Christian Approaches to the Salvation of Non-Christians

Draft version: not for quotation or citation. For the final published version see

Religious Perspectives on Religious Diversity, Robert McKim editor. Brill 2017. pages 120-148.


Porphyry, a third-century critic of Christianity, asked: “If Christ declares Himself to be the Way of salvation, the Grace and the Truth, and affirms that in Him alone, and only to souls believing in Him, is the way of return to God, what has become of men who lived in the many centuries before Christ came?….What, then, has become of such an innumerable multitude of souls, who were in no wise blameworthy, seeing that He in whom alone saving faith can be exercised had not yet favoured men with His advent?”[1] Porphyry’s question has not gone away. A few years ago at a philosophy club meeting at a state university a student named Saul expressed ardent disapproval regarding “the God who damns to hell all those who never heard of Jesus.” I inquired, “Who believes that?” “Christians do” was his reply.

Saul was greatly disturbed by those Christians who claim that one must have knowledge of the historical Jesus in order to be saved. [2] Many Americans, it seems, share his discomfort. A 2002 poll found that only 22 percent of Americans thought religions should try to convert others.[3] Further, 78 percent said they were comfortable in declaring that all religions have elements of truth.

The question of the destiny of the “unevangelized” (those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus) involves the greater part of those who have lived on this planet and raises theological concerns about divine love and justice. Dante’s Paradiso (Canto 19) puts is succinctly:

A man is born in sight

Of Indus’ water, and there is none there

To speak of Christ, and none to read or write.

. . . He dies unbaptized and cannot receive

the saving faith. What justice is it damns him?

Is it is his fault that he does not believe?

Dante raises the question of divine justice about those who were not blameworthy for failing to be baptized and enter the ark of salvation (the church). Though the Bible does not contain a treatise on the topic, many Christians have considered two scriptural teachings to be especially relevant to the question of the salvation of non-Christians. One is the notion that “God so loved the world that he sent his son” to save it (Jn 3:16) and that God is “not willing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pe 3:9). These texts are illustrative of the many passages proclaiming God’s incredible love for, and desire to save, sinners. The other motif is that there is only one savior, Jesus, and it is through him and him alone that salvation has been brought to humanity. “And there is salvation in one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). I shall refer to these as motif 1 (God’s universal salvific will) and motif 2 (the particularity of salvation in Jesus). God desires all to be redeemed , yet Jesus is the only way of salvation. Does God make the salvation found only through Jesus available to everyone who is born?  Is Christian salvation universally accessible? If so, how might God bring this about?

Historically, Christians have answered these questions in a variety of ways. Some responses reject one of the motifs but the majority of views have affirmed both motifs while differing over how God makes the redemption procured by Jesus available to all people. This chapter will survey the main options Christians have affirmed regarding the possibility of salvation of the unevangelized and then examine in greater detail the inclusivist option that gained widespread appeal in the twentieth century.

A Spectrum of Views Regarding the Destiny of the Unevangelized

This list includes the main positions held by various Christians throughout history.[4] However, these are not the only possible views and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

1. Agnosticism

Proponents of this position affirm both motifs that God wants to save everyone and that Jesus is the only savior but hold that we simply do not have enough information to arrive at a conclusion. Hence, we should “leave it in God’s hands” and trust God to do the right thing. A favorite biblical text used by proponents of this view is Genesis 18:25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”  However, most Christians have felt the need to go beyond saying “we don’t know” to provide a particular view on this important issue.

  1. Parity Pluralism

Pluralists such as John Hick and Paul Knitter believe there is enough information to form an answer but want to get beyond a distinctively “Christian” perspective.[5] Parity pluralism is the view that all the major religions and many others are “salvific” (appropriate human responses to whatever ultimate reality is) and that no particular religion is superior to others regarding salvation. Proponents tend to reject both motifs 1 and 2. Pluralists reject the idea that “God” wants to save everyone since some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism do not affirm the concept of God as an agent with desires or goals. The second motif, that Jesus is the particular means by which God redeems humanity, is rejected by parity pluralists because it entails a normativity regarding the means of salvation that privileges Christianity above other religions.

  1. Exclusivism

Exclusivists emphasize the scandal of particularity (motif 2)—there is no salvation outside of Jesus. Also, most, but not all, exclusivists affirm motif 1 that God wants all people to experience salvation. For exclusivists other religions have no salvific value and many believe their scriptures are not revelations from God. In addition to the emphasis on particularity of salvation in Jesus the vast majority of exclusivists hold that knowledge of and belief in the gospel of Jesus is a necessary condition for salvation. Let us call this the belief condition. Some critics of exclusivism have erroneously concluded that the belief condition means that the vast majority of the human race is damned. However, this is not necessarily the case for there are forms of exclusivism that hold that most if not all people will be saved. Exclusivism holds that other religions are not means of salvation but it does not necessarily imply that few non-Christians are saved. Exclusivists have developed six views regarding the possibility of salvation for the unevangelized.

3.1. Restrictivism

This view affirms the belief condition that in order to be saved one must know about and believe in the gospel of Jesus and it adds a key qualification: the belief condition must occur prior to death. One’s eternal destiny is sealed at death. Restrictivism denies motif 1 that God wants to save everyone. Most restrictivists are evangelicals who affirm theological determinism (Calvinism) and what is known as “definite/limited atonement” (Jesus’ atonement is intended only for those God chose for salvation). That God has not made salvation universally accessible to all people is clear because most people on the planet have died without knowledge of Jesus. Proponents argue that God justly denies salvation to the vast majority of the human race because all people refuse to obey what is known about God from general revelation. All humans deserve damnation but God gives redemptive grace to some (relatively few) humans. I coined the term “restrictivism” in order to distinguish the position from “exclusivism.” Though all exclusivists affirm that other religions have no salvific value, not all believe that the opportunity to obtain salvation is limited to this lifetime. Those who affirm postmortem opportunities for evangelism, for example, are exclusivists but not restrictivists. Finally, it should be noted that some proponents of this view distinguish between “hard and soft” restrictivism. According to the hard version one must hear the gospel from a human agent and accept it before death in order for there to be the possibility of salvation. For the soft version God may make salvation available to those who have not heard from a human agent, perhaps via angels or dreams. Lest the restrictivist door be thought wide open, soft restrictivists quickly add that we have no reason to think God will do this on a large scale.[6]

