So I have a pet peeve.
As Christians, we are called to be wise, humble, and prudent. Over the last few years, I have see many Christians condemn doctrines in which they know very little about. So much so, that the doctrine they think they are condemning isn’t actually what they’re condemning. A popular church leader a few years ago made a video condemning what he thought was “Universalism.” In reality, he was condemning Pluralism and calling it Universalism.
These are very different ideologies. Pluralism says all religions are equally true, and therefore Jesus is one way to God among many ways. Universalism says that Jesus is the only way to God, but that God’s grace is ultimately irresistible (a doctrine shared with Calvinists), and therefore all will come to know God through Christ. They’re not the same, Pluralism denies the exclusivity of Jesus, Universalism does not. I’m not a Universalist, in case your wondering. My point is that if you’re going to disagree with some doctrine, particularly if you’re going to call it Heresy, please be wise enough to know what you’re actually talking about. Ignorance does not suit the Christian life.
The following is a repost of a previous article and one that is published in my new book “Late Meanderings with God.” In it, I define Pluralism (and why it is not a Christian doctrine), Universalism (and why it is a Christian doctrine), and Inclusivism (and why it is a Christian doctrine).
Pluralism, Christian Universalism, and Christian Inclusivism; what the heck are these? And what’s the best option? If you’re like me, you grew up with the position of Exclusivism. This idea being that those who do not hear the gospel preached to them will go to hell when they die. Ultimately, all of these positions are based on the question, “What happens to people who aren’t Christians after they die?” Or maybe said slightly different, “What happens to people that never hear the gospel?” This, of course, ties into you’re view of hell. Yes, before you go crazy, I’ll lay my cards on the table: I affirm the existence of hell. So, let me flesh that out for you, and then we’ll get to our topic. I’ll start with a quote stated rather succinctly by Richard Rohr:
“God excludes no one from union but must allow us to exclude ourselves in order for us to maintain our freedom. Our word for that exclusion is hell, and it must be maintained as a logical possibility. There must be the logical possibility of excluding oneself from union and to choose separation or superiority over community and love. No one is in hell unless that individual himself or herself chooses a final aloneness and separation.”
I think he’s right on. I affirm Libertarian Freewill, which states humans have genuine but limited freedom; we can choose alternative and contradicting options, and even act against our own desires. God, I don’t think, can act against this freedom, but necessarily gives this freedom to humanity out of God’s very being, which is uncontrolling-love. Additionally, he cannot act against this freedom because it would contradict God’s very nature. In light of this, God must give humans a choice because it’s the only thing God can do; anything else would be outside of God’s nature and character, and God cannot contradict God’s own character of love. God cannot force us into relationship, reconciliation, and union with God’s-Self. Neither does God desire to force us into relationship. Why anyone would not ultimately desire to be in union with Love (God) I cannot fathom, and it will probably remain a mystery for the remainder of my life. But, people will reject this desire and ultimately reject union with God – I am currently convinced of. Unless you are willing to sacrifice libertarian freewill (and many have), the existence of a hell seems is necessary. So, what is hell? I think it is a place where God has lovingly and necessarily created for those who have rejected God’s-Self, refusing to have union with God; and are respected to live apart in exile from God in this place. If at any point they change their minds, I affirm with C.S. Lewis that hell is locked from the inside, that people retain their freewill and may choose reconciliation with God at any point after death. The chances of everyone that has ever existed (and will exist) doing that, I think are slim. If everyone does end up doing that, then the Universalists were correct (Praise God!)
So hell? Yes! (See what I did?) However, the idea hell being where God is tormenting sinners for eternity? No. Sin and death is a punishment in and of itself, this is the wrath of God if you will; it is not something God pours out of himself onto us (for God has no malice or will to harm us), but what we bring onto ourselves by choosing the way of hate, the opposite of God. Hell is a place we choose to live when we reject Love (aka God) and choose to live apart from the beauty and goodness that finds their existence in God’s very nature. Now that we’ve talked a bit about hell, we can move on to the actual subjects of this post.
First: What’s Pluralism?
