Roman Catholicism Soteriology

Peter Kreeft’s accessibilist perspective re: the unevangelized

Peter KreeftIn Tough Questions Christians Ask, published by Christianity Today in 1989 and then reprinted as a web only article in 2003, Peter Kreeft answers 35 questions about eternity, mostly with regard to heaven. (The few questions about hell are answered interestingly, but it is difficult to tell from those answers alone whether or not Kreeft affirms annihilationism.) In general, I find his answers astute and helpful, particularly his willingness to grant that there is much we do not know, while still venturing some biblically and theologically informed speculation.

Given my understanding of the possibility that God saves some people who do not hear the gospel (that is, the latest covenantal revelation) during their lifetime, I was pleased with the direction of his answer to question “34. Is Jesus the only way? (Or can good pagans, Hindus, et cetera get to Heaven too?)

The first part of the question is clear, and the answer is clear: Unless Jesus is the victim of grandiose self-delusion or deliberate, blasphemous lying, he is the only way, for he says exactly that (John 14:6). But the second part of the question is not clear. People who have never heard of Christ, and thus have neither consciously accepted him nor consciously rejected him, must also get to Heaven through Christ, for there is no other way. That much is clear from Christ’s own words. But it is not clear what is going on in the unconscious depths of the souls of such people. Only God knows. Perhaps they know and love him in the obscure form of a deep, unconscious desire and love.

The game of heavenly population statistics is one that Christ discouraged his disciples from playing. When they asked him, “Are many saved?” he answered neither yes nor no but said, “Strive to enter in” (Luke 13:24). In other words, mind your own business, your own salvation, rather than speculating about others and statistics. God has not told us the answer to this question, for his own good reasons, just as he has not told us when the world will end, another question about which we love to speculate. I think that in both cases we can see the wisdom of not telling us. If we knew when the world would end, we would not be ready at all times for the thief who comes in the night, unexpectedly. If we knew that most were not saved, we would tend to despair; if we knew that most were saved, we would tend to presumption.

What we do know is that Christ the Savior is not only a 33-year-old, 6-foot-high Jewish man, but also the eternal God, the Logos that enlightens every individual (John 1:9). Thus everyone has a fair chance to accept him or reject him, whether implicitly (for all light of truth and goodness is from him) or explicitly. We are not saved by how explicit our knowledge is; we are saved by him. Faith is the glue that holds him fast (or, more accurately, the glue by which he holds us fast, for faith is also his gift).

This is a traditional, mainline Christian position, from the time of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria to the time of C. S. Lewis. It is halfway between the liberal view that one can be saved in other ways than Christ (for example, by good intentions) and the frequent fundamentalist view that it takes an explicit knowledge of Christ to be saved.

The middle view does not detract from the infinite seriousness of missionary work, as the liberal view does. For if we do not know how many children will fall through a hole in the ice and drown, we feel just as much urgency in shouting warnings (and in putting our words into action) as we would if we knew exactly who would die and who would not.

I find it hard to locate Kreeft precisely on my typology. Clearly, he believes that everyone receives revelation which would be saving if they responded in appropriate faith, but he does not explicitly speak in terms of “universal revelation accessibilism.”  He states that “it is not clear what is going on in the unconscious depths of the souls of such people. Only God knows. Perhaps they know and love him in the obscure form of a deep, unconscious desire and love.” Does this a form of “particular revelation accessibilism?” Is he saying that God reveals himself personally to all who do not have any means of encountering him in external means of divine revelation, so that some people meet God in the depths of their souls, even though they may be unconscious of it? I find that proposal rather nebulous. Its ambiguity may derive from the common Roman Catholic distinction (which Kreeft repeats) between implicit and explicit faith, but “implicit faith” does not look to me like a synonym for the “baptism of desire.” I can see how some relationship may exist between the approach taken to the possible salvation of the unevangelized and the approach to the possible salvation of the unbaptized, but the baptism of desire is a desire to be baptized by someone who is unable to be baptized. I wonder, however: “To what divine self-revelation is the ‘implicit faith’ of the unevangelized responding?”

I think that Kreeft’s direction is good, and I appreciate his care in stressing that accessibilism does not demotivate people from missionary work, but I wish that he had been more clear about what he had in mind. I am certainly open to identifying another type of accessibilism but, from this statement, I am at a loss to know just how to state that type succinctly. Personally, I think it is best if we stick to explicit faith, while acknowledging that the content of that faith necessarily varies with the content of the revelation God gives to people.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on “Peter Kreeft’s accessibilist perspective re: the unevangelized”

I appreciate especially his note that Christ’s own response to the question was to encourage people to follow him, rather than to work out who else was “on Heaven’s roll”.

His response seems to me to express the Vatican II doctrine regarding “baptism of desire”. Interestingly worded, of course, as always with Kreeft.

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