Today I want to look at an oft-overlooked text in favor of inclusivism, the doctrine that hearing the gospel and making a cognitive confession of it (as described in Romans 10:9) is not necessary for salvation.
Let’s begin with the text. In Revelation 5:9 the Lamb (Jesus) is depicted opening a scroll as the saints look on in praise and declare:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
By his atoning death Jesus “purchased” (scare quotes signaling a nod to the economic metaphor at play here) individuals from “every” (Greek = pas refers to some of every type) …. Every what? From there the text piles on four words which, within the context, are quite close to being synonyms and thus which simply serve to reiterate the central point. There will be disciples from every
phyle: an ethnic people group
glossa: the language of a particular people
laos: a ethnic people group
ethnos: a ethnic people group
The pas (every) is quite clear and the piling up of four different terms is a way of hammering the point home. Every distinct ethnical, linguistic group will have representative disciples.
Next, we simply need to identify at least some phyle, glossa, laos, ethnos that became extinct prior to having an opportunity to hear the gospel. Admittedly these terms are inevitably frayed at the edges (when is a person no longer a representative of a particular ethnic group? What do you do with Jae-Huk Kim, a Korean raised in America who is, as they say, a “banana” (not my term: that is a standard MK term), ethnically Korean but culturally western? Does he count as a representative of Korea, or of America? Or both? And what about Kate Snow who happens to be a quarter Jewish, 1/8th Lebanese, half Egyptian, and the rest British… You get the picture.
Even granting such inherent ambiguity it is not hard to identify various ethnical and language groups that never received the gospel prior to their extinction. Consider Australia. Estimates are that prior to British colonization beginning in 1788 the region had been settled for at least 40,000 years by more than four hundred distinct ethnical and linguistic groups. Revelation 5:9 commits us to saying that there will be representatives from each one of those groups. And that strongly suggests an inclusive understanding of salvation.
Of course an exclusivist could always claim that prior to death certain representative individuals from every language or ethnical group were given a gospel presentation in some sort of supernatural vision or angelic visitation to secure the menagerie described in Revelation 5:9. But there is no evidence of such events and thus the hypothesis inevitably looks ad hoc. Moreover, since such events clearly were not deemed necessary to save Abraham, Moses or David, it is difficult to think why they would be necessary to save Akala, Daku and Miro.
So to sum up, the diversity of representative language and ethnical groups represented in Revelation 5:9 is strongly suggestive of the truth of inclusivism.