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Can non-Christians be saved?
What about those who have
never heard of Jesus, or the Gospel

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Various Christian denominations and individuals have diverse views about the fate of persons who are not saved by trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior during their lifetime. These include those:

bulletWho have heard the Gospel and rejected it.
bulletWho have heard the Gospel, agreed with it, but never formally saved.
bulletWho have never heard of the Gospel, Jesus or Christianity.

There is no consensus among Christians on their fate:

bulletVery Conservative Protestant Theologians:
Most Fundamentalists and many other Evangelicals continue the Restrictivist beliefs taught by traditional Christianity. They believe that each verse in the Bible is without error (as originally written). They are compelled to follow the writings of Paul and the author of the Gospel of John. Those authors appear to have written consistently that only believers reach Heaven. Non-believers will go to Hell. One result of this belief is the list that the Southern Baptist Convention occasionally prepares. It estimates the percentages of people in various states of the US who will eventually go to heaven. Their data are based on the number of Southern Baptist members, and the numbers of members of other denominations in each state. From these data, they are able to estimate the percentage in each state who are "saved."

Some verses supporting the Restrictivist position are:

bulletJohn 3:3: "...no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
bulletJohn 3:15: "...everyone who believes in him [Jesus] may have eternal life."
bulletJohn 3:18: "...whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."
bulletJohn 14:6: "Jesus answered: 'No one comes to the Father except through me'"
bulletActs 3:23: "And it shall be, that every soul that shall not hearken to that prophet, shall be utterly destroyed from among the people." (ASV)
bulletActs 4:12: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved"
bulletRomans 10:9: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved"
bulletHebrews 9:28: "...he [Christ] will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him"
bullet1 John 5:12: "...he who does not have the Son of God does not have life."

(Quotations are from the NIV unless indicated).

bulletOther Conservative Protestant Theologians, including some Evangelicals:
Many hold contrary views because of the obvious ambiguity of the Bible on this topic:
bulletAgnostic: We have conflicting and/or inadequate information in the Bible and cannot reach a definitive belief about salvation.
bulletInclusivism: Non-Christian believers will avoid Hell if they worship a deity of some sort, because God works through all of the world's religious faiths. Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, etc. who do not believe in a God will go to Hell.
bulletMiddle Knowledge: God, having infinite wisdom, knows who would have rejected the gospel if it had been presented to them. As a result, they never have had the opportunity to accept the Gospel. Those people will be transported to Hell when they die.
bulletPost Mortem Evangelism: those who have never heard the gospel will be exposed to it after death and thus given the opportunity to get to Heaven. This is sometimes called Divine Perseverance.
bulletUnitive Pluralism: All of the world's great religions offer salvation to their members in different ways. A knowledge and acceptance of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus are not needed for a person to be saved. 4
bulletUniversal Opportunity: All those who were not saved during their lifetimes will be given a vision of the Gospel at the time of death, and will be able to accept salvation at that time.
bulletUniversalism: All will eventually be accepted into Heaven by some process after death. 1 This view was historically held by the Universalist Church, one of the faith groups that formed the Unitarian Universalist Association. One Biblical verse that supports the Universalist position is:
bullet1 Timothy 4:10: "...we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe.". (It may be worth noting that mainline and liberal theologians have reached a consensus that 1 Timothy is a forgery. It was not written by Paul but by an unknown author perhaps half a century after Paul's death.)
bulletRoman Catholics: One of many documents to come out of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (often referred to as "Vatican II") during the early to mid 1960s  was the "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium." Chapter 1, sections 14 to 16 discuss salvation of Catholics and others. 5 An "Assessment of this Council" reads:

"5. The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church." 6

In the year 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- issued a document: " 'Dominus Iesus' on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church." It stated that salvation is possible to those who are not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. The prayers and rituals of other religions may help or hinder their believers. Some practices may prepare their membership to absorb the Gospel. However, those rituals which "depend on superstitions or other errors... constitute an obstacle to salvation." Members of other religions are "gravely deficient" relative to members of the Church of Christ who already have "the fullness of the means of salvation." More details on: salvation of non-Catholics, and on "Dominus Iesus."

bulletLiberal Christians:
The most liberal Christian faith groups generally reject the necessity of salvation. They also reject the entire concept of eternal punishment in Hell for anyone - saved or unsaved.

Placing people in Hell because they have not heard the Gospel (and thus have not accepted it) is viewed as profoundly immoral. It is reminiscent of some of the Spanish Conquistadors who would enter a Native town in the New World during the 16th century, give a speech in Latin demanding that the people become Christians and lay down their weapons. The townspeople would be given an hour to make up their minds, the Conquistadors would then exterminate the townspeople (men, women, and children) for not acting on the demands. Not knowing Latin, the Natives hadn't the foggiest idea what the soldiers were asking of them. If we view this type of act by humans as completely immoral, how could we expect it of an all-loving God whose ethical standard is conceived as being so much higher than ours?

