Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Who will be saved?

Who will be saved?

It’s a question that for many has no clear answer. For some religions, one must work her way to eternal salvation. For others, there is nothing to be saved from! For Christianity, the Gospel is the good news that all may receive eternal salvation, wholly apart from any works. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

But who will be saved? It seems the answer, biblically, is those who receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. How does that happen? By belief in God. Now there are several schools of thought; some have been held in Christian circles and others have not. A brief definition of each term will follow.

Universalism—The view that all mankind will ultimately be saved. This can have subsections, including those who believe all men, upon death, will be redeemed with God, or like Rob Bell’s view.[1]

Pluralism—The view that there are other ways to God’s salvation than simply Jesus Christ. It does not specify the number of religions that are correct (perhaps merely only those monotheistic religions are), nor would a Christian pluralist assert that all things taught in other religions are correct. They would assert that there are “redeeming qualities” in some other religions.

Exclusivism—The view that the ontological and epistemological grounds for salvation are found exclusively in the atoning sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This means that a person must hear of Christ in order to be saved. This has been the traditional, orthodox position of the church.

Inclusivism—The view “that although God saves people only on the merits of Christ, not all who are saved have consciously known of Jesus or heard the gospel. God saves those who, although they have not heard of Jesus, nevertheless respond to the best of their knowledge to the revelation of God available to them.”[2]

Most Christians do not hold to either universalism or pluralism. Thus, the major focus of this article is on the debate between exclusivism and inclusivism. What about those who have never heard? Are they doomed? Although I am not dogmatic, I am going to set forth the case that inclusivism is at least possible, both biblically and philosophically.

First, it is possible because of the Old Testament saints.

Romans 4:2-3 detail Abraham’s salvation: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”

This hearkens back to the story in Genesis 15:6. God had told Abraham in chapter 12 that he would make of him a great nation. Abraham showed faith by following God, but it is clear that in chapter 15, he thought his heir would be Eliezer of Damascus (his steward). God told him plainly that his promise meant he would have his own flesh and blood, a son! Abraham understood it and believed God, and that was good enough to affect his salvation.

Now the traditional exclusivist defense for this is to claim that OT characters such as Abraham believed in a coming Messiah. While I think such parallels are often stretched, or anachronistic (meant as a looking back of the author on the events of the text, much as the NT writers do for portions of the OT), let us grant them for the sake of argument. How does one explain Job? Job was not a patriarch—he merely lived during their time.[3]

Job was considered to be a man of God. Indeed, the book calls him “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” Yet there is no evidence, nor is there much likelihood, Job knew of any Messiah. Any hint of a Messiah (to be known conceptually rather than vaguely) is not really present until Moses. Exclusivists will either have to beg the question (by assuming Job knew of a Messiah) or commit themselves to the silly proposition that Job was not saved.

One final example, just in the case that one persists: the Ninevites. In the book of Jonah, the story goes that the message of repentance comes to the people, and despite being awful and wicked, they do in fact repent. The Lord chooses to show mercy and withhold judgment from them (much to the prophet’s chagrin). There is no hint of any redeeming Messiah spoken of by Jonah. Yet they had repented, and the Lord accepted this repentance. The men of Nineveh had embraced the true God as theirs, and made sacrifices to him. Were they not saved? If not, why not? These examples demonstrate quite clearly a salvation without a knowledge of Christ.

For a quick reminder, let me say that inclusivism does not teach that there is salvation apart from Christ’s sacrifice. That is impossible. Rather, it is saying that the benefits of Christ’s atoning work can be applied to those who never hear of him.

Next, it is possible because most Christians already implicitly accept this in some cases.

Now what do I mean by that? Most Christians believe that if a baby or a mentally disabled person passes away that God imputes righteousness to them on the basis of Christ’s death and sacrifice and holds them to be morally innocent. Not all Christians have believed this, but I think it is significant. Think of it for a moment: have babies or the mentally disabled heard the Gospel? Well, sure, sounds may have hit their ears. But it was impossible for them to understand! They do not really “hear” it—not simply because they do not understand but that they cannot understand! Thus, we already allow, in most cases, that a person may never hear of Christ and yet enjoy the benefits of eternal salvation. Therefore, strictly speaking, inclusivism is true (i.e., there are some people who enter Heaven who have never heard). Yet that is not quite what we are looking for.[4]

Next, it is possible because of New Testament examples.

We shall only consider one. Apollos was a Jew first mentioned in Acts 18:24. He was born in Alexandria, and so likely was a Hellenized Jew. He knew “only the baptism of John,” referring to John the Baptist. He did not know of Jesus. This is evident from the fact that Aquila and Priscilla discipled him, showing him the way of God “more perfectly.” After this, he went out and convinced many Jews from the OT that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Luke refers to Apollos as “instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord.”

