Many Christians are exclusivists by which I don’t mean that they are social snobs or against racial integration. Rather, an “exclusivist” is one who believes that certain things are essential to being saved by Jesus.
Catholic Community Exclusivism
Historic Catholicism (i.e. prior to Vatican II) tended to be exclusivist about membership in its own institution. That is, only people who were members of the Catholic Church could be saved. Thus the very influential medieval Pope Innocent III declared: “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved.” And by universal church he was referring to a visible instititution headquartered in Rome. Similarly Thomas Aquinas wrote “There is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the ark, which denotes the Church.” So the extent to which one believed the Church was identical with the Roman Catholic Church one would have been an exclusivist: membership in that church is essential to salvation. The Catholic Church no longer takes such a view (though some within it no doubt do).
Protestant Belief Exclusivism
The other main type is the “believe a certain set of propositions” view which is prevalent among Protestants. I have mentioned Romans 10:9 before as a supporting example of this view: “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But this doesn’t itself affirm exclusivism because the passage aims only to provide sufficient conditions for salvation, not necessary ones. Granted, the importance of proclamation in Romans 10 makes it pretty clear that this is a very important way to enter into a saving relationship with God but that hardly means it is the only way. For the church the normative pattern for others entering into a saving relationship with God may be through proclamation but that hardly means this is the only way to enter into that kind of relationship.
Four Problems with Belief Exclusivism
To see how unworkable exclusivism is, consider the following problems with it.
The Monday after Easter Problem. Most Christians are inclusivists about Old Testament saints. They recognize that people like Abraham, Moses, and David could have been saved by Christ without having known Christ. If you accept this then you should address the pious Jew the Monday after Easter who is awaiting the messiah and living in Rome. Needless to say he’s unaware of recent events in Judea. And Paul and Peter won’t be getting to Rome for awhile yet. So is our Roman Jew damned since he’s now no longer in the “Before Christ” era? And what about the Jew living in the Persian Empire? His region might not receive the gospel for a couple centuries. Are he and his descendents suddenly damned from the Monday after Easter onwards because they are also no longer among the “BC/OT saints”?
The Wooly Age of Accountability Problem. Christians love to talk about an “age of accountability”. It is kind of like when you turn 18 (or 19, depending on the jurisdiction) and are now an adult responsible legally for contracts entered into and crimes committed. Likewise, Christians say that children have an age of accountability before which they are not damned eternally for failing to affirm the propositions necessary for belief but after which they are damned. (That is, they’re inclusivists about children prior to this point but exclusivists afterward.)
Wow. Where is this age of accountability mentioned in the Bible? And at what age does it kick in? Here’s the irony: most people assume it starts long before one’s 18th birthday. After all, teenagers can be real rotters, can’t they? And so relatively young, cognitively and emotionally limited children could be damned forever. But never mind children, it is widely recognized that teenagers lack the capacity to appreciate the consequences of their actions which is why most western nations refuse to incarcerate teenagers for life even for heinous crimes committed. So how could it be just to submit them to an infinitely greater punishment?
Now this creates an incredible situation. Let’s start out with the assumption that the latest the age of accountability could kick in is 18. But for all we know it could kick in as early as 3 (or even 2: you’ve heard of the “Terrible Twos”). What a pall this would cast on the birthday of the kid in the Christian family who has as yet failed to affirm the same beliefs as his parents. With every blowing out of the birthday candles the eternal flames flicker more brightly.
The Crappy Christian Problem. What do you do with people who reject those propositions in question (or seem to anyways) because of the way Christanity has been presented to them by Christians? Consider Gabie. The only Christianity she’s ever known is that of the German State Nazi Church. Then she is sent to the gas chambers as a ten year old in 1942 and along the way she angrily rejects the Jesus of the Christians that are killing her and her family. Is she excluded?
The Undefined Set of Beliefs Problem. Finally, there is the undefined, open nature of the set of propositions that one must believe to be saved. (I talked about this at some length a few weeks ago.) There is no agreement among Christian exclusivists on which propositions must be believed and which must not be believed to be saved. This means that the exclusivist doesn’t know how to answer the question “”What must I believe to be saved?” That’s a huge problem. Muslims have their five pillars. Buddhists have their four noble truths and eightfold path. It is ironic then that for all its unique emphasis upon right belief, historic Christianity is so much more frayed on the edges.
Death by a thousand qualifications and question marks
When all these problems are considered, it seems eminently clear to me that there is little left in exclusivism that can be defended. And that means you should abandon the notion that you must believe x and y to be saved. I am not claiming that a person is not damned by saying “Jesus is not lord. Now turn up AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and let’s party!” Belief does matter. But I am saying that right relationship with God is not something which can be mapped onto a particular set of beliefs. In other words, exclusivism dies a death of a thousand qualifications and question marks.