Literary Apologetics, Popular Books, Religions, Religious Diversity

What about those who haven’t heard? – Part 1 of a Case Study on Religious Pluralism from Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur”


A beautiful cover for an edition of Ben Hur- I was unable to locate the exact copyright information.

Ben Hur 
is one of my all-time favorite novels. There are many issues related to worldview raised throughout the novel. I have started a series which outlines some of the ways it interacts with

Selection from the Book

Each post in this series will begin with a segment from the book itself. Here, we jump into a scene in which one of the wise men is telling the story of how he came to be in a desert, meeting up with the others. He is Greek. I have abridged the segment to focus on the areas in which this series is most interested, namely, the ways God interacts with humanity.

“I am Gaspar, son of Cleanthes the Athenian…

…”It happens that two of our [Greece’s] philosophers, the very greatest of the many [reference to Plato and Aristotle, presumably], teach, one the doctrine of a Soul in every man, and its Immortality; the other the doctrine of One God, infinitely just. From the multitude of subjects about which the schools were disputing, I separated them, as alone worth the labor of solution; for I thought there was a relation between God and the soul as yet unknown…

“In the northern part of my country–in Thessaly… there is a mountain famous as the home of the gods… Olympus is its name. Thither I betook myself. I found a cave [nearby]… there I dwelt, giving myself up to meditation–no, I gave myself up to waiting for what every breath was a prayer–for revelation. Believing in God, invisible yet supreme, I also believed it possible so to yearn for him with all my soul that he would take compassion and give me answer.

“…One day I saw a man flung overboard from a ship sailing by. He swam ashore. I received and took care of him. He was a Jew, learned in the history and laws of his people; and from him I came to know that the God of my prayers did indeed exist; and had been for ages their lawmaker, ruler, and king. What was that but the Revelation I dreamed of? My faith had not been fruitless; God answered me!”

“As he does all who cry to him with such faith,” said the [Hindu].

“But, alas!” the Egyptian added, “how few are there wise enough to know when he answers them!”

“That was not all,” the Greek continued. “The man so sent to me told me more. He said the prophets who, in the ages which followed the first revelation, walked and talked with God, declared he would come again…

“It is true… the man told me that as God and the revelation of which he spoke had been for the Jews alone, so it would be again… ‘Had he nothing for the rest of the world?’ I asked. ‘No,’ was the answer, given in a proud voice–‘No, we are his chosen people.’ The answer did not crush my hope. Why should such a God limit his love and benefaction to one land, and, as it were, to one family? …When the Jew was gone, and I was alone again, I chastened my soul with a new prayer–that I might be permitted to see the King when he was come, and worship him. One night I sat by the door of my cave trying to get nearer the mysteries of my existence, knowing which is to know God; suddenly, on the sea below me, or rather in the darkness that covered its face, I saw a star begin to burn; slowly it arose and drew nigh, and stood over the hill and above my door, so that its light shone full upon me. I fell down, and slept, and in my dream I heard a voice say:

“‘O Gaspar! Thy faith hath conquered! Blessed art thou! With two others, come from the uttermost parts of the earth, thou shalt see Him that is promised, and be a witness for him, and the occasion of testimony in his behalf. In the morning arise, and go meet them, and keep trust in the Spirit that shall guide thee.’

“And in the morning I awoke with the Spirit as a light within me surpassing that of the sun…”

This passage can be found in Ben Hur, Book I, Chapter III. It may be read in its entirety online here (it is public domain due to expired copyright).

An illustration from the Ben Hur novel. I was unable to find a specific copyright.

An illustration from the Ben Hur novel. I was unable to find a specific copyright.

Notes on Religion from the Selection

Christians have proposed many different answers to one of the most pressing questions, itself having been pondered for centuries: “What about those who have never heard?” The question is regarding salvation–can those who have never heard be saved? But it isn’t only that. It might be nuanced in many ways. For example, are there any who have not heard what is required to be saved who would respond if they did hear it? Though the answer initially may seem obvious, it must be thought over carefully before one simply says yes or no.