3.2 Universal Sending

A widely discussed view in Medieval Christianity and one that finds a few adherents among evangelicals today is the idea that God never withholds redemptive grace from those who seriously seek God.[7] Unlike restrictivism, this view affirms motif 1 that God wants to save everyone. God ensures that those who seek after God receive the message of the gospel of Jesus even if that occurs by extraordinary means such as angelic messengers or dreams. The unevangelized have some information about God the creator available to them via the natural order. If they respond favorably to the revelation they have, then God will send the message of redemption through Jesus to them. Dante, (Paradiso, Canto 20), affirms that nobody enters heaven “but through belief in Christ” (the belief condition) either before or after the incarnation of Jesus. Dante provides several stories in which the belief condition is met in spectacular fashion. He refers to a number of pagans thought to have received visions of Christ, even a thousand years prior to the incarnation of Jesus, and of one pagan who was removed from hell and restored to his body long enough to hear of Christ and be converted. This position is similar to soft restrictivism except that proponents of universal sending think that the unevangelized can respond favorably to the knowledge of God via general revelation and they also tend to think the door of salvation is more widely open for the unevangelized than soft restrictivists suggest. Dante says:

Mortals, be slow to judge! Not even we

Who look on God in heaven know as yet,

How many he will choose for ecstasy.

3.3 Final Option Theory

A minority view in Roman Catholicism, known as the “final option” theory, affirms both motifs 1 and 2 as well as the belief condition.[8] Along with restrictivism it holds that trust in Jesus must occur prior to death because our destinies are sealed at death. However, in the final option theory a twist is added: every single person, while dying, has an encounter with Jesus Christ and thus come to understand what God has done in Jesus for their salvation. Hence, God makes the belief condition accessible to absolutely everyone, no matter when or where they lived. Once they understand what God has done for them in Jesus God asks them to give their “final answer.” During this process the human person is enabled to make a fully free act in full knowledge of the truth (though the character traits formed in life affect one’s decision). Proponents tend to hold out great hope that many people will exercise saving trust in Jesus at the moment of death.

3.4 Postmortem Evangelization

This view is quite similar to the final option theory except that the evangelistic encounter with Jesus occurs after death.  The belief condition regarding knowledge of Jesus and an act of faith in the gospel can be met postmortem. A nineteenth century Lutheran theologian wrote: “The preaching of Christ begun in the realms of departed spirits is continued there . . . so that those who here on earth did not hear at all or not in the right way, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, shall hear it there.”[9] Twentieth century evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch writes: “Hell is a reality….But it is not the final word on human destiny because God’s grace pursues the sinner into hell.”[10] Proponents of postmortem evangelization tend to be optimistic about the numbers of people who come to faith after death but they shy away from the claim that all people will eventually trust in Jesus.

Historically, postmortem evangelization was pioneered in the third century by Clement of Alexandria and Origen but it fell out of favor in Western theology after the time of Augustine. It was revitalized in the nineteenth century and is now finding increasing favor particularly among Lutheran theologians such as George Lindbeck, evangelical theologians such as Gabriel Fackre, and the Christian philosopher Steven Davis.[11] It is also the view of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).[12]

3.5 Universalism

Christian universalists believe that all humans, including those who practice religions other than Christianity, will be redeemed by Jesus. All Christian universalists affirm motifs 1 and 2 but not all universalists are exclusivists. That is, some universalists affirm inclusivism and thus reject the exclusivist claim that God does not work through other religions. Historically, the bulk of Christian universalists have been exclusivists.

Well known early church writers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa affirmed apokatastasis—the belief that all will eventually be restored to God. It affirms motifs 1 and 2 as well as the belief condition. Most universalists employ postmortem evangelization as the means by which all people are given the opportunity to understand the gospel of Jesus but some use middle knowledge as the divine mechanism (see below). All universalists express the hope that, in the end, no one is left behind or shut out. The gates of the heavenly Jerusalem are never closed (Rev 21:25) so the door of salvation is always open to outsiders. God searches for and will not rest until all humans are safely inside. Nels Ferré said, “There are no incorrigible sinners; God has no permanent problem children.”[13]


Universalism has been popular in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, became widespread among Protestants in the last two centuries, and has recently been affirmed by several evangelical theologians and philosophers.[14] Universalists can be distinguished between those who put forth universal salvation as a strongly held “hope” and those who argue that it is a foregone conclusion.[15]

3.6 Middle Knowledge

Middle knowledge affirms motifs 1 and 2 but does not accept the belief condition in a straightforward way. It is the only exclusivist view that does not hold that a person must make an actual profession of faith in Jesus in order to be saved. It is enough that God knows what the individual would do if she was evangelized.  God knows all the things that could possibly happen and all the events that actually will happen. Middle knowledge adds that God also knows all that would have happened had something in the circumstances been different. Evangelical Donald Lake writes: “God knows who would, under ideal circumstances, believe the gospel, and on the basis of his foreknowledge, applies that gospel even if the person never hears the gospel during his lifetime.”[16] If God knows that a person would trust in Jesus under ideal circumstance then God redeems that individual. However, proponents of middle knowledge are sharply divided about the number of non-Christians redeemed by this means. On the one hand, Thomas Flint (Roman Catholic) suggests that middle knowledge and universalism are quite congenial.[17] If one believes that every human under “ideal circumstances” would believe the gospel then a deity with middle knowledge who wanted to save everyone would have the means to do so.

Other proponents of middle knowledge, such as evangelical philosophers William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett, arrive at a very pessimistic conclusion.  They claim that none, or, at best, very few, of those dying unevangelized would have believed in Christ even under “ideal circumstances.”[18] Such people suffer from transworld anti-gospel depravity in that there are no feasible worlds God could have created in which people who possess this property would believe the gospel. Using middle knowledge, God created a world in which those people who would never trust in Jesus even under ideal circumstances were born and lived in unevangelized areas of the planet. Such people are rightly condemned because they never would have trusted in Jesus anyway.

Each of the six different exclusivist views about the salvation of non-Christians affirms motif 2: salvation is found only through Jesus. Restrictivism is the only exclusivist position that rejects motif 1: God’s desire to save all. Middle knowledge is the only exclusivist view that rejects the belief condition that one must know about and exercise belief in the saving efficacy of Jesus in order to be saved. The other five exclusivist approaches affirm the belief condition but work out different mechanisms regarding how God makes the opportunity to believe in Jesus universally available. Finally, we have seen that exclusivists hold a wide range of views regarding the number of non-Christians saved: from none to all. There is one more position to be covered in our survey and the remainder of the chapter focusses on the leading competitor both to the varieties of exclusivism and to parity pluralism.

