Answering Your Questions: Inclusivism and Theological Debate

My previous series about C.S. Lewis and inclusivism raised a number of questions from my readers. I’m going to tackle as many as I can in this post, and if I need another follow-up post I’ll come back to these topics again.

Was everybody born before Jesus eternally condemned because they couldn’t believe in Him yet?

Clearly not, since at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. So how were people saved in the Old Testament? Apparently by believing in the revelation God had given about Himself and eternal life up to that point in time. Paul discusses how Abraham believed God’s promises and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4). Although Abraham didn’t know Jesus’ name, he was granted eternal life by trusting in what God had promised, which was to provide a land (or kingdom) and eternal blessings to those who believed (cf. Genesis 15).

In Acts 17:30-31, though, Paul clearly tells his listeners that times have changed. Although God previously overlooked ignorance about Jesus, he doesn’t do so anymore. He’s calling everybody to turn from false beliefs and to believe instead in Jesus alone. The appearance of Jesus dramatically changes the situation, requiring belief in Him for salvation.

What about those who have never heard the Gospel, like Mayans and Incans and tribal African people groups?

First, I would dispute the claim that no Mayans or Incans ever had a chance to hear the Gospel and respond. Although their empires were destroyed before missionaries arrived in the New World, the Mayan and Incan people groups still existed. Consequently, some people of Mayan and Incan descent heard the Gospel and some of them even believed. In fact there are groups of Mayan Christians in southern Mexico to this day.

But what about the person who never hears the Gospel? Again, I would argue from Romans 1 that general revelation calls everybody to respond in faith to an eternal God who made the universe. We have good biblical evidence that those who respond to the light they are given are given further revelation (see the second post in my series for examples).

Does Romans 2:12-16 support the concept of inclusivism?

Romans 2:12-16 argues that all sin incurs God’s judgment, whether that sin is a direct violation of the Mosaic Law or not. In other words, even Gentiles who had never heard the Law of Moses were still held accountable for sin. Why? Because they still had a conscience that helped them to know right from wrong. The passage argues that general revelation (i.e. creation and conscience) are sufficient to condemn, but it does not argue that they are sufficient to save. This is consistent with the entirety of Romans 1-3, the main point of which is that everybody has sinned and is therefore guilty before God. The solution isn’t provided until 3:21-31. What solution does Paul provide? Faith in Christ alone apart from the works of the Law. In other words, Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 is exactly the opposite of the inclusivist position.

What about Roman Catholics who believe that salvation is achieved through a combination of faith and works? Will they be saved?

This is a tricky question, and I can’t presume to answer for God about any individual. I believe that salvation is given for those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life (Ephesians 2:8-9, John 3:16). If a person has believed, he is saved, even if his theology is deficient in other areas.

The bigger question is whether a theology of works-based salvation is heretical. Remember that heresy is typically defined in terms of universally agreed upon creeds, most of which were written well before the Protestant Reformation. So in a strict sense, it’s hard to use the word heresy to describe a conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism.

However, I am comfortable saying, on the basis of the Bible and the Protestant tradition, that works-based salvation theology is wrong and even dangerous. It’s wrong because the Bible clearly states that faith in Jesus apart from works is the only way to eternal life. It’s dangerous because those who trust in their works instead of in Christ’s work are liable to miss the message of the Gospel and find themselves eternally condemned.

Does that mean that there were no Christians before the Reformation? Of course not! God’s Spirit has been at work in every era of the Church. Even in the darkest times, men and women believed in Jesus and were truly saved.

I received two other questions, one about unity in the Church and one about how to determine what to read and what to avoid. Because I’m running out of space, I’ll cover those in a future post.

Let me know if you have other comments or questions!

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 3)

This will be my final post in this little series. In his original question, Jordan asked how we are to respond to an author like C.S. Lewis, a brilliant man who happens to hold a view with which many evangelicals disagree.

I’m going to take the opportunity to briefly discuss how we ought to read in general, and how we ought to respond to points of disagreement.

First, read everything with discernment. Never assume that because an author is a Christian that you can therefore agree blindly with every point he or she makes. It’s extremely rare for me to find a book that I agree with in its entirety. The Bible is God’s Word; everything else is basically opinion, commentary, interpretation, or speculation on it. Whether the author is C.S. Lewis, John Piper, Francis Chan, or even Matt Morton (gasp!), read critically and compare everything to the Scripture.

