Thursday, June 26, 2008

Inclusivism and Injustice

On my last post, commenter majorsteve asked some questions about the fairness of the Bible's claims that Jesus is the only source of salvation:

Ken you have written before on the topic of "why I am a Christian". I had a fleeting glimpse of how that topic is related to my leaning away from exclusivism.

If I were to write about why I am a Christian, the discourse would most certainly emanate from the fact that I was born into a Christian household in the U.S., specifically, in northeast Texas, therefore the chance of me turning out to be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu was virtually nil. At the same time, if I had been born into a Muslim home in Saudi Arabia the chances of me being Christian would also be virtually zero. The chance of me converting to Islam is similarly slim as is the chance of a Muslim in another part of the world converting to Christianity. Although every religion has its apostates, does God really expect significant numbers of those who've endured decades of cultural and societal indoctrination to hear The Word and then suddenly see the light? If so, why?

Also, is it possible to get into heaven and NOT believe in exclusivism? If not, then what is the entire list of things I must believe in order to get into heaven? Is there such a list?

These are all good questions, and I didn’t want them to go unnoticed. I don't think he's alone in asking them either, given that a recent poll found that 70% of Americans, including 57% of Evangelical Christians, now believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life" (HT: Exploring Our Matrix). I certainly can’t claim to have final answers to these questions, but I wanted to make a few points, building on what I have said previously:

One the one hand, I don't think God is as much concerned with our particular beliefs as he is with our trust in him, with our love for God and neighbor (see, for instance, Matthew 22:37-40). Though John 14:6 is widely claimed as the proof that the Bible sees belief in Jesus (in this life) as the only means of salvation, this is not the whole story. After all, this verse only says that we must come to God through Jesus, it doesn't spell out what that means, and the answers the rest of the Bible gives seem rather less exclusively focused on belief in Jesus. Saving faith is not about passing some kind of theological multiple choice test.

For instance, when Hebrews 11 lists the Bible's heroes of the faith, not one of them had ever heard of Jesus. These Old Testament saints trusted God as far as they knew him, and that was apparently enough. That being the case, I hardly think that mere mental assent to exclusivism (or any other doctrine per se) is a requirement for salvation, even if God is an exclusivist (of which I am not convinced). More to the point, note that in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus says that those accepted at the final judgment are not the ones who claimed the proper title or belief in this life, but those who fed the hungry, welcomed the homeless, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned. Similarly, James 1:27 claims: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

On the other hand, the Bible is clear that we do need genuine faith to be accepted by God, and while I can't rule out that those who follow other religions might find a similar faith, neither can I assume that they will. Certainly not all religion (not even all so-called Christian religion) points people to that kind of faith and love, and it's up to us to spread that news. Is it unfair that some go through life in cultures that never tell them of God? Perhaps, but that's an inevitable corollary of human freedom: our choices always affect those around us, and that includes helping to create the societies our children are born into (on that point, see here, one of my very first posts). As so often, C.S. Lewis sums this up well, in Mere Christianity (also quoted here):

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ's body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man's fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more. (pg. 64)


majorsteve said...

While some truths in the realm of ideas and philosophies are counter-intuitive, a great many more are, in fact, profoundly intuitive.

majorsteve said...

One more thing Ken, this quote:

"a recent poll found that 70% of Americans, including 57% of Evangelical Christians, now believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life"

I'm sure you will agree that this factual statistic has no bearing on what the actual Truth might be. Similarly, what has been described as a "consensus" among scientist now declares that the Earth's climate is warming at a significant rate due to human activity. Consensus is not necessarily Truth. But it might be. But then again it might not. Ok enough of this I'm going to bed.

Ken Brown said...

Of course! I certainly wasn't appealing to the poll to prove the truth of inclusivism, mainly just because I found it interesting. On that note, I also find it funny that the study showed 21% of self-described "atheists" claimed to believe in God (in one form or another).... heh.

Richard said...

May I suggest if you have not done so already you may like to try and pick up Gregory Mcdonald's (Pseudynym) The Evangelical Universalist. Mcdonald argues from an evangelical perspective for a full-blown universalism - it's worth reading. There is also a blog for the book here:

For myself some of the problem relates to what we mean when we talk of salvation. An unstated assumption is this refer (to put it crudely) to what happens when we die. Is this was Salvation means? My own feeling is no. It seems to me that salvation, whatever else it is is also corporeal. By the grace of God in imperfectably instantiating the kingom of God on earth we are testifying to the materiality of salvation. To that extent I am an exclusivist - as Cyprian said (paraphrasing) You cannot have God as your Father if the Church is not your Mother.

Mahsheed said...

I agree.

