This is a continuation of a blog entry that was begun several weeks ago. It was prompted by a question that was asked of me at a recent “Connecting Our Faiths” event where I was part of a panel with a Rabbi and an Imam to talk together about the place of Abraham in our sacred texts. At the end of a very civil and constructive conversation, I was asked if I thought that my conversation partners were going to hell because they don’t believe as I do that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the Lord and Savior of the world. The “on my feet” ~ “off the top of my head” answer that I gave there on the spot is more complex than the setting allowed me to fully explore, and so I’ve been thinking out loud about it here on my blog ever since. I welcome you to this exercise of “Scriptural reasoning” – and I hope that it engages you in a similar process. DBS+
Within contemporary evangelical theology there are many voices now articulating a middle path between the voices from the edges, a viable third alternative to one-sided particularity and a one-sided universality. These evangelical theologians advocate a “wider hope” of salvation than do the hardline restrictivists without diminishing at all the scandal of Christ’s particularity. A high Christology can be affirmed, and held in creative tension with the conviction that there is a wider access to salvation than hardline exclusivism has traditionally argued. This “optimism of salvation” takes several forms.
There are many prominent evangelical theologians who urge a “reverent agnosticism” when discussing the destiny of the unevangelized. John Scott affirms a high Christology while at the same time remaining content to live with mystery when it comes to the question of the destiny of the unevangelized. He explains-
“The fact is that God, alongside the most solemn warnings about our responsibility to respond to the Gospel, has not revealed how he will deal with those who have never heard. We have to leave them in the hands of the God of infinite mercy and justice, who manifested these qualities most fully in the cross.” (327)
J. I. Packer warns “against speculating too much about the salvation of the unevangelized” (Sanders 24).
“If we are wise, we shall not spend much time mulling over this notion. Our job, after all, is to spread the Gospel, not to guess what might happend to those to whom it never comes. Dealing with them is God’s business: he is just and also merciful, and when we learn, as one day we shall, how he has treated them we shall have no cause to complain.” (25)
For Disciples who have traditionally said that they will “speak where the Scriptures speak” and be “silent where the Scriptures are silent,” this stance of reverent agnosticism should be both familiar and attractive.
Another evangelical expression of the “optimism of salvation” in Jesus Christ is a restatement of the old Quaker idea of the “day of visitation.” Robert Barclay published his Apology in 1678 as the first systematic presentation of Quaker theology. In the Apology, Robert Barclay posed the hypothesis of a “day of visitation” as a consequence of his Christology. Because it is in Jesus Christ that God had shown His “infinite love” (82), everyone must therefore be given a “certain day or time of visitation” in order that they might have a reasonable chance “to be saved, and to partake of the fruit of Christ’s death” (82). Using a core Quaker concept, Robert Barclay argued that every person has been “given a measure of the light of God’s own Son,” and that it is by this inner light that God “invites, calls, exhorts and strives with every man in order to save him” (82).
In contemporary evangelical theology, there are some who utilize the very same “control beliefs” Robert Barclay utilized to argue for universal evangelization. That Jesus Christ is the primary source of God’s revelation and redemption, and that our destiny is determined by our response to Jesus Christ were the two ideas that persuaded Robert Barclay and the earliest Quakers to believe in the “day of visitation” as the way of making God’s salvation in Jesus Christ universally accessible. Similarly, these two “control beliefs” have persuaded some contemporary evangelicals to believe in the idea that all people who genuinely seek God “will, in one way or another, be exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ so they can make a decision” (Sanders 152). Just as God made sure that honest seekers like the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) were given opportunity to hear the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, so there are some evangelical theologians who insist that “God will send the message” (Sanders 152) to the unevangelized who honestly seek God. The sending could be by natural or supernatural means, but the end result is that everyone who earnestly seeks God will be given a chance to respond to the Gospel. DBS+
(To be continued)