In our previous discussion on religious pluralism, Stephen Fife brought up inclusivism, which is the belief that although the truest understanding of God is found in Christianity, that God in his grace may make other opportunities for people beyond the reach of the Gospel to be saved.
When Stephen brought this up, I just kind of stood around and shuffled my feet because I wasn't familiar with the term. But this past week in Philosophy of Religion class, we've addressed issues of religious diversity. That's great timing, considering our topics of discussion at Locusts & Honey. I read the material and wrote out the assignment on Friday, which was to choose between exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
So now I have a better grasp -- well, any grasp -- of the inclusivist perspective. These thoughts have only been rolling around in my head for about 24 hours, so I'm still pondering them. But at first examination, inclusivism seems flawed.
Inclusivism is a response driven from theodicy. How can a just God permit hundreds of millions of innocent people to die because they have never had access to the Gospel message? This possibility offends our sense of God’s righteousness mightily. Surely he must have made a way out!
But God is who God is, not whom we wish to make him into. Our record of God’s revelation is the Bible, and the Gospel message emerged in the New Testament. What does it say on the subject?
The issue of what happens to ignorant pagans who never hear the Gospel troubles us greatly. But the New Testament writers are almost silent on the issue. We modern, Western Christians live in an age when the Gospel can be preached all over the world with few limitations. There may be oppressive governments which attempt to stop us from building churches and discipling people, but the essential Christian message can be broadcasted everywhere. Contrast this situation with the 1st Century Church which composed the New Testament. They were a tiny, illegal minority in one part of the globe sealed off from most of the rest by technological limitations alone, not to speak of the political ones. But where is their distress over the pagans who were condemned from ignorance of Christ? If they reason as we do, they should wail in every epistle of the injustice of God at permitting such a tragedy to take place!
But they do not. Paul alone addresses this issue, and only once, and not with any fright over the souls of ignorant pagans in Romans 2:14-16:
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
This is the one verse in the Bible that will give any credence to inclusivism. And on this basis, inclusivism may be said to be not preposterous. But the fact that so little text is given to an issue which is of such great concern to modern Christians suggests that perhaps the problem is not with the text. Perhaps the problem is with modern Christians.
What could it be? Are modern Christians alone concerned about the souls of countless innocent people who never had the chance to hear the Gospel and have been damned as a consequence?
Ah, but there is the problem! These pagans are not innocent. Neither are you and I. We are all – each and every one – meriting death and damnation for our sins. Those whom God preserves he does so entirely at his own mercy; for he has no obligation whatsoever to save any of us. We are all guilty. And therefore God’s damnation of ignorant pagans is not unjust at all. They are suffering the fate that each one of us deserves. It is only in the modern, humanistic age that we have forgotten of humanity’s total depravity that God’s damnation of pagans seems unjust.
We have no right to sin. When we sin, our justly earned punishment is damnation. Should God show up at our door at any moment in our lives and demand our souls as forfeit, we cannot say that God is being unjust or unfair.
Let us say that that the state catches two brutal serial killers who terrorized a community for years. Dozens of people have died slowly and savagely, and hundreds of people have seen their loved ones face their last moments in agony. Both murderers are tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. They are brought to the gallows on the day of their scheduled execution. As the nooses are placed around their necks, suddenly and unexpectedly, a telegram arrives from the governor pardoning one of them. One walks free; the other is executed immediately.
Is this outcome unjust?
We have done absolutely nothing to merit God's forgiveness, and absolutely everything to merit his wrath. Ignorant pagans are not damned because they have never heard the Gospel; they are damned because of their sins. Christians are not saved because of their goodness; they are saved only by the inexplicable pardon of God.
Inclusivism may make us feel better about God and his justice, but only if we misunderstand the total depravity of humanity. This may make us feel uncomfortable, but our feelings are irrelevant in our quest for the truth: Jesus Christ is the only way.