Consider the first year after Jesus ascended. The church was in its infancy and the gospel had yet to be spread through all the world, and people continued to die without ever hearing of Jesus. Would they have gone to Hell at a time when it was humanly impossible for them to hear the Word?

Super Churchlady said...

Fascinating. I know for certain that I am not a universalist; scripture speaks too often about those that will be separated from God. And...I think we must be careful putting an overlay of our own worldly sense of fairness and justice on the issue. E.g., God wouldn't do THAT - that's just "not fair.". Oftentimes, God - even though He is good and for whatever reason - doesn't play by our rules.

Ken Brown said...

I've read some of McDonald's blog, but I haven't yet picked up his book; it's on my list though. As for the problem of these kind of debates focusing too much on the afterlife, I completely agree. In the conversation linked above, Drew Tatusko was particularly concerned to clarify that aspect of things, so you might want to read his posts (I also discuss the issue to some extent here).

To build on that, eternity is said to be both continuous and discontinuous with this present life (new heavens and a new earth), which means that how we live in this life is directly relevant to our eternal destiny. I think that only strengthens the point though, for it emphasizes that the choices we make now shape our characters and the kind of people we will always be. That's why merely believing the right things isn't enough, because it's not about simply passing the bar and then everything changes, it's about living into the kingdom, of letting God make us into the kind of people who can live at genuine peace with God and neighbor, kingdom people. Anything less, and eternity would not be paradise at all. Since (ideally) the Church is the foretaste of that kingdom, it certainly is not irrelevant to salvation, but neither does God seem to be forbidden from welcoming "other sheep" as well.

That's the big difficulty. Of course, a traditional Calvinist would say that we all deserve hell, so God would be just to damn anyone and everyone, but I have a hard time with that, and I don't think the Bible is as clear on that as they make out. One thing I do appreciate about their view, though, is that it emphasizes that salvation is an absolute gift of grace. Truly all of us are rebels and sinners, and God would be just to destroy us, but if he would go so far as to die on a cross for us, I don't think he is going to let a technicality like where we were born prevent him from saving as many as possible.

super churchlady,
I know for certain that I am not a universalist; scripture speaks too often about those that will be separated from God.

Absolutely, I discuss that in this post. The Bible is constantly emphasizing that there are two choices in this life, and one of them leads to destruction. However we might wish it were otherwise, our moral freedom requires that our choice between God and self is genuine and lasting.

I think too often inclusivism is seen as a means of making salvation easier, of removing a few requirements to be saved and so opening the kingdom up to those otherwise excluded. In a sense, this might be true, but I think more deeply it should challenge our own confidence.

If salvation were simply a matter of having a few correct beliefs, or praying the right prayer, that makes the moral commands of the gospel seem supplementary or optional. But if the real issue is whether we are the kind of people who let God transform and use us, we can never rest confident in our past. When the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 says that it is those who feed the hungry and tend the sick who will be welcomed into the kingdom, that may open the door to non-Christians, but more directly it should challenge us out of our apathy.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:21-23)

Super Churchlady said...

Ken - Have your read N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope? I keep starting it and then life happens.

Ken Brown said...

I haven't read Surprised By Hope but it's been on my list for a while. I'm a huge fan of N.T. Wright, both as a scholar and as a popular writer (in fact, other than C.S. Lewis, I've probably read more of Wright's work than any anyone else's). So much to read, so little time!

Let me know what you think about it when you do finish it!

majorsteve said...

SCL, I know what you mean with your quote "God - even though He is good and for whatever reason - doesn't play by our rules."

No He doesn't, however, WE play by HIS rules. Don't forget where that innate sense of fair play comes from, that mysterious sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is ethical, what is moral. It is not learned. This intuition is the very nature of God, and since we were created in HIS image we share that sense of Truth with Him.

Let me reiterate my initial comment:

"While some truths in the realm of ideas and philosophies are counter-intuitive, a great many more are, in fact, profoundly intuitive."

Super Churchlady said...

Majorsteve - I agree with you; altho' -- there are times that God simply doesn't appear to be fair (at least in our worldly view of what fairness is) Specifically, I am remembering how He loved Jacob, but "hated" Esau.

And also...Romans 9: 15-21

For he says to Moses,
"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?"

It doesn't strike me as fair that God created Pharaoh for the sole purpose of striking him down for the glory of God. And yet...who am I to question.

I suppose one could argue that your being born into a Christian family in the U.S. (as opposed to a Hindu family in India) is simply God's mercy on you and your family.

majorsteve said...

I do not believe that God is a capricious personality, rather He is the essence of fairness, justice, righteousness, ethics, morality, etc.. These things ARE God. For example, it is impossible for God to make torturing babies for fun not wrong.

For Christians, Jesus is the personification of God. I try not to fall into the trap of seeing Jesus as more reasonable, merciful and kind than God the Father.