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Breanna Lebsack

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Book Review Assignment Summary John Sanders’ No Other Name is a Christian inquiry into the destiny of the unevangelized after death. Sanders first explains the controversy through two opposing theories- Restrictivism and universalism, and through two (seemingly) opposing precepts- God’s will to save all people, and the finality of salvation in Jesus (Sanders 2001, 25).

Restrictivism advocates Jesus’ finality by believing that all unevangelized

are sent to hell (Sanders 2001, 37). Universalists advocate God’s will to save people by believing that everyone eventually ends up in heaven (Sanders 2001, 81). Sanders then introduces a third theory, the greater-hope theory. In stating that not all people go to heaven, but that all people are equally capable of going, Sanders believes that the Greater-Hope theory is able to affirm both Jesus’ finality and God’s loving will (Sanders 2001, 131). Chapter one explains the main question and outlines the rest of the book. It acknowledges that there is no way of completely knowing the unevangelized destiny after death, but that this should not keep someone from investigating the issue (Sanders 2001, 15). Sanders introduces some themes that are constant throughout the book. These themes are evangelism (what affect does a particular theory have on missions), and the two essential truths (finality of Jesus vs. love) (Sanders 2001, 24-25). Sanders also reveals his personal biases that will influence the work. These biases include Sanders personal faith in Jesus and his belief in the authority of scripture (2001, 32-33). Chapter two explains the theory of restrictivism. Restrictivism believes that anyone who does not have explicit knowledge of Jesus and accept him by faith cannot be


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saved (Sanders 2001, 137). This infers that the majority of people throughout history who never heard the gospel are automatically dammed to hell.

Restrictivists point to

scriptures that they believe prove that Jesus is the only way to salvation (Sanders 2001, 38). Sanders believes that restrictivists confuse salvation through the person of Jesus with salvation through knowledge of Jesus (Sanders 2001, 62). He also believes that this theory gives Christianity a bad reputation (Sanders 2001, 6). Chapter three explains the theory on the opposite side of the spectrum. This theory is universalism. Universalism believes that everyone, evangelized and unevangelized, will eventually make it to heaven (Sanders 2001, 81). Universalists who believe in Universalism refer to scriptures that they believe reveal God’s salvific will for all (Sanders 2001, 83). Universalists, who believe there is a hell, believe that it has a redemptive purpose, and that eventually no one will be able resist God’s unrelenting love (Sanders 2001, 89). Sanders is weary of universalism because it does not allow for divine retributive justice (Sanders 2001, 114). Sanders believes that universalism gives way to radical pluralism and waters down the truth and actions of Jesus (Sanders 2001, 120). The fourth chapter of the book introduces a new theory called wider hope. This theory lies in middle of the two extremes of restrictivism and universalism. Like universalism, the wider hope does not believe that all unevangelized are dammed, and like restrictivism, the wider hope does not believe that the unevangelized all go to heaven (Sanders 2001, 131). Rather, the wider hope theory believes that salvation is universally accessible, in other words, whether evangelized or not, everyone is equally able to accept or reject Jesus (Sanders 2001, 107).


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Chapter five outlines three wider hope theories that all affirm that salvation is universally accessible before death (Sanders 2001, 151). The first of the theories states that if someone is searching for truth that God will send the message, anyone who dies unevangelized would not have accepted the gospel anyway (Sanders 2001, 152). The second theory is rooted in Catholicism and states that right before death that everyone has the choice whether to accept Christ or not (Sanders 2001, 164). The third theory states that God has “middle knowledge”, and can therefore judge people according to what choice they would have made if they were presented with the gospel in their lifetime (Sanders 2001, 168). The wider hope theories discussed in chapter six differ from those in chapter five in that they believe that salvation is available after death. Believers in eschatological evangelization point to scriptures that they believe prove that Jesus preached the gospel in hell (ex. Matt. 12:40, Acts 2:24) (Sanders 2001, 179). The last chapter is about inclusivism. Inclusivism believes that God judges the unevangelized based on the knowledge they have (Sanders 2001, 233). Someone can be saved through Jesus without knowing that it is Jesus who has saved them (Sanders 2001, 238). Sanders concludes by stating that inclusivism is the most logical and philosophically true to biblical themes (Sanders 2001, 281). Though, he says that any wider hope theory is to be preferred to the extremes of restrictivism and universalism (Sanders 2001, 281). In the appendix, Sanders surveys the conclusions and contradictions of each of these theories concerning infant death and the mentally impaired. The Author’s Use of Scripture Scripture plays an important role in Sanders’ constructive proposal. Sanders


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affirms the authority of scripture, yet also acknowledges the different interpretations of scripture based on each person’s “control beliefs” (2001, 33-34). Sanders groups the key biblical texts of each theory according to their control beliefs (2001, 38-41; 83-88; 153; 178-188; 217-223). In arguing for inclusivism, Sanders groups scriptures according to the theory’s control beliefs of universally accessible salvation (scriptures about God’s salvific will and the realities of distributive justice), and God’s available grace to the unevangelized (scriptures about God’s gracious attitude toward Gentiles) (2001, 217218). A key passage that Sanders uses in support of the latter category is the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 (Sanders 2001, 222-224). In this story, God comes to a God-fearing gentile named Cornelius. God has noticed Cornelius’ good deeds and prayers and tells him to find Peter. He becomes a Christian when Peter tells him the gospel, and the church realizes that God’s salvation is applicable for gentiles and Jews alike. Sanders interprets this passage as evidence for inclusivism. The fact that God was pleased with Cornelius before Peter arrived proves that he was already saved before Peter arrived. Just like the Old Testament patriarchs, Cornelius was saved through Jesus- even though they did not have full understanding of him (2001, 222). Peter’s message did not bring Cornelius salvation, but rather brought his revelation to a fuller completion (Sanders 2001, 66). The fact the Cornelius was already saved is further proven by the “main point” of the passage (Sanders 2001, 66). The main point of the passage is less about Cornelius’ revelation than it is about Peter’s (Sanders 2001, 66). Peter realized that God did not require someone to convert to Judaism before they could receive salvation. More people


