January 22, 2007

Christ, Salvation and the Non-Christian

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:28 pm

Elmo at p.o.s. 51 has a post on a hot-button issue for conservative Christians — whether only Christians get to go to heaven. Elmo’s interest in this theological topic stems from some of the ECUSA’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s comments in the press. From a Time Magazine interview from last July:

Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?

We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.

An article of faith for conservative Christians is that God’s grace is unavailable to non-Christians. And yet, I agree with Bishop Jefferts Schori. While I have maintained on this blog that I am theologically orthodox, have I finally revealed my true spots as a theological liberal? Hardly.

William Placher stakes out the various positions on this theological conundrum thusly (my paraphrase):

  • Exclusivists believe that all non-Christians will go to hell
  • Inclusivists believe that there are “anonymous Christians”, saved by Christ without necessarily understanding it is Christ that is saving them
  • Pluralists believe that good Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims can go to heaven

While the pluralist position may be more recent, and hence “liberal”, theologians have been debating exclusivism vs. inclusivism for centuries. Dante, author of The Divine Comedy in the 14th century, was an inclusivist, as is Roman Catholic teaching today. C.S. Lewis, certainly no theological liberal, was an inclusivist, as anyone who’s read The Last Battle, the last book in the Narnia series, can attest. So the inclusivist position has a rather orthodox pedigree. It’s just not true that only exclusivists are Real ChristiansTM.

But let’s go to the heart of the matter — John 14:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Conservative Christians automatically see this as a statement about how to get to heaven — make a decision for Christ, say the sinner’s prayer, be born again, and join the local megachurch. But there’s another way to read this verse — as a trinitarian statement about who Jesus is in relationship to God the Father. Jesus seems to be explaining that, as one of the three persons of the trinitarian Godhead, it is Jesus who bridges the great divide between the Father and a fallen humanity. He isn’t saying anything about what we have to do to get into heaven, but is telling the apostles who he is.

So is this interpretation correct? As always, context is important. Before Jesus’ statement about the way, the truth and the life, he talks about heaven:

Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

So it’s easy to think that this is all about how to get a dwelling place in heaven reserved in your name. But a few verses later John says:

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.


”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

This is a description of Jesus as a part of the Trinity. Jesus is explaining who he is and how he relates to God the Father and God the Spirit. To turn this into instructions on how to get to heaven is missing the whole point. Jesus is God, but plays a unique role within the Trinity — he makes God visible to us, and he sends us the Holy Spirit.

As Jefferts Schori says, we are putting God in an awfully small box if we turn Jesus’ words about who he is, and who the trinitarian God is, into instructions for getting into heaven (and keeping everyone else out).

But back to Elmo’s post. He received an email from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA on this topic. Bishop Hanson says, in part:

Bishop Schori’s remarks about those who are saved represent a specific theological school of thought that became increasingly popular at the Second Vatican Council and beyond. While it does not deny that Christ is God’s revealed means of salvation, it opens the door for the possibility that God has the capability of saving fallen humanity through a variety of means. Such a position would be in accordance with the biblical principle that God desires the salvation of every human being. We are certain that God accomplishes such salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are not certain that God also will act in other ways to proffer salvation. Only God knows how God will act to redeem the world.

I agree. (Good thing too, since Bp. Hanson is the head of my denomination.) Bishop Hanson is speaking inclusivistically here, not exclusivistically.

There is much more to say here (Jefferts Schori expanded on her statement in an NPR interview last November; Bishop Hanson tactfully criticizes Jeffert Schori’s choice of words in that interview; Father Jake had some interesting thoughts; etc.), but I’m going to leave it there for now, save one closing thought.

Where we stand on this issue of whether non-Christians can be saved gives a clear picture of what kind of a God we believe in. Does God set up a rigid credal test for who’s in and who’s out? Will the victim of a priest’s sexual abuse who subsequently rejects Christianity spend an eternity burning in hell while the priest who abused him is forgiven? Is the Kingdom of God a private club, for members only?

Or is God’s grace limitless? Does God make the effort to reveal Godself to those unable to receive God through the Christian church, for whatever reason? Does everyone, no matter where or into what circumstances they are born, have an equal chance at salvation? Is God just? Is God love?

I know which God I believe in.


  1. Jesus also said – right after the “I am the way” comment, that he had other flocks and not to worry about “others” – he would look after them – just tend to your own knitting. (somewhat free paraphrase).
    Another point – it is not about “heaven” – salvation comes from the word meaning wholeness and health (like salve that you put on wounds). Luke says the kingdom of God is in your midst and the Lord’s prayer calls for the kingdom to come on earth. Worrying about afterlife in the midst of all the suffering of this world is beside the point. I think that is what Katharine is pointing out.

    Comment by Ann — January 23, 2007 @ 10:15 am

  2. Looking at it from the perspective of logic, it would appear that those who want to say that Jesus is the only way to Heaven are making a deductive error. For example, the Bible makes it clear that those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior are definitely saved, but that universal affirmative cannot be fully converted to say that those who have not, are not.

