Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Flaming Meteor Challenge Revisited

James McGrath, of Exploring Our Matrix, has begun a “blogversation” with Michael Halcomb on Christianity, salvation, pluralism and related issues, all of which are relevant to my interests here at C.Orthodoxy. James begins with an intriguing thought-experiment that can be used to determine whether you are an “inclusivist” or an “exclusivist” when it comes to salvation (i.e. whether you think that belief in Jesus is necessary to salvation). He calls it “the flaming meteorite test”:

Basically, it involves a reenactment of the story from Acts 10 about Peter being sent to communicate the Gospel to Cornelius, a non-Jew who has nonetheless been righteous enough to be noticed by God.

Now, imagine that, as Peter is on his way to tell Cornelius about Jesus, a flaming meteorite appears in the sky, heading towards Cornelius' house. BAM! It is levelled and all inside are killed.

So, the question is, how do you view Cornelius? On the one hand, he had already through his righteous life achieved recognition in God's eyes. On the other hand, he had still not been told about Jesus. If you think that God can have a place for Cornelius in his kingdom, then you are an inclusivist. If you think that Cornelius came close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades but not salvation, then you are an exclusivist.

He admits that, like all thought-experiments, this is a simplification. For instance, one could believe that folks like Cornelius could be saved without hearing about Jesus, but still believe that not everyone will be. Or one could believe that ultimately everyone will be saved, but might disagree about how this will happen (perhaps they will turn to Jesus after death). I tend to think that it is possible, though not certain, that people can be saved by Jesus without hearing his name before they die (just consider the Old Testament patriarchs), and so I think Cornelius would be safe.* I guess that makes me an inclusivist, but I have a somewhat different take on James’ thought experiment:

Let’s imagine that Peter knew that this meteor was bearing down on Cornelius’ house, and knew that if he hurried, he would have time to warn Cornelius and save him from death. Do you think the possibility that Cornelius might see the meteor himself, and so escape without Peter’s help, would justify Peter in leaving him to his own devices?

I ask this because I think sometimes inclusivistic thinking tends to short-circuit evangelism – since we conclude that it is possible to be saved without ever hearing about Jesus, we feel less motivated to go and tell people. But that is a dangerous game to play with other people’s souls. Granted it is entirely possible that they might find God without ever reading a Bible or meeting a Christian, we can no more assume that, than we could assume that since Cornelius might see the meteor himself, we have no need to warn him about it.

*Note: I don’t deny that salvation is found only in Christ, merely that one needs to know that to be saved by him. Neither am I affirming universalism; I believe no matter how many "chances" God gives, some people will still choose to reject him.

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.


T. Michael W. Halcomb said...

Glad you're in on the convo!

Ken Brown said...

Thanks! I think your response also provides some valuable perspective. I agree about the problems inherent in using these kinds of labels, but even so I think I lean further towards the inclusivist end of the spectrum than you do. I'll be following your conversation with interest.

God bless!

Drew Tatusko said...

Very nice to see these perspectives presented!

Anonymous said...

As ever Ken, you have given us something to think about.

There are actually cluster of theological contentions touched in your post, but I'll try to focus on the scenario at hand.

After having a partial read through Michaels post and I find I agree with his line however I think that the flaming meteor is simply a rehash of the Calvinism vs Arminianism.

The flaming meteor is not a bullet proof survey. You could just as easily say "If you believe God sent the meteor you're a Calvinist, if you believe God let the meteor happen you're a Arminianist".

The problem is, we are attributing to God the qualities of a machine that simple simply follows a set of logical rules, not that of a creator who is intimately involved with all life that goes on.

The fact is God can save, just as he can stop a meteor. He can also destroy, just as he can send a meteor.

It does not mean that every meteor is sent by God, it also does not mean that every person who has ticked the "I accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour" box will be lost.

Besides the whole scenario is based on a false premise. The bible story is taken out of context. The reason Peter went to see Cornelius was not for the sake of Cornelius, it was for Pete's sake (no pun intended).

God wanted to end segregation, he wanted Peter to know that the Gentiles were entitled to eat at the same table and accept the same Lord.

Therefore a more poignant question would be to ask, if God hadn't sent Peter to Cornelius, would the Westernised Church even exist, if not in it's current form?

Ken Brown said...

Hey Alex, you make some great points, but I wasn't trying to say anything about free will and determinism, but rather about the implications of the belief that God can save anyone. That said, I think you're right that we can't reduce God's relation to the world to a set of "rules" (logical, ethical or whatever), nor let our conclusions about how he ought to act get in the way of pointing people to him, if that makes any sense.

I especially like your last comment about Peter's mission having as much to do with Peter as it had to do with Cornelius. Something of an answer appears in this follow-up.