I do not consider myself a particularly brave person, and I think it especially foolish, on the main, to make a frontal assault on a clearly superior force. Further, it is always dangerous to cross theological swords with C.S. Lewis. He was, arguably, the most compelling voice for Christianity in the 20th century, and his impact continues unabated into the 21st.
Even so, as a young Christian I read something Lewis wrote that gave me pause the first time I saw it. Now, 35 years later, it troubles me more than ever. It appears towards the end of The Last Battle, the final installment of Lewis’s wonderful and theologically rich children's fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Emeth, a noble young Calormene soldier who all his life had innocently served Tash, the false god of his people, encounters Aslan face to face for the first time.
“Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash,” he admits to the great lion.
“Child,” Aslan answers, “all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me...If any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”1
In narrative form, Lewis seems to be suggesting that those who sincerely pursue God the best way they know how, regardless of the particulars of their own religion, are accepted by Him.
I don’t for a moment think Lewis was a pluralist. In fact, when Emeth asks Aslan if he and Tash are one (“Tashlan,” as some had put it), he “growled so that the earth shook.” This was an error; Tash and Aslan were opposites. Clearly, though, the sincerity and noble life of this young Calormene were taken by Aslan as implicit loyalty to the lion.
Lewis intimates that, though all religions are not true in themselves (pluralism), there still exist people of other faiths who are what Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians,” those enjoying the grace that comes through Jesus alone, even though they never explicitly put their faith in Him.
Was Lewis right? According to recent polls, more than half the Evangelicals in this country think he was.2 This trend has given rise to what I have called the “confused confession.” It is a term I introduced last fall (Solid Ground, November 2008) to describe the following claim: “Jesus is my savior. He is the only way for me. But I can’t say He is the way for others.”
As I argued earlier, this could mean a number of different things.3 Some, for example, may be uncertain about the fate of those who never heard about Jesus. This, I think, is Lewis’s concern. Perhaps God will judge them by the limited light they’ve been shown. Others, though, seem to take it quite a bit further.
Dinesh D’Souza, author of the vigorous defense of Christianity entitled What’s So Great about Christianity, faltered in a debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens and Jewish thinker Dennis Prager. When asked by Prager if Jews who do not accept Jesus as savior can still be saved he said, “I believe the answer to that is yes.” Clearly, Abraham made it to Heaven without believing in Jesus, D’Souza pointed out. There must be, then, another “mode of salvation...that doesn’t include Jesus.”4
In her book A Simple Path, Mother Teresa explained why she did not “preach religion” to those in her care. In a section entitled “Equal Before God” she writes:
There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.5
Consequently, Mother Teresa never considered it a problem when people of different religions joined together in prayer at her center and read from their own scriptures, since her focus was to encourage them in their “relationship with God, however that may be.”
Roman Catholic thinker Avery Cardinal Dulles makes this stunning claim in his essay, Who Can Be Saved?:
Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice.6
Remarks like these raise a host of questions. If Jews today don’t need to believe in Jesus, but can be saved as Abraham was, why did both Jesus and Paul say the Gospel should go to the Jews first, before it went to the gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6, Acts 1:8, Rom. 1:16)? Given that Hindus worship idols, wouldn’t helping them be “better” Hindus make them better at breaking God’s first commandments (Exodus 20:3-5)? If atheists are seeking truth, why does Paul say they are suppressing the truth (Rom. 1:18)? If people following false religions are recipients of God’s grace, why does Scripture say they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25) and are therefore without excuse (1:20)? Worse, what implications do such sentiments have for the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20)?
This is why I call such a confession “confused.” It may sound plausible at first, but it is hard to make sense of it in light of either Old or New Testament teaching.
Let me tell you one of the reasons this confusion gets a foothold. People draw the wrong conclusions from an obvious Scriptural fact: Not everyone in history needed to believe in Jesus to be restored to relationship with God. Though it may be that Abraham understood something about Jesus (John 8:56), that cannot be said of every patriarch, prophet, or Old Testament faithful. Despite their own sins, they still found favor with God apart from explicit faith in Christ. This is Lewis’s point.
Couldn’t the same be true today, some ask, not only of those who have never heard, but also for those who reject the message of Christ through no apparent fault of their own? How can we say what’s in a person’s heart? Who are we to judge?
