Inclusivism and the Gospel

This is based on a paper submitted during my college days and serves as more thinking fodder on Solus Chistus, "Christ Alone."

Is God really just? This question drills to the heart of the debate concerning the plight of the unevangelized. It's what people wonder when some say that the Gospel excludes any other means of salvation outside of Christ. Thus, it's a valid question if the Gospel is exclusive, for many have and never will hear the Gospel's message. Is God just in sending people to Hell who have never heard the Gospel? We will look briefly at two alternatives to an exclusivistic view[1] – pluralism and inclusivism.

The number of people in the world who die without Christ is staggering. These numbers are accentuated by two facts. First, the number of actual Christians is probably only a factional to those living in "Christendom" (those who live in nations touched by the Gospel message and profess faith).

Second, the number of missionaries to the unevangelized reflects a serious deficiency to the propagation of the gospel. Consider the following:
According to the latest available statistics the ratio of Protestant missionaries to population in strategic world areas shows: 
  • 1,448 Ministers per million people in the United States.
  • 56 Missionaries per million people in Africa.
  • 30 Missionaries per million people in South America.
  • 20 Missionaries per million people in Korea.
  • 15 Missionaries per million people in India.
  • 3 Missionaries per million people in Indo-China. 
Moreover, much of Europe with its 480 million people is largely unevangelized. And virtually all Communist-controlled countries are closed to missions work.[2]
Here is where the question of God's justice enters. Does everlasting torment await the untold millions "who are still untold?" These people did not ask to be born nor had the opportunity to seek God as per the tenants of the Gospel.

One means of answering the dilemma is religious pluralism. Pluralism, though it contains multiple subcategories, basically teaches that God has revealed Himself in all the world religions. It is demonstrated in Immanuel Kant's famous retelling of a Buddhist parable.

In Kant's story, a king watches as three blind men feeling an elephant come away with three distinct descriptions of what an elephant was. For instance, the first one felt the elephant's trunk, and described the elephant as a kind of tree. The second felt the elephant's side and described the creature as a wall. The third took hold of the elephant's tail, and described the creature as a serpent.

By way of this illustration, humanity tries to determine what or who God is, and the religions of the world each contain only an inaccurate snippet of the true God. Thus, pluralists argue, we must reject any claim to exclusivity because every religion provides a possible route to God. Carson has said, "Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that the notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong."[3]

Another possible answer to this question comes through inclusivism. Inclusivism, while broad in application, may not reject the exclusive claim in the salvation of Christ. Indeed, this view's adherents would fight against the notion that salvation comes in other names than Christ's. However, this view cannot be categorized as exclusive, because God may yet save some (however few) who do not know the name of Christ. How is this possible? Carson also explains this viewpoint below, prefacing it by noting the wide range of inclusivistic belief.
At one end lies what we might call "soft" inclusivism. This view is barely distinguishable from exclusivism. It holds that people must place their faith in Jesus Christ and his redemptive work to be saved, but allows the possibility… that God in his grace may save some who have never heard of Christ... the God discemable, however dimly, in Creation. At the other end lies what might be called "hard" inclusivism. This view still insists that however many are finally redeemed, the basis of that redemption is exclusively the person and work of Christ. ... [T]his view is... sharply distinguished from pluralism. Nevertheless, "hard" inclusivists put more emphasis on believing than on believing Christ. They say that Christ is ontologically necessary for salvation, but that the knowledge of Christ is not epistemologically necessary. People... should not, it is argued, be held responsible for light they do not have.[4]
In explaining the distinctions of inclusivism, he says that its adherents believe "Christ is ontologically[5] necessary for salvation, but that the knowledge of Christ is not epistemologically[6] necessary." Simply put, inclusivism teaches that Christ's work alone provides salvation to mankind, though an individual may not need to know about Christ to be saved. (While Carson describes this as "hard" inclusivism, any inclusivist must admit that this as their belief.)

The concept of inclusivism is an attempt to both uphold the singularity of salvation as well as answer the question of God's justice. In doing this, Inclusivism attempts to show God as being actively concerned with the plight of the unevangelized. Clark Pimiock, a leading inclusivist, explains this below.
Inclusivism believes that, because God is present in the whole world (premise), God's grace is also at work in some way among all people, possibly even in the sphere of religious life (inference). It entertains the possibility that religion may play a role in the salvation of the human race, a role preparatory to the gospel of Christ, in whom alone fullness of salvation is found.[7]
He also says:
If God really loves the whole world and desires everyone to be saved, it follows logically that everyone must have access to salvation. ... God's universal salvific will implies the equally universal accessibility of salvation for all people. ... How is salvation within the reach of the unevangelized? How can anyone be saved without knowing Christ? ... In my judgment, the faith principle is the basis of universal accessibility. According to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not the content of their theology.[8]
Both of these views takes a difficult subject and provides answers that attempt to show God as loving and caring. However, we cannot accept either of these views solely on that basis. We must examine the validity of these views through the filter of Scripture.