In this passage from Lew Wallace, we find not one, but two separate answers to this question combined into one account. The answers are: direct divine revelation, and sending a witness. (I have dubbed them this, but the titles summarize common proposals–see below.)

Sending a Witness

One of the answers Christians have given to the question of those who have not heard and their salvific status is pretty straightforward: there simply are none who have not heard. The claim seems rather extraordinary, for, after all, entire swathes of humanity never had contact with any Christian missionary for vast periods of time. Yet, this answer to the question suggests that God sends a witness to anyone who would respond. Thus, if there is someone in a place where Christianity had not yet reached who would have responded to a missionary, God somehow sets it up such that that person hears from someone about Christ.

In the example from Ben Hur above, we see that the Greek was looking for the divine–hoping for a response. Thus, through providential act, a Jew washed up on shore to instruct him about the truth.

It seems this solution to the problem of religious pluralism and those who have not heard is unsatisfactory. There are many reasons for this. First, it supports a rather dim view of other cultures through a system that is ultimately culturally imperialist. Second, it seems to stretch credulity, for it would follow from this position that either there have only been very few outside of the parts of the world where Christianity is dominant who would have responded to the Gospel anyway (see previous point) or that there are innumerable instances of shipwrecks washing missionaries on shore in far off places all over the world to wherever someone might respond to the Gospel. Either of these seems unsatisfactory.

However, it is possible that the “Sending a Witness” answer could be part of an answer to the questions posed here. It just does not seem capable of carrying all the weight on its own.

Direct Divine Revelation

Like the previous answer, the “direct divine revelation” solution to the problem of religious pluralism and specifically those who have not heard is one which ultimately results in the answer: None have not heard. For, if someone would respond to the Gospel, God simply reveals Christ through direct revelation. In the selection above, we see that a dream reveals the Holy Spirit to Gaspar.

This answer to the questions raised above is perhaps more satisfactory than the previous one, but difficulties remain. The primary one is that although several firsthand instances of this type of thing happening are found, they do not seem to be as ubiquitous as they might need to be in order to adequately account for all those who have not heard. Again, this may be part of a larger multi-level response, but I don’t think it can stand on its own.


Wallace provides here an overview of two of the traditional answers to the question of those who have not heard about Jesus Christ. Neither solution seems entirely satisfactory, though either or both might be integrated into a holistic view of witnessing and missions. We will explore other aspects of Wallace’s exploration of religious pluralism

Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I think that John Sanders’ book, No Other Name is perhaps the best work I have read for providing background into the different proposed solutions for the question of those who have not heard about Christ. It would be a good read for those wishing to explore the topic further.


Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace– The post introducing this entire series on “Ben Hur.” It has links to all the posts in the series.

Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic– I look at the 1959 epic film from a worldview perspective. How does the movie reflect the deeply Christian worldview of the book?



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


9 thoughts on “What about those who haven’t heard? – Part 1 of a Case Study on Religious Pluralism from Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur”

  1. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Posted by jamesbradfordpate | March 14, 2016, 1:40 PM
  2. I often want to take this question one step further — “What of those who have never *effectively* heard?”

    What if someone heard from parents in a family without love? What if someone heard from a priest who was sexually abusing him? What if someone went to church a couple times when visiting her grandma? What if someone watched Ben Hur late one night on TV? Such people have been *exposed* to the message, but have they truly *heard* the message?

    I wish I had the answers, but for now I am just asking the question.

    Posted by Tim Folkerts | August 17, 2016, 10:49 PM
    • I think it’s the kind of question that needs to be left open ended. I don’t think we have a very clear answer to it, and so relying on God’s grace and goodness is the best option. Some would dissent from this and say that some specific verses in the Bible show that unless one has explicit affirmations of very specific statements, they cannot be saved. I disagree, but I don’t think delving into the interpretation is really necessary. They’re hard questions and offering pat answers doesn’t do much to solve them.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 18, 2016, 12:50 PM


  1. Pingback: Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace- Series Introduction | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - March 18, 2016

  2. Pingback: “Ben Hur” – Gods, Faith, Baptism, and Forgiveness | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - August 22, 2016

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