You may have noticed I didn’t put the term Christian in front of Pluralism. That doesn’t mean I don’t think you cannot hold this position and be a Christian, but it does mean that I don’t hold it to be a Christian doctrine. I will get into why here in a bit. The common phrase you may have heard is that sums it up is all paths or religions lead to the same mountain top or Heaven. Essentially, no religion, or anything for that matter, is more true than anything else. So, Jesus is just one religious teacher among many, rather than being the religious teacher. I’m not quite sure how a true Pluralist would define religion or if they would restrict “all paths lead to heaven” to just religions or would include all ways of life. Either way, this way of thinking is inherently not Christian because by this position, Christ is not the sole focus. All Christian doctrine will ultimately have Christ as its ultimate and sole focus.
The problem with thinking all religions or paths lead to the same place is that not everything can be true. This may seem dualistic, but in actuality true non-dualism incorporates some dualism. To say otherwise is ironically dualistic. With such diversity in religions, there is bound to be disagreements in thought let alone sheer contradiction. Even in the Christian religion not all Christian teachings are true, and some blatantly contradict other Christian teachings.
Now, of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t some level of truth in other religions, or even that there are no overlapping teachings between different religions.
However, you would expect this if the entire universe was created by one Being who is Truth. Just as an archeologist can go into an excavation and dig up artifacts. and learn from those artifacts about the people who created them, so, in the same way you would expect the Creator of the universe to leave fingerprints (so to speak) upon various aspects of creation. Thus, I expect other religions to have some truth in them, and even to have some similar teachings amongst other religions, including Christianity. It doesn’t follow, however, that it means all religions are true, or all ways of life lead to the same place. Pluralism seems to boil down to sheer relativism. Which, of course, collapses upon itself and is self-defeating. In my experience, there are very few true-relativists. An analogy might make my point: If someone were to speak (let’s say Debra) to a relativist (let’s say they are both sitting on a bench in the park) who makes the claim, “All is true and good.” Yet a moment later, a stranger walks by a mother taking her baby for a stroll, and the stranger punches that baby in the face. Immediately the relativist is outraged! One must ask himself or herself why they are outraged if “all” is good and true? Wouldn’t “all” include punching a baby in the face? Or how would Hitler systemically killing 6,000,000 Jews be a true and good thing? What if a particular religious tradition justifies genocide? Is it true and good?
Ultimately, I think we do not need to give up on the claim that Jesus is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life, and that no one comes to the Father but through Him.
Next: What is Christian Universalism?
This option holds on to the claim that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Depending on who you are talking to, it may or may not be considered the other side of the coin of Calvinism. For the early Universalists, as my informer friend Chris tells me, their position was not necessarily incompatible with libertarian freewill. Nonetheless, for Protestants who hold to this position, they typically hold to either a compatibilist’s understanding of free will or scrap free will all together. Essentially, what Universalism teaches is all will be reconciled to God through Christ. By “all” they mean every single person that has existed, does exist, and will exist, will come to know Jesus at some point in God’s plan of reconciling all things, even Satan. This, of course, has its merits in my opinion. Who doesn’t want all to come to know Jesus? This is a beautiful vision and one that I think accords with God’s desire for all to be reconciled unto God’s-Self. Maybe this is the destiny of all and somehow it’s a mystery that includes libertarian freewill in some way. But I find it unlikely. To me it seems that ultimately, this position requires the doctrines of graces of unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. I think one could make the argument that the other doctrines of graces (total depravity and limited atonement) are compatible with a Universalist position. Although, arguing for the compatibility of limited atonement would be difficult. Ultimately, I find this position undesirable because it seems too close to a Calvinist position and necessitates a rejection of libertarian free will.
Lastly: What’s Christian Inclusivism?
This position I think is our best option for answering the question, “What about people from other faiths? And it just so happens to be my personal preference. (Who da thunk?)
Like Christian Universalism, Christian Inclusivism makes the claim that Jesus is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life, and that no one comes to the Father but through him. If we lose this claim, there is no foundation for Christianity, and it ceases to exist.
