Apology: Exclusivism

“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12

This verse has been abused by many over the years, but I don’t think they do it deliberately – just naively.  Read here, out of context, it looks like it says very bluntly that the only way to be saved is through Jesus, and it may even look to be quite polemical – that is, it appears to be saying that all other religions are insufficient to save.  Actually, all of those things are correct, but the way that this verse is often used and paraphrased to slash at other religions is highly excessive.  When you read the verse in context, you can see that Peter is preaching to the Jews, specifically to the high priests, about the true nature of Jesus whom they have rejected and crucified.  They knew Jesus, saw his miracles, and knew that he claimed heavenly authority; they also knew that he was at least rumoured to have resurrected, and that Peter had just healed a cripple in Jesus’ name.  Peter here is giving evidence of Jesus’ power to save, in a place where everyone is searching for a Messiah to deliver them.

Christianity is an exclusive religion, meaning we believe that Jesus is the only one who can save us from sin and death and give us eternal life.  Some of us have the grace to be uncomfortable with the notion that followers of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Ba’hai, Confucianism, Dao, Mormonism, etc. etc. etc. do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ and therefore will not receive salvation and eternal life – and depending on your view of Hell, may be tortured for all eternity, simply because they grew up in a culture that doesn’t worship Jesus.  Christianity may be the largest religion on earth, but that doesn’t mean we represent even a majority; there are already almost as many Muslims on earth as Christians, and they reproduce faster; we actually only represent about 1/6 of the world’s population.  And for those Protestants who still think Catholics are heathens, then we’re really small: the large majority of Christians in the world are Catholics.  So no matter which way you slice it, Christian exclusivism means that a large majority of the world is eternally doomed.  Christians tend to respond in roughly three ways:

1. Become inclusivist: the “liberal” path, in which all roads lead to salvation.  This is best expressed in the Unitarian Church, whose members claim to follow all religions at once.  They claim that all religions are essentially the same, and therefore the only difference between them is terminology.  A famous illustration is to say that God is an elephant, and we’re all touching the elephant in different places, blindfolded.  So a Christian might say that God is soft and wrinkly, because we can’t see that we’re just touching the trunk; a Muslim might say that God is coarse and hairy, because they are touching the tail.  This approach has many different degrees, because many people really want to adopt it while retaining different levels of orthodoxy – but that’s the kicker: the reason that this is a liberal approach to the problem is that you have to throw out a lot of each religion in order to make it work.  You have to limit each religion to moral teachings (which I acknowledge are basically universal) and completely ignore the fact that all of the religions that you’re trying to push together each has their own claim of exclusivity (except for a few, like Ba’hai, which is also inclusivist).

2. The second option, usually embraced by the “Bible-believing”, literalist, fundamentalist conservatives is to play up the dangers of eternal damnation, often as a way to drum up interest in international missions trips and frequently to scare someone of another religion into converting.  Rather than trying to find a way around their own so-called literal interpretation of the Bible on this issue, they either let it fill them with despair for the lost as added incentive to evangelize, or else they harden themselves to it and use it as proof that other religions are inferior and those heathens had better convert!

The problems with this approach are fairly obvious.  First, it assumes that God does nothing for those who’ve never heard the Gospel (based on Romans 10:14, once again poorly interpreted; read it in context, and see that it’s about Jews and Gentiles rather than the problem of global salvation).  Secondly (and this is an assumption that frames all Christian attempts to deal with this issue, perhaps especially the “liberals” above) it assumes that salvation is the purpose of religion, and that other religions are simply insufficient to deliver it.  In other words, from the viewpoint of some, Christianity is just a better religion – it delivers, where other religions fail.  This viewpoint is closely tied to colonialism: other cultures were seen as backwards or uncivilized by colonial Europe, who felt that by conquering other peoples they were actually doing these peoples a favour by introducing right culture and religion to them.  The fact of the matter is, salvation is really only an issue that Christians care about; even modern Judaism has very little notion of salvation.  Heck, for Buddhists the equivalent of salvation is actually death.  The Christian insistence of focusing on the issue of salvation when dealing with other religions is a refusal to see these religions on their own terms.  It’s like saying “As I understand it, everything you know is wrong” and then refusing to listen when they reply “yes, but you don’t understand it at all.”  And of course, the third issue with this approach is that if it works at all, it works for the wrong reasons: should we need to throw the weight of five billion souls onto the shoulders of the next generation of missionaries?  Is conversion born out of fear of hell actually a real relationship with Jesus?  Does the argument “Your religion is wrong, and you’ll burn in Hell for it” really attract other people, or even represent Christ accurately?

3. Another option that most moderate Christians take is to admit that we don’t know a lot about who will be saved and who will not; Jesus himself said we’d be surprised about who we’ll see in heaven.  Not that I’m at all satisfied with not knowing much on this point, but I certainly don’t feel comfortable declaring what God will do for whom, as if in my own infinite wisdom I can see his ways and plans.  I also don’t feel that I need to adjust my theology to make allowance for a God who doesn’t seem to care to save people of other religions, because the Bible just isn’t that clear on this point.

