Friday, February 22, 2008

Inclusivism and the Atonement

I’m still eagerly awaiting the next round in James’ and Michael’s conversation, but my post from yesterday raised some questions about God’s judgment and what it takes to be saved from it, which I have so far only briefly addressed. I mentioned that I am an “inclusivist,” in the sense that I believe it is possible for God to save non-Christians, but I am not a “universalist” in the sense that I still think that at least some people (perhaps a great many) will not be saved. It seems worthwhile to explain and defend each of those claims, so this post will deal with my acceptance of inclusivism. The next one (which I may post tomorrow) A later post will focus on my denial of universalism.

I think the New Testament is clear that “salvation is found in no one else” but Jesus. It is only because God himself took on human form, died and rose again, that humanity has any ultimate hope. Explaining how I reconcile that with inclusivism will require discussing the nature of the atonement, but I don’t want to get bogged down with complicated theories right now. Thankfully, there is a relatively easy way to remember the big three (moral influence, substitution, and Christus victor): Prophet, Priest and King.

This is a very old distinction, but I owe the reference to my former professor, Hans Boersma, whose outstanding book on the atonement is a must read: As Prophet, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal what it is to be truly human; their example teaches us how to love and sacrifice and hope. As Priest, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have, in some sense, allowed him to bear our sins in our place, and so cleanse us from them. As King, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have actively defeated evil, not just on a personal level, but on a cosmic one. Though debates rage over the precise nature and interrelation of these elements, I believe that all three are essential to the significance of Jesus’ incarnation.

So I do not in any way deny that Jesus is the only means of salvation, but neither am I convinced that God’s justice requires that a person must have heard or embraced this truth before death. And yet, as my previous post indicates, I think we should nevertheless live as though this were a requirement. How can I say this? The answer goes right back to my understanding of the nature of the atonement: If Jesus really is the victorious King who defeated evil once and for all, then that effects everyone, not just those who hear about it. By the same token, if Jesus really is “our great High Priest,” his death was sufficient to cover all sins, even those of people who never hear of him. To give an illustration: A prisoner released from the gulags might not understand the political changes that made his freedom possible, but he is free nonetheless. Yet at the same time, a foolish man may refuse freedom and remain in his cell, or accepting this freedom but refusing to change (i.e. accepting Jesus’ victory, but not his cleansing) he might quickly find himself re-imprisoned.

That’s where the third aspect of the atonement comes in: Jesus didn’t just rescue and cleanse us; he also showed us how to live. His example is not tangential to salvation, but essential to it. It is only as we follow his road of sacrifice and service that we can share in its goal – resurrection. Since Jesus has already won the victory and borne the cost, this doesn’t imply that we can earn our salvation, yet neither is it enough to simply “believe the right things.” This truth cuts both ways: it means both that a person is only truly a Christian if they are a follower of Christ, yet it also means that the road of self-sacrifice and service is the road to Christ, and can lead to him even if the person following it doesn’t know the destination.

But that is a hard road, and the chance that someone will choose to follow it without the hope that Jesus offers is tenuous, at best. Therefore, it is possible to follow Jesus without knowing it, and thus it is possible to be saved without hearing his name. But we can by no means assume that the average person will do so, any more than we could stand by and do nothing as a flaming meteor plunges towards our neighbor’s home. Perhaps they won’t listen to our cries (“What? You want me to go outside? But American Idol is on!”), or perhaps they might recognize the danger themselves and be wise enough to flee it; but if we’re not willing to risk ourselves to warn them, we’re not following Jesus either.

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.


James F. McGrath said...

I've replied (if one can call it that) on my blog!

Bruno Saavedra said...

Hi Ken,

Could you please let me know your email address. I would like to email you in order to collect some material about a sobect I've been researching. Maybe you have something you can send me.
You can do this just commenting some post of mine at my blog:

Bruno Saavedra

Brian said...

I just found this "bloggersation" today and I'm thoroughly enjoy it! Thanks for all of the thought that went into your posts. I really get behind your view on the atonement and inclusivism.

Ken Brown said...

Thanks Brian!