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No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelized Paperback – February 19, 1992
This month's Book With Buzz: "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers "In a Dark, Dark Wood" and "The Woman in Cabin 10" comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, "The Lying Game." See more
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How can God be just if he condemns those who have never heard the gospel to an eternity in hell? This book provides a biblical, historical and theological investigation of this major unresolved problem in evangelical theology.
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When reading this book--which is one of my favorite theological works I've yet read--the point is NOT so much to argue who is right and who is wrong, because everyone can and does "read into" Scripture to some extent. What I walked away with after reading this man's perspective was a pair of fresh eyes that found an alternative way of reading some lifelong puzzling portions of Scripture and, lo and behold, it made more sense of those Scriptures! Most people agree that when it comes to biblical interpretation, if one's theology does not fit with Scripture as a whole it is lacking. I felt like Sanders gifted me with a more holistic perspective.
This book is at bare minimum worth reading if for no other reason than for understanding different sides to the same discussion.
Sanders begins by placing the issue in context: arguing for why it even matters (for example, because of its apologetic importance - people are going to ask and Christians need to have a reply at hand) and describing the controversy it has elicited in modern times among evangelical Christians. He then proceeds to present the two extreme positions on the issue: exclusivism (which he calls restrictivism) and universalism.
Restrictivism is the position that only those who come to know and understand the Gospel during their lifetimes have the opportunity to be saved (whether they actually are, of course, is based on whether they accept the message in faith). Thus by necessity, since they either do not know or do not understand, all the unevangelized are lost to "Hell" (Sanders leaves what that means out-of-scope of the discussion). In a pattern that is repeated with each position, he discusses the Scriptural and theological case for restrictivism, its proponents throughout history (for example, Augustine), and offers a critique, itself based in Scripture and theology.
Universalism, in contrast, is the position that everyone is (at least eventually, perhaps after some "time" beyond death) saved. Thus the destiny of the unevangelized - in fact, everyone's destiny - is at least eventually to be united with God. Universalism is a position that evangelical Christians today would probably almost uniformly find unorthodox and heretical, but Sanders gives it a fair shake (though ultimately rejecting it - and restrictivism for that matter).
After presenting these extremes, Sanders turns to what he lays out as a "wider hope". He discusses universal evangelization - the idea that God miraculously sends a messenger (angelic if not human) to all during their lifetimes, so that all have the opportunity for salvation (whether there's any empirical evidence for this empirically-testable claim is not really discussed - to my knowledge, there is little or none, despite popular evangelical "urban legends" to the contrary). He discusses eschatological evangelization - the idea that God presents the Gospel at the point of death, or after death, to those who are otherwise lost (curiously, the Catholic concept of purgatory is not presented - perhaps because Sanders knows his audience is primarily coming from the Protestant tradition).
Finally, inclusivism is presented. This is the view that God judges all according to their faith response to whatever true revelation they had during their lifetimes. For the unevangelized, this is general revelation - the deep intuition all humans curiously seem to have about a supreme being and a moral law (see the opening chapters of C. S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity", for example). Thus although Christ's atonement remains the basis for anyone's salvation, explicitly knowing and understanding that is not necessary for salvation. Rather, God judges the heart according to the knowledge it had, and an overall faithful response is "credited as righteousness". Nonetheless, responding to general revelation is a precarious path to God - sort of a "plan B". Coming to know and understand the Gospel during one's lifetime is God's preferred approach, not just because of its ability to save, but also because of its ability during our lifetimes to sanctify, give assurance, and come to fuller knowledge.
For conservative Christians who have been raised with restrictivism and have had the lid screwed down tight on the container of all the other views historically held, "No Other Name" will either be enlightening, or a very tough pill to swallow. Never mind that John Wesley and that icon beloved of modern American evangelicalism, C. S. Lewis, were inclusivists (as Sanders documents), I can hear some conservatives saying - its heresy nonetheless. To Sanders' credit, "No Other Name" at least challenges such people to more-charitably regard the diversity of opinion on this issue.