Many, perhaps most, people belong to a particular faith group because they were brought up in the faith group of their parents. So, Evangelical children will almost all be "saved" whereas children of very liberal Christian families or children of Muslim families will remain "unsaved". Most liberals would consider it unreasonable to expect an all-loving God to send the latter to Hell for the simple reason that their parents were from the wrong denomination.

bulletThe general population: Most Americans believe that anyone who leads a good life will eventually spend eternity in Heaven. They hold beliefs that are more related to the religion of Zoroastrianism than to historical Christianity. They frequently believe in some form of final judgment at which one's good and bad deeds are evaluated and compared. Those who receive a passing grade are sent to Heaven; those who fail end up in Hell. This concept would be difficult to implement fairly: If a passing grade were set at 50%, then those with 49.99% would be tortured for eternity in Hell, and those with 50.00% would be rewarded with heaven. This would appear to be an unjust, unfair treatment for a person who might fall short by only one good deed. If a person had been allowed to live just 10 minutes more, he might have done one more good work (or one fewer evil deed) and be given eternal reward in Heaven.

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Current beliefs among the American public about salvation:

bulletThe Princeton Religion Research Center (PRRC) 2 estimates that 6 in 10 Americans " completely agree that the only assurance of eternal life is a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Since the PRRC estimates that 8 out of 10 Americans regard themselves as Christians, then about 75% of Christian adults hold some doubt about inclusivism.
bulletAccording to the Barna Research Group, among adult Americans:
bullet86% believe that "eventually all people will be judged by God."
bullet57% believe that good people will go to Heaven
bullet39% believe that those who do not accept Christ as savior will go to Hell
bullet46% agree and 47% disagree that all good people will go to Heaven. 3
bulletThere appears to be some shifting of opinion among conservative Christians. The 1996 Year in Review by the Zondervan News Service quoted Ron Nash, author of "Is Jesus the Only Savior?":

"1996 helped reveal serious theological differences among America's 50 million evangelicals...In the issue of salvation, a growing number of evangelicals are embracing a position known as inclusivism which teaches that while the redemptive work of Jesus may be necessary for salvation, it is not necessary for people to know about Jesus or the gospel to receive the benefits of that salvation. It seems clear that 1997 will see this dispute to become even more divisive."

bulletA Beliefnet/Newsweek poll conducted in 2005-AUG asked 1,004 randomly selected American adults about their religious beliefs. 7 One of the questions was: "Can a good person who isn't of your religious faith go to heaven or attain salvation, or not?" Results were:
Group Yes, they can attain heaven No, they cannot attain heaven
Evangelical Protestants: 68% 22%
Other Protestants 83% 10%
Roman Catholics 91% 3%
Non-Christians 73% 3%
American population 79% 12%

The margin of error of the Beliefnet/Newsweek poll is 3 percentage points.

Unfortunately, this poll seems to have been designed with the assumption that everyone believes in the existence of heaven or salvation. The approximately 10% of the population who are Agnostics, Atheists, Free thinkers, Humanists, secularists, etc. generally have no concept of Heaven or salvation, and thus would be at a loss to answer the question. This may be the reason why 24% of the "Non-Christians" either had no opinion or didn't answer. One defect of the poll is that persons who do not identify themselves with any religion or who follow a non-Christian religion are lumped together under the category "Non-Christian." These are two very different populations.

The data from Evangelical Protestants is curious. Many, perhaps most, sermons in Fundamentalist and other Evangelical churches stress that nobody will attain Heaven unless they repent of their sins and trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In spite of this, at first glance, almost 7 out of 10 Evangelicals appear to reject this central belief. Perhaps they interpreted the reference to "a good person who isn't of your religious faith" as referring to a member of another Christian denomination, rather than a to person from a non-Christian faith. Most Evangelicals believe that a certain percentage of members in all denominations are saved and thus would attain heaven.

Unfortunately, this poll seems to raise more questions than it answers.

bulletPresident George W. Bush revealed his personal Universalist belief during an televised interview:

Question: "Do we all worship the same God, Christians and Muslims?"
Bush: "I think we do. We have different routes of getting to the Almighty."

Question: "Do Christian and non-Christians, do Muslims go to heaven in your
Bush: "Yes they do. We have different routes of getting there." 8

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  1. Tentmaker is a site dedicated to the concept of Universalism. See: http://www.tentmaker.org
  2. The Princeton Religion Research Center (PRRC), "Survey Trivia From The PRRC" (The PRRC is an inter-faith, non-denominational research organization founded in 1977 by George H. Gallup, Jr. It specializes in creative, practical research, utilizing worldwide Gallup survey facilities.)
  3. Geo. Barna, "The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, Word Publishing, Dallas TX (1996).
  4. The term "pluralism," when used by itself, is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to religious diversity. Other times, it refers to the belief that all religions are true.
  5. "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium. Chapter 1: "The Mystery of the church," Sections 14 to 16," at: http://www.christusrex.org
  6. "The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: Dedicated to 'The Immaculate'," at: http://www.christusrex.org/www1
  7. "Newsweek/Beliefnet Poll Results," Beliefnet.com, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  8. "Bush is a universalist," YouTube, 2006-MAY-04, at: http://www.youtube.com/

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Copyright 1997 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1997-JUL-13-
Latest update: 2006-SEP-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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