We must always remember that the Bible was written primarily for a Jewish community in an ancient context in which “salvation” meant primarily physical salvation from one’s enemies.  The Jews believed that their God was the only God, and in that sense all other religions were empty idolatry – but now, aside from small tribal religions and Hinduism, nobody worships idols.  Idolatry was condemned because it was replacing God with a piece of stone, but what about those who’ve never heard of God at all?  In the Old Testament and Gospels, this isn’t an issue because they were dealing with Jews and their relatives; in the New Testament, the issue isn’t covered from the negative perspective of what happens to those who don’t know any better, only from the positive perspective of the “good news” – the Gospel.  The Bible never really talks about the eternal fate of ignorant Gentiles.

There are two approaches that I like to this issue, both somewhere in the middle: In CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, a character who worshipped the wrong god ends up in heaven, sees Aslan (Jesus, as he appears in Narnia) and is confused about his apparent salvation.  Aslan tells him that the good deeds and faithful service he offered to the false god in his ignorance was in fact directed toward Aslan, because nothing good can be done in the name of the evil one, and nothing evil can in truth be done in the name of Aslan.  Basically, even though he thought that the devil was God, his faithful devotion and service had nothing to do with the devil, who has no claim to goodness.  Similarly, there are plenty of people who do evil in the name of God (Crusades, anyone?), but these evils have nothing to do with God, who has nothing to do with evil.  An interesting approach, and one that I know my college Theology professor disagrees with (despite being the biggest Lewis fan alive).

The second approach is Bonhoeffer’s theological realism: God wanted to save the whole world, and Jesus did so on the cross.  The whole world is saved all along, but they don’t recognize this fact and thus do not live in it.  Some will discover it, while others will deny it for all eternity (surely a hellish option).  Lewis alludes to this a little bit in The Last Battle: the dwarves in heaven don’t realize that they are there, and continue to toil and work as they always have; their eyes are closed to it.  I think Bonhoeffer would apply this to all unbelieving humanity.

I’m not entirely satisfied with either of these options, but I think they give more glory to God than the indiscriminate damnation of all unbelieving humanity, or the watering down of Christianity into basic moral teachings that fails to take all religions, including Christianity, seriously and on their own terms.  I’m sorry if a Christian has ever watered down the Gospel for you and made it sound like you’re totally okay on your own or just as you are – because none of us are.  And I’m sorry if a Christian has ever told you to convert or face eternal hellfires; that’s just ignorant and insensitive.


6 thoughts on “Apology: Exclusivism

  1. Jeff, this is a pretty big question, eh? I find a lot of people end up quoting Lewis at this point (not a bad thing). I think we run into difficulties when we confound the questions “How can we be saved?” and “Who can be saved?” Christians have a specific answer to the former, but perhaps rush to hastily into the latter, as if they are one and the same question.

    • Good insight! I’m frequently tempted to think that the second question doesn’t matter at all, so long as you’re asking the first – but again, most of the world isn’t concerned with salvation, so they’re not asking it at all, and the great commission surely means that I must be concerned that they indeed ask it…but is it even the right question for them? Is there more to the gospel than our notion of salvation?

  2. Terrfic artcile Jeff. I’ve always had a really hard time with the notion that a completely unengaged people automatically go to hell. I remember hearing that a bit as a teenager and it never seemed to add up, yet I didn’t really know what to say to it. I’m glad it’s been revisited, and people are paying more attention to some of Jesus teaching which challenges such a simple formula. I lament that John 3:17 isn’t as popular as its preceeding verse as too often the Gospel is presented as a basis to justify damnation rather than good news.
    That being said, there is a tempation to go to the Liberal side and think no one is accountable and works are sufficient. You mentioned salvation being virtually only a Christian notion, and I’d add original sin along with it. I think many can’t accept that we’re essentially born as enemies of God, so it’s a bit easier to say we should all just live a good moral life (whatever that means) and not worry about the details.

    My opinion, though I admittedly haven’t done much reading about it, is to allow God to be judge (as stated numerously in the Bible). However, God is clearly concerned that all are presented with Gospel and it needs to be heard. For lack of a better way to say it, there is a possibility one may encounter salvation outside of hearing the Gospel, but the odds are probably a whole lot worse. I doubt evangelism would be a major theme of the NT if one could easily find their way to Christ outside of hearing the Gospel.

    • Agreed and well said, Jonathan.

      It raises an interesting thought: that the very notion of salvation can differ with the notion of who can be saved and how. For example, if everyone is automatically saved, and will recognize it when they are resurrected, then how will that differ from what eternity would be like if, as Lewis has it, some will not recognize the fullness of eternal life? Or from another perspective, if we take Postmillennialism as an example, if the Great Commission is successful and everyone hears and receives the gospel, what does that say about the nature of hell and eternity?

      I guess I just mean that all of these questions are interrelated, stemming from several base options.

  3. Pingback: A Few Thoughts on Bonhoeffer and Pluralism « Cafe of the Book

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