Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Critique of Inclusivism

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.

44 comments:

Keith Taylor said...

John,

This is an excellently written and well thought out post.

The bottom line is there is no other way. As with the travelers in John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, we are like the pilgrims that either enter the kingdom through the narrow wicket gate by faith in Christ, or we are like the character of Ignorance and are lost and don’t know even know it, only to be cast into hell at the end of life’s journey.

This used to really bother me. I always felt sorry for the poor lost soul in atheist Soviet Russia or China, or the Muslims, or the Hindus, etc. It really troubled me that God would cast some poor soul like that into hell who didn’t even know the Lord.

But over time of studying the Bible, I came to understand with the help of verses like you pointed out, that what God counts for faith, may be a great mystery to us. We don’t know what God will do to the some otherwise good person who is completely ignorant of the formal Christian faith and what Christ will count for that person in the last judgment as righteousness. That is not the question that should really terrify you and I. If I were not a Christian, what would terrify me would be what Christ would say to me living in a free American society with a church on every corner of every town and yet I chose to do nothing about it. A Bible in every hotel room that I ever stayed in, but I never read it. Christian evangelists on radio and TV all over the country, but I never listened. That would be the thing that should absolutely terrify us when we look out at free nations filled with lost and unsaved souls. If I were not a Christian, that would terrify me.

What will Christ do with some poor, person who has never heard the Gospel? I can’t say. The Final Judgment is Christ’s job, not mine. It is not for me to decide. It is for me to tell others that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and no one gets to the Father except by him. That is what the Bible says and I have to take Jesus at his word. Once they have been told that and they accept or reject it, the die is cast. It is our job as Christians to explain to the lost that they need to flee the wrath to come. The ONLY way to escape that wrath is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is accomplished ONLY by one accepting by faith, Christ’s blood atonement for our sins.

Is that fair? The Bible clearly teaches us that life is not fair. If it was, would a perfect and sinless Lord been put to death to pay for mine and your sins?

Great thoughts, John. I’m glad you put this up.

Andy B. said...

How delightfully Calvinistic!

bob said...

John, Thanks for your thoughts on this difficult subject. We've often talked about the fates of those in far off lands in Bible study. The Romams versses gave God an out as to what to do with those who never heard but never really satisfied. Reading your post and thinking about the book of Revelation the destruction of so many of the world's population depicted there doesn't seem so unreasonable.

Jonathan said...

John, by your logic, it seems that babies who die without coming to faith would go to hell. Am I correct in reading you like this, or am I missing something? (By the way, I am not aware of any place in the Bible that mentions an 'age of accountability' - if I am mistaken, please correct me.)

My belief is that everyone who is saved is saved by Christ. But Christ may save more people than we know about.

John said...

Andy wrote:

How delightfully Calvinistic!

Andy, if I am contrary to Wesley, site sermon and paragraph. Show me where I am wrong.

John said...

Jonathan, like Wesley, I believe that dead babies everywhere get a free pass. I'd have trouble proving it Biblically, but my argument would distinguish between original and actual sin.

It is possible that Christ may save more than his believers. But this is not expressed anywhere in the Bible, except in the Romans passage. So the inclusivist argument isn't stupid and flimsy. It's just weak.

Andy B. said...

"But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles, in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jess; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation; his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character - catholic love is a catholic spirit."
- Sermon 39, paragraph III.4

Andy B. said...

Check that: truth is Jesus, not Jess. (Sorry, Jess.)

John said...

Andy, I don't see how this selection from Sermon 39 supports your claim. Please explain.

Andy B. said...

Hey John, I'll try to do so later. Gotta go get ready for church!

Brett said...

I don't think the question should be "why was I spared and not the innocent native in Africa?" The question should be "why was I spared?"
Also, there are no innocent natives in Africa.

Joel Thomas said...

If Gandhi is headed for hell (invoking Wesley's support of an intermediate state), I'll be there first even though Gandhi has already died and I'm still alive.

John said...

The idea that ignorant pagans (or virtuous, knowledgeable pagans like Gandhi) are damned bothers me at the emotional level. But I know that that's just the residual voice of humanism within me.

Andy B. said...

John, I hear shades of Calvinism when you say "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," and if you would substitute the word "election" for your word "mercy," this would be a pretty Presbyterian post, perhaps.

Joel Thomas said...

Any real difference between a non-Christian humanist and an inhuman Christian?

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John said...

Andy, Wesley was in agreement with many of Calvin's conclusions.

Is anything that I have written here contrary to Wesley? Did Wesley disagree with total depravity? Did Wesley think of people as naturally innocent of sin? Did Wesley think that we earn and deserve pardon from God? Cite him where I have erred.

Joel, none that I know of.

Jonathan said...

I do not understand myself to be an inclusivist (I agree with your arguments against pluralism).

I understand myself to be an exclusivist, Christ being the only Savior.

Brett said...

John Wesley was a calvinist

John said...

