This is the question that always gets raised. What about the people in ancient Peru who never heard the Gospel? What about the child in Saudi Arabia who is born a Muslim by no fault of his own yet strives to be a good and just individual?
[Note: Here is the link to the first (and introductory) post in this series: Prof. Th. Engelder on The Hades Gospel Part I: "The Hades Gospel", the second post: Part II, "The Argument in Support of the Hades Gospel,", and the third post: Prof. Th. Engelder on the Hades Gospel Part III: "The Evil of The Hades Gospel"]
In Part IV, "Some Remarks on the Question of the Salvation of the Heathen," Engelder takes up the issues and questions surrounding the salvation of the heathen. A particularly memorable line is the following: "Nor is it surprising that the liberal Protestants teach that the heathen can save themselves, with the help of God. The Liberals are blood brothers of the Catholics, of the race of Pelagius." The warnings of the essay are clear: do not give up the universality of grace though the facts seem to contradict this article of faith; and, do not be led into strange unbiblical doctrines by rationalizations and human searches into the unsearchable mysteries of God. These paths start in the (vain) hope of explaining God's ways further and more clearly than He Himself does, and ultimately leads to accusing the Lord Himself of evil and malice.
Engelder's essay is excellent, and if you read only one of them on the subject, this is definitely the one. He closes with Stoeckhardt's wise words on the subject:
"Our present discussion may be summed up in the words with which Dr. Stoeckhardt concludes his study of 1 Peter 3: 19 f. :"Everything now depends on what the sinners do here on earth about Christ. That determines their eternal fate. Here one might ask: But how about those who have heard nothing of Christ? And why is it that all did not hear? Why has God not given His Word at all times at all places? These questions touch upon a domain which is utterly closed and hidden to us. Here begin the mysteries of God, into which we cannot and should not search. Scripture confines our thinking to the state of affairs produced by the Gospel, the offer of salvation through Christ. Our sole business is to carry out Christ's command and preach the Gospel to every creature, to testify to all that without Christ there is no salvation, that he that believes on Christ is saved, but he that believeth not will be damned." The question is not: Has God done His duty toward the heathen? The question is: Are we doing our duty? With that, faith concerns itself. Doing that, it rests content."
But when men follow their own reason and understanding, over and against the revelation and wisdom of God, they are bound to speak and act with their own unreasonable and self-defeating foolishness.
The Lord humbled Job from the whirlwind, and humbles us when we seek to judge Him in our pride. The Lord who comes down from heaven in order to suffer and die and bleed for poor miserable sinners is the Lord worthy of our trust in all things. And thus:
"The teaching that heathen are saved, wholly or in part, through their morality has no place in the Christian Church. It is a heathen doctrine; for the essence of all heathen religions is the idea of salvation through works. Scripture repudiates all such ideas. Scripture teaches most emphatically that "there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God; there is none that doeth good, no, not one" (Rom. 3: 11,12) . The "morality" of the heathen is a fiction. Scripture, again, teaches that there is no salvation except through Jesus and the means of grace."
[Here is a brief introduction to Engelder and his work.]
Below are all six of Engelder's essays, in order, linked to the online articles.
Part I: "The Hades Gospel"
CTM May 1945 (Vol. 16, No. 5)
Part II: "The Argument in Support of the Hades Gospel"
CTM June 1945 (Vol. 16, No. 6)
Part III: "The Evil of The Hades Gospel"
CTM September 1945 (Vol. 16, No. 9)
Part IV: "Some Remarks on the Question of the Salvation of the Heathen"
CTM December 1945 (Vol. 16, No. 12)
Part V: "The Protestant Purgatory"
CTM June 1946 (Vol. 17, No. 6)
Part VI: "The Hades Gospel and the Apocatastasis Gospel"
CTM September 1946 (Vol. 17, No. 9)
If you are a pastor who isn't comfortable speaking to this issue and the questions surrounding the life hereafter, then you probably need to, um, "supplement you knowledge" about basic Christianity. (Read: get it straight, fast. You should know this already!) There is a decent amount of German and other foreign language references in the article. However, the layman who is grounded in the Catechism and Scriptures and takes a plunge will indeed be rewarded with much good food for thought and reflection.