4. Inclusivism

Inclusivism affirms motifs 1 and 2: God wants to save everyone and salvation is procured through Jesus alone. However, it rejects the belief condition that people must know about and exercise trust in Jesus in order to be saved. For inclusivists the redemptive work of Christ is necessary for the salvation of anyone but people can be saved by Jesus even though they die never hearing about Christ. What God requires is for people to respond favorably to the revelation God has given them. Responding favorably is often understood to mean something like seeking the good and true and manifesting love towards others. The Holy Spirit seeks to produce the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness) and the Spirit actively works to bring these about in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. Inclusivists hold that adherents of other religions who seek what is good, true, and loving find the fulfillment of their quests in Jesus. Since inclusivists affirm that people who meet this condition are saved by Jesus most inclusivists hold that such people, even if they follow another religion, will experience a distinctively Christian salvation in the afterlife. In order for this to happen a postmortem encounter with Jesus is posited. This encounter, however, is not an evangelistic one as it is in the postmortem salvation view. Rather, it is a confirming encounter which informs the individuals of the one who has saved them.[19]

4.1 Support for Inclusivism

Inclusivists, like the proponents of the other views just mentioned, combine biblical and theological arguments to defend the view.[20] Again, the Bible does not address the question of the salvation of outsiders in any direct way. As we have seen, Christians have developed a wide array of views on the matter. Most have combined motifs 1 and 2 with other key theological commitments to arrive at positions they believe best handle the issue. The same is true for inclusivists.

4.1.1 Biblical support

Some biblical texts depict God as working outside the bounds of ethnic Israel and the church. For example, it mentions several nations for whom God provided land (Deut 2:5, 9, 19, 21-22; 2 Kings 5:1) and that God did not hold those outside Israel or the church as highly accountable as Israelites or Christians (Deut 4:19; Acts 14:16, 17:30). The prophet Amos declared that Israel was not the only nation for whom God had performed an exodus (9:7). Inclusivists appeal to the so-called “holy pagan” tradition in scripture.[21] God declared approval of a number of non-Israelites such as Melchizadek, Jethro, Job, and the Queen of Sheba. In the New Testament Matthew speaks favorably of the Persian astrologers (Matt 2:1-12). Jesus commends the virtuous faith of Gentiles such as the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21-8) and the Roman Centurion (Matt. 8:10). Jesus declared the faith authentic of both Namaan the Syrian military officer and the ritually impure woman who thought if she touched Jesus’ clothes (according to Old Testament purity laws she should remain separate from others) she would be healed (Lk 4:27; Mk 5:34). Their faith was approved despite the fact that both had faulty religious beliefs. Inclusivists claim one does not have to have a perfect theology to be approved by God.

The books of Acts gives considerable space to a story about a Roman military officer named Cornelius, described as a God-fearing uncircumcised Gentile who prayed continually. An angel told him that his prayers and alms were considered by God to be a “memorial offering” and that he should contact the apostle Peter (Acts 10:4). When Peter arrived he proclaimed the gospel of redemption in Jesus which resulted in the baptism of Cornelius and his household. Reflecting on these events Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right, is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). Although this story is about the decision of the early church that Gentiles do not have to become Jewish before they can follow Jesus, inclusivists see in such texts the wider application that God had already accepted Cornelius as “saved” prior to hearing about Jesus. Due to their virtuous actions God includes them in the category of those who have “faith.” Such people are already acceptable to God, prior to any knowledge of Christ. In this case, Cornelius was already worshipping the God who saves through Christ. Peter’s information about Jesus brought to Cornelius what inclusivists refer to as the” fullness of salvation” derived from the gospel of Jesus and incorporation into the Christian community. John Wesley said that Cornelius went from being an already saved “servant” of God to a “son” of God when he trusted in Christ. Wesley believed that those non-Christians saved by God were “taught of God, by his inward voice, all the essentials of true religion.”[22] Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner classified people in this condition as “anonymous Christians” who manifest “faith, hope, and love” in their lives.[23]

Ignorance of Christ does not disqualify one from saving grace. God wants non-Christians to live righteously and follow the promptings of the Spirit even though the Holy Spirit, as such, may be unknown to them. Inclusivists think such an idea is expressed by the apostle Paul when he says God will approve of those Gentiles who, though they do not have the Old Testament revelation, do what is expected in this revelation (Rom 2:6-16). They could, for example, love their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).  It is unlikely that Abraham held messianic beliefs but even if he did he certainly had no idea exactly what the messiah would be like. Nonetheless, Paul says Abraham was accepted by God because he responded in a proper way to what he knew of God (Rom 4:16-22). Paul goes on to say that those who receive the gospel of Jesus, though they certainly know more about what God has done for the salvation of humanity than did Abraham , are accepted by God in the same way Abraham was—by responding properly to the revelation of God available to them (Rom 4:24). Christians are those who place their faith in what God has done in Jesus. Christians know some things about God not available to Abraham and the unevangelized but God accepts anyone who responds appropriately to the information available to them.  For Paul, there is only one God (Rom 3:29) who seeks to produce the fruit of the Spirit in all people though some have more information about what God wants than do others.  Inclusivists understand the traditional distinction between general (what God reveals through nature) and special revelation (what God reveals through the Bible) differently than exclusivists. The informational difference between creational revelation and biblical revelation is one of degree, not a difference of kind (as exclusivists tend to assert), since it is the same God behind both types of revelation.[24]

Inclusivists are aware of biblical texts that reject particular aspects of other religions and those that describe outsiders as being in darkness. Yet, inclusivists wish to highlight that in the Bible there are people who practice other religions who manifest important aspects of what God wants. Also, inclusivists take note of the interactions between biblical and other religious traditions. For example, the biblical writers used indigenous names for God and made use of ideas, values and practices compatible with the worship of the true God. [25]  As Israelite religion developed some aspects of the surrounding religions were rejected, others were adapted and some were simply adopted. Some religious practices, such as child sacrifice, are rejected. The sacrificial system, the tabernacle and many of the laws are adapted from the surrounding cultures while some of the Psalms and as well as laws are simply adopted wholesale.[26] Biblical scholars John Goldingay and Christopher Wright study this issue in the Hebrew Bible. The following statement is typical of their claims: “The implication seems to be that Abram and Genesis itself recognize that Malkisedeq (and presumably other people in Canaan who worship El under one manifestation or another) does serve the true God but does not know all there is to know about that God.”[27] They argue that the true God could be known and properly worshipped outside Israel. Consequently, the biblical writers thought of the other religions as a mix of truth and falsehood, righteousness and corruption.

