One of the most common questions I've heard from Christian undergraduates is whether people who have not heard the gospel could be saved and whether people who are genuine followers of the truth within another religion might be saved. There are two separate questions in here, and I want to separate them out and then look at how Romans 10 gives an answer to both questions that's really hard to resist without simply denying what Paul is saying.
First I want to distinquish between the two views. Universalism is the view that everyone will be saved. Universalists may think everyone will be saved on the basis of their religion's own merits. This is the position of many Unitarian Universalists. Some call it pluralism, and others call it inclusivism, though both words have also been used to describe other views. I'll henceforth call it inclusivism. Those who call themselves Christian universalists generally think everyone will be saved on the basis of Christ's death. That's what's Christian about it. The inclusivist view considers each religion's own basis for salvation as the basis for its members' salvation. Such a view is really unworkable without a radical relativism about religious truth, which is itself philosophically unworkable, for reasons I'm not going to bother dealing with in this post. I just consider that to be the assumption behind any reasonable discussion about religion. On those grounds alone I think the view is a dead end. Still, the passage I'm about to consider resists this view quite plainly, so I'll resist the urge to explain philosophically why inclusivism makes no sense. My main concern in this post is with how Paul's line of thought in Romans 10 resists both inclusivism and Christian universalism, which is generally exclusivist on that issue. I think most non-universalists have never encountered an exclusivist unviersalist, so I'm going to spend a little time explaining what the view is and why most passages used to argue against universalism don't really say anything about universalism at all but just conflict with inclusivism. Then I'll move into Romans 10 to show why both inclusivism and exclusivist universalism are at odds with what Paul says there.
Christian universalism can agree fully with Christianity's metaphysical claims. Christ is Lord. Trinitarian conceptions of God are correct. Christ's death provides the atonement available to all. Where it differs from what I call the traditional Christian view (though universalists claim support within the tradition) is simply in its claim that the atonement is not limited to some. In its availability to all, it actually applies to all in the sense that all will be saved. Anyone who really denies the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement is a universalist of this sort. (See my post on limited atonement for my arguments for this, which really amount to claiming that most people who think they deny limited atonement just misunderstand it and have done no such thing.) If the atonement is not limited in its application, then Christ's death applies to all, and all will be saved. If it is limited in its application, then not all will be saved, even if the offer is to all and potentially applies to all (both of which are part of what the doctrine of limited atonement historically states, some Calvinists' and many Arminians' claims to the contrary notwithstanding).
Since I'm submitting this to the second Carnival of the Reformation, which has a Solus Christus theme, I want to point out that inclusivism clearly violates Solus Christus. It denies that Christ's death is even necessary for salvation, since all religions are equally true. Technically speaking, Christian universalism of the exclusivist variety does not deny Solus Christus. Christ's death is necessary for salvation and the basis of the salvation of every person who will be saved. This is one of the mistakes of those who argue against it. They confuse it with inclusivism. I have two points in this post, really. One is to argue against inclusivism and Christian universalism on the basis of Romans 10. One thing I want to acknowledge that most people don't understand, though, is that, while inclusivism is at odds with Solus Christus, exclusivist Christian universalism is not. It's just that most people who hold to Solus Christus also hold to non-universalism about the extent of salvation. It's important to see that a different view about the extent of salvation does not amount to disagreeing with the basis, which is what Solus Christus is about.
I could use almost any chapter of Romans against inclusivism. What I want to spend most of my time arguing is that Christian universalism does not fit with the flow of thought in Romans 10:13-15. Since I'm using that passage, I'll first look at inclusivism in relation to Romans 10,but I will be spending more time on exclusivist Christian universalism. I think the best representation of this position online is from Keith DeRose, a philosopher whose work I greatly respect who occasionally comments on this blog, usually to correct my biggest blindspots in a way that often helps clarify my most uncareful statements. Keith's view is what D.A. Carson calls the postmortem evangelism view. He doesn't believe anyone is saved apart from Christ. More strongly, he doesn't believe anyone is saved apart from explicit belief in Christ (or at least he leans very strongly toward this kind of exclusivism). He just doesn't think this explicit belief has to happen before death, and he thinks everyone will at some point believe after death. In this Keith is an exclusivist. He is right to point out that many passages commonly used against universalism don't actually count against universalism. They are particularly opposed to inclusivism.
That's why I want to focus in on one passage that doesn't seem to me to make sense if the universalist view is correct, even when it's held (as Keith holds it) within a more general exclusivism. It's more obvious how this passage counts against inclusivism, but I think it refutes universalism also. I don't want to say that I don't think there are other passages that count against universalism. I think there are others, and a lot of it has to do with comparing passages. I do want to say that most of the famous prooftexts are easier for exclusivist universalists like Keith to deal with than most non-universalists will admit, so I urge caution in that area.
One thing I find most notable about Keith's treatment of this issue is that he mentions Romans 10 only with respect to one verse and then says, "Romans 10:9 includes no fine print to the effect that the confession must take place prior to death to be effective, and, as we've seen, there's next to no good Scriptural reason to deny further chances." I don't think Keith has dealt with the remainder of Romans 10, the argument I'm about to present. Perhaps he will chime in here in response, but for now I'll simply move through the line of reasoning Paul presents.
