Short answer: Not really. Are no exceptions made…ever? Read on.
This is a very thorny subject, because people make too much of it. Some take it as license to extrapolate doctrines such as universalism or “invincible ignorance.”
Universalism is a concept so contrary to Scripture, it does not even warrant a response.
“Invincible ignorance” is another concept which also is contrary to the Gospel, specifically because it posits salvation being possible due to somehow lacking guilt–a complete impossibility under any circumstance for humanity. As we covered previously, the idea of invincible ignorance was unknown to the fathers in their exegesis of Rom 2.
So, has anyone been saved without explicitly having faith in Christ in this life? Of course. Everyone who died in faith before the incarnation did not have the same explicit knowledge of Christ that Christians now share. Furthermore, we have in the lives of the saints (a few) stories of seemingly unbelieving people being saved.
We will address this issue in the following order: In this article, we will discuss how the fathers discussed 1 Pet 3:19 and 4:6, as both passages refer to both “souls in prison” and “now dead” being preached to. In a future article, we will discuss the stories which convey the controversial idea that people have been saved without explicit faith in Christ.
The Harrowing of Hell. Perhaps the only non-controversial (among non-Protestants) teaching of the Church that directly addresses the issue of the “unbelieving” being saved is the “harrowing of Hell/Hades.” In short, as we can extrapolate from 1 Pet 3:19 and 4:6, Christ went to Hades, preached to the spirits there, and those who believed were saved.
At first glance, this does not seem like it really addresses the issue, as the presumption is that God saved only the faithful Jews. However, the fathers from what I can tell have taken a broader view that such preaching also included the Gentiles.
Saint John of Damascus writes that those who lived holy lives, during the harrowing of Hell, were given a second chance to believe:
Some say that [Christ delivered from Hades] only those who believed, such as fathers and prophets, judges and together with them kings, local rulers and some others from the Hebrew people, not numerous and known to all. But we shall reply to those who think so that there is nothing undeserved, nothing miraculous and nothing strange in that Christ should save those who believed, for He remains only the fair Judge, and every one who believes in Him will not perish…
Whereas those who were saved only through [God’s] love of men were, as I think, all those who had the purest life and did all kinds of good works, living in modesty, temperance and virtue, but the pure and divine faith they did not conceive because they were not instructed in it and remained altogether unlearnt.
They were those whom the Steward and Master of all drew, captured in the divine nets and persuaded to believe in Him, illuminating them with the divine rays and showing them the true light (Concerning Those Who Died in the Faith).
This is not some sort of late, medieval invention. Saint Clement of Alexandria, writing during the early third century, wrote of the exact same idea and in fact goes into more theological detail:
And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the Master; so that He should bring to repentance those belonging to the Hebrews, and they the Gentiles; that is, those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and Philosophy, who had ended life not perfectly, but sinfully. For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed of greater worth in righteousness, and whose life had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions, though found in another place, yet being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty, should be saved, each one according to his individual knowledge…
The preceding (citation will follow) is fantastic in its claim. In short, not only were there (according to Clement) additional harrowings of Hell from the Apostles, salvation was made possible for “each one according to his individual knowledge.” Certainly, logically flowing from such an idea would be the doctrine of “invincible ignorance” if it were not the fact that the context of the passage dictates these souls were in a state of punishment before the preaching and “ended life not perfectly, but sinfully.” Nevertheless, one cannot help but tell that Clement imputes such men less guilt and views it unfair that they would have not been given a another chance in one of the additional harrowings. He continues:
If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there…those who lived rightly before the Law were classed under faith, and judged to be righteous,—it is evident that those, too, who were outside of the Law, having lived rightly, in consequence of the peculiar nature of the voice, though they are in Hades and in ward, on hearing the voice of the Lord, whether that of His own person or that acting through His apostles, with all speed turned and believed…they who heard and believed should be saved; and that those who believed not, after having heard, should bear witness, not having the excuse to allege, We have not heard….For it is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the advent should have the advantage of the divine righteousness (Stromata, Book VI, Chapter 6).