The same approach to other religions is seen in the New Testament: some aspects are adopted, others adapted, and some aborted. In Paul’s speech to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17) he shows himself conversant with the beliefs and values of the Stoics and Epicureans.[28] Marilyn McCord Adams observes that Paul here does not refer to God’s special acts towards Israel nor does he ever mention the name Jesus or the title Christ.[29] Moreover, instead of citing the Hebrew Scriptures he quotes from a Greek poet. Paul sees a number of correspondences between his own beliefs and the beliefs of his non-Christian audience and goes so far as to state that they already have significant truths about God, divine providence, and genuine worship. However, he does say they are ignorant of some things about God that God is now revealing. God, he says, has overlooked their ignorance and is now calling them to prepare for the eschatological judgment (17:30-31). Paul knows corruption and falsehood exit in the religions and cultures around him but he does not reject them wholesale. Rather, he distinguishes between those beliefs and practices that may be accepted, those that may be modified and those which must be rejected.

4.1.2 Theological support

Inclusivists maintain that God shows salvific love to those outside Christianity. All who are saved, including the Old Testament patriarchs, depend upon the redemptive work of Jesus even if those people never knew of that work. For someone to be saved the work of Christ is soteriologically necessary but it is not epistemically necessary in order to benefit from it. Robert McKim uses the “tale of the hidden tollbooths” to illustrate how this can occur.[30] A couple of travelers journey down roads of a country but are unaware of concealed tollbooths and remain ignorant of the need to pay the fees. The fees the travelers should pay have already been paid by someone but this remains unknown to them. As they travel they remain unaware of both their need and that someone has met that need on their behalf.

Restrictivists strongly object to the notion that the work of Christ is not epistemically necessary for salvation because it rejects the belief condition. However, inclusivists point out that restrictivists have a significant loophole regarding the belief condition when it comes to infants that die. As far back as 1676 the Quaker Robert Barclay pointed this out: “If there were such an absolute necessity for this outward knowledge, that it were even of the essentials of salvation, then none could be saved without it; whereas our adversaries deny not, but readily confess, that many infants and deaf persons are saved without it: so that here they break that general rule, and make salvation possible without it.”[31]

Restrictivists press on and say that the unevangelized are sinners and thus justly condemned. Inclusivists agree that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23) but argue that God demonstrates gracious love to sinners through the work of Jesus (Rom. 5:8). God loves sinners qua sinners (1 Tim. 4:10; John 3:16). In Jesus, God has shown mercy to all (Rom. 11:32). God includes all in grace before there is any exclusion in judgment and the judgment is based on our response to the grace shown to us (Luke 15; Matt 22).[32]

How can sinners receive revelation and do some of what God wants them to do? Inclusivists appeal to the universal work of the Son and Holy Spirit. According to the second century writer, Justin Martyr, the seed (sperma) of the divine logos is present in all people even though the fullness of the logos is present in Jesus. This idea gave rise to “logos Christology” which affirms the cosmic work of the Son of God apart from the incarnation and outside of Christianity. Others have emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit among the nations. The human heart is hard because of sin and we do not respond properly to divine revelation apart from the gracious enabling power of the Spirit. Inclusivists are careful to say that people are not saved “on their own initiative” apart from divine grace. Gavin D’Costa says, “If a person’s ability to respond to revelation is not by means of reason or through any faculty possessed by that person, but by this initiative of God . . . is not this basic orientation towards God a gift of grace?”[33]

The Second Vatican Council makes this very point:

those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His church, yet, sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor, does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to His grace.[34]

This is not, as some evangelicals allege, “salvation by works” since inclusivists explicitly say that divine grace and the Spirit initiate and assist sinners to do what God wants.  Also, it is not our own righteousness that counts but that of Christ and, according to Paul, divine mercy and justification have been shown to all (Rom 5:18; 11:32). The righteousness of Christ is applied to those who respond appropriately to the Spirit. In Romans 2:5-16 Paul says that there are Jews and Gentiles who are not living the way God intends but that there are also both Jews and Gentiles (without special revelation) who do live as God intends.[35] There are people who do not have the Bible who nonetheless do what Moses said: they love God in their heart (Deut 6:5) and love their neighbors (Lev 19:18). Since God does not show partiality (Rom 2:11) God will grant eternal life to those unevangelized who follow the promptings of the Spirit (Rom 2:7).

Another theological argument is that all truth is God’s truth and divine truth is not confined to the Bible. Humans have found truth in many areas of life external to the Bible and for inclusivists this includes aspects of other religions. Vatican II says, “The Catholic church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” Some of the truths found in other religions can include names for God. In almost every case where the Bible has been translated into indigenous languages the Hebrew and Greek words for God have been translated using names gathered from the non-Christian religions of those peoples. The early Jesuit missionaries to China, for instance, used a Confucian name for God and they were extremely successful in their evangelism until the Vatican commanded them to use the Latin Deus. After this, the mission shriveled because people were not interested in a wholly foreign deity. Today the Mandarin version of John 1:1 reads: “In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God and the Dao was God.”[36] Lamin Sanneh, an African by birth and professor of world Christianity at Yale writes: “Christian expansion [in Africa]was virtually limited to those societies whose people had preserved the indigenous name for God….Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest, not weakest, suggesting a degree of indigenous compatibility with the gospel…”[37] Bible translation, he argues, has pioneered “a strategic alliance with local conceptions of religion” implying that the Christian God was already present and working in the native cultures and religions.[38] Translators have had to find truth and virtues in the cultural and religious thought-forms of the indigenous peoples in order to translate the Bible and communicate the gospel. Translation implies that some truth of the one God preceded the translators. The well-known African theologian John Mbiti writes:

[Since God is one,] “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the same God who has been known and worshipped in various ways within the religious life of African peoples. [God was] not a stranger in African prior to the coming of missionaries. They did not bring God; rather God brought them, so that by the proclamation of the Gospel…Jesus Christ might be known, for without Him the meaning of our religiosity is incomplete. The Gospel enabled people to utter the name of Jesus Christ…that final and completing element that crowns their traditional religiosity and brings its flickering light to full brilliance.”[39]

Important divine truths are present in cultures and religions apart from the Bible and Christianity. God is actively at work among non-Christians seeking to get them to manifest a loving way of life.

