Tony Evans on “Transdispensationalism”

Tim Brister —  November 15, 2006 — 18 Comments

In his book, Totally Saved, Tony Evans attempts to answer the question, “What about those who have never heard?” in the appendix section. Evans argues for an explanation which he calls “transdispensationalism” (rivaled only by transubstantianism in a contest for most theological syllables). What I did not know was that the appendix in which this material is found was NOT printed in the future paperback edition. Jim Sutherland, who recognized this problem, wrote the following:

Not knowing if this appendix omission was due to criticism of Moody Press for printing the appendix, or due to a change in Dr. Evans’ position, I tried for over 4 months to determine from Dr. Evans if he still would continue to teach and promulgate this particular doctrine. I could get no reply, so must assume that he may continue to teach and promote “transdispensationalism.” What was said of learned Greek father Origin could be said of Dr. Evans, that in his pastoral concern he has turned a hope into a doctrine.

So what exactly is transdispensationalism? It is a whacky word for a whacky idea. But instead of attempting to sum up what Evans argues, I am reproducing the section of the appendix where Evans himself explains the idea (bold faced mine):

Now there’s a third way God can deal in grace with those who can’t believe because they have never heard the gospel. He can apply another dispensation and its criteria to them. A dispensation is simply an economy or an administration of God, a way in which He deals with people based on the information he has given them.

For instance, people in the Old Testament were saved without hearing the name of Jesus, because Jesus hadn’t come to earth yet. But they were saved because they believed in the revelation of God.

The Bible says Abraham believed God and was accounted as righteous, or saved, for believing in God’s promise of a son and a seed (Genesis 15:6). This was long before the Mosaic sacrificial system was ever begun.

Abraham believed without hearing about Jesus, but I am not saying that people can be saved apart from Jesus. Never. Nobody can get saved without Jesus, because He is the Savior of all men, as we read in 1 Timothy 4:10. Everybody is saved through Christ, even those who lived before Jesus came, because in the mind and heart of God, Jesus was already sacrificed to pay for sin before the world was ever created (see Revelation 13:8). So a person can be saved without knowing Jesus’ name, but not without Jesus’ provision for sin.

In the case of a person who never hears the gospel and never knows the name of Jesus, but who responds to the light he has, God treats that person like an Old Testament saint, if you will. That is, if the person trusts in what God has revealed, God deals with that person based on the knowledge he has, not the information he never received. I call this transdispensationalism.

By this I mean if a person is sincerely seeking God and desiring to know Him, and is responding to the truth he knows, if there is no missionary or direct manifestation of God, then God judges that person based on his faith in the light he has received. And as in the case of Abraham, God will retroactively count this person as righteous by applying the death of Christ from the dispensation of grace.

John MacArthur, in a question and answer session was asked about his reference to the idea of transdispensationalism in a message to which he replied:

“Obviously, there is no biblical defense for that, and none is attempted in the book—none. There isn’t even a verse to defend that. Furthermore, living up to natural human light, apart from the revelation of the true and living God, wouldn’t save anybody in any dispensation. But, it is a very—it is a very strange thing and, to this degree, to the degree that He gives salvation to those who have never heard the gospel, it’s a departure from what we believe the scripture teaches. . . . There was a radio interview that followed that book that’s available. You can get the transcript of that radio interview, in which the host was interviewing Tony Evans and said to him, “You’re saying, if a Hindu looks up and says, ‘I know you’re up there somewhere. I don’t know who you are, but I’d really like to know you,’ God will count that as sufficient as salvation?” And the answer to that was “Yes.”

Evans recognized a future objection: “Tony, if you say people can be saved by general revelation, why preach the gospel? Why bother sending missionaries around the world and translating the Bible?” Evans gives two (really bad) answers to this objection:

1. Because Christ has commanded us to go and tell the whole world the good news of His salvation.

2. Because the process I just described for those who haven’t heard of Christ is far from automatic. Whatever we may try to deduce from Scripture about those who have never heard about Christ, we know without a doubt that those who hear and believe the gospel will be saved. (emphasis mine)

One answer to this question is “because I said so,” and the other is “well, it might not actually work.” After having read this piece one will easily see that there is no substantive biblical warrant for such a position. However, as I have come to find out, this is an argument being many by several inclusivists. In a follow-up post, I will provide quotes as well as the line of argument for what Millard Erickson called “chronologically displaced persons” (which is the same thing as Evans’ transdispensationalism).

To read some rebuttals to Evans’ transdispensationalism, check out:

Jim Sutherland. “Can Faith in Christ Be Attributed?: ‘Transdispensationalization’ and Dr. Tony Evans”

J.B. Hixson. “A Response to Dr. Tony Evans’ Teaching Regarding the Eternal Salvation of Those Who Can’t Believe.”