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:13-15a, NIV)
This is all in the context of Paul's anguish at the beginning of Romans 9 that some of his Jewish brethren have rejected their Messiah and will be lost. He says he would give up his own salvation for the sake of theirs, reflecting a similar statement by Moses when God threatened to destroy all of Israel except Moses. Paul now says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, which they can't do unless they believe, which can't happen unless they hear the message, which can't happen unless someone is sent. Inclusivists insist that this passage doesn't say anything about those who don't call on the name of the Lord. Fair enough. It merely talks about what must be true for people to end up being saved as a result of believing. That's technically true. It doesn't say anything explicit about those people. However, it seems to me to be quite plain that the point of this passage is to contrast those who believe and are saved with those who do not and are not. What would be the point of emphasizing the path from hearing the message preached to belief to salvation unless the result of that path only comes from this particular path? Universalists who hold to exclusivism agree. Since few inclusivists really think they can find support in the Bible, I'm not going to press this further. There are just too many statements in the Bible that conflict with inclusivism, and my primary purpose isn't to refute inclusivism but to show that inclusivism and universalism both are at odds with Paul's assumptions in this line of thought. What I'll now say about universalism entails the falsity of inclusivism anyway, so I'll leave it at that.
So let's go through Paul's reasoning again. He says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Universalists might agree and then say that some will do so after death, including everyone who fails to do so before death. Paul says they need to believe in him to call on him. Again, universalists say that will happen after death. Paul moves on to say that they first need to hear before believing. Again, universalists say that will happen after death. Paul continues his argument by saying that people first need to be preached to, or they won't be able to believe. Again, that might happen after death. Then Paul asks how they can preach unless they are sent. Now we have a problem.
What is the point of Paul's claim that people must be sent if people are to hear the message and then believe? If they can hear the message after death, why send people to preach it? Some universalists respond that the point of believing now is to take advantage of the current benefits of Christ's death for those are are already in a relationship with him but that some won't do so until after death. But why the urgency? Why the whole line of reasoning to the result of the importance of preaching if the original statement and all the following statements are all about something that might happen after death? Some universalists, Keith included, will insist that there is punishment after death, and it might not be a short or light punishment. Repenting and believing now is therefore an urgent thing to avoid such punishment. There can be a call for urgency even if universalism is true.
But it seems to me that what Paul is saying amounts to the claim that people will not believe and be saved unless someone is sent to preach to them. That seems to be the whole point of this line of questioning. He seems to be rejecting the universalist view by implication, since he's assuming that there is no other way for people to believe without hearing, for them to hear without the message being preached, and for the message to be preached without someong going. He's assuming that people need to go to the unbeliever now with the message, or they will not believe. If a message could be preached to people after death, with a response of believe that would lead to salvation, then what of the tight connection Paul makes between the missionary effort as the only possibility for belief? Paul seems to be assuming here that there is no such possibility. It's not that evangelism is logically unnecessary if universalism is true, because evangelism could avoid the punishment after death before repentance. It's that Paul's line of questioning seems to entail a logical connection between each item in the list and the previous one (belief, hearing, preaching, going) that he seems to be assuming that the first item in the list will simply not happen without the final item. That seems to preclude the possibility of repentance after death.
It's partly for this reason that I can't read the passages Keith quotes in his argument for Christian universalism in the way he does. It just seems at complete odds with Paul's assumptions in this section. He doesn't argue for the assumption, but he assumes it. Unless Paul is inconsistent (as some scholars have actually asserted but I think highly unlikely for such a sophisticated thinker even if you deny inerrantism) those passages have to be read with this in mind.
As I said above, I think there are other biblical reasons for denying universalism. I take issue with a couple of Keith's arguments against some of the traditional passages to support this, and there are some important lines of reasoning that involve taking what the Bible says about one thing in connection with what it says about another (e.g. eternal punishment, which he takes not to mean eternal but simply of having an intensive quality, vs. eternal life, which seems to imply genuine eternality and is placed in specific parallelism with eternal punishment; also, compare the language used with regard to Satan's punishment with the language used with regard to human punishment, though this won't apply to those universalists who think Satan will be saved ultimately, which will mean turning to what the NT says about the impossibility of repentance for those who aren't humans). To argue for any of that would take a whole series of posts if I wanted to do it adequately. Perhaps comments will bring these issues out, and perhaps I'll end up continuing on with other posts to make this a series. My main reason for this post was to make one simple point. The universalist view, while easier to maintain biblically without inclusivism, is still hard to maintain in the face of Paul's line of thought in Romans 10:13-15.
The other place I would differ from Keith is that if I were to convert to universalism I would take a much more Calvinistic view of God's sovereignty in human salvation, as some universalists do. It's basically Calvinism without limited atonement. God saves everyone, choosing to save each person, seeing them through to the point of salvation without allowing ultimate resistance to his will, and all end up saved. Once you deny limited atonement but retain Calvinist views of salvation, this is the result. I'm so convinced that the Bible supports those other things that if I were to go universalist I'd naturally hold that sort of view. So Keith's more Arminian/libertarian mode of universalism is not the one I'd go for. Other than that issue, I think Keith's exposition of universalism is one of the best I've ever seen, and I highly recommend it for those who want to understand what one of the most careful universalists, who wants to see his universalism as part of a biblical orthodoxy (and as far as I can tell consistent with what the best defenders of inerrancy would hold about the authority and infallibility of scripture), will say.
My conclusion is that the mere occurrence of Christ's death is not sufficient for salvation, though it is necessary (and Keith agrees with me on that, which is what makes him not an inclusivist). I further want to argue that Romans 10 requires actual belief in Christ. Keith doesn't disagree, but he thinks that might be after death. What I'm finally arguing, though, is that his view can't be right if Paul's argument here is to be taken at face value. Perhaps Keith has a response to this, but I've never seen a universalist interpretation of this passage that satisfies me.