What About All the Unreached People? Those who espouse “invincible ignorance” wrongly will view such a passage as support for their belief. Why?
For one, it appears the group being saved here had some sort of implicit faith like the Jews (which is why they so readily believed once given the chance). Further, not only were such people “sinful” (which means they would not meet the criteria for “invincible ignorance,”) they were in Saint Clement of Alexandria’s mind given a second chance only because they would have had an excuse otherwise. After the advent of Christ in the world, Clement teaches, there was no grounds for such an excuse. Obviously, modern proponents of “invincible ignorance” would differ with the saint on this matter.
This is a crucial detail that is always lost upon those who espouse invincible ignorance. There is a stereotype today that there are pygmies in Africa and nomads in Mongolia that never, ever, heard of the name Jesus. Speaking from personal experience, this may seem to be true. I have seen this once in Cambodia (though I am not sure if the person, due to senility, simply forgot the name of Jesus.)
However, this is not what the fathers thought. The fathers, quite explicitly, thought the whole world (or nearly all of it) had heard the name of Jesus Christ. Saint Augustine and Saint Propser of Aquataine literally said this. It appears Saint Clement of Alexandria either believes that this is what made the difference, or more simply, the advent of Christ changed the rules. After Christ came into the world, creation was forever changed and God could not look past such ignorance.
Saint John Chrysostom alludes to this when exegeting Acts 17:30–
[Paul] has agitated their soul by showing them to be without excuse, see what he says:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent. What then? Are none of these men to be punished? None of them that are willing to repent. He says it of these men, not of the departed [during the times of ignorance], but of them whom He commands to repent…he hints at the whole world.
Likewise, Mathetes, who is (probably) an Apostolic father writing in the first or early second century, appears to appeal to the same idea when he writes that Jesus entered the world only after wickedness reached its height:
As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them (Epistle to Diognetus, Chap. 9).
This may seem “arbitrary and unfair,” but in addressing the issue Saint Augustine writes that “before He suffered and rose from the dead, the faith had not yet been defined to all, but [now] was defined in the resurrection of Christ” (City of God, Book 18, Chap 54). This is why, in Augustine’s mind, everyone subsequently is condemned apart from faith in Christ.
This is not something I am writing without significant reflection. I challenge my readers to find anyone in the ancient Church that would have taught otherwise, because I honestly cannot find it.
Doesn’t Peter Teach the Gospel Is Preached to the Dead (1 Pet 4:6)? Some people cite 1 Pet 4:6 as proof that the unreached normatively get a chance to believe in Christ after death. However, this is not how fathers interpreted the passage from what I can find. It appears, unlike 1 Pet 3:19, that the “dead” mentioned here are physically alive, but spiritually dead through unbelief:
Therefore he adds, “For this cause was the Gospel preached also to the dead”—to us, namely, who were at one time unbelievers (St Clement of Alexandria, Comments On the First Epistle of Peter).
On the same principle of interpretation, also, there is nothing compelling us to understand the immediately succeeding words of Peter—“For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit”—as describing what has been done in hell. “For for this cause has the gospel been preached” in this life “to the dead,” that is, to the unbelieving wicked (St Augustine, Letter 164, Par. 21).
The preceding is significant, because it shows the following: The fathers had a consensus that those before the advent of Christ had some excuse and were given the opportunity to repent during the harrowing of Hell. Nevertheless, they did not appear to have a concept that anyone after that point in time having the same opportunity. If they would have felt otherwise, I conjecture, they would have not been so quick to interpret 1 Pet 4:6 to pertain to the living instead of the unreached.
Were the Fathers Ignorant of How Big the World Was? People may say the fathers were wrong, because they were ignorant of people in areas far beyond the Roman Empire. Hence, they reason, the fathers would have taught that such people would be “invincibly ignorant” if they knew the people existed. There are three problems with this.
For one, it sets us above a consensus of the fathers which is morally dangerous. I would hope that a better understanding of demographics was necessary for the Church to better understand this doctrine.
