One of the great obstacles to Christian faith in our time is the traditional teaching that all who have not heard and received the Gospel of Jesus Christ are destined for an eternity of suffering.
That’s actually two obstacles in one: (1) everyone has to hear and receive the Gospel, on pain of hell; and (2) hell is everlasting torment.
I have addressed the second question, on the nature of hell, alongside proponents of other views in this volume.
I earlier addressed the first question on this weblog here. Today, I provide a much briefer and simpler version of that view in an excerpt from my latest book, Can I Believe? Christianity for the Hesitant (pp. 163-66). You will immediately see that it is therefore couched not as theology for my fellow theologians, but as introductory teaching for someone inquiring into the Christian religion. Thanks for reading it that way. Here goes:
What about the scandal of the Christian conviction that to be saved a person has to have heard, understood, and accepted the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension—in short, to have believed the gospel? What about the millions of people over the millennia of human history who have never heard this Story, through no fault of their own? Are they all doomed?
Lots of Christians have thought so. Many a missionary career has been launched by the horrific image of a “Niagara of souls” plunging into a lost eternity for lack of hearing the gospel. But Christians don’t have to think this way, and many of us don’t.
Instead, let’s notice something that many Christians have yet to notice in their own New Testament—the explicitly Christian part of the Bible (the Old Testament being, of course, the Hebrew Bible accepted by the early Christians as scripture). These Christian scriptures hold up as models of faith many Old Testament believers who, ipso facto, did not know the story of Jesus—since he had yet to be born. In fact, a key chapter of the New Testament, Hebrews 11, sets out for the inspiration of Christian believers a whole gallery of faithful people, not one of whom could possibly have heard of Jesus, since the list is drawn from the Old Testament. And remember, this is a Christian book in the Christian New Testament written by a Christian author for a Christian audience.
Hebrews 11 is prefaced by a definition of faith: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6). So anyone who (1) believes that God exists—and Romans 1:19–21 makes it clear that God has shown everyone that God exists—and (2) trusts God to be good to us if we will turn to God meets the definition of faith. That person’s actual understanding of God might be shadowy and distorted indeed, as Christian theologians believe is true of, say, a Muslim believer or a Hindu devotee of Vishnu, or, frankly, a typical North American Christian! But whoever actually encounters God (as the Holy Spirit can make possible for anyone, anywhere) and responds in humble trust meets the criteria of this famous Biblical chapter on faith.
I am not espousing the popular view that God is happy to bless anyone who is sincere in whatever he or she believes. God is not pleased with sincere racism, or sincere sexism, or the sincere worship of dark divinities whose values are at cross purposes with God’s. People must respond positively to whatever vision they have received of the true God, however conceptually deficient that understanding might be at the moment. But if they do respond in faith to God—again, this isn’t a matter of assenting to certain correct doctrines about the divine, but of responding personally to a mystical encounter with the true God—then God receives them gladly.
I have to say, therefore, that the traditional view (I was taught it myself) that people must explicitly hear, understand, and receive the Jesus Story—must receive and properly process this information—smacks of magic. “Only this spell, learned and then recited verbatim, will produce the desired results.” It also raises all sorts of thorny questions: How accurately does one have to understand the gospel? What score would one have to achieve on a divinely mandated theology quiz? What, then, about children, or people with mental disorders, or people trying to understand the gospel through very different worldviews, or people whose previous experience of the Christian religion has been abusive? Must they get every element of the gospel message straight, to the satisfaction of a theologian, before they can be assured of their salvation? The understanding of faith I’m setting out here is consistent with the Bible’s own portrayal of person after person, in the Old Testament and the New, who simply could not have had a very rich and accurate conception of God, let alone a properly framed understanding of Jesus, and yet is clearly accepted by God on the basis of what they do demonstrate: faith in (the true) God.
Then why do Christians persist in missionary work? Why do we keep telling people about Jesus as often and as persuasively as we can? Is there yet another scandal here? Are Christians bothering people to no purpose, perhaps needlessly confronting them, even putting them in danger (as is true in many parts of the world today) by asking them to leave their current religion to become Christians?
Even if what I have suggested is true—that God meets people all over the world through whatever confused or partial view of the Supreme Being they currently possess and calls them to put their trust in the true God they have thus encountered— Christian missions yet have much to offer. The Christian vision of life, of course, is not restricted to the binary idea of “in/out,” “born again or not.” Evangelism is not merely a membership drive. The Christian life is a process of maturation, of growing up to be a properly formed adult (Colossians 1:28), and so perforce each convert would benefit greatly from being introduced to the Bible and the Church as soon and as well as possible.
More basically, though, God becomes much more attractive when clearly distinguished from the world’s confused portraits of the divine and made available instead in the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. So hearing the good news about Jesus would make coming to faith in God much easier, even as enjoying the Bible and the Church would dramatically contribute to one’s growing up correctly. So Christian missions are hardly pointless. Instead, these ideas both reframe their value and remove what to some is a serious obstacle to faith—namely, the terrible idea that God doesn’t care about, or somehow cannot do anything about, all those people whom Christians haven’t yet reached with their evangelism.