    However, Paul makes it clear in the first few chapters of Romans that while Nature provides the general knowledge about a creator, it does not provide enough light in itself for salvation. He goes on to say in Romans 10 that the specific knowledge about Jesus being the Messiah is necessary to salvation, which underscores John 3:18, which states, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

    This is not to say that God is incapable of saving those who have not placed their faith in Jesus. In fact, it is usually accepted among Christians that He extends His grace to infants and the mentally incompetent, who are incapable of understanding their need for salvation, much less the means by which they could be saved. However, if we accept the premise that God gave us the Bible as His revelation of Himself, then it seems logical that He would include the “instruction manual” for salvation therein. I don’t believe that God is playing some cosmic shell game, in which we have to hunt for the path to Heaven. I believe that He loves all of His creation and desires that “none should be lost.” That means telling us clearly what we have to do, not just dropping a few hints and then hoping that we “get it.”

    Comment by Eric — January 23, 2007 @ 10:25 am

  3. I believe that He loves all of His creation and desires that “none should be lost.” That means telling us clearly what we have to do, not just dropping a few hints and then hoping that we “get it.”

    Or He could make salvation a total matter of His grace without any requirements on the part of those being saved at all. After all, that would be the most effective way to ensure that His desire that non should be lost is fulfilled.

    Comment by Jarred — January 23, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

  4. There is a lot of tension for me between inclusive and exclusive positioning on this issue. First, I believe that salvation is universally attainable. Paul says that Jesus is the second Adam, and his sacrifice opened redemption to all mankind. Prophecy said more than once that the nations would be saved by him. But I also read, as Eric said, that Jesus said that those who don’t believe are condemned.

    It’s hard…I’ve wrestled with the question of those who never hear the Gospel or can’t understand it for years. The only answer that quiets my soul is that God will handle it. And, as I said in my post, I’m especially heartbroken over people who were hurt by Christians and by the church, and hope that God judges them with the same grace that he judges his followers.

    An important point to me, though, is that Bp. Jefferts-Schori wasn’t stating the “inclusive” position, she was stating the “pluralist” position. In her NPR interview she said, “For Christians, we say that our route to God is through Jesus. Uhh.. uh..that doesn’t mean that a Hindu.. uh.. doesn’t experience God except through Jesus. It-it-it says that Hindus and people of other faith traditions approach God through their.. own cultural contexts; they relate to God, they experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships; and Christians would say those are our experiences of Jesus; of God through the experience of Jesus.”

    She’s saying that, from a Christian perspective, “all roads lead to Rome.” I agree with Bp. Hanson’s comments, and the inclusive position (for the most part).

    Comment by Elmo — January 23, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

  5. Elmo –

    Yeah, I read a transcript of the NPR interview too, and I couldn’t decide if she was advocating and really believes the pluralist position, or if she agrees with the inclusivist position but chose her words poorly. As Bp. Hanson said, “in order to place the best construction on Presiding Bishop Schori’s intention…” I’m going to assume the latter until and unless she more explicitly states the former.

    btw, glad to see you’re able to comment again!

    Comment by Bob — January 23, 2007 @ 6:04 pm

  6. Utter quibble (I’m not interested in the larger issue).

    How is Dante an inclusivist? He places Mohammed in hell and doesn’t allow Virgil to guide him through heaven. The reasoning (stated by by a disappointed Virgil himself, IIRC) was that he had bene unable to hear the proclamation of the good news, and so he could not gain explicit faith and enter heaven.

    On the other hand, Justin Martyr had no trouble placing men like Virgil or Socrates (and all who seek the true Logos, in his words) in heaven.

    Comment by John Perry — January 23, 2007 @ 11:13 pm

  7. I’ve struggled with this question for a long time. The inclusivist position is appealing to me, but it’s also the hardest to understand. It’s very hard for me to talk about this with other people because nearly everyone I know is either exclusivist or doesn’t believe in an afterlife. In the circles I grew up in, exclusivism was part and parcel of orthodoxy, so it’s incredibly hard for me to understand anything different.

    I guess that officially I have no real position. The one that I’m most inclined to agree with (the inclusivist position) is the one which I can’t get my head around.

    Comment by Alex — January 24, 2007 @ 7:08 am

  8. It seems to me that there is way too much focus on the afterlife in all of these debates. Maybe we need to spend more time thinking about what it means to live a religious life in the here and now, and let God take care of the rest. I don’t seek a relationship with God because I think it will get me some reward after I die. Relating to God is for me its own reward. All this talk about who will get in and who won’t seems to reflect a lot of unfortunate tribalism. We need less tribalism and more inclusion, in my view.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — January 24, 2007 @ 8:05 am

  9. John –

    I didn’t attribute my source, but from the Placher book I link to in my post (p 300):

    “…Dante has the Trojan hero Ripheus and the Roman emperor Trajan both miraculously converted to Christianity–Ripheus by angelic intervention centuries before Christ, and Trajan by being raised in order to hear the gospel and be converted. If this can happen for one or two, Dante writes, how can any human being judge whether more?”

