What about Those Who Never Hear the Gospel: Analyzing the Argument

This is the first article in a four-part series. In this article, I address the argument given by Calvinists against Extensivists’ (non-Calvinists) claim that God salvationally loves every person, and, therefore, every person can be saved. The second will address this challenge from the Old Testament. The third will address it from the New Testament, and the fourth and final article will address the question by considering the issue of foreknowledge and foreordination. I believe these articles will demonstrate that God does truly love, desire, and provision for every person to be saved; therefore, Calvinism and its exclusivist doctrines are wrong and unbiblical.

Based upon who God is and what he explicitly and repeatedly says, Extensivists believe God salvifically loves every single person in his creation; therefore, he understandably desires for everyone to be saved. This perspective contrasts with Calvinism, which believes God only salvifically loves some individuals known as the unconditionally elect; therefore, he desires only those he selected to be saved. Calvinism’s commitment to unconditional election has already answered the question, what about those who never hear the gospel.

In contrast, Extensivists are often challenged to answer the following dilemma. Suppose God truly loves the entirety of lost humanity and correspondingly desires for every person to be saved. What about the people who never hear the gospel and, therefore, do not get the opportunity to be saved? To claim that Scripture intends to express that God loves every individual and does not desire any individual to perish, yet does not give everyone a chance to be reconciled to him, seems to make that claim hollow and maybe even misleading.

We can summarize the challenge like this, “What about those who never heard the gospel and perish in hell? How can it be said God salvifically loves them and desires them to be saved?”

Calvinists use this supposed dilemma to contend that Extensivists have the same problem as Calvinists. Calvinism limits salvation to only the elect, and Extensivism limits it to only those who hear the gospel. I will seek to demonstrate Calvinists proffer an overly ambitious and mistaken statement. They claim that “no one will be saved without hearing the gospel.” Such an unqualified statement is misleading and unwarrantedly favors Calvinism.[1]

 First, the supposed similarity is false

The challenge is that “Extensivists have the same problem.” This conclusion refers to the problem arising from Calvinism’s belief in such ideas as unconditional election, limited atonement, and the selective efficacious call, which result in Calvinism being a salvifically exclusive perspective. Calvinists seek to make Extensivism have the same problem of exclusivism. As the argument goes, everyone does not hear the gospel; therefore, everyone does not get an opportunity to be saved. This argument is characteristic of Calvinists’ attempts to downplay the difficulties generated by their system while maintaining their perspective is biblical.

Extensivists begin by believing the excellent and clear declarations of Scripture regarding God’s salvific love for all are as straightforward as they seem to be. We believe, without theological prejudice, they bespeak God’s unfathomable salvific love for every person (Ezek 18:23, 32, 33:11; Ps 86:5; John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4, 4:10; Titus 2:10–11; 2 Pet 3:9).

We understand Jesus came to enlighten humanity and take away the sin of the world, which means every sin of every person (John 1:9, 29; 1 John 3:5). The words take away mean just that. They signify Christ effectively dealt with sin in his sacrifice on the cross so that anyone and everyone in the world can be saved by faith.[2] We believe the Holy Spirit convicts the world, meaning every person in humanity (John 16:8–11), Christ and the Father are drawing everyone (John 6:44; 12:32), and when he commissions the church to go into all the world (Matt 28:18–20), it is to share God’s love for each person. Jesus’s ministry was to go about preaching (Mark 1:38), and he makes the offer of salvation not merely to groups but to individuals (Matt 19:16–26; John 12:35–36).

While all and world may be understood in a limited way, they also regularly have a comprehensive meaning (John 3:16; Rom 3:23; Titus 2:11). Extensivists believe that the same world of humanity that sinned and needs redemption, which includes every single person, is the same world for whom God gave his only begotten Son (John 3:16).[3]

Extensivism says that when passages speak of God’s love for the world (humanity), these people are included in the all who have sinned (Rom 3:23), the all for whom he died (2 Cor 5:14–15), the all for whom he gave himself as a ransom (1 Tim 2:6), the all for whom he tasted death (Heb 2:9) and paid for their sins (1 John 2:2). It is the same all to whom Christ sends his church, to whom God may show mercy (Rom 11:32). Romans 3:9 cannot be limited to Jews and Greeks as a group, but instead, means every individual in each group. The Scripture is equally clear about the sufficient provision of salvation opportunity for each person in each group. We believe the passages that teach God’s salvific love for every person are as clear as those that teach that every person needs salvation (Rom 3:1–10). These distinctions clarify that the two views of salvation are obviously and essentially dissimilar and, therefore, do not share a similar problem regarding the lost.[4]

Extensivists believe God truly and salvifically loves all of humanity; correspondingly, he both desires and sufficiently provides for each person to have an accessible opportunity to be saved. This belief is based, at least in part, on repeated unambiguous declarations in Scripture to this effect, as cited above, and God is by nature perfect love (2 Cor 3:11; 1 John 4:8, 16), as well as merciful and omnibenevolent.

Charles Hodge says, “Goodness, in the Scriptural sense of the term, includes benevolence, love, mercy, and grace. By benevolence is meant the disposition to promote happiness; all sensitive creatures are its objects[5] (italics added). Similarly, Millard Erickson says, regarding benevolence, “By this we mean the concern of God for the welfare of those whom he loves. He unselfishly seeks our ultimate welfare[6] (italics added). He then gives John 3:16 as an illustration of this benevolence, which indicates he includes people’s salvific welfare.