4.2 Types of Inclusivism

Having examined some of the arguments in support of inclusivism I now want to survey the different forms it takes regarding the relationship of Christianity to the other major religions.[40] No one expects the unevangelized to be areligious. If God is working among the unevangelized, then the religions have to be involved in someway. Vatican II says that there are “seeds of the word” (semina Verbi) present in the religions and it is the Holy Spirit who makes use of these seeds even outside the visible structure of the Church.[41] However, since Pope John XXIII declared Vatican II to be a pastoral rather than doctrinal council, a variety of inclusivist positions have arisen in Roman Catholicism and not just in Protestantism.

To repeat, all inclusivists affirm motifs 1 and 2: that God wants to save everyone and that the redemption of Jesus is soteriological necessary. They also agree that not everyone who is saved knows about Jesus. They reject the belief condition as epistemically necessary. Inclusivists disagree over whether God works through aspects of the other religions or in spite of them, or both through and in spite of. As was said above, the Bible contains both denunciations of certain extra biblical religious practices while approving others. Religions can enslave as well as liberate. Some religions offer God less to work with than others.

4.2.1 Revelation yes, salvation probably not.

Inclusivists of evangelical persuasion are typically quite willing to admit that there are truths (revelation) in the other religions that God may make use of.[42] Clark Pinnock, for example, rejects both Barth’s claim that other religions are the results of unbelief and Rahner’s view that other religions are valid ways of salvation. He writes: “On the one hand, it is possible to appreciate positive elements in other faiths, recognizing that God has been at work among them. On the other hand, it is not necessary to be blind to oppression and bondage in religion, Christ being our norm and criterion for measuring.”[43] Pinnock believes that God typically has to work in opposition to the religions in order to reach people salvifically but he does allow for “the possibility that religion may play a role in the salvation of the human race, a role preparatory to the gospel of Christ.”[44] He distinguishes between objective religion (cumulative traditions) and subjective religion (piety) and says that what saves is the pious response to God’s grace, not their response to the objective religion in which they are raised.[45]

4.2.2 Christianity as the fulfillment of the other religions

Some inclusivists argue that to say God always works in spite of the religions does not seem likely. It would be tantamount to saying that God works through our evangelism always in spite of our culture. If all of our understanding takes place within cultural thought-forms then it seems God is going to have to make greater use of the religions than Pinnock allows.

Vatican II takes a cautious approach, holding that other religions contain truths derived from conscience and providence, yet affirming that other religions are human constructions produced out of the “restless searchings of the human heart.”[46] The council neither explicitly affirmed nor denied that the religions might mediate salvific grace (i.e. be sacramental). This has led to a number of interpretations within Catholicism, some claiming that the Spirit does not work in the religions while others have affirmed just that. Under John Paul II the Vatican released a number of statements affirming that religions can be ways of salvation—though not salvation in its “fullness” since that is found only in Christ and his church.[47] The encyclical Redemptoris Missio declares that the Holy Spirit indwells the “very structures” of human existence including “not only individuals, but also in society, and history, peoples, cultures, and religions” (RM 28). Shortly thereafter, in 1991, the Vatican released Diologue and Proclamation which states that the Holy Spirit has a universal presence and can be found in the religions and that they play “a providential role in the divine economy of salvation” (29). In 2000, the Vatican statement Dominus Iesus declared that the religions are mediators of grace “even when they contain gaps, insufficiencies and errors” (DI 8).[48] Yet, it rejects the view espoused by some Catholics who “consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her…” (DI 21).

4.2.3 The religions, as such, are salvific

Karl Rahner is a Catholic theologian who believes God works through other religions to mediate Christian salvation. He utilizes Aquinas’ notion that grace does not destroy human nature but, rather, perfects it to argue that grace does not destroy the other religions but, rather, fulfills them by completing that for which they search. For Rahner, if God is serious about wanting to save all people then God is going to have to normally work through the religions.[49] This means that Hindus can be saved, not despite their Hinduism, but because of their Hinduism. Those who are saved are normally saved through the teachings and practices of their religion. God normally works through other religions in order to redeem people but Christianity remains the fullest and most correct account of divine salvation. This means that though there is much grace and truth in other religions, they are inferior to Christianity in some important respects. Moreover, because Christian salvation is defined by the gospel of Jesus, Rahner calls adherents of other religions who are saved “anonymous Christians.”

4.2.4 A Variety of Salvations

A novel form of inclusivism is propounded by Mark Heim, a Protestant, who uses the diversity found in the Trinity to argue for a diversity of religious ends.[50] For Heim, God wants the plurality of religions because there is plurality in God’s own being. He rejects Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” idea and says that Buddhists are not going to experience Christian salvation. Rather, they will experience Nirvana. Contrary to other versions of inclusivism, since adherents to other religions will not experience the salvation found in Jesus, there will not be a postmortem encounter with Jesus by which people in other religions discover who it is who saved them. He argues for a spectrum of experiences after death. Those who refuse all forms of grace will be lost and they will experience annihilation. The fullest experience of salvation belongs to Christians for they will experience true communion with the triune God. In between these are “penultimate religious fulfillments.” This category contains the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other religious paths by which their adherents will experience their particular understanding of “salvation” in different ways from that of Christians. Hence, he speaks of “salvations” in the plural though these are brought about, unknown to the adherents, by the Christian God.

From these four views we see a variety of inclusivist stances regarding God’s use of the religions. Why do inclusivists believe that God works though cultures and religions? In part because they feel that exclusivism fails to take seriously the way God works in the world. In scripture we see God working through human cultures and religions, sorting out what can be accepted, what needs to be adapted, and what must be rejected. Humans are socio-historical beings so grace must be mediated historically and socially. The notions that God will simply use omniscience to determine who would have affirmed the gospel of Christ had they heard or that God waits until the moment of death or after death to encounter people just do not seem to ring true to the way God has chosen to work through the rough and tumble of human history and culture.

