The Evangelical Theological Society’s national conference focused this year on the issue of how salvation comes through Christ. The majority of the society seems to be exclusivists, though there is an increasing and sizeable group that argues for some variety of inclusivism (that it is possible to be saved by Jesus without knowing that he did it).
I found the Q/A period after one inclusivist paper to be particularly enlightening. I’m withholding the professor’s name as a professional courtesy. I am sure he would have no problem with me giving it, but I know that I wouldn’t necessarily like one of my immediate remarks broadcast to the whole world.
This gracious and thoughtful professor made many of the standard arguments for inclusivism—there are no biblical texts which explicitly state that people must hear the gospel to be saved (at least on his reading), and our responsibility rises and falls with the amount of revelation we have received, so that those without special revelation will hardly be held accountable by God for not obeying what they did not know.
When the distinguished professor completed his paper and opened the floor for questions, someone asked why, if responsibility rises with revelation, would we ever want to share new revelation with the unknowing innocents and so risk their damnation? The professor responded that we share the gospel because God has commanded us, and that we hope we’re not playing the role of Jeremiah, sent by God to preach a gospel that contributes to their damnation. He also added that we want all people to presently experience our joy in the gospel, and that the Bible never uses exclusivism as a motive for missions (I would respond with the entire book of Acts).
This seemed like an important moment, for this wise and accomplished professor had obviously thought long and hard about this question, and his answer was the best he could come up with. It seems to me that if his view is correct, then he would have to admit that there is a significant difference between our mission and Jeremiah’s. Jeremiah was sent to people who were already in trouble with God. They were heading for judgment unless they repented. But if inclusivism is right, then people who have never heard of Jesus are potentially already accepted by God. So why would we give them more light, and so risk their damnation?
After all, which is easier, to respond to the simple truth that there is a God who made the sun and moon and wants me to be nice to others, or to believe the historical facts about the Son of this God who came to earth, died for our sin, rose again, and ascended to heaven? I can imagine people saying that they believe in a generic God, but not the specific God that the missionary has in mind. If people can become right with God by stepping over this low bar of generic theism, why would we ever want to raise the bar on them? Some of them may believe and have the pleasure of rejoicing now in their great salvation. But is that worth the damnation of even one who doesn’t?
We can and should debate the biblical merits of inclusivism, but we should also admit that anyone who shares the gospel of Christ inevitably acts as if exclusivism is true. Inclusivism cannot support Christian mission. If those who bring the gospel have beautiful feet (Rom. 10:15), I think I’ve found the Achilles heel of inclusivism.