I definately won't go that far. But it is fallacious argumentation to point out that Wesley and I agree with Calvin on something and therefore I must be a Calvinist.

Joel Thomas said...

John Wesley agreed with Calvin on several matters, but on those things that distinguish Calvinists from Wesleyans, he was far apart. The differences on predestination, resistable grace, and perseverance of the saints is so huge that it is laughable to call Wesley a Calvinist.

Wesley, on certain postions, wrote that he was but a hair's breadth from Calvinism, true.

However, are folks also aware that Wesley once wrote that his views were "but a hair's breadth away from salvation by works?"

Wesley did not mean the same thing as the Reform movement did when he proclaimed "salvation by faith alone" -- at least not if one reads Wesley's writings carefully.

Further, I think we need to understand that sometimes to emphasize a point, Wesley engaged in hyperbole. That makes it harder to be sure exactly how far Wesley was toward either some Calvinist points or toward salvation by works.

Besides his positive views about some aspects of Calvinism, he considered it antinomian on the whole. Further, Wesley published the Arminian Magazine to refute most of Calvinism.

John said...

It is quite true that it can be difficult to discern Wesley's views because he often wrote with the hyperbole of a preacher and in reaction to controversy. He was not a systematic theologian.

Andy B. said...

All I'm saying is this:
1) We are all guilty and deserving of punishment, yup.
2) Some of us know Jesus and the salvation that he offers, and some don't, yup again.

But your post makes it seem like those of us lucky enough to know Jesus have been somehow elected by God to this status, and those of us who have not yet been introduced to Jesus have been specifically chosen by God to stay ignorant and therefore damned to hell.

Your example of the two criminals about to be hung raised all kinds of questions for me. Why did the governor choose one and not the other? Was it just because, perhaps, the one has a cousin whose husband was in the governor's frat in college? Is the governor sitting up in the office choosing people to save willy-nilly like that? And how does the forgiven prisoner then feel about the governor allowing the just punishment of the other prisoner? Would it not cheapen the forgiveness and make the forgiven prisoner feel incredibly guilty for having been forgiven for nothing?

Surely God would not condemn a person to hell based purely on the coincidence of whether or not that person had been introduced to Christ. I guess finally I'm not so quick to limit the mystery of God's grace to apply only to people who think just like I do. Maybe, just maybe, God could save a person in a way that is beyond my perception or experience?

John said...

Surely God would not condemn a person to hell based purely on the coincidence of whether or not that person had been introduced to Christ.

Of course not. He would condemn people to hell for being sinners. Do you agree that all people are sinners worthy of eternal damnation as just punishment for their sins?

BruceA said...

Sin isn't the most dominant force in the universe: God's grace is. God's grace is greater than all our sin, and if God so chooses, he can save anyone he wants, regardless of our actions or our knowledge. Or did Christ not die for all people?

I would add, too, that Rom 2:14-16 is not the only verse in the Bible that gives any credence to inclusivism. Luke 10:30-37 (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is strongly inclusivist, as is Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats).

Dan Trabue said...

As is the story of the two brothers (one who did as his father asked, even though he said he wouldn't, and the other who didn't do as his father asked, even though he said he would).

Andy B. said...

John, you asked:
Do you agree that all people are sinners worthy of eternal damnation as just punishment for their sins?

Yes.

Do you agree that God desires the salvation of all people, and offers grace in abundance to everyone?

Bruce A,
Nicely put!

John B said...

God desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9). However, what God desires does not always happen, therefore some will perish. It breaks my heart to write these words though I am completely persuaded they are true.

It seems to me we should be falling on our knees and praying through our tears to the Lord of the harvest to send more workers into the fields.

Joel Thomas said...

john b,

What do you think Wesley meant when he said he was but a "hair's breadth from salvation by works"?

Does it have any relevancy to this post? I think it may.

I believe that all salvation is mediated through Christ. Considering how close Gandhi was spiritually to Christ's image ("be an imitator of Christ") how can we know for sure that such wasn't effectively an acceptable repentance (which doesn't mean saying "sorry" but going in God's direction)and proclamation of faith?

Is confessing Jesus' name only literally doing so, but also figuratively doing so by living a life of discipleship and obedience?

Again, if Gandhi is headed for hell, then I would guess the great majority of Christians will beat him to the gates of hell.

Anonymous said...

How about some scripture references?
2 Corinthians 5:18-19
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

1 Timothy 4:10
For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.

Just some food for thought or fuel for the fire.

Pax,
Stephen (who started this mess)

John said...

Stephen, if your interpretation is correct, then the Great Commission is rendered moot. Either Paul meant that all Christ created only the opportunity for people to be reconciled to himself, or they are all already saved and there's no point to proclaiming the Gospel.

John said...

Joel Thomas wrote:

Is confessing Jesus' name only literally doing so, but also figuratively doing so by living a life of discipleship and obedience?

Romans 10:9-10:
that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

I think that this is more of a "both/and" than "either/or" situation. True faith results in good works, but good works do not justify.

