How Shall They Be Saved: The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus. By Millard J. Erickson. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996. 278 pp. Paper, $19.99.
One of the questions I heard over and over again from college students during my four years on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ was “What about those who have never heard about Jesus?” Many college students figured since most people on earth had never even heard of Jesus Christ, surely faith in Him couldn’t possibly be the only way to be saved.
Erickson surveys various views. He considers annihilationism (the conception that at some point unbelievers cease to exist at all), universalism (the view that salvation is not only available to all people, but that all people will actually be saved), pluralism (the view that all religions are equally valid ways to God and salvation), postmortem evangelism (the idea that those who have never heard the gospel in their lifetime will have an opportunity to hear and believe beyond the grave), etc.
JOTGES readers will not find here a man who is clear on the gospel. For example, in Chapter 13, which deals with the question of those who are incapable of believing (e.g., babies and small children who die), Erickson says that “repentance and faith…are generally understood to be the precondition of all saving benefits” (p. 246). In the first place, we should base our theology solely on the teaching of the Word of God, not on what is “generally understood.” In the second place, Erickson fails to state what he means by repentance. If it is a condition different than faith, then doesn’t this mean that justification is actually not by faith alone? We are not told since the author is merely mentioning this as an aside. However, on such an important topic, we would like at least a brief explanation.
Erickson concludes, by the way, that all infants who die are saved. He fails to deal with the question of what the age of accountability is. He has an interesting discussion of the difference between those who’ve never heard, yet who live to adulthood and do have general revelation, and those who’ve never heard and die in infancy (pp. 252-53).
In Chapter 10 (“The Biblical Requirements for Salvation”) Erickson actually directly deals with what one must do to be saved. There, too, however, he is not crystal clear. He suggests that OT people were saved by abandoning hope in their own works and instead relying upon God Himself to save them (pp. 191-92). While this is helpful, unfortunately he rejects the idea that they believed in the coming Messiah for eternal life (p. 194). Then when he comes to the question of people today who’ve never heard of Christ, he hedges. He wonders if they too merely need to abandon hope in their own works and rely upon God Himself to save them (pp. 194-95). He concludes: “Perhaps there is room for acknowledging that God alone may know in every case exactly whose faith is sufficient for salvation” (p. 195).
While the idea that only God knows precisely what we need to believe to be saved is disturbing, to say the least, Erickson has a series of questions that every Grace believer should carefully consider. He says:
If one insists that to be saved in this era it is necessary to know and believe in Jesus, how much must one know, understand, and believe? Must one understand the incarnation, the fact that Jesus was both God and man? How orthodox must this understanding be? Is it necessary to believe that Jesus was deity just as was the Father, in the same sense and to the same degree? What if one believes that Jesus was the Son of God, but not actually God, or has not thought through what he or she believes by that expression? Must one hold the substitutionary-penal theory of the atonement, for that atonement to be efficacious? (p. 195).
The Gospel of John answers these questions. Anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, in the biblical sense, has eternal life (John 20:31). In John 11:25-27 the same expression (“the Christ, the Son of God”) is used as an equivalent to believing that “whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die [spiritually].” In other words, anyone that believes that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him, no strings attached, has that life.
I highly recommend this book to the well-grounded believer. Erickson covers the key issues involved, and while JOTGES readers will not find themselves in agreement with him on every point, they will find that he covers the bases and makes them think.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society