Another interesting idea is that Apollos knew of Jesus, but did not understand or know his significance with respect to his sacrifice and the Gospel. That seems less likely. The bottom line is, will we say that Apollos was unsaved before this? I see no reason, other than ad hoc, to do so.

Finally, it is possible because of the way of salvation.

Because of God’s justice and his revealed Word, I believe there is only one way of salvation. That is to believe in God (not in his mere existence, but to trust in him). There is only one ontological foundation for this, and that is Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. No works or other gods will do, nor can they contribute anything.

The set of those who are saved and believe/trust in God yet did not know the name of Jesus is long (at least all of the OT saints); this means God held them responsible for the revelation he did give them. Note that this revelation was not necessarily limited to the ideal or standard of the time (take Job versus the nation of Israel, or even Rahab). Since there are those who are saved apart from the knowledge of Christ, the proposition “it is impossible for those who are saved to be so apart from the knowledge of Christ” is false.

If it is possible, then there is no reason that the New Testament makes it any different (in terms of sheer possibility). This is the juncture where the exclusivist may well respond, “while it is possible, biblically speaking, it is false.” But why? Most exclusivist verses refer to the ontological nature of salvation (which does not change), and those that refer strictly to belief often do not mean mere lack of belief, but refer to outright rejection. No one who hears the Gospel who is capable of understanding will be saved if they ultimately reject it.

Again, this view is not dogmatic, but I think philosophically speaking, it’s entirely plausible that God holds persons responsible for the light that they do have. Romans 1 tells us that every man, woman, and child has a knowledge of God in their hearts. Because of sin, they suppress it. This does not give me much hope that there are many, if any, who come to salvation apart from the knowledge of Christ. Perhaps there is someone out there who does realize that there is one creator God, that he is morally good, and that one’s personal sin must be dealt with, begging for forgiveness. Why is such an one, if sincere, not saved? He has repented to the one true God and his sins have been paid for. What is the problem again? He’s not enough of a theologian?!

I recently heard a missions story in which the tribe was shocked to meet a foreign Christian missionary. He looked exactly like the man in some of the tribesmen’s dreams of the one who would tell them of the one true God. There may not be many out there, but God may just reveal himself to people in ways we have not seen since the days of Jesus. He is still God; it’s not like he promised not to do that. I’ll leave it all up to God, for the Bible indicates that people will die in their sins without Christ. The most common way of getting Christ? Far and away, it is by hearing about him. If God chooses to use his Spirit to convict someone apart from our telling him about Christ, that is his prerogative.

                [1] Bell’s view is that there will be people, post-mortem, who will accept Christ as their Savior. Apparently, all of them who have not already done so (at least this is implied by Bell’s view).

                [2] Stanley J. Grentz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 65, as quoted by “Apologetics 315,” at http://apologetics315.blogspot.com, accessed August 2, 2011.

                [3] It won’t do for an objector to claim the Job narrative to be non-historical. The narrative and NT points toward a redeemed man—one can only press this at the expense of theology, not just history.

                [4] Perhaps, for instance, one will claim that only such people who cannot understand would count. But that is irrelevant to the fact that if strict exclusivism were true, babies and the mentally disabled would go to Hell.

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  1. I really like this post. I'd like to know why you don't consider Christian universalism more plausible. It's something I've been pondering lately. Specifically, what would you say to an article like this?

  2. Hi metacognizant! I appreciate your question, and apologize deeply that it took me so long to address it. I will have to check out the article later this week.

    I surprised myself by thinking, "I hope it is true." After all, most in the evangelical tradition become somewhat angry when discussing universalism. I suspect it is largely due to the idea that adherents of false religions who knowingly reject Christ in this life may nonetheless be allowed access to eternal Heaven. But as I understand Christian universalism, it is consistent to say that they may yet endure some punishment (such as purgatory or Hell) of finite (however long or short) duration before ultimately accepting Christ of their own free will. This has great appeal. First, that all men might be saved is a godly attitude, as revealed in the Scriptures. Second, it would, at least I think, significantly help the problem of evil (at least so long as some punishment, whether during or after this life, is accrued for the non-covered).

    However, my thing with it is that it seems non-biblical at the very least, and anti-biblical at worst. Please understand I am not using this labels as "name-callers;" my genuine belief is that the Scriptures do not teach this and instead teach that there are those who will endure eternal punishment. But I think I will try to go over that article soon and post my own in response. That may be a while, since I have at least one other article to review and do the same with! God bless!

  3. Thanks for your reply, Randy. You might also want to read the book Hope Beyond Hell, available online, chapter 1 on the pillars of tradition as to eternal punishment. As far as I can tell, the author of that book destroys any case that the Bible necessarily teaches that punishment is unending. I once thought it was anti-biblical, but after reading partially through (I'm not done) that book, I'm in the process of changing my mind.


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