John said...

Andy Bryan wrote:

Do you agree that God desires the salvation of all people, and offers grace in abundance to everyone?

Yes.

John said...

Bruce Alderman wrote:

I would add, too, that Rom 2:14-16 is not the only verse in the Bible that gives any credence to inclusivism. Luke 10:30-37 (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is strongly inclusivist, as is Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats).

I don't see how the Good Samaritan is evidence for inclusivism at all. Please explain. As for the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, both sides address him as "Lord". Pagans do not. This parable refers to faithful professing Christians and faithless professing Christians.

Dan Trabue wrote:

As is the story of the two brothers (one who did as his father asked, even though he said he wouldn't, and the other who didn't do as his father asked, even though he said he would).

Same thing here. This parable would only be inclusivist if one person didn't think of the father as his father, or even know of him at all. Again, this is about judgment within the ostensibly Christian camp. Both parables command believers to do more than just claim "Lord, Lord!", but to act on their faith. But pagans who know nothing of the Gospel cannot act on a faith that they lack.

Joel Thomas said...

John,

I'm not say Gandhi is saved because of his good works but because of his repentance, his obedience, and his imitating Christ. Those are matters of faith, not works.

John said...

Did he repent to God? I thought that he was a devout Hindu.

JD said...

Of course not. He would condemn people to hell for being sinners. Do you agree that all people are sinners worthy of eternal damnation as just punishment for their sins?

I still take it one step further with the realization of Free Will. We make the choices to follow or not follow Christ. It pulls at the heartstrings to think that someone that lived a "good life" may not be in Heaven, but it is what it is. It becomes imperative that those individuals that have come to know the Gospel, but turn away from the truth, realize that they are committing the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Spirit. They have denied the Spirit and have turned away from God's grace, thus condemning themselves to an eternity in Hell. God gave us the 10 Commandments and Christ. To walk away is an abomination of God's grace and a blasphemous act.

So I believe, more so, that we condemn ourselves vs. God condemning us. He condemns actions, we condemn ourselves by the choices that we make in this world to love of not love Christ.

PAX
JD

PS: Stephen, I think I copy righted the PAX thing a few months back. I hope my royalty check is in the mail soon. :)

PPS: Well thought out post John.

Anonymous said...

Another Latin person huh JD? Maybe I should switch to Paz?

John, I am open for interpretations, I am just mentioning a few verses. Paul never disbands the great commission, look at the 2nd part of the verse: "entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

Pax and Paz,
Stephen

Anonymous said...

Another Latin person huh JD? Maybe I should switch to Paz?

John, I am open for interpretations, I am just mentioning a few verses. Paul never disbands the great commission, look at the 2nd part of the verse: "entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

Pax and Paz,
Stephen

Andy B. said...

John wrote:
"Andy Bryan wrote:

'Do you agree that God desires the salvation of all people, and offers grace in abundance to everyone?'

Yes."

Hooray! Common ground!

Joel Thomas said...

Gandhi was both a devout Hindu and a believer in God.

John said...

Maybe in the sense that Cyrus the Great was a believer in God, but as a polytheist, he had a radically different understanding of God than we Christians do.

Or do religions stack, like magic armor bonuses in AD&D?

JD said...

Another Latin person huh JD? Maybe I should switch to Paz?

Nah, it is ok. At first, I really wanted to be saying "The Peace of Christ" (PAX CHRISTI), but I goofed and put PAX alone. By the time I remembered, due to my rudimentary study of Latin in high school (I was going to be a doctor or a priest, or a doctor priest, but now I am neither.), I realized I had posted too much and set up my tagline.

I could use a fraternity closing, ZAX, but then I would probably be dismissed and hunted down for heresy. So I stick with PAX, because it just rolls.

Oh, I thought of PAX ROMANA too, but that would have just been silly.

PAX
JD

Jim said...

Interesting comments. It seems to me, though, that the foundation of this view is strongly rooted in a Greek philosophical understanding…which tends to misrepresent much of what the early Jewish Christians understood about the gospel. There are reasons why some subjects are not covered by scripture. Now this is not something that can be easily explained in a quick comment on a blog. What we are talking about is a fundamental renewing of our understanding of the very gospel itself. For example, the whole concept of “saving souls” is actually not a Christian idea…it’s pagan. It comes from Socrates and Plato…and has nothing to do with what Jesus was about.
Again, there is now way I can cover this here as I am talking about the need to deconstruct our Greek philosophical interpretation of the Bible. I have a blog with some links to audio files of lectures by a Christian theological professor from Vancouver, Canada. Have a listen…I recommend listening to them in order…or it won’t make a lot of sense. Also, follow up by reading a book called “Athanasius: On the Incarnation”. It was Athanasius’ list of books that eventually became confirmed to be the New Testament…and he had very specific views behind that list.
Here is the link to the blog: http://www.discoverthetrinity.blogspot.com/