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  • Timmy,
    I am glad you brought this up. Being a Dallas grad myself Dr. Evans is treated as one of the “big dawgs” at the school and I have always wondered why because I have known about his transdispensationalism that he clearly lays out in his book. He’s an inclucivist in regards to the gospel of Jesus Christ but since he’s got the big church and he’s a big name it seems that no one pays much attention to it. Your post and blog show that you believe doctrinal purity is vastly important and I appreciate that in your posts. As Paul says in 1 Cor 15, “bad company corrupts good character”, and it’s in the context of bad theology taking place in the church, those denying the resurrection, not just moral living. Keep preaching it brother!

  • This teaching is more prevalent than we wish it would be. I attended undergraduate at Columbia Bible College in South Carolina and heard variations of this teaching from many (not all) of the professors that I took. This is the danger of viewing Scripture through the lens of any theological system instead of the other way around.

  • I’m no expert on Dispensationalism, but I believe I have heard Dispensationalists argue that they definately do NOT believe in multiple avenues of salvation, with respect to the dispensations. It’s just that the requirements demanded on the peoples’ faithfulness change from one to another.

    But Dr. Evans seems to pretty clearly be saying that the “means” of salvation are not the same from one dispensation to another.

    Am I reading that wrong?

  • Charles Ryrie states it well when he says that “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Jesus Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”

    This quote is used by both Clark Pinnock and John Sanders in their books. The issue comes down to the content of saving faith. What does a person have to know in order to be saved?

    Dispensationalists argue that the content changes from dispensation to dispensation but the object is the same.

    I will elaborate more on this in a future post and will also provide some quotes from Ramesh Richard, a dispensationalist (from DTS) who argues against the inclusivist usage of dispensational framework to support their position.

    I hope that helps a little bit. I am short on time as my wife and I are heading down to the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn) – the biggest football rivalry in all of football. Oh, and my prediction:

    Alabama 24
    Auburn 21

  • This is a horrible teaching. I know that Tony Evans is greatly respected in many “evangelical” circles. But this teaching is heresy.

    Even in past dispensations, we are only saved by faith in the true God and Lord of the universe. This God is YHWH. His son is YHWH, therefore when we believe on the Jesus of Nazareth as God and Lord — we are in fact believing in GOD, YHWH, the “God-man” who has come in flesh. Every man and woman in every dispensation is saved by believing on this one and only true God. To suggest Romans 10:14 is a lie…

    “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?”

    or John 3:18-19…

    “18 He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

    I would be interested if any of you have Moody Press’ formal response to this heresy. I would have to think that their editors really blew it on this one.

    Christ is all,

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  • Glenn, Louisville

    I have just finished an extensive research paper on Dr. Evans for seminary in which I have chategorized every written work by Evans that I know exists (which is nearly 100 in number). Allow me to say that though I believe it was a major error for this appendix to be included in his book and that his view as stated is entirely wrong, we should be very careful about how we characterize Evans.
    Other than this appendix, which was removed from later printings, I have not discovered an unorthodox shred of evidence that would characterize Evans as a heretic. His ministry is thoroughly rooted in the Word, and I praise God for his influence. I cannot explain how it is that he expressed this transdispensational view, but he is certainly not preaching it or spreading it in his writings beyond that appendix.
    Perhaps a spirit of grace should assume that the removal of the appendix from later works reflects Dr. Evans’ own reservations concerning the view?

  • Glenn,

    Thanks for commenting. I am not sure that I ever characterized Dr. Evans as “a heretic.” It was about a year ago when I wrote this article, so if I did, please refresh my memory.

    I would be interested in knowing if Dr. Evans holds this view today, even though it is no longer in print. The fact is, howver, that many inclusivists who deny the necessity of believing in Christ for salvation use the very same argument that Dr. Evans purported. That is not to say I am making the “guilt-by-association” argument but merely to note that his idea of transdispensationalism is common among those who want to change the gospel in order to satisfy their belief that many (if not most) will be saved who are “inculpably ignorant” or have never heard of Christ.

    Just curious, but would you consider soteriological inclusivism as unorthodox?

    • Angela Davidson

      Hi Timmy, it is true that the transdispensationalism view is just inclusivism with a new name, however, Dr. Evans never held this view. I posted about the real reason this was included in his book in my comment below. Bottom line is that the book was ghostwritten and it’s kind of hard and embarrassing for all involved to come forward after you say you wrote something when you didn’t to now say, “Well, I didn’t really write the book–the one who wrote it was THAT GUY!” Oh well, sad situation, but I’ll bet he reads a LOT more carefully before he signs off on one of “his” books from now on. By the way, it happens all the time, ghostwriting for famous evangelicals, that is.

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  • We dealt with this in Volume One of The Late Great Planet Church (DVD): The Rise of Dispensationalism though we did not use the word “transdispensationalism.” To check out this DVD go to

  • Mario Indino

    Dr. tony Evan’s view seems to many be very strange and unconventional. I have been asked on the same in my personal experienced in ministering in many countries as missionary. A passage in Romans 1:20 shows that creation reveals God’s nature. In chapter 2:14-15 Gentiles who did not have the law will be judged according to their conscience a non-absolute basis for judgment. It’s not easy for us who are directly involve in the real life question knowing in actual of so many haven’t really heard the gospel.