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were “included” in God’s salvation than the early church originally believed. Since Cornelius was saved before he had explicit knowledge of Jesus, the unevangelized must also have the ability to be saved through Jesus without explicit knowledge of him. Analysis of Sanders’ Interpretation The problem with Sanders’ interpretation is that it is unclear whether Cornelius was saved or not before Peter’s arrived. It is clear that Cornelius was a moral man and that God had noticed his morality, but who is to say that God cannot be pleased with the actions of someone who is not saved? It is possible that God was pleased with Cornelius because he was seeking Him, and that He honored his efforts by revealing himself through Peter. If Cornelius was in a seeking process before Peter arrived, the passage becomes more supportive of Aquinas’ “God will send that Message” theory, than it is of inclusivism (Sanders 2001, 156). Sanders does not acknowledge this possibility, however. This is because his interpretation is based on the inclusivist assumption that there is no seeking process, salvation instead is dependent on “the direction in which [someone] is heading” (Sanders 2001, 231). In short, by seeking God, someone has found salvation. Therefore, Sanders’ argument is circular. He uses Cornelius’ salvation as proof of his inclusivist theory, and the inclusivist theory to proof of Cornelius’ salvation. Sanders’ argument that the “main point” of the passage helps prove his interpretation that Cornelius was already saved is also fallacious (Sanders 2001, 66). This is because the main point (that God’s redemptive power applies to Gentiles) remains the central aspect of the story whether Cornelius was saved before Peters visit or not. In conclusion, Sanders’ interpretation of Cornelius’ salvation is not convincing, and gives


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little biblical evidence to inclusivism. Restrictivist Interpretation of Acts 10 Ironically, restrictivists also use the story of Cornelius in support of their own theory. While inclusivists assume that Cornelius was saved before Peter’s arrival, restrictivists assume that Cornelius was not. Restrictivists ask why Peter would have ever been sent to Cornelius to tell him the gospel if Cornelius was already saved (Sanders 2001, 64). R.C. H. Lenski asks, “If his honest pagan convictions had been sufficient, why did he seek the synagogue? If the synagogue had been enough, why was Peter here?” (Sanders 2001, 65). Assessment of Overall Argument Although I am hesitant about the definiteness of Sanders’ interpretation of Acts 10, I do agree with his overall point that the “wider-hope” view of salvation is to be preferred (Sanders 2001, 281). My opinion on this has less to do with evidence from cited biblical passages, and more to do with my belief that this theory coheres best with the overarching theological/philosophical themes in the Bible. My three beliefs that led me to prefer the “wider-hope” view are my beliefs in the finality of Jesus, in God’s salvific love for all people, and in free-will doctrine (Sanders 2001, 25, 110). Wider-hope doctrines sustain the finality of Jesus in that they acknowledge that salvation comes only through Him. By doing this, wider-hope theories do not lesson or dilute the importance of the cross (Sanders 2001, 281). Rather, they broaden the salvific influence of the cross by affirming its universal accessibility. These theories are also true to God’s character. The idea of a God who doesn’t mind sacrificing billions of people to eternal torment does not coincide with the biblical


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idea of a God who was willing to sacrifice himself to bring eternal salvation. If God doesn’t care if people go to hell, why would he be willing to suffer for their salvation? In God’s immense love, He wishes for everyone to be saved. In believing that salvation is equally accessible to everyone, wider-hope theorists maintain the loving, gracious character of God (Sanders 2001, 281). The last aspect that affects my view is free-will doctrine. Without emphasizing free-will doctrine the former two points could not coincide (Sanders 2001, 111). Both restrictivism and universalism are theories based on determinism (Sanders 2001, 110). Restrictivism is based on the assumption that God picks some for heaven and some for hell, and universalism claims that God chooses all for salvation (Sanders 2001, 110). Since determinism affirms that the sovereignty of God means that he “always gets what he desires”, neither option is really based on the individual’s decision (Sanders 2001, 111). Therefore, only the wider-hope doctrine is capable of affirming the finality of Christ, the loving nature of God, and the responsibility that each individual has in their own salvation. Charting the Way Forward Luke 11:14-23 explains a story in which Jesus cast a demon from a man and healed him. Those around Him accused Him of gaining His power from the devil, but Jesus replied by stating that “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:17, New International Version). Their accusations may sound illogical, but this is the exact same mindset that many Christians have towards other religions today. Many assume that anything different from their current tradition is evil.


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If we are to construct a God-honoring theology of religions, this mindset has got to change. The definitive judgments should not be based on a spectrum of what is traditional and what is untraditional. It should not be based on what is Christian and what is not Christian. It should be based on what is of God and what is not of God. If the Jews in Luke 11 had this perspective they would have been able to realize that casting out demons, healing the sick, and loving people are all good things of God. By embracing such a mindset, we will be able to recognize God’s hand in other religions, and, perhaps, even be able to better recognize the ungodly aspects within our own.


Breanna Lebsack Reference: Sanders, John. No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.

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John Sanders No Other Name Book Review  

themes are evangelism (what affect does a particular theory have on missions), and the death, but that this should not keep someone from inv...

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