4.3 Some Major Proponents

Inclusivism has been held by Christians at least since the second century and the list of proponents includes distinguished figures such as Justin, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, and Pope John Paul II.[51] Today, it is the dominant view of both Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants and has some significant evangelical proponents.[52] Inclusivism is held by a number of Eastern Orthodox thinkers.[53] According to John Hick inclusivism represents the closest thing to a consensus among Christians today.[54]

4.4 Some questions for and criticisms of inclusivism

As would be expected, a number of criticisms and questions have arisen in response to the inclusivist position. Several of these are from evangelical Christians who believe that few, if any, non-Christians will be saved. It should be noted that pluralists raise questions about inclusivism but those will not be addressed here.

  • Conservative evangelical critics suggest that evangelical proponents of inclusivism arrive at their position, not by sound reasoning, but because of outside pressures. Joseph Stowell, president of Moody Bible Institute, accused evangelical proponents of inclusivism of just wanting to be liked by their non-Christian colleagues.[55] Other evangelicals claim that inclusivists such as Pinnock have succumbed to the contemporary cultural pressures of North America.[56] Even if this was true of Pinnock (which I doubt), in many cases the arguments used by inclusivists were deployed by folks such as Aquinas, Wesley, C. S. Lewis, and John Paul II who certainly were not shaped by American cultural values and it is unlikely that they affirmed inclusivism in order to be liked by non-Christian colleagues.
  • More substantively, restrictivists claim that any view other than theirs undermines the motivation for missions—a core value for many evangelicals. However, this has certainly not been the case with Wesley or Billy Graham, both famous evangelists who reject restrictivism. Though more could be said, suffice it to say that there is no necessary connection between hope for the unevangelized (including postmortem evangelization) and demotivation for missions. Inclusivists argue that there are non-Christians in need of redemption and that sharing the gospel of Christ with them is appropriate. Also, there are those who have experienced salvation in a partial way who would benefit from experiencing salvation in its fullness in Christ.
  • What about those who, after being presented with the gospel, choose to remain in their own religion? Would not all those seeking truth and goodness, those already sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, become Christians when they have the opportunity to do so? One issue here is what it means to be evangelized. What exactly is to be believed? Another problem is that our understanding of the individual’s response may be skewed.[57] For instance, a young woman with whom I spoke said she was not interested in Christianity. I later found out that she had been sexually abused by an elder in a church. Had she really been evangelized? What about Jews and Muslims who filter the gospel message through Auschwitz, Christian persecution, the crusades or Western imperialism? Moreover, people may have a response that is acceptable to God but not to us. We would likely not approve of someone returning to their temple or mosque for worship after affirming the gospel. However, the prophet Elisha gave his blessing to the Syrian military officer, Naaman, who affirmed faith in Yahweh but said that upon returning to Syria he would have to worship in the temple of the god Rimmon (2 Kings 5:11-12). There are many issues that may keep people from responding in the ways we see fit.
  • Citing biblical texts critical of aspects of other religions, Geivett and Phillips maintain that other religions are full of “idolatry” and false beliefs.[58] Though he is aware of false beliefs within Christendom Geivett seems to hold that because Christians affirm some true beliefs (saving knowledge) God excuses our false beliefs and vices. In my opinion, if God is not rather generous about the content of belief, we are in deep trouble. As for idolatry, Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “If one who lives in the midst of Christianity goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol.”[59] This is not to ignore the fact that evil religious practices exist, it is only to say that the situation may not be as cut-and-dried as some evangelicals suggest.
  • Inclusivists are criticized for not putting forth the precise cognitive information one has to believe in order to be saved by God. Inclusivists respond by pointing out that Christians disagree among themselves regarding such content. Those desirous of clear and precise formulations of the belief condition in order to know who is in and who is out regarding salvation will never be satisfied with inclusivism for there are no clear and precise ways of demarcating such boundaries. George Lindbeck, a proponent of postmortem evangelization, criticizes inclusivists for attempting to reduce the propositional truths that are necessary for salvation to as few as possible and then equate affirmation of these truths to faith in Christ. Also, Lindbeck claims all our concepts occur in culturally specific settings such that there are no “propositionally statable truths common to all religions.”[60] Lindbeck is likely correct that one cannot plausibly claim that all major religions share a common core of beliefs or experiences due to the cultural-linguistic framework of our conceptualizations. Nonetheless, there might be some commonalities between particular versions of the religions and the gospel. It was argued above that Bible translation, which makes use of elements in the existing indigenous religions (including notions of God), implies that God has already been at work before the translators arrive.[61]

A specific question along these lines has to do with religions, such as some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, which do not affirm God as a personal agent. If one is to have a faith response to divine grace must that not involve believing that God is personal? What are we to do with the various understandings of God/ultimate reality? Inclusivists are divided as to how to answer this. Using the story of Cornelius discussed above John Wesley said the content of saving belief for non-Christians included “such a divine conviction of God, and the things of God, as, even in its infant state, enable every one that possesses it to ‘fear God and work righteousness.’”[62] According to Vatican II, those unevangelized who “sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them” are saved. This seems to suggest that belief in some form of theism is necessary. Rahner and some other inclusivists say that belief in theism and a personal God is not required. The formulation of inclusivism in this chapter defined the faith response in terms of the fruit of the Spirit and not in terms of belief in a personal God. This is an area for further discussion.

  • One final issue is the criteria to be used to discern whether or not the Spirit has been working in a particular non-Christian religious context. How do we distinguish true from false religion? Athanasius and Augustine argued that certain forms of religion in their day were false because they promoted immorality and brought harm, rather than healing, to people.[63] True religion, they argued, produces goodness and genuine community since this is the way God created us to be.

Pinnock says that Jesus is the “is the norm and criterion” by which Christians identify the work of the Spirit in other religions.[64] He also states that two criteria are delineated in Peter’s remarks in Acts 10:35: fear God and do what is right.[65] Fearing God involves a proper attitude towards God and will manifest itself in right actions towards others. Other inclusivists present similar criteria explained as an awareness of the divine mystery and a giving of oneself to others.[66] Amos Yong, a Pentecostal theologian, suggests a pneumatological approach: we should look for signs of the fruit of the Spirit as indicators that the Holy Spirit has been at work in specific religious communities.[67] We should look for communities that seek to love one another and fulfill God’s intentions for humanity. Such an approach will not satisfy many in the evangelical community who use precise doctrinal propositions in order to separate the sheep from the goats.

