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Some thoughts on Exclusivism and Inclusivism

June 24, 2010 7 comments

I basically just made a post on the discussion boards of the Facebook group “Open Theism”, and I thought I should post it here as well, if for no other reason to save it for myself! But maybe some other people might find my thoughts interesting.

Basically, first I made a general post asking about Open Theism in connection to Annihilationism, alternative views of the Atonement and Inclusivism. However, despite that being my most minor point, a person reacted to my mention of Inclusivism. I’ll post his reply here:

In one sense or another, every religion may have some seed of truth. Perhaps a buddhist may have a good idea of what mercy is, or a muslim may have a keen understanding of sovereignty or justice. This understanding may help those of different religions understand the Christian God better and lead them to the truth.

However, all other religions significantly or totally rely on merit/works, whereas Christianity bases its foundation on intimate relationship and God’s Grace. Man in no way deserves this Grace. There is nothing any man can do to earn this Grace, or to gain favour based on ability. This is something that no other religion has.

To be frank, I find it quite impossible to support inclusivism based on these grounds alone. All other religions may in some sense hold Jesus to be a great teacher; they may hold Him as a reference point for their proverbs or as a character to emulate. Nonetheless, what they continually fail to see is that he was not just a great teacher, prophet, or social activist, but he was as the old saying goes, “The way, the truth and the life”.

Here is my reply:

The line between Exclusivism and Inclusivism is pretty vague. The extremes of both are very different, but the gray zone between them is hard to define.

In a Christian context, the most extreme Exclusivism I can think of states that no one can be saved unless they explicitly profess faith in Jesus Christ before they die.

The most extreme Inclusivism would state that all people are saved in the end, although it would be through Jesus Christ. Another (although often connected) belief in this extreme of Inclusivism, sees all or most of world religions as positive ways that also lead to Christ, whether they know it or not.

I think most Evangelicals in reality believe something between these two. If we truly believe in salvation by grace and not by gnosis/knowledge/understanding, we need to problematize this. Otherwise, we would be saying that all infants and people of limited understanding would be in danger simply for being mentally incapable of what we classify as belief.

In the book I’ve read on this subject, “Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World”, five authors give four views on this. John Hick, advocating the Pluralist view, is the only non-Evangelical of these, which is understandable, as no person could seriously call themselves Evangelical in any meaningful sense and claim that Jesus is just one of many ways to God. As for the strict Exclusivist view given, I was definitely not surprised to see two Calvinists (R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips) explain this. The two views that I found most sincere to the Bible and to God as I’ve come to know Him, were given by Alister E. McGrath and Clark H. Pinnock. Their views were very similar, but McGrath leans towards Exclusivism and Pinnock towards Inclusivism. Both concluded they were not very far from each other, and I would agree. I recommend you to read the book, or any other writings by McGrath or Pinnock on the subject you may find.

I might get into arguing in favour of a weak Exclusivism or careful Inclusivism later on, but at this point, all I’m going to say is that I agree with you. I think the danger of Exclusivism is to give a picture of an unmerciful God (punishing people with hell for, by no fault of their own, not having heard the gospel).
However, the problem with Inclusivism is that it can bring about a naïvity about the demonic aspects of other world religions (including legalism, as you mentioned), as well as relativizing evangelism.

The first problem with Inclusivism is something any Bible-believing Christian must deal with before even thinking about adopting it. While indeed other world religions can have a preparatory role for them hearing the true Gospel (just like any background can), we must also be aware of the demonic chains it can bind human beings in.

The second problem with Inclusivism I think is important, but personally I’ve tried to adopt another view of evangelism. I’ve always had a problem with the common (mostly implicit) idea that Jesus came to save us from the wrath of the Father against us poor sinners. This is why I related this issue to the views on Atonement, by the way. My point is that I don’t think telling people about the Gospel should equal telling them about God’s wrath against our sin, and then adding a Get-Outta-Hell-Free-Card in the form of Jesus in the end. I think evangelism needs to be about telling the good news, although we should of course never forget the bad news either. It’s a matter of how you come across, not a matter of hiding the ugly truths in favour of the good ones.

My point is: While I know there are millions of sincere people whose Exclusivist views of God does not seem to damage their view of God’s love, it has been a moral problem for me and many others, Christian and non-Christian alike. When I came to the conclusion that God as revealed through Jesus is just and probably won’t punish someone eternally for not accepting something they could have no knowledge of, that helped me love God more!

However, I don’t think all who haven’t heard the gospel will therefore automatically be saved, either. I think cultures that haven’t heard of the Gospel are generally at a greater risk of perdition than those cultures where the message of God’s grace is affluent. But I do think the Holy Spirit takes every chance He can get in the world, including those cultures that haven’t yet had Jesus revealed to them.

Jesus is the only way to the Father, but a person who doesn’t know Jesus by name hasn’t therefore necessarily rejected Him. We can only speculate, of course, and there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. And I don’t think we are called to encourage any other faiths than ones that glorify Jesus either, you must not get me wrong there. What I do think Inclusivism as a doctrine should change among evangelicals today, is rather our own views of God, as someone who does everything He can to lead people to relationship with Him. He wants everyone to know Him as fully revealed in Jesus Christ eventually, but when that is not possible due to our failure to reach people, I am not sure if that always has to stop God. What I am certain of is that God does everything He can to save as many as possible, without disrespecting our free will in the process. I think perdition, or Hell, in the end is something that happens to people who refuse God to the very end.

I cannot say how or to which extent God does this, but I think there are many people out there who are waiting for a fuller revelation, like the God-fearing Cornelius in Acts 10, or many other believers through the ages who were born BEFORE Jesus. As to what happens to those who reject the Gospel once they’ve heard it, my Inclusivism does not really concern them. Salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone. I only pray that we will preach the gospel clearly and truthfully, “so that His house may be filled” (Luk 14:23)!

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