    Not having read The Divine Comedy myself, I’m afraid I can’t comment on your counter-example, and so am forced to defer to you and Placher.

    Comment by Bob — January 24, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  10. Seeker –

    This debate doesn’t apply strictly to entrance into heaven, it’s about who is part of the Kingdom. I gathered from some past reading on your blog that you are a Universalist, or Universalist Christian. Is that correct? If so your perspective on the importance of entrance into the Kingdom is different from mine, and that of many others, though I don’t speak for anyone here. Christ spoke about the Kingdom of God on earth and in heaven, and the two are intrinsically linked. He also stated clearly in a number of ways who would be a part of the Kingdom and who would not. He also taught that much of the joy to be found in him is in the knowledge that after we suffer on earth we will be in the place he is preparing for us, that is: heaven.

    People do sometimes concern themselves with the idea of heaven to the detriment of living the Gospel now, but it is not unimportant. He spoke of heaven in the Beatitudes three times…it is the only reward mentioned there multiple times.

    I’m sure we all spend plenty of time thinking and talking about what it means to live a Christian life, but we can speak of heaven at times.

    Comment by Elmo — January 24, 2007 @ 1:32 pm

  11. a few thoughts: one, i decided a while back
    to picture the john 14 passage as showing Jesus as
    a bridge over a river that, once laid down, anyone
    could cross; two, the passage where Jesus went and
    preached “to the captives” seems to indicate that
    death is not the final chance for grace to be extended
    to us; three, the “I” of TULIP/Calvinism says
    “irresistable grace” – while JC (john calvin, not
    Jesus Christ ) speaks of saving only the “elect”,
    i think it’s an excellent point for reasoning that
    anyone sufficiently presented with the grace of God
    cannot – and will not – deny it.

    mike rucker
    “big hallucinations and newfound faith”

    Comment by mike rucker — January 28, 2007 @ 7:12 am

  12. Either you believe what is written in the Bible in regards to salvation is the truth or you become PC to other religions and say that Christianity is on the same level as the other religions and we all worship the same god. We worship the Triune God and the rest worship the whatever god, at least this is our teaching in our LC-MS, it seems that the E_LCA has some other doctrine.

    Comment by Harry — January 28, 2007 @ 8:53 pm

  13. Harry –

    Yes, we all know what the Bible says, but it’s not so clear what the Bible means. Your interpretation is only one. Go back to the text — you’ll find it doesn’t necessarily mean what you assume it does.

    Comment by Bob — January 28, 2007 @ 9:11 pm

  14. Bob

    Your reasoning and the possible ordaining of gays that live together are the reasons my wife and I left the ELCA for the LC-MS.

    Comment by Harry — January 29, 2007 @ 8:21 pm

  15. Your parsing of John 14:6 is a failed attempt to support a liberal, inclusive and pluralistic agenda. Jesus in that passage says what he means and means what he says. Of course he was speaking of the way to the Father (Heaven), look at the two preceding verses:

    John 14:4 And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
    John 14:5 Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?

    Thomas still does not get the fact that Jesus is to die. He wants to know how to follow him. Jesus answers:

    John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

    While His words substantiate the Trinity, that is not the purpose of His remarks here. The purpose is to explain that He is here for the salvation of man, if man will accept the Truth i.e. Jesus. In the next chapter, Mat 7:14, He says, “Because strait (not straight) is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” There is but one way and it is difficult and while available to all, many will not find it. And in Mat 7:21, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

    That pretty much excludes everyone that does not believe in Him. It is the foundation of Christian Orthodoxy. If you do not believe that Christ is the only way to heaven you cannot in good conscience call yourself a Christian the title of your Blog notwithstanding. Religions abound that profess that their way is THE way to eternal reward, but they are not Christian. This would include but is not limited to Muslims, Jews, Mormons, JW’s, Liberalism (The Church of), Environmentalism and those that embrace the “Social Justice” movement.

    God’s Will desires that all be saved, God’s Will does not decree that all will be saved. Were salvation a will of decree what would be the purpose of Christ’s death: His resurrection and ascension? God’s grace is available to all, but only through Christ Jesus. That is not putting God in a box or in anyway limiting His power. He set the rules. That does not make Heaven a “private club”, it is open to the public, to all who will hear and believe. In that sense it is “members only.”

    God’s grace is not limitless, it cannot be “bought” and it is available to all but must be accepted. Those that reject it, for whatever reason, will indeed burn in hell.

    Comment by Art — February 7, 2007 @ 7:52 am

  16. I have to disagree with Art’s description of Mormonism above. Since I don’t want to threadjack, suffice it to say here that it is possible to be both inclusivist and to say that Jesus is the only way to the Heavenly Father. From the LDS perspective, those who don’t have the opportunity to become followers of Christ in this lifetime will have that opportunity after death. God’s preference is that all his children find everlasting life, so why would he limit the freedom to choose to this life only?

    Comment by copedi — February 9, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  17. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You

    Comment by Micky — April 9, 2007 @ 7:56 am

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