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  • Bruce

    I don’t know if this is an “active” article, but here are my thoughts…

    “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” [Is. 53:1] …. Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” – Romans 10:14-17

    I’ve heard this preached many times. Just this passage (sometimes with vs. 13 added). However, I think that exegetically evaluating this passage gives some credence to Evans’ position (as long as you keep reading the passage). Usually the sermon stops there and a call to surrender to the pastorate or the mission field is given. However, Paul states, “But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.'” What is Paul speaking about? He is quoting Ps. 19:4, which is speaking of general revelation (creation).

    So, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” “How can they call on the one they have not believed?” “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” “How can they hear without a preacher?” – Through belief in what God has given to them, general revelation.

    Couple of more comments…”Seek and you will find.” I believe that if one believes in the revelation given to him or her, even if it is not full revelation, God will give him or her more revelation. This is what happened to the Etheopian eunach. Those who have not heard are suppressing the truth available to all, that God is divine and that He is creator (Rom. 1:19-20), trading in the truth that is available to them for a lie (worshipping the tree, sun, ancestors, etc.).

    Second, there are those who apply this part of the Rom. 10 passage to just Israel. While I agree that Paul is dealing with Israel in ch. 9-11, he makes clear that this aspect is the same for both Jews and non-Jews (v. 11-13). If vs. 18 is not applicable to the non-Jew, then neither is vs. 13 (which I doubt any evangelical would claim) and neither is the passage dealing with the pastor in vs. 14-15 (which I doubt any evangelical would claim).

    Although the appendix secdtion didn’t give any support for the view, I think Evans explains it well:

    Abraham believed without hearing about Jesus, but I am not saying that people can be saved apart from Jesus. Never. Nobody can get saved without Jesus, because He is the Savior of all men, as we read in 1 Timothy 4:10. Everybody is saved through Christ, even those who lived before Jesus came…

    Certainly we should evangelize out of obedience and devotion to Christ above all else. Any other reason elevates that reason above Christ (even if that reason is our heartfelt concern over the lost). Although it is our duty to preach the gospel to every nation, we cannot forget that God is sovereign and His will will be done regardless of our action(or inaction).

  • Whacky, just plain whacky… equivalent to William Lane Craig’s “transworld damnation”… Tony Evans is tying himself in theolgical knots trying to understand why God doesn’t love everybody in the same way so this idea (and others) have to be concocted, Romans 9:15.

    I call it “Rube Goldberg” theology.

  • Angela Davidson

    Just wanted to mention that I just learned of this situation last night in the context of ideas that continue to be quoted as if someone believes them when in fact they do not. Apparently, Tony Evans completely repudiates inclusivism, as he should. The editors at Moody Press did not catch the explanation of transdispensationalism in the appendix of the first edition of “his” book, to their detriment. The wonderful thing to know is that Dr. Tony Evans is orthodox in his exclusivist beliefs about salvation. Unfortunately, the sad thing is the reason that this passage was placed in his book in the first place. The reality to which no one wanted to admit (and which explains why he has not come out to more loudly and publicly decry the statement) is because the book was ghostwritten for Dr. Evans and apparently he did not read it carefully enough, particularly in the appendix, before he signed off on it. The body of the book was likely taken from his past sermons, but the section on transdispensationalism was added by the ghostwriter and, of course, attributed to Evans. Obviously, this brings up the ethical nature of ghostwriting in Christian authors and publishing companies, not to mention the clear potential for false teaching spread under a well-known name that attaches credibility. When I learned of this trend I was shocked to learn that many well-known evangelical authors use ghostwriters. I found out about it because my friend, whose name is now well-known in his own right, was a ghostwriter himself for several high-profile Christian pastors. I really struggled with challenging him on this. Personally, I think it is unethical. At any rate, that is the backstory for this controversy. I didn’t read all of the comments so I don’t know if someone else already mentioned it. Everyone who writes books should learn a big lesson from this–Don’t have a ghostwriter…but if you do, READ EVERY WORD!

  • cnking

    MacArthur is back at it again. To say that Evans offers no Scriptural basis for this claim is to completely ignore his reference to Abraham (which included many verses) and the rest of the Old Testament saints. Certain of these guys spend much more time tearing others apart than building anyone up publicly…and we should view that as bad fruit. Evans’ point makes perfect sense when applied to Old Testament saints, all he has done is transferred that dispensation of grace onto people who, though they exist under the New Covenant chronologically, have not been made aware that there is a New Covenant. It’s not that confusing. I don’t know whether I agree with it or not, but it’s not hard to understand what he’s saying, it’s not extrabiblical, and it’s not really that controversial.

  • John Lujan

    Evans’ argument about natural revelation and the Hindu doesn’t hold water simply because in Romans, Paul was saying that because those people didn’t believe what they saw in nature, they are condemned. Unbelief is the default setting of everyone. Paul wasn’t giving a hypothetical about who could be saved in those 3 examples (nature, conscience, and special revelation), rather illustrating the 3 ways God revealed Himself to mankind and they still wouldn’t believe.