38!) And third, it gives suffering Christians ample reason to adopt the optimistic outlook that should characterize all Christians. For the time will come when the vast majority of human kind created in the divine image will surround the throne of God and the Lamb and give voice to unstinted praise (Rev. 4:6b-11; 5:11-14; 14:1-5; 19:4). The triumph of the Christ (Rev. 5:5) who claimed to have overcome the world (John 16:33) was no pyrrhic victory (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). He did not suffer in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:58). His word which will never pass away (Mt. 24:35) will accomplish all for which it was sent (Isa. 55:11). And since all are sinners (Rom. 11:32), often as much sinned against as sinning, and mercy triumphs over judgement (James 2:13), we can be sure that grace will prove wonderfully victorious as Paul seems to imply in Romans 5:12-21 (cf. Gal. 4:27).
Only the deliberately wicked (Num. 15:30f.; Isa. 66:24; Dan. 12:2; Mt. 25:41-46; Acts 24:15; Heb. 10:26-31, etc.) who have unconscionably and inexcusably rebelled will be missing from that mighty throng. They will dwell forever with their father, the devil (John 8:44; Mt. 25:31-46; Rev. 19:17-21; 21:8; 22:11, etc.).
See also my Concerning Futility, Further Reflection on Romans 8:18-25 – An Alternative Approach.
R.H.Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed, Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 1998.
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, 1967 ed.
M.Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, Leicester, 1975.