Second, don’t be too afraid to read sources with conflicting theological views. One of the ways we grow is by reading and understanding the opinions of those who disagree with us as well as of those who agree. C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man and a wonderful writer. His books exalt the Person and character of Jesus and provide some excellent illustrations of the Gospel. I’ve learned a great deal from reading his works, even though I don’t agree with every point he makes. If you feel that reading a particular book will cause you to doubt God’s character or will lead you into sin, then of course don’t read it right now. But as you continue to grow in your faith, it helps to read from a wide variety of sources.

Third, recognize what is central to the faith and what is up for discussion. For example, the writings of Joseph Smith clearly deny the full deity of Christ — that’s heresy. A heretic is a person who holds beliefs that are outside the historical boundaries of Christianity. Usually that’s determined by looking at the universally accepted creeds, like the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon, and the Apostle’s Creed. The deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the Trinity are good examples of non-negotiable articles of the Faith. On the other hand, the specific mechanism by which faith operates to bring a person to salvation has not traditionally been a point of separation between believers and unbelievers. So while I strongly disagree with the perspective of inclusivism, I don’t call Lewis a heretic for holding it. I can say I think he’s wrong, but not that he’s heretical in the way that word is usually defined.

Finally, don’t be afraid to draw firm conclusions from the Scripture. Always express your opinions with grace and tact, but don’t shy away from speaking the truth as you read it in the Bible. Inclusivism and exclusivism cannot both be correct — somebody is right and somebody is wrong. That shouldn’t trouble us too much, since no human being has a full understanding of God’s Word or His character. The existence of differing viewpoints does not call into question God’s character, but instead highlights the limited capacities we have as human beings. So do not be afraid to carefully research, land on a position, and teach it graciously and firmly. (Just remember the third point in this post as you do so).

Question: How do you deal with the issue of Christians who disagree with your theology? Do you have any other suggestions?

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 2)

Last week I began to address Jordan’s questions regarding C.S. Lewis’s views on inclusivism. I concluded that C.S. Lewis was indeed an inclusivist who held that although Jesus is the only way to eternal life, explicit faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation. Lewis’s views are echoed by other theologians and pastors — most notably, Billy Graham has endorsed a form of inclusivism in recent years.

So does the Scripture support inclusivism?

I’ll be arguing my position from the Bible, but my intent is not to label those who disagree with me as heretics or heathens. I’ll talk more about that issue in my final post on this subject, but my hope is to simply lay down the biblical facts as I see them.

That having been said, I strongly believe that the Bible supports Christian exclusivism, the belief that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life. Here’s why:

The Scripture consistently states that faith in Christ is necessary to receive salvation. Although you could argue that “faith in Christ” includes unconscious belief, this isn’t the most natural way to read the passages in question. For example, John 3:16-18 repeatedly talks about faith in Christ as necessary for salvation — it’s hard for me to imagine the original readers understanding that in any way other than explicit belief in what Jesus had accomplished through His death and resurrection. Romans 3 is another example. After declaring that nobody achieves eternal life through his own righteousness — because everybody is wicked — Paul states that justification comes only through belief in Christ. In other words, I think he directly contradicts the inclusivist position here by saying that no amount of sincerity or piety is enough to receive salvation apart from exercising faith in Christ.

Most of the apostles died trying to evangelize the world. Why would they do this if they felt that a sincere person could be saved apart from knowing about Jesus? Why not leave well enough alone? Why insist upon the worship of Jesus alone (and face terrible consequences for doing so) if it wasn’t really necessary? From what I see in the Scripture (particularly the book of Acts), they strongly believed in the exclusivity of salvation through faith in Christ.

Romans 1, in particular, eliminates the myth of the “righteous pagan.” In Romans 1 Paul states that worship of false gods is the way that people run away from God, not a way that they seek to know Him. As I stated above, his premise is that general revelation leads to condemnation, not to salvation. What we often call “seeking for God” is in fact a way of avoiding Him and rejecting Him. So the idea of an idolater in Africa who has never heard of Jesus but worships Him nonetheless is a myth, according to Romans 1.

