Whenever I speak or write about hell, I receive a fair amount of pushback. Some of it comes from well-meaning and scripturally savvy friends whom I respect. The question usually takes this form:
“How can we say—assuredly, dogmatically—that there is no way to be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus? Haven’t Christians disagreed on this over the years? Why can’t we just leave the verdict unstated and let God judge them? The gospel is offensive enough without adding this into it!”
I am aware that there are varying opinions on this question. But varying opinions doesn’t always mean that something is not clear in Scripture: it may just mean that the results are so offensive that it’s hard to reconcile ourselves to them. I also know that my opinions are not infallible. I am open to being persuaded that I am wrong. I have been wrong about many things in the past and might be so about many things now. I am open to anyone approaching me with an open Bible and an open mind.
I have read at length about all of the major dissenting views, and I find them unconvincing. Their ideas are based more on human reasoning (i.e. “this is what I think God should be like”) than deductive conclusions from Scripture. I too would like to believe that people can be saved without hearing about Jesus, but I just cannot find allowance for it in Scripture. This is what the whole argument in Romans 10 is about. Can they believe apart from our being sent? I think Paul’s answer is unequivocally “no.”
Could God do things he hasn’t told us about? In all fairness, it’s possible. But the Bible is the only standard by which we can answer this question, and there is no indication that God uses other means besides the preaching of the Word. As Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us, there are aspects of God that are mysterious and secret to us; but what he has revealed is what we ought to follow.
And what he has revealed shows us that faith and salvation always come through human instrumentality. There is no record of anyone in Scripture ever coming to faith in Christ apart from the instrumentality of the church. The one instance in which the ‘exception clause’ might fit was with Cornelius, but God goes out of his way to ensure that Cornelius explicitly hears about Jesus through a human instrument (Acts 10).
So in humility, I must speak clearly what Scripture says, even when it offends me greatly. And on this point it certainly does. But let God’s word stand and our opinions be damned. This overwhelms me, hushes my mouth in silence, and drives me to be used by God in his salvation plan. May God empower us to get this message to our neighbors and the nations.