Jürgen Moltmann also takes a pneumatological approach: “the eternal Spirit is the divine wellspring of life—the source of life created, life preserved and life daily renewed, and finally the source of eternal life of all created being.”[68] Hence, as the wellspring of all life, there is a universal activity of the Spirit. Yet, care must be taken not to divorce the work of the Spirit from Christ. Though pneumatology should not be subordinated to Christology, it must not be separated from it if it is to remain distinctively Christian. For Christian theology the fruits of the Holy Spirit are going to be interpreted in distinctively Christian ways for, although the Holy Spirit may work outside where Christ is confessed, our knowledge of what the Spirit produces is connected to the gospel of Jesus.

It is important to note that though Christian inclusivists believe the divine disclosure in Jesus and the fruit of the Spirit furnish us with normative criteria, we must be open to the reality that our interpretation and understanding of Jesus and the Spirit can be improved. In other words, our formulations of the criteria are not incorrigible.

All of this means we have some hard work ahead of us. We need to probe and question the adherents of other religions and listen to them carefully in order to see whether we understand their texts and practices correctly. My own initial exposure to the other religions was given with broad, sweeping generalizations like “all eastern religions teach that ultimate reality is an impersonal absolute.” However, most adherents of Hinduism are Bhakti and believe in a personal God. We need to do the spade-work to see whether or not the inclusivist position holds up empirically. To this end we must invoke the aid of Orientalists, Indologists, Africanists, etc. in applying our criteria in order to discern whether or not the Spirit is present. Such work could give inclusivism more plausibility as an explanatory theory rather than depend solely upon biblical and theological warrants.


Throughout Christian history numerous responses have been given regarding the possibility for salvation of non-Christians. Each view addresses (1) whether or not God desires to save all people, (2) whether or not Jesus is the sole savior and (3) whether or not a person must know about and affirm Jesus as savior in order to be saved. Lindbeck argues that we should expect a variety of positions to develop on this issue just as there are diverse orthodox views on Christology and baptism. He says that the main concern of the theologians who have debated this issue has been to uphold sola Christus, not the concern to exclude non-Christians from salvation. Diversity is unavoidable and a number of positions are legitimate within orthodox Christianity so long as the position affirms: (1) sola Christus, (2) has congruence with scripture and tradition and (3) promotes Christian life and worship.[69]  Given this set of criteria, a number of the views surveyed, including inclusivism, meet it. Of course, inclusivists believe theirs is the best option regarding the possible salvation of non-Christians for the reasons given in this chapter.

[1] Porphyry, quoted by Augustine in a letter to Deogratias, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 1, ed. Phillip Schaff (1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 416.

[2] The term “saved” is being used here in a truncated sense: a life after death or getting to “heaven.” Though salvation is much more than this, the narrow sense of the word is how it has been used in the history of this issue and so I shall use it that way in this essay.

[3] The poll was conducted by the television program Religion and Ethics News Weekly and U. S. News & World Report magazine. See “Poll: Americans Shun Conversion Goals,” Christian Century, 119, no. 10 (May 8-15, 2002), p. 16.

[4] For detailed explanations and historical bibliographies of proponents of each of the positions see John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1992).

[5] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); and Paul Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985).

[6] See Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, “Introduction” in Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips eds., More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 19-20.

[7] Universal sending became popular in the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries and was affirmed by Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Gabriel Biel and many others See T. P. Dunning, “Langland and the Salvation of the Heathen,” Medium Aevum 12 (1943): 45-54 and Ralph Turner, “Descendit ad Inferos: Medieval Views on Christ’s Descent into Hell and the Salvation of the Ancient Just, “ Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 173-194.

[8] John Cardinal Henry Newman endorsed this view. For further discussion see Sanders, No Other Name, 164-165.

[9] John Lange, The First Epistle General of Peter (New York: Charles Scribner, 1868), 67.

[10] Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVaristy Press, 1995), 144.

[11] See Sanders, No Other Name, 197-200, 212.

[12] Latter Day Saints believe that the gospel is preached to departed spirits and some, if not most, of them repent and accept the gospel. Moreover, those who accept the gospel in their postmortem state can experience “exaltation” if someone on earth is vicariously baptized for the dead spirit. Mormons believe that very few, if any, end up experiencing damnation since just about everyone makes it into one of the three heavenly kingdoms. See David L. Paulsen, “The Redemption of the Dead: A Latter-day Saint Perspective on the Fate of the Unevangelized,” in Roger Keller and Robert Millet editors, Salvation in Christ: Comparative Christian Views (Provo Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2005), 263-297.

[13] Nels Fredrick Solomon Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper, 1958), 229.

[14] For the general history of universalism see Sanders, No Other Name, 98-106, 124-128. On Eastern Orthodoxy see Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church (Baltimore: Penguin, 1973), pp. 266-7. On evangelical forms of universalism see John Sanders, “Raising Hell About Razing Hell: Evangelical Debates on Universal Salvation” Perspectives in Religious Studies (40 no. 3, 2013): 267-281 and David Hilborn and Don Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition,” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge, editors, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 219–246. For a philosophical defense of universalism see John Kronen and Eric Retian, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism, Continuum Studies in Philosophy of Religion, (New York: Continuum, 2011).

[15] Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott argues that it is a foregone conclusion given that God will enable everyone to make a fully informed decision without the possibility of being deceived. See his “Case for Christian Universalism” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge, editors, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 3-52.

[16] Lake, “He Died for All: The Universal Dimensions of the Atonement,” in Clark Pinnock ed., Grace Unlimited (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975), 43.

[17] Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 105, n. 55.

[18] Craig, “No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation through Christ,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (April 1989): 172-188; Geivett, “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach,” in More Than One Way?, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 261, 270.

[19] This is what C. S. Lewis portrays in his The Last Battle where Emeth meets Aslan and Aslan informs Emeth that it is he who Emeth has really worshipped all his life.

[20] For additional argumentation see Sanders, No Other Name,215-280 and “Inclusivism” in What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 21-55.

[21] See Jean Danielou, Holy Pagans in the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green, 1957).

[22] Wesley, “On Faith,” in The Works of John Wesley, 3’rd ed., 14 vols. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1986), 7:197.

[23] Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 14 (New York: Seabury, 1966), 283.

[24] Gerald McDermott argues that the revelation in other religions is neither “general” nor “special” but “typological.” See his Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 111-114.

[25] For a summary see Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1992), 85-106.

