During the Question and Answer period at the recent “Connecting Our Faiths” event that we hosted here at Northway at the end of May, I was rather pointedly asked about the eternal destiny of my conversation partners. “Are Rabbi Schlesinger and Imam Abdullah going to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior?” This is always the question just below the surface in conversations like these. As Gandhi once asked, “How can you be fraternal when you think that what you possess is absolute truth?”
As a Biblical Christian I am not free to ignore texts like John 14:6: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father, except through Me,’” or Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved,” or I Timothy 2:5-6: “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all,” or Hebrews 1:1-3: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son… who is the exact representation of His nature.” These are claims to absolute truth. The question is how can someone who believes this also be fraternal?
As I explained in my last blog posting, it is widely assumed that the only way for a Christian to keep faith with texts like those I just cited is to adopt a position that is known as “hard-line restrictivism.” “Hard-line restrictivism” limits salvation only to those who have (1) “heard the message of Jesus Christ about the person and work of Jesus Christ,” and (2) “have exercised faith in Christ,” (3) “before they die” (John Sanders – No Other Name – 37). That this is the conclusion of many faithful Christians is not in doubt. But that this is the only conclusion that a faithful Christian can draw can and should be doubted.
Just like any theological position, evangelicalism – a category that is broadly descriptive of Christians who are explicitly committed to being “Biblical” – is richly textured and deeply nuanced. Just take a look at Roger Olson’s lively on-line conversation about “What makes someone ‘evangelical’?” at http://www.patheos.com to see this for yourself! I especially enjoyed the tangent that developed in this conversation about whether or not “Restorations” (members of the Church of Christ, the Independent Christian Church — and yes, even the Disciples of Christ) are “evangelicals”? The general assumption is that if you are an “evangelical” – that is, if you are a Christian who is committed to Biblical Christianity – then you are automatically and invariably going to be a “hard-line restrictivist,” and the eternal destines of Rabbi Schlesinger and Imam Abdullah would not even be a question. But not every evangelical would agree.
Last year’s controversy over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is proof enough of this. Rob identifies himself as an “evangelical” Christian, and before writing this book, nobody was trying to kick him out of the club. His educational pedigree is clearly “evangelical” — both Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary — this is the “evangelical” “Ivy League” for heaven’s sake! Rob literally has the “evangelical” skins on the wall. And if you’ve read Love Wins, or even just read about Love Wins, then you know that it is a modest challenge to the idea that the hard-line restrictivist position is the only stance that a faithful “Biblical” Christian can take.
Evangelical Christians are thinking about the destiny of the unevangelized, and they are not of one mind in what they are thinking. Their thinking generally occurs within a clearly defined set of “control” beliefs drawn from Scripture – (1) that God really wants to save people, and (2) that Jesus Christ is the only Savior. The particularity of Jesus Christ and the universality of God’s salvific intent are the opposite ends of the continuum of conviction that are at work in this conversation among evangelicals about the eternal destiny of the unevangelized.
Now, some evangelicals coalesce around the particularity end of this continuum. The truth they assert most loudly and clearly is the uniqueness and finality of what God has done in Jesus Christ. When left unbalanced by the universality end of the continuum, what you wind up with here is hard-line restrictivism, and this is simply unacceptable many evangelicals. It results in the spiritually untenable idea that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world, but that “the vast majority of people who have lived on earth have no possibility of salvation because they have not heard the Good News through no fault of their own and therefore cannot respond to it” (John Sanders – No Other Name – xiii). Terry Muck has described the spiritual dilemma that hard-line restrictivists logically find themselves in by using a medical analogy –
If there is general Christian agreement on what humanity’s disease is (it’s called “sin”) and what the cure consists of (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), there has been, and still is, some controversy over where this medicine can be obtained. The tendency has been to limit the number of stores where it can be bought. In fact, some Christian groups seem to limit it to just one store, sometimes to a particular room of that one store, a room one needs a secret password to enter. The tendency has been toward having fewer outlets for this elixir rather than many. (“Religious Studies and Theological Education” – 11)
Hard-line restrictivists talk passionately about God’s provision of Jesus Christ as the agent of God’s salvation, but they have little to say about the meaningful access of the vast majority of the world’s people to this salvation. The result is that hard-line restrictivists wind up sounding as if “God doesn’t really like four-fifths of us,” and has put us on “a fast track to hell” (Allan Sharp – “What About the Others?” – The Disciple – June 1989 – 18). Rejecting this way of thinking as being less than Biblical, other evangelical Christians swing to the other side of the continuum – to the universality of God’s salvific intent. But there is danger lurking at this end of the continuum as well. (To be continued…)