This, I think, is D’Souza, Teresa, and Dulles’s point. Though Jesus’ death on the cross is the only provision for forgiveness, belief in Jesus is not the only way to receive the grace He alone provides. This view is called “inclusivism,” since even those who do not believe in Christ can, in certain circumstances, be included in the grace that He secures.
It is true, you and I are in a poor position to judge the hearts of others. But God is not. Though our judgments may falter, His are true. Has He said anything to shed light on this question? I think He has. Lots.
A “Jealous” God
First, it might be helpful to remember that from the very beginning, the God of the Bible has been narrow in His demands.
Adam and Eve’s violation of God’s command in the garden brought swift justice. The serpent’s suggestion of an alternate route to wisdom, knowledge, and fulfillment resulted in death, not the promised enlightenment.
God’s very first commandment to His fledgling people explicitly condemned all other “roads to Rome.” In Exodus 20:2-5 He said, “I am the Lord your God...You shall have no other gods before Me...You shall not worship them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Transgressors of this command were executed.
God showed His utter contempt for other religions by pummeling Egypt with plagues, each one directed at a different Egyptian deity (Exodus 12:12b “...and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord.”). The capstone plague ended the life of every first-born whose doorway lacked the blood covering applied according to God's very precise and particular conditions.
During their wanderings in the desert, the Jews were offered only one antidote to the poison of the serpents God had unleashed in judgment upon them. Only those who gazed upon a bronze snake lifted up on a pole were spared (Numbers 21:9). Jesus Himself cites this event as a type of His crucifixion, which alone purchases eternal life (John 3:14-15).
In Acts we learn that “Christian” was not the first name given to the followers of Jesus. Instead, the name they used for themselves embodied the heart of their message about the Savior. They were simply called “The Way”—not “a way” or “one of the ways” or “our way,” but The Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23).
This pervasive theme of exclusivity was captured with crystal clarity in Jesus’ words, “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus’ very next words warned of false prophets who would appear as sheep, yet would ravage the flock like wild wolves.
From Wide to Narrow?
Even so, it does seem that New Testament standards are more “narrow” than Old Testament ones. Why is that? Here some distinctions may be helpful.
First, throughout the biblical revelation, the source of salvation has always been the unmerited mercy of God. Our Sovereign owes no rebel a pardon. That He extends clemency to any is a pure gift of grace (Eph. 2:8, Titus 3:4-7).
Second, the ground of salvation has always been the redemption secured by Christ on the cross. Old Testament saints who, because of progressive revelation, had not yet learned about Jesus were still saved because of Him. God “passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom. 3:25), knowing the full, complete, and final payment would be made at the cross (Heb. 10:10-18).
Third, the means of salvation has also been constant. Every sinner ever justified gained access to God’s mercy by faith. Whether in Old Testament or New, active trust in God’s grace appropriated His mercy. In every age, the just have lived by faith (Gen. 15:6, Hab. 2:4, Rom. 4:5, 5:1).
Each of those has been constant. Only one thing changes as God progressively reveals His plan. The object one expressed faith in (means) that appropriated the work of Christ (ground) based on the grace of God (source) has been different at different times.
Adam received the covering God provided for his nakedness and trusted God’s promise that a seed of woman would crush the serpent (Gen. 3:15, 21). Abraham simply believed God’s promise of descendants who would bring blessing to the nations of the Earth (Gen. 12:3, 15:6). Jewish slaves in Egypt believed the blood covering would protect them from the plague of death at Passover (Ex. 12:13, 23). Old Testament saints counted on the atoning sacrifices God required to cover their sins (Leviticus).
There is only one question we need to answer at this point: What is the appropriate object of faith now, in the New Covenant period, since the public appearance and proclamation of the world’s singular Messiah?
The answer from every New Testament writer is the same. Since Pentecost, the object of faith and the ground of salvation are one and the same: Jesus. There is no other name that can save, and there is no other “name” we may put our trust in. Not the Levitical sacrifices or Passover blood (Hebrews 10:8-10). Not zeal or sincerity (Rom. 10:1-2). Certainly not pagan gods, false prophets, or counterfeit religions (Matt. 24:23-25, Gal. 1:8-9, Jude 4).
That’s why Jesus said our response to Him is the acid test of our true loyalty to the Father. Anyone who loves God will honor the One sent by God. Conversely, those who reject Him, reject the Father also. This one point is so critical, it is repeated in various ways no less than 16 times in the New Testament (John 5:23b, 5:37-38, 8:19, 8:42a, 12:48-50, 14:7, 15:20b-21, 15:23, John 16:2-3; 1 John 2:22, 2:23, 4:2-3, 4:15, 5:1, 5:9-12; 2 John 1:7-9a).
