Each day on my way to work I drive by a billboard advertisement for a local university celebrating its commitment to inclusivity. Though it could be construed as a statement regarding its admissions requirements (Send us an application! Everybody gets in! Nothing exclusive about us!), it is more likely that the university is attempting, in a vague way, to tap into postmodernity’s commitment to tolerance and its rejection of exclusivity.
We live in a pluralistic world, full of different kinds of people, different kinds of philosophies, and different kinds of religions. Of course, ever since shortly after Adam’s fall, pluralism of this sort has been the way things are, so nothing much has changed in a descriptive sense. What has changed is that pluralism in our day does not just describe the way things are; pluralism describes the way things ought to be. When pluralism is cherished and prescribed, then tolerance necessarily rises to the top of the virtue list. Christianity’s claim that Jesus Christ is the exclusive way to right reconciliation with God does not sit well with the prevailing cultural sensibilities.
In today’s world, to be exclusive, particularly about religion, is to be rude, narrow, and close-minded, and most likely (in a guilty-until-proven-innocent fashion) judgmental and bigoted.
Therefore, we are told that truth claims, especially religious truth claims, ought to be humble. Better yet, people ought to have choices and our pluralistic world delivers. We are presented with a seemingly endless array of options, an ideological smorgasbord, where we can sample and select religious entrees according to taste and preference, without fear of cultural reprisal. To be told that your religious conviction is wrong is largely equivalent to being told that your dessert choice is wrong. Claiming that Jesus is the only way to salvation (however salvation might be construed) is like arguing that Derby Pie (chocolate-saturated pecan pie - need I say more?) is the only legitimate way to after-dinner paradise.
Such thinking comprises the ambient cultural atmosphere. It is the very air that we breathe. It creeps easily into the church’s thinking. Then, when we are confronted with the enormous numbers of people who die without believing or even hearing the gospel, our minds begin to race: Doesn’t God desire that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4)? Isn’t it true that the Lord does not wish that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9)? And then we consider the trumping question of anti-exclusivity: What about those who, through no fault of their own, have never heard the gospel? The response in some Christian circles is to speculate on the possibility of salvation apart from hearing and believing the gospel or the possibility of salvation being mediated through other religions.
Christians must recognize that such questions, while being difficult, are not off-limits. We need solid, biblically-faithful responses to those questions. But we also have to recognize the force of the climate in which we do our thinking. Our postmodern context demands that we answer questions such as these in an “exclusively inclusivistic” fashion. It is our duty to think through those questions, but it is equally our duty to think through them faithfully. Jesus Christ demands that we take every thought captive in obedience to him (2 Cor 10:4-5) and warns us about being conformed to the pattern or mold of this world (Rom 12:2). Our thinking is to be guided by his Word and here are four reasons to think that pluralism (all roads lead to God) and its sensibilities lack biblical warrant. Or to say it a different way, here are four broad reasons to think twice about jettisoning Jesus’ exclusive claims.
Explicit Biblical Teaching
When we read the gospels, we are confronted with the reality that Jesus was not at all concerned with being tolerant of false ideas about God and if he were speaking in our context he would not bow to the idol of political correctness. Living and teaching in a day and age that valued religious pluralism (the Greco-Roman world) as much as ours, Jesus taught that “repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations (Luke 24:47), that unless one honored the Son it was impossible to honor God (John 5:23-26), and that he was the way, the truth and the life and that no one could come to the Father apart from him (John 14:6). Jesus’ first disciples understood that teaching and were bold in propagating the message that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). These explicit teachings (and that was just a representative sampling) must be considered in any Christian’s zeal to construct the possibility of salvation outside of belief in Jesus Christ.
Jesus was Not Hopeful That Most Would Be Saved
On a couple occasions, Jesus spoke to the destiny of the majority and he was not optimistic. In the Sermon on the Mount he concluded, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14). In a parallel passage in Luke, Jesus was asked, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Jesus replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). If Jesus was not hopeful, I see little purpose in dreaming up scenarios by which the unevangelized are saved.
The Story of Scripture
The Scriptures present a God who brooks no rivals and who is not impressed with human machinations to either approach him or approximate him. It is God who, following the sin of Adam and Eve, promises that a child would one day be born who would crush the deceiver and rescue his people (Gen 3:15). It is God who, of his own choosing, selects an unworthy man through whom to display grace to the nations and initiate his plan for redemption (Abraham in Genesis 12). It is God who, time and again judges his own people and the nations for failing to honor him (e.g., Deut 28: 15-68; Isa 40-48; Acts 5:1-11). It is God who, “in the fullness of time, . . . sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4). And it is God who calls all nations everywhere to repent, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Contemplation of the possibilities of salvation apart from faith in Christ must be consistent with the biblical storyline.
Unfaithful Implications of Speculation
Christ gave a clear mandate to preach the good news of the Kingdom (e.g., Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). The apostles were faithful to that commission and made it their goal to take the gospel to the whole world (Acts 10:42). Paul’s life ambition was to preach the gospel wherever Christ had not already been named (Rom 15:21). What happens to missionary zeal when Christians labor to gather support for a shared optimism concerning the fate of the unevangelized? Admittedly, negative implications of a position are not defeaters of that position. But when those implications repudiate the logic of mission and the explicit commands to evangelize the nations, then one has to wonder about the legitimacy of that position. Rather than philosophizing and theologizing about the possibilities of salvation apart from faith in Christ, we would do better to recognize that the biblical response to the question of “What about those who have never heard?” is a forceful call: “Go tell them!”