How Shall They Be Saved? The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus

By Millard J. Erickson
Grand Rapids : Baker (1996). 278 Pages.

Reviewed by Jimmy Caraway
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 107-109

The author is Professor of Theology at Baylor's University Truett Seminary and at Western Seminary, Portland. He is perhaps best known by his work on Christian Theology.

 This book "attempts to survey theological developments" (9) in the past twenty years on the issue of the eternal destiny of those who never hear the message of Jesus Christ. In the end, Erickson hopes "to come to a balanced and responsible viewpoint" (9). It is a compilation of doctrinal courses taught at Grace Theological Seminary (1995), a Master of Theology course taught at the Faculdade Teológico de Sáo Paulo in Brazil (1994), W. H. Griffith Thomas lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary (1994), lectures at the International Theological Conference at the Semiñario Theológicco Batista in Brazil (1994), and messages given at a pastor’s continuing education seminar of the Middle East Baptist Conference in Ohio (1994).

The book has four sections. Part one (13-29) offers the reasons for the publication. Part two (33-139) surveys different positions (exclusivism of eternal destiny, inclusivism, universalism, and pluralism) from both Catholic and Protestant perspectives. Part three (143-232) deals with specific issues such as general revelation, postmortem evangelism, biblical requirements for salvation, how many will be saved, and annihilation. Part four (235-69) addresses practical applications to those incapable of faith (infants and mentally disabled) and implications for missions and evangelism.

The value of the book lies in sections one, two, and four. In part one Erickson provides seventeen reasons for writing on this subject. He points out the current confusion about and recent attention to (both scholarly and popular) the subject as two reasons. As another, he addresses the effects of globalization and how that has brought some criticisms of traditional exclusivism. The doctrinal implications of the study are the strongest and are the source of the majority of Erickson's reasons. The areas impacted are the person of Christ, the Trinity, sovereignty, Scripture, authority, salvation, and truth, each one being discussed briefly and for the most part to the point.

Part two surveys different views regarding the destiny of those who have never heard. Here the reader finds good information on the history of each view and on contemporary thought. Erickson footnotes advocates of the views and occasionally interjects questions for further clarification. At the end of each chapter he evaluates arguments in support of a given view along both positive and negative lines. Readers will not always agree with the author's opinion, for some of the positives simply commend effort while giving little or no biblical input. Erickson does include some biblical data. For example, his evaluation of Protestant exclusivism is alarming to this reviewer. He believes that passages such as Acts 16:31 and Romans 10:9-12 do not say Jesus Christ is the only name through which men might be saved. His criticism is that there is "too much deduction from other tenets" (63). He admits that "no other alternative is considered in those contexts," but concludes, "[T]o say that those and only those who believe in Jesus will be saved is an illicit deduction" (63). In reference to the Great Commission Erickson thinks that too much has been "inferred" from that passage. "To be sure, Christ's giving this confers an importance and urgency on the task of missions and evangelism. It is not stated, however, that this is because those to be evangelized cannot possibly be saved otherwise" (63). He does not consider passages such as John 8:24, 14:6, Acts 4:12, and Galatians 1:6-10. Even apart from these, Acts 16:31 ("Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved") and Romans 10:9-12 ("If you confess with your mouth Jesus . . . you shall be saved") are clearly exclusive.

Part four contains valuable information about the salvation of infants and mentally handicapped. Several views gain clear mention (Pelagianism, sentimentalism, Ariminianism, probation of the infant, baptismal regeneration, and Calvinism). Relevant biblical principles receive fair treatment. The author's own view appears on page 250.

Erickson's section on the issues is a weakness of the book. In the chapter "Postmortem Evangelism," he does finally conclude that scriptural proof "falls sadly short of demonstration" (175). And, in the chapter addressing the number that will be saved, he correctly says "they [believers] will be, when compared to the great number of unbelievers, a minority" (215). He also decides that annihilationism "cannot be sustained, philosophically, biblically, or theologically" (232). His arguments overall are logically based and philosophical in nature. More biblical exegesis would have been a great improvement.

 A whole chapter discusses general revelation. Erickson recognizes its importance "for deciding between the positions of exclusivism and inclusivism" (143). However he nowhere defines general or special revelation. That will confuse the reader and leave him free to utilize whatever understanding he has on the subject. Erickson offers no help in this.

In his discussion on an "especially pertinent" (147) portion of Scripture, Romans 1:18-23, Erickson says v. 19 "refers to that which may be known (τo γvωστόv)" (147). That is inconsistent with the context and meaning of the word which always means "what is known." Furthermore, "what is known" is φαvερόv (clear, evident) for God made it evident εφαvέρωσεv (aorist tense). Erickson portrays a watered-down effect of sin, saying "one effect of sin on the human mind is to cloud the understanding, making spiritual truth difficult to perceive and understand" (158). Concerning an evangelistic strategy, he sees general revelation as a preparatory work in that "some have faith in God without having been exposed to the gospel" (158), yet are "still in need of the gospel" (158).

 Those seeking to stay abreast of the literature on this subject may want to purchase this book. However, it does not convey a "balanced and responsible viewpoint" (9). For a detailed biblical analysis of the issues, this reviewer suggests Through No Fault of their Own? The Fate of those Who Have Never Heard, ed. by William V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos (Baker, 1991), Is Jesus the Only Savior? by Ronald Nash (Zondervan, 1994) and The Population of Heaven by Ramesh Richard (Moody, 1994).