Two, it contradicts church tradition that apostles made it all the way to Britain, Spain, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and India. It is not impossible that even by whisper or rumor, everyone in the old world would have heard (and, if Polynesians made it to the new world, this would be true worldwide.) Granted, this is all speculation, but Christian tradition already teaches that all of the Apostles reached the whole known world by the end of the first century. Sure, Church tradition forgot China and the Americas, but obviously the thrust of the tradition is that the whole world has heard the Gospel.
Lastly, the Scriptures literally say “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) who heard the message of Christ preached by Peter. Acts 15:21 states “in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him” alludes to the same. So, the Scriptures literally expound that the whole world has heard of the Law, and presumably, of Christ.
I want to be careful not to be overly literal and wooden with the preceding, as I am well aware that the Scriptures and traditions are speaking in absolute terms which do not appear to jive with a literal view of human history. However, I find it sufficient to not go beyond with speculations what the fathers (and Scriptures!) have taught on the topic: There was a harrowing of Hell, there was an “excuse” before the advent of Christ, and there is subsequently no excuse as far as anyone is aware.
Are We Simply Ignoring Common Sense? Some may argue that we can make logical extrapolations, something to the effect of “because God is good, and He gave people a second chance in the past, His goodness being the same (humanly speaking) He will also give people now a second chance.”
Yet, Saint Augustine explicitly rejected such reasoning when exegeting why (in his mind) only unbelieving souls in Noah’s day were preached to and no one else:
I speak only of those many thousands of men who, ignorant of God and devoted to the worship of devils or of idols, had passed out of this life from the time of Noah to the passion of Christ. How was it that Christ, finding these in hell, did not preach to them, but preached only to those who were unbelieving in the days of Noah when the ark was a preparing?…nor is it a necessary inference that what divine mercy and justice granted to some must be supposed to have been granted to all (Letter 164, Par. 5).
Why is this so? God cannot be reduced to a calculation, who recompenses to all equally in a predictable way. Those field hands who were unhappy with how God paid everyone the same though some worked more than others were told, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15) This confounds human reasoning, but it is precisely this “depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” which are “unsearchable” and “past finding out” (Rom 11:33). We must presuppose this when looking into the mind of the fathers on this topic.
Conclusion. Instead of summarizing everything here, allow me to quote Augustine on the harrowing of Hell at length:
They say that all those who were found in hell when Christ descended thither had never heard the gospel, and that that place of punishment or imprisonment was emptied of all these, because the gospel was not published to the whole world in their lifetime, and they had sufficient excuse for not believing that which had never been proclaimed to them; but that thenceforth, men despising the gospel when it was in all nations fully published and spread abroad would be inexcusable…Those who hold this opinion do not consider that the same excuse is available for all those who have, even after Christ’s resurrection, departed this life before the gospel came to them. For even after the Lord came back from hell, it was not the case that no one was from that time forward permitted to go to hell without having heard the gospel, seeing that multitudes throughout the world died before the proclamation of its tidings came to them, all of whom are entitled to plead the excuse which is alleged to have been taken away from those of whom it is said, that because they had not before heard the gospel, the Lord when He descended into hell proclaimed it to them.
This objection may perhaps be met by saying that those also who since the Lord’s resurrection have died or are now dying without the gospel having been proclaimed to them, may have heard it or may now hear it where they are, in hell, so that there they may believe what ought to be believed concerning the truth of Christ, and may also have that pardon and salvation which those to whom Christ preached obtained…But if we accept this opinion, according to which we are warranted in supposing that men who did not believe while they were in life can in hell believe in Christ, who can bear the contradictions both of reason and faith which must follow? In the first place, if this were true, we should seem to have no reason for mourning over those who have departed from the body without that grace, and there would be no ground for being solicitous and using urgent exhortation that men would accept the grace of God before they die, lest they should be punished with eternal death..[Those who say not] believing will profit those who never despised a gospel which they never had it in their power to hear another still more absurd consequence is involved, namely, that forasmuch as all men shall certainly die, and ought to come to hell wholly free from the guilt of having despised the gospel; since otherwise it can be of no use to them to believe it when they come there, the gospel ought not to be preached on earth, a sentiment not less foolish than profane (Letter 164, Par. 12-13).