The following are my notes from a Sunday School class I taught last Sunday (Oct 29). These represent part 2 of 2. Part 1 can be found here with some follow-up thoughts developed further here.
In the first class (October 15), we reviewed aspects for comparing religions with one another; in particular, from a Christian perspective. Inevitably, we are looking headlong at the question of what happens in the afterlife with people who do not profess Christian faith during their lifetime on earth. This is an important question because it shapes who we understand God to be, what we understand Christian faith to essentially be about, and how we relate with people of other faiths (and, I suppose, people of no faith).
The end of the last class also left two dangling questions to revisit:
1. “The Problem of Gandhi” – I offered a dilemma that I have been wrestling with personally that I call, “The Problem of Gandhi.” Don’t worry; the problem I have with Gandhi is not personal! It’s a potential philosophical/theological conundrum that I’m curious about. See each of the previous posts (especially the second one here) for a short statement of what this “problem” is. We didn’t get to this one explicitly on Sunday (Oct 29). I’ve talked a little more about this on the blog actually, so I’ll take a little more time to reflect and offer something here.
2. What about non-Christians? – “What concerns and guidelines might we raise as we consider our own beliefs about Christianity, world religions, and the fate of those who don’t hear about Christ (or respond positively)?” I’ll consider this one here, as we did in class.
Addressing the Question: Two guiding questions surface here.
1. What are my commitments and concerns?
2. What are my options, given my commitments and concerns?
1A. My Commitments
i. Authority of Scripture. I believe in the authority of Scripture. Yes, there are a number of ways that people understand Scriptural authority to “work” and I have mine. I’m not getting into the varieties here, simply stating that I believe Scripture is authoritative for Christian belief and practice. Regardless of one’s conception of Scripture’s authority, believing that Scripture is somehow authoritative is the starting point.
iii. Evangelistic Mandate. I believe that Christians have a mandate concerning evangelism. We must be careful to understand and practice that evangelistic mandate biblically, however. The New Testament understands evangelism to be the advance of God’s kingdom on earth “as it is in heaven” and not merely that “we can go to heaven when we die.” Jesus commanded that we make disciples of all, which is pretty all-inclusive, and he also worked to bring God’s justice to all people. So, biblically speaking, the NT knows nothing of our modern Western conception of “evangelism” (individual persons being reconciled to God through Christ) being in an either/or relationship with “social justice” (working for a society that reflects God’s love and care toward all people and all of creation). For the NT, evangelism, God’s good news, is all-encompassing. That said, I believe that Christians have an evangelistic mandate. As it encompasses individual persons, that means that we are to make Christian disciples of all persons.
1B. My Concerns
i. Understand the World Context. I am concerned to work at understanding the world we live in and the people that I share it with.
ii. Generous Spirit and Critical Mind. I am concerned to endeavor in practicing both a generosity of spirit and critical thinking.
iii. Divine Revelation vs. Human Discovery. I am concerned to take seriously the place of Divine revelation and both the promise and limitation of human discovery. We didn’t get into this concern of mine on Sunday; I let my commitment to Scriptural authority stand alone. But I do want to mention this here. Divine revelation is the foundation for many (most?) religions, most certainly the main three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Christians believe that God has acted in history and spoken through persons and that we have an inspired and authoritative record of God’s action and speech. This revelation is a special gift that is beyond the capabilities of human discovery, even though the promise of human discovery is quite spectacular.
2. Options, Given Commitments and Concerns. So, to review, the options for understanding the relationship of other faiths and the fate of people were:
2A. Pluralism – “All religions are equally valid paths to God.”
2B (1). Strict Exclusivism – “All must personally profess faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved unto God and go to heaven when they die.”
2B (2). Soft Exclusivism – “All persons will be judged by God according to how they responded to what revelation they had available to them, applying the saving work of Christ to those who responded positively to what they had.”
2C. Inclusivism – “For those who did not profess Christian faith, God knows who truly seeks him and even uses their religion and its practices to draw them closer to him. God applies the saving work of Christ to them despite their lack of a profession of Christian faith.”
D. Universalism – “God will save all people to himself regardless of what they believed or did and whether they practiced a religion or not.”
A person needs to identify their commitments and concerns. I’d like to think I’ve expressed both a fair and broad understanding of orthodox Christian faith. One may argue about the correctness or incorrectness of orthodox Christianity, but I think I have stated its commitments at a very basic level prior to distinctives of various theological traditions or denominations (But I’m open to critique on this, of course).
Ruled Out: Pluralism is ruled out as an option for a distinctively Christian option for understanding the relationship between religions and the fate of non-Christian people.
Possibilities: Strict Exclusivism, Soft Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Universalism can be included as options, according to my commitments and concerns.
Where I Land: As I said in Sunday School, this is where it gets dangerous! I land somewhat agnostically between Soft Exclusivism and Inclusivism. I think that God at least works something like the way Soft Exclusivism puts it—that God judges people who haven’t heard the gospel of Christ according to what they did know. And, I’m open to God “commandeering,” as it were, someone’s religious practices of devotion and service based on his knowledge of their heart and reckoning it as being offered unto him.
What about Universalism? I’ll say this. I can conceive of someone claiming the same three basic commitments I hold and still wanting to make a case for universalism. I think there are serious problems with universalism and do not hold that position myself. In fact, I have a hard time seeing myself convinced of the Universalist position. But if a case can be made within those three commitments, I think it should be given a hearing, however skeptical I may be of it.
What about Strict Exclusivism? Strict Exclusivism has less obvious and clear problems, to me, as Universalism has, but I think it still has problems that press me into looking for other options (see the original post for the problems as I see them).
An Objection: “What about the evangelistic mandate commitment? Isn’t the only option that really takes this seriously Strict Exclusivism?”
My Response: That would seem to be the case, perhaps because the churches we know that are Strict Exclusivists often seem to be the same ones who are more passionate about evangelism. But I would argue that, doctrinally speaking, these are the churches that tend to think of salvation primarily in terms of going to heaven when we die. But the NT conceives of salvation being primarily in terms of being reconciled to God and being restored to the image of God by being formed into the likeness of Christ. We are saved into a life in God in Christ. So, if we are “in Christ” on earth, then naturally, we are “in Christ” after our earthly death too. Salvation is not “fire insurance” but the reuniting of our being with God.
So, given this (more robust, in my view) understanding of salvation and given that Christian disciple-making of all people is a command from Jesus and not a suggestion, it seems to me that neither Soft Exclusivism nor Inclusivism inherently undercut the evangelistic mandate, even if we do in our practice of them. Universalism seems to undercut an evangelistic mandate, but under the heading of practicing a generosity of spirit, I’m willing to hear out someone out who wants to contend otherwise.