I agree with Hodge that benevolence is the promotion of true happiness for all humans. I also agree with Erickson. But I would add a question to these explanations. Doesn’t providing for a person’s “happiness” and “ultimate welfare” necessitate giving an opportunity to experience salvation? Doesn’t this benevolent act tower over all other promotions of “happiness” and “welfare”? Without such benevolence, with its concomitant eternal loss and damnation, all other blessings are doomed to eternal meaninglessness and to talk otherwise is a massive distraction. That is to say, benevolence that provides only temporal items such as sunshine, food, and water is eternally meaningless because in the end, only salvation matters. Unfortunately, Calvinists often echo the sentiments of Hodge and Erickson, which confuse the issue because they are inconsistent with Calvinism’s exclusive salvation. Yet they are perfectly reflective of Extensivism.

 Second, the Calvinist overstates his case, which results in a misleading statement

The Calvinist makes such claims as, “We all know that God allows and has allowed untold billions of people to be born whom he knows will never hear the Gospel, without which no one is saved.” Their point is that while God has limited the number which can be saved in Calvinism by unconditional election, God has similarly limited the number which can be saved in Extensivism by never giving them a chance to hear the gospel.

We must define the gospel. Paul said, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:1–4; see also John 1:29, 3:16; Rom 10:9–11).

Succinctly, by the gospel, we mean the good news that God loves the world, and Jesus Christ died for our sins so that by simple faith in him, we can be delivered from our just desert and become children of God and possessors of eternal life. The Calvinist challenge to Extensivism is that no one is saved apart from hearing and believing the gospel. The following is my response.

We know people were saved before the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and inarguably, they were saved without hearing the gospel. All the saints in the Old Testament were saved without hearing the gospel proper, some of which are referred to in the New Testament (Heb 11:1–40). The scriptural record is indisputable proof that since the fall, not every restored relationship with God was by hearing the gospel proper.

Although Calvinists frequently make such statements for the sake of comparison, they do recognize people have been saved without hearing the gospel. If a Calvinist makes the challenge we are considering, and I point out the salvation of the Old Testament saints who never heard the gospel, they immediately concede the point. Although, then one may reasonably ask if everyone agrees on this, why make the point? Because they keep making their unguarded challenge, and many fail to grasp the overstatement of such a challenge. The salvific fact of Old Testament saints alone proves that the statement as given, defined by the context of its purpose, is false. This limited falsification does not minimize the need to take the gospel to everyone in the world, nor the exclusivity of the gospel as declared in Scripture (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Instead, its purpose is to cogently demonstrate that this statement, without qualification, is invalid proof of God’s limited salvific love.

Another example of people who have never heard the gospel being saved concerns babies and small children who die. Although there are differing perspectives within the Reformed tradition, some believe that children who die before exercising faith in the gospel go to heaven. Some believe pedobaptism accomplishes this; others believe that elect children go to heaven without hearing and believing the gospel; others believe that all children go to heaven.

An example of a reformed perspective is in the Cannons of Dort, which says, “Children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.”[7] J.P. Boyce believes regeneration precedes faith, but he recognizes that God gives children special salvation. He writes, “Regeneration (as in infants) may exist without faith and repentance, but the latter cannot exist without the former.”[8]

Extensivists believe children who die before being able to understand their sin, understand their need for a Savior, and exercise saving faith, and those who lack the mental capacity to exercise faith in the gospel are provisionally covered by the grace and love of God. This provision is made available through the sufficient work of Christ in dying for the sins of the world (2 Sam 12:20–23; John 1:29). The latter position particularly would argue since God loves the world of humanity (John 3:16), and his genuine desire is that no one would perish (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), he would have comprehended this eventuality in his plan. With the reality of these two points, some people in the Old Testament, as well as today, go to heaven without having heard the gospel.

These two examples demonstrate God’s grace has sufficiently comprehended certain and limited eventualities that permitted those for whom Christ died and those whom God loves to come into his presence without hearing the gospel. This recognition does not minimize the command or the need to take the gospel to the world, nor the reality that everyone who hears the gospel and does not receive it by faith dies in their sin. Instead, it clarifies the place of the gospel in God’s salvation plan, which is that while God has provisioned for the salvation of some who never hear the gospel, it is also true that no one is saved apart from the work of the gospel. The gospel, the work of Christ, is always ontologically necessary for salvation, but there are undeniably exceptional circumstances where it is not epistemologically necessary.

It is misleading to allow the Calvinist to frame the issue with a blanket statement, such as no one can be saved without hearing the gospel. Because without qualifications, it is an inaccurate statement, which may be allowed in an academic debate but should not be allowed to disprove God’s genuine salvific love for the world of lost humanity. To do so is to permit a false argument that dishonors God.

[1] For further evidence that everyone gets an opportunity to know God, see my book, Does God Love All or Some; Comparing Biblical Extensivism and Calvinism’s Exclusivism. I include four chapters addressing this issue.
[2] “To destroy, with the implication of removal and doing away with, ‘to destroy, to do away with’.” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996, Logos Bible Software), 232.
[3] See my evaluation of John Piper’s argument to limit the word all to only meaningfully include the elect in my book, Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist, chapter 10, “World vs. Elect.”
[4] Things can contain similar and dissimilar components and still be essentially similar (the same with differences). But if events or ideas contain essentially dissimilar components, they cannot be the same; although, on the surface they may appear to be. For example, a criminal shoots a storekeeper in a robbery, and a policeman shoots a man trying to murder a woman. The examples have similarities (guns, someone shoots, and someone dies), but they are essentially different because of who did what and for what reason.
[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986), 427.
[6] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., vol 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 292.
[7] Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, article 17.
[8] James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (1887 Reprint, Escondido, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, n.d.), 381.

Ronnie W. Rogers