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 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.