So how does Inclusivism hold on to this claim? Well I’d argue that it is Incarnational. Let’s take a look at some of the principles entailed in Incarnation. As Christian doctrine has historically taught, Christ is the Second Person of the Triune God. For the purposes of reconciling creation (including humanity) to God, this Second Person of the Triune God took on human physical form by becoming fully human while also retaining full God-hood. Not only does Christian doctrine teach that Christ became fully human, it also teaches that Christ became a particular kind of human. Christ took the form of the male sex (God’s-Self not having a pair of chromosomes due to the fact that God is not biological), hence the reason God had to take on a human/biological form in the first place; took the ethnicity of a Jew, and entered into the 1st Century A.D.; dwelt in a particular location (that of Israel/Palestine); took up a particular vocation (carpenter, possibly stone mason); entered into a particular religion and culture (Hebraic-Judaism, as opposed to Greco-Jewish culture); became part of a particular family; took on particular phenotypic expressions (brown eyes, Black hair, height probably around 5’2”, tan skin, etc.). One could go on and on. The point being, God, as an incarnational being, means that God enters into particulars, enters into people’s culture, their worldview, and meets them in their understandings of the world around them and the very nature of reality, etc.
This makes perfect sense, because an infinite God cannot possibly be fathomed from a finite perspective. God must enter into people’s finiteness and current understandings, for there to be any sort of communication a finite human being would be able to comprehend. Of course, this necessitates that salvation can’t be based on intellectual knowledge (which by all definitions would be work-based, not grace-based). Any idea that salvation is based on intellectual knowledge is quickly dissolved when someone brings a human who is mentally challenged, who does not have the intellectual capabilities of assenting to the right belief system, into the equation. How could anyone ever have intellectual certainty of said belief system without knowing all things, being omniscient. It would seem only God, who knows all things, can be absolutely certain in an intellectual way about anything and everything.
What is salvation about, if not having intellectual knowledge (aka right beliefs)? My own thoughts is that it comes down to relational knowledge. When referring back to the mentally challenged example, they cannot intellectually comprehend the Apostles Creed and is thus not barred from salvation. This is because salvation is about something totally different. Friendship does not require perfect factual knowledge. Even a baby can have some sort of relational knowledge of their parent even if they don’t mentally comprehend that the one holding them is their parent! Faith seems more to do with relational trust in Jesus than propositional belief. In fact, the Greek word we translate as faith or belief connotates just that: relational trust in Jesus, not a propositional statement of belief. (For more info on this idea of faith as trust look at Peter Enns’ book The Sin of Certainty)
Bringing us back to incarnation: the point (I think but cannot be intellectually certain of) of incarnation is relationship with our Creator. God wants creation to be reconciled back into relational knowledge of God’s-Self. This does not require correct belief or mental comprehension. What does this have to do concerning our original question? “What happens to people from other religions,” as well as “what happens to people who haven’t heard the gospel?” It would seem that God also incarnates to their understanding for the sake of friendship. It does not mean that Christ appears as Buddha or one of the Hindu gods. Christ always, I believe, appears as Himself. But we may not comprehend Him as actually befits His true appearance. Example: Have you ever thought about how, when you hear someone’s voice on the radio or a podcast, your mind immediately begins to put together a particular image to go along with that voice? Typically, when we actually see a picture of that person it does not coincide with the image your mind developed for that disembodied voice. I suggest that maybe this is similar to what we do when we experience God, for we see in part, not in full. God does not become someone else, but we all have our particular limitations that limit how we comprehend and understand God in any particular moment in history, or culture, or personality. Through all this we can still know God relationally.
C.S. Lewis I believe does a better job than me presenting the position of Christian Inclusivism.:
“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 not seem to know that there have served Christ. But of course our anxiety about unbelievers is most usefully employed when it leads us not to speculation but to earnest prayer for them and the attempt to be in our own lives such good advertisements for Christianity as will make it attractive.”
“The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christian though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”
At the end of the day I don’t know which position is true, but I trust that God is good and knows what God’s-Self is doing, and I think we’ll be surprised about who we see in heaven.