Immediately, the pluralist may cry "foul!" because we are beginning with an exclusive view in mind. So, we will begin with this view in mind. Is pluralism a intellectually tenable position? If we state, for instance, that all religions are equally correct, then we must also state that all religions are equally incorrect, for all religions contain at least some exclusive premises. Buddhism, for instance, grew out of a disagreement over the authority of the Vedas. Islam's Qu'ran is filled with exclusive statements that rival the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

The pluralist may retort that if the religions were being taught properly, they would complement one another. However, would this not mean that world religions are unreliable in their current state?
Likewise, if we say that each religion reveals a "piece" of God, like the blind men who were attempting to describe the elephant, how do we deal with the contradictions of the various religious presentations of God? Is God a definite being, reasoning, emotional, and sovereign as the Christians teach, or is there simply a cosmic arena of communion among the enlightened peoples of the earth as Buddhists teach? What is the ultimate requirement of life — to achieve a standard of holiness as the Muslims teach, or to trust in God's Son for salvation as the Christians teach? Indeed, the "elephant" that pluralists ask us to piece together better resembles a work from Piccaso's cubist era rather than a viable animal.

Leslie Newbegin reveals the elephant in the room of this discussion.
In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant... the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the frill truth which all the world's religions are only groping after.[9]
How can we proceed with the view of the good king? There is but one book that claims to be a communication from God and provides the answer to the questions of cosmogony, history, and the human condition. Thus, we will answer the questions at hand from the viewpoint of the Christian Bible, as per Aristotle's Dictum, for Scripture has never invalidated itself. Of course, we do this to the dismay of the pluralist, for there is but one name by which men are saved (cf. Acts 4:12). Pluralism cannot answer the problem of sin, though the Bible declares all people to be sinful (Rom. 3:10, 23; Gal. 3:22). Pluralism also cannot provide a definitive answer of how one who does wrong can seek a righteous God, though the Bible answers this by teaching that the Holy Spirit of God can lead sinners (Rom 3:11; John 16:8).

It is, then, the inclusive position which must require our focus. Inclusivism seems to have more Biblical support than pluralism. It can answer the above answers in that the God of the Bible grants a common grace to all men, giving them the ability to seek Him. Likewise, inclusivism affirms that it's Christ's work on the cross that provides salvation.

Four texts seem to support inclusivism: 1 Timothy 2:3-4, Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 1:2. Its basic premise is correct - God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Eze 33:11). In summation, the error of inclusivism's claim to these texts is its confusion of God's perceptive will and God's decree. Perhaps a simpler explanation would be that "inclusivists confuse God's wider heart with wider hope."[10]

Morever, the message of the New Testament is not that all people will enjoy salvation, but that all kinds of people will. Carson writes:
It is wonderfully reassuring to learn that Christ died for blacks as well as whites, for women as well as for men, for the educated as well as for the ignorant, for Arabs as well as for Jews, for the rich as well as for the poor. But to draw from such texts the inferences advanced by the "hard" inclusivists is without exegetical warrant.[11]
Yet, inclusivists would counter that the overall concept of a loving God demands accessibility of salvation to every person. In the previously referenced quote, Pinnock said, "If God really loves the whole world and desires everyone to be saved, it follows logically that everyone must have access to salvation." Again, though we might reject the passages with which inclusivists support this premise, is it logical that God would provide salvation to all? Terrance Tiessen believes so, and said such in an interview with Intervarsity Press. Say Tiessen, "Accessibilism struck me as capturing very nicely what I have come to believe. Salvation is accessible wherever God chooses to apply the work of Christ by his Spirit, and he can do this even where new covenant revelation is not known."[12] He goes on to use a very interesting argument to support this premise:
I have noticed that many Christians are reluctant to assert that the unborn or infants who die young are condemned to hell without benefit of Christ's saving work. Many evangelicals appeal to a doctrine of the 'age of accountability" to deal with the fate of these people, but others state categorically that all these people are saved by Christ because of their inculpable ignorance or inability. It fascinates me though, that people who show this admirable sympathy for infants seem much less concerned about the large number of adults who live and die without any knowledge of Jesus. I see these as groups within the general class of the "unevangelized." They are sinners who need salvation but who do not know the gospel. I argue that our doctrine of salvation should account for all of the groups of the unevangelized and that it should do so in a consistent way, I hear a clear biblical statement that every human being is a sinner who needs God's salvation and that the only means by which God ever saves anyone is by grace through faith. There are no exceptions to this principle and so we have to unpack how it works in the varied situations of human existence.[13]
Tiessen is arguing for consistency. If, on the one hand, evangelicals affirm that God grants salvation to infants who die prematurely or to the mentally handicapped, simply because evangelicals hold a view of a loving and gracious God, then they must also grant this same grace to the unevangelized.

Some in the past have been consistent in this regard, though in the opposite manner than the inclusivists would like. For instance, Jonathan Edwards cited such examples as the Flood of Noah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the angel's smiting of the first-born of Egypt as examples of God's indiscriminate wrath. He used such examples as a premise to speak of the justice of God in sending babies to everlasting torment.

However, we don't need such consistency in one extreme or the other. There is a serious difference between the capacity of an infant and an unevangelized adult: preaching the gospel to an infant that has no concept of sin is a useless endeavor — save for the fact that subconscious seeds may be planted, awaiting for the maturity of the child. In the same sense, the unevangelized adult has a full life of sin that he must give an account for at the judgment.