[26] See John E. Goldingay and Christopher J. H. Wright “Yahweh Our God Yahweh is One: the Oneness of God in the Old Testament,” in Andrew D. Clarke and Bruce W. Winter eds., One God, One Lord: Christianity in a World of Religious Pluralism, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1992), 43-62;  G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1974); and Gerald McDermott, Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions?, 77-90.

[27] Goldingay and Wright “Yahweh Our God Yahweh is One2), p. 48.

[28] See Sanders, No Other Name, 244-7; L. Legrand, “The Unknown God of Athens: Acts 17 and the Religion of the Gentiles,” Indian Journal of Theology 30 (July-Dec. 1981): 158-67, and Bruce W. Winter, “In Public and in Private: Early Christians and Religious Pluralism,” in Andrew D. Clarke and Bruce W. Winter eds., One God, One Lord, 125-148.

[29] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Philosophy and the Bible: The Areopagus Speech,” Faith and Philosophy, 9/2 (April, 1992): 135-149

[30] McKim, On Religious Diversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 77. He also discusses the “tale of the rescued passengers”.

[31] Barclay, An Apology for True Christian Divinity (Philadelphia: Friends Bookstore, 1908), p. 181. He goes on to say, “neither can they allege, that it is because such are free from sin; seeing they also affirm, that all infants, because of Adam’s sin, deserve eternal damnation.”

[32] For elaboration on the theme of inclusion before exclusion see Sanders, “Inclusivism” in What About Those, 30-35.

[33] Gavin D’Costa, Theology and Religious Pluralism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 69.

[34] “The Constitution of the Church,” article 16 in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott (New York: American Press, 1966), 35.

[35] See Sanders, “Mercy to All: Romans 1-3 and the Destiny of the Unevangelized,” Proceedings of the Wheaton College Theology Conference 1 (1992): 216-228 and Klyne Snodgrass, “Justification by Grace—to the Doers: An Analysis of the Place of Romans 2 in the Theology of Paul,” New Testament Studies 32 (1986): 72-93.

[36] According to Alistar McGrath, “Response to Pinnock,” in Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips eds., More Than One Way? (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1995), 130-1.

[37] Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2003), 18.

[38] Sanneh, Whose Religion?, 12. See also 100, 105.

[39] John Mbiti, response to the article of John Kinney, Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research, 3/2 (1979):  68. Cited in Kwame Bediako “African Theology,” in David Ford, ed. Modern Theologians, second edition (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997), 433.

[40] For a helpful discussion of other issues which lead to different varieties of inclusivism see McKim, On Religious Diversity, 80-95

[41] See Lumen Gentium 13 and John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Knopf, 1994),  81.

[42] See Sanders No Other Name, 241-9 and Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 92-106.

[43] Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 109.

[44] Pinnock, “An Inclusivist View” in More Than One Way?, 98.

[45] Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 111.

[46] “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” in Documents of Vatican II, 662.

[47] On John Paul II see his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 81. Also see Paul Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 77, 81-2.

[48] The text also contains several acerbic remarks about other religions that seem to conflict with this more positive assessment. McKim sees a tension between exclusivist and inclusivist approaches in the document. See his On Religious Diversity, 95-100.

[49] See his Theological Investigations (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), 5:115-134.

[50] S. Mark Heim, The Depth of Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 2001).

[51] In my No Other Name I concluded that Aquinas was a proponent of universal sending. Though there is some evidence for this in Thomas’ writings, the insightful study by Thomas O’Meara convincingly shows that Aquinas was an inclusivist. O’Meara, “The Presence of Grace Outside Evangelization, Baptism and Church in Thomas Aquinas’ Theology,” in eds. Casuto and Caughlin, That Others May Know and Love: Essays in Honor of Zachary Hayes, (New York: Franciscan, 1997): 91-131.

[52] See chapters six and seven in Knitter’s No Other Name? for the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic views and for evangelicals see Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy.

[53] See, for example, Metropolitan Anastasios Yannoulatos, “Facing People of Other Faiths From an Orthodox Point of View,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 38 nos. 1-4  (1993): 131-152.

[54] John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 88.

[55] See Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry (Grand Rapids: Academie Press, 1990), 390-91.

[56] Geivett and Phillips, “Response to Pinnock,” More Than One Way?, 136.

[57] See Pinnock, Wideness, p. 174-5 and his comments in, More Than One Way?, 120.

[58] Geivett and Phillips, “Response to Pinnock,” More Than One Way?, 134.

[59] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), 179-80; see also his Christian Discourses, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 248-49.

[60] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1984), 57.

[61] Lindbeck faces a problem when he affirms both the cultural-linguistic approach and postmortem evangelization since non-Christians who encounter Christ after death would lack the cultural-linguistic framework for understanding what they are experiencing. God would have to translate into their cultural-linguistic framework in order for them to understand the Christian gospel. If God can translate after death why cannot God reach such people prior to death in ways that are acceptable to God?

[62] Wesley, “On Faith,” 7:199.

[63] See Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 89, 143.

[64] Pinnock, Wideness, 109.

[65] Wideness, 96.

[66] See Amos Yong, “The Turn to Pneumatology in Christian Theology of Religions: Conduit or Detour?, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 35, summer (1998), 448.

[67] Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003).

[68] Moltmann, The Spirit of Life (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992), 82.

[69] Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, see pages 56-7, 61-63, and 106-7.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

4 replies
  1. joseph culpepper
    joseph culpepper says:

    hello dr sanders, i have a question for the inclusivist position. namely doesn’t john 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” exclude the possibility of inclusivism?

    • John Sanders
      John Sanders says:

      Hello Joseph,

      I address this verse in my book, No Other Name. Inclusivists do not believe it repudiates the inclusivist view because the verse is saying that those who understand the person and work of Jesus and then reject him are the ones who do not believe. The verse is addressed the Jewish listeners of Jesus’ day.

  2. joseph culpepper
    joseph culpepper says:

    could inclusivism potentially save a non resistant atheist? for example an atheist who doesn’t spurn the idea of god, but just doesn’t see rationale support for it. if they acknowledged that they have been give a lot (by chance in their view) and felt grateful for that, and admit to their moral shortcomings and pursue a virtuous life? would that constitute a proper faith response or would they still be sent to hell?

    • John Sanders
      John Sanders says:

      Hello Joseph,

      The answer is yes. In my No Other Name I discuss people who have not fully understood or heard about Jesus in horrible ways–such as being a sex abuse victim in the church. I believe God takes such considerations into account.


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