For those who do sincerely want to know God, He provides further revelation leading to an understanding of the Gospel. I have biblical evidence of this and anecdotal evidence. From the Scripture, we see the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), who genuinely wants to understand the Old Testament but has nobody to tell him what it means. He is the paradigm of the “righteous pagan.” How does God respond? He sends Philip to the man, and Philip clearly explains the Gospel of Christ! Cornelius is another example (Acts 10). God sent Peter to this God-fearing Gentile, just so he could know about Jesus and be saved.

Anecdotally (from people I know personally), I’ve heard of Muslims having dreams instructing them to listen to a particular missionary who would tell them about Jesus. I know of a formerly Hindu man who had a vision of Jesus that led to his salvation. I strongly believe that God is gracious, and He can get the message of the Gospel to whomever He pleases, assuming those individuals are prepared to hear it.

And this is critical to explain about exclusivism — we don’t believe that everybody in the Middle East is going to hell because they happen to be born in a particular place with particular parents. To the contrary, God is very capable of penetrating those lands with the Gospel in any way He pleases, and He does it all the time. God is deeply gracious and concerned with the salvation of the entire world. And I think we will be surprised to see many people from all over the world with us in heaven because God in His mercy revealed the Gospel to them in amazing ways.

There’s obviously not enough space to answer every question on this topic here, so I’ll leave it to your comments. My next post will address the question of how we ought to respond to the writings of Lewis, and others who hold his view. What should we think about a brilliant Christian theologian who held a view with which many of us strongly disagree?

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 1)

A few months ago, in the midst of the “Is Rob Bell a Universalist” debate, I wrote a few posts on the subject. One post in particular included some definitions of exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism. I defined inclusivism as the belief that salvation comes through Jesus, but that individuals do not necessarily need to exercise explicit faith in Christ’s name for salvation. In other words, a sincerely seeking Muslim or Buddhist could be saved, according to inclusivism, because they could believe in Jesus without knowing it. In response to that post, Jordan posted a question in the comments section:

Does Inclusivism directly contradict the teachings of Scripture? At first, I would think so. But your statement that C.S. Lewis was an Inclusivist begs me to investigate. It’s been a while since I read “The Last Battle”, but I loved “Mere Christianity” and hold his writings in very high regard. Is there other evidence that he was an Inclusivist in his writings? And if so, what implications would this have on what we, as Bible-believing followers of Christ, take from his writing?

Jordan is asking three related questions. First, was C.S. Lewis really an inclusivist? Second, is inclusivism really inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture? And third, if it is, how should we approach C.S. Lewis and his writings? I’m going to divide my answers into at least two posts, if not three.

These are all great questions, but tough ones.

Was C.S. Lewis really an inclusivist?

My assessment of C.S. Lewis’s position on this issue comes primarily from the end of The Last Battle, which is the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia.  Although a work of fiction, it is clear throughout the entire series that Lewis intends the books partly as tools for theological instruction. At any rate, one of the book’s main characters, Emeth, is a follower of the false god Tash (who bears a strong resemblance to the Muslim Allah). The Christ figure of the books, the lion Aslan, allows Emeth to enter heaven based upon the fact that Emeth had been unknowingly serving Aslan his entire life, even though he thought he had been serving Tash. (Confused yet? It really helps to actually read the book). Emeth’s integrity and character and righteousness were proof that he had really been serving Aslan, since the true followers of Tash are evil and immoral. Lewis argues that nobody could do the good things that Emeth had done unless he was truly following Aslan. Emeth, then, was what we might call an “unconscious believer” — he believed in Aslan without knowing it.

There are hints of Lewis’ inclusivism in Mere Christianity, although it’s most explicit in The Last Battle. Quite simply, it seems that he held to the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but that explicit faith in the name of Christ was not necessary for a person to be saved. In a letter written in 1952, Lewis wrote the following (from Collected Letters, Vol. III, p. 245):

I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.

There are other examples sprinkled throughout his writings, but hopefully these are sufficient to make the case that Lewis did indeed affirm the concept of inclusivism.

So how does this belief stack up to the Scripture? And if Lewis’s view is contrary to our understanding of the Bible, how should we respond to him and his writings? I’ll answer those questions in my next post or two.

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