Tiessen would not allow the issue to lie here. In another place, he provides another interesting example of exclusivistic difficulties, by bringing us back to the first century.
Clearly there were people who met Jesus, who heard him preach and to rejected his invitation to follow. Their condemnation is clear. On the other hand, there must have been Jews in the world at the time who never heard of Jesus during his life. There must have been some who were what Paul describes as the true circumcision (Rom 2:29), that is, they were inwardly, spiritually of the faith of Abraham. Such people were "saved" without explicitly having placed their faith in Jesus, just as Abraham had been. Are we to suggest that the day that Jesus arose from the dead they suddenly lost their salvation? - Surely not. But then suppose they lived the rest of their lives without hearing about Jesus, would they be lost when they died because they were now post-resurrection, whereas they would have been saved if they had died before Jesus had risen from the dead? If one grants that such a person could have in a state of righteousness before God, we're does one draw the line? Will we saying that anyone who was not saved already before Jesus died and rose began his longs in they do not believe in Jesus, but people who were saved before-hand are alright? The arbitrariness of this line is problematic.[14]
Several issues spring forth in this very interesting argument. First, it seems highly unlikely that a faithful Jew would be unaware of the events that transpired in Jerusalem, particularly considering the fact that he was to make aliya to Jerusalem once a year. Second, the context of Romans 2:9 speaks of the virtue of faith over works, and the justified (or circumcised of heart) have their faith placed in Christ (Rom. 3:26) — i.e., faith's direct object was Christ, not the Law. Third, it is true that Abraham did not have explicit faith in Jesus the man; he had faith in the God "who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 4:25) and in the promised Heir. Thus, the arbitrariness Tiessen points to appears quite purposeful within the lenses of historical and Biblical contexts.

Another issue arises in light of the inclusivist's position. If God grants salvation to those who are unevangelized based on the genuineness or sincerity of their belief rather than their personal knowledge of Him, what point would there be in evangelizing them? The inclusivist might say that the revelation is Jesus Christ is far better than leaving the unevangelized in their ignorance. That might be, but the grace the unevangelized would have is considerably more in comparison to the evangelized (lost or not). This is because the evangelized know their choice: either they submit themselves and declare Christ as Lord or they will be lost. The unevangelized have the liberty to simply believe that there is a God, and seek Him in their ways. Millard Ericson warns, "Rather than bringing about their salvation, efforts at evangelism and missions may serve only to bring about their condemnation."[15] He continues,
Traditionally the sense of freedom and responsibility required the view that one is held responsible for the consequences of one's actions and that individuals should make such choices enlightened by awareness of those results. More recently, however, modem-day culture has tended to blunt the unfortunate results of poor choices. This is also seen in the substitution of "no credit" for the grade of "F."[16]
So, is God a just god? If we understand that all are under sin, then we must also understand that people have no natural desire for God. We must also conclude that people transgress God's holiness day after day. Therefore, God would not only be just in allowing people to perish in their sin, but He would be respectful to our individual choices.

God is not only just, He also loves. He has chosen to provide salvation. Yet, if we accept either the pluralistic or the inclusivistic views, then we damage that message of salvation, nullifying it. The only acceptable answer is that we must trust God's sovereignty on the matter, and be about the work of evangelism.

[1] There are other alternatives to exclusivism that we will not directly examine. The first is a universalism which teaches that all enter an eternal bliss at death. The second is a universalism which states that God grants pardon to all at the resurrection of the dead. A third purports that Jesus will preach to the dead, giving them one final chance of conversion. All of these remove, or cushion, Christianity's exclusivity and the necessity of Hell. While examining pluralism and inclusivism, we will discover answers that fit universalism well. While the third belief, the "postmortem evangelism" of Christ, has no biblical basis, its beliefs will not be examined here.

[2] Paul Lee Tan. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations [A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers]. Garland TX: Bible Communicatiojis, 1996, c1979.

[3] D. A. Carson. The Gagging of God. Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 279.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Ontology" is the study of being. The question of whether or not there is a God, for instance, is an ontological question.

[6] "Epistemology" is the study of knowledge itself. An atheist or agnostic asks an epistemological question when inquiring, "Who do you know there is a God? How can you be sure?"

[7] John H Hick, et al. Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Timothy it Phillips, Dennis L Okholm [ed]. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c 1995), 239-240.

[8] Clark H Pinnock. A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 157.

[9] Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a pluralist society. (Grand Rapids: WWC PubIications~ 1989), 9-10.

[10] Hick. Four Views, 19.

[11] Carson. The Gagging, 289.

[12] "Author Interview: Terrance Tiessen." .  Inter Varsity Press. Accessed 6 October 2006.

[13] Ibid.

[14] "Terrence Tiessen, "Can the Unevangelized be Saved?" Didaskalia 5.1 (Fall 1993), 89.

[15] Millard I. Ericson. "The Fate of Those Who Never Hear." Bibliotheca Sacra 152.605. (605 (Jan/Mar 1995)), 14.

[16] Ibid., 15.

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