The “Heathen” and the Unknown God—Part 1

“Mr. Koukl, I want to get in a pointed comment here.” The talk show host hesitated, dramatizing the moment for his radio audience. “We were talking about the person in Southeast Asia,” he continued, “the pagan or Buddhist or anyone who has never heard of Western Christianity. Father Kidney said, according to his [Roman Catholic] faith, that a person may be saved if he is honest and follows his religion. Do you believe that, or do you believe he is damned?”

Inside, I winced. The question was phrased so bluntly that my answer was bound to offend. In fact, on one level—an emotional one—it even bothered me.“No,” I answered calmly, “I don’t believe he will be saved without the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

This challenge has nipped at the heels of Christians for ages. It’s caused some to limp through their witness with shrugs, apologies, and uncertainties. When they respond with biblical clarity, they suffer dismissal for their “arrogant,” “narrow-minded,” or “insensitive” dogma.  

The fate of the unevangelized is one of the most taxing issues I face since answering it requires making the kind of thoughtful, theological distinctions critics are not fond of countenancing. No matter how carefully the answer is characterized, the truth is still odious to them—a genuine stumbling block, foolishness.  

The issue can be answered, though, but the solution has some theological twists. The question is fraught with misconceptions and is often laden with emotion. As with many apologetics concerns, however, sound and precise theology is frequently all that’s needed to untangle the elements and bring order...