These verses reveal something crystal clear to me. Had any Old Testament saints lived during the time of Jesus or after, their love for the Father expressed in their primitive faith would have driven them to embrace His Son, Jesus. Each one of those accepted by the Father under the Old Covenant would have loved the Son of the New (“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad,” John 8:56).
In a sense, then, nothing has changed from Genesis to Revelation. God’s way has always been specific, limited, and precise. A narrow gate leads to life. A broad way leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
And there are many more verses that make this clear. For example:
- “He who believes has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides in him.” John 3:36
- “I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins.” John 8:24
- “And I say to you, everyone who confesses me before men, the Son of Man shall confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9
- And after he brought them out he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” Acts 16:30-31
- I testify about [the Jews] that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Romans 10:2-4
- And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. 1 John 5:11-12
The God-Fearing Gentile
The most compelling single passage against inclusivism comes from the book of Acts and the conversion of a gentile named Cornelius. Scripture says Cornelius was “a devout man...who feared God with all his household, gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually” (10:2). Indeed, his “prayers and alms [had] ascended as a memorial before God” (10:4). As “a righteous and God-fearing man,” he was “divinely directed by a holy angel” to send for Peter to come to his house and hear a message from him (10:22).
This is quite a spiritual pedigree, all without the Gospel of Christ. In fact, Peter was so impressed at the clear working of God in Cornelius’ life he said, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (10:34-35). This is the whole of inclusivist theology in a single sentence. Everything stated about Cornelius fulfills the inclusivists’ demand.
What does Peter do next? He does not assure this “anonymous Christian” that all is well and turn on his heel to leave. Instead, he preaches the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (10:36-41), then warns of final judgment by Jesus for all except those who believe in Him for the forgiveness of their sins (10:42-43).
Why go through all this detail? Because for all his spiritual nobility, Cornelius is still lost. If the inclusivist gospel were true, Cornelius would not have needed a special visit from Peter. Yes, Cornelius had responded faithfully to all the revelation given to him up to that point. But it was not enough. It was just the first step. Even god-fearing Cornelius needed the rest of the story, the specifics about Christ and the cross, without which he could not be saved.
The teachings of Jesus and the writings of those disciples He trained to continue His message give little comfort to inclusivists. Remarkably, Dulles admits as much: “The New Testament and the theology of the first millennium give little hope for the salvation of those who, since the time of Christ, have had no chance of hearing the gospel.”7 If this is the clear testimony of the ancients, what good reason do we have to abandon that message in the modern era? I don’t see any...
And I will give you one final reason to be faithful to it.
I have a last thought for any who may still be tempted to sit on the fence on this issue. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French scientist and Christian sage, once offered a famous wager to his detractors. Based merely on a kind of cost/benefit risk assessment, Pascal argued it is smart to “bet” on God. If the Christian is right, he gains eternal life. If wrong, he passes into non-existence, nothing lost. The atheist, on the other hand, gains nothing if correct, and if incorrect suffers eternally for his errors.
I think the wisdom of Pascal’s wager applies to inclusivism. If we preach the message of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church—that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation—and we are wrong, what is the downside? If we proclaim that those separated from the Gospel are also separated from Christ and have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12), yet we are mistaken, Heaven will be more crowded than we thought. If we erroneously preach exclusivism, the upshot is good news, not bad.
However, what if we take the side of inclusivism and err? What if we are wrong when we teach that the person who has heard the Gospel of Christ does not have to answer it’s challenge by humbling himself before the cross? What if we say that sincere people will be accepted by God in the pursuit of their own religious convictions? What if we discourage other Christians from “forcing” their views on “good” Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. What if we do any of these things and it turns out their rejection of Christ—either active or passive—seals their fate: judgment and an eternity of suffering for their crimes against God. What is the downside then? Only that we have given false hope to the lost, and have prevented them from seriously considering the only salvation available to them. If you are an inclusivist and you are wrong, that is very bad news.
It seems we have a simple choice. We can be broad-minded and advance the broad way, a path Jesus said leads to destruction. Or we can suffer the charge of “narrow-minded” and preach the narrow way, the only path that Jesus said leads to life. I would not want to be on the wrong side of this issue.