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Monday, February 09, 2004

Thoughts on Salvation

I was recently involved in a very interesting email thread with a few other Christians I respect for their intelligence and insight (not the least of which was my wife). The question that spawned the thread was this:

"How would you succinctly respond to a seeker who asks the question…”How will a person be judged who has never heard about Christ or perhaps even a monotheistic religion?” E.g. an Amazonian tribesman in the 1400s"

Although I realized this question was in no way novel, I hadn't realized - having little exposure to theology - that the various responses to this question have specific names that include exclusivism (without an explicit faith in Jesus Christ the tribesman would not be saved), inclusivism (the tribesman may be saved through Christ based on his response to the revelation he's been given, however fragmentary that may be), and pluralism (that the tribesman can be saved through another religon). Because I've found so much of C.S. Lewis' writing so helpful in my own Christian life I was interested in what he had to say on the topic. The following are references from his works:

From Mere Christianity, p65
"Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ [here I assume he’s referring at least in part to John 14:6]; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

From a paper he wrote in 1945 called "Christian Apologetics"
"Of course it should be pointed out that, though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life."

Also from a letter he wrote in 1952
Paraphrase: "Every sincere prayer, even to a false god, is accepted by the true God; Christ saves many who do not think they know Him."

And so it appears that Lewis took an inclusivist position consistent with his Platonic view that pagan religons and mythology contain a shadow or reflection of the truth in the same way that man's power of reason is a shadow of God's.

As for me when it comes right down to the metal my belief in the goodness of God doesn’t allow me to believe that those who have never held a Bible in their hand or been specifically preached the gospel cannot have salvation. Following Lewis I would argue that passages like John 14:6 should be interpreted to mean that Jesus is the one true representative of God on earth and that his death/resurrection is the only means by which men can have fellowship with God - in other words, that he enabled men to be saved – rather than only those who specifically hear read or hear His words can be saved. Other passages that seem to imply exclusivism should then be interpreted in the context of the hearers who were preached the gospel.

This view seems also to be consistent with what my mind tells me about my own free will. Although the circumstances of my birth both geographically and temporally made it much more probable that I would become a Christian than a Hindu or Muslim, when it came to the decision to accept Christ it sure felt like it was my choice. And I can only assume that I’d have that freedom of will (although perhaps directed a bit differently) if born in another location and in another time.

In the end however, in a witnessing situation a Christian wouldn't want to let this issue bog the unbeliever down and so I would simply note the disagreement and let it go. Perhaps this is one more exampe of what Lewis said were questions like, "How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round. Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical questions - are like that."

Here are some links to reading on this issue that you might find interesting.

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