This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2010 for The Christian Post.
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A couple weeks ago I was arguing for inclusivism, the possibility of being saved by Christ without having heard of Christ. The question has important apologetic purchase, not least because people worry about the fate of those who have never heard. Are they really all lost?
Within this discussion it is crucial to distinguish epistemic inclusivism from soteric pluralism because the two are often conflated. Epistemic inclusivism says that cognitive awareness of Christ is not necessary for salvation by Christ. In other words, it does no good to quote John 14:6 to the inclusivist, for they agree that Jesus is only the way. The point at issue is what a person needs to know of Jesus in order to be saved by Jesus.
By contrast, soteric pluralism posits multiple ways to be saved: e.g. through Jesus, the Buddhist 8-fold path, Amway, et cetera. I don’t think that soteric pluralism is consistent with Christian convictions.
(There is a kind of inclusivism however that sees other religions as providential tools by which the God of Jesus Christ reconciles peoples to himself. This could be an orthodox position so long as Christ’s atoning work remains the central reconciling principle. To use Aristotle’s language, the other religion could be the formal cause of salvation, but Christ would remain the efficient, final and material causes.)
So to sum up, one can be an epistemic inclusivist (salvation without knowledge of Christ) and a soteric exclusivist (salvation only through the work of Christ) at the same time. This position is internally self consistent, has an admirable witness in the Christian tradition and I believe is consistent with the scriptures.
MGT2 has been skeptical of this position and wrote: “I cannot see any justification for saying that a person can be saved without knowledge of Christ.”
I have pointed out however that we should be inclusivists relative to the salvific relation that OT saints, infants and the severely mentally handicapped bear to Christ. I am simply proposing that we concede the inclusivist soteric line might be extended to encompass others as well.
Surprisingly, MGT2 would not concede inclusivism as regards OT saints, infants and the severely mentally handicapped. Instead, he proposed that OT saints, infants and the mentally handicapped are saved in virtue of some sort of propositional knowledge about Christ.
Here are some examples of the kind of verses MGT2 cites to support this exclusivist position regarding OT saints:
• “He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ” (Jn 1:41, KJV). Simon could only say that if he knew from the Books of Moses to expect the Savior. • The people who read only OT scriptures, because that was all they had, expected him, “And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not…” (Lk 3:15).
In other words, MGT2 seems to be claiming that a certain minimal propositional knowledge of the coming messiah was necessary at certain points in history in order to be saved by the coming messiah. Presumably one could extend this claim right back to the garden. In Genesis 3:15 God says:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
So then the claim would be that Adam and Eve and their progeny had to believe the following in order to be saved by Christ:
(A&E) Some future offspring will crush the serpent’s head.
Thus, for a soteric exclusivism along the lines that MGT2 proposes, (A&E) was, at one point in the history of the human species, necessary for salvation.
I have two questions. First, why would someone think this is true? Especially since there is a great reason to think it is not true. When prophecies of the messiah appear in the OT they are not appended with a warning such as this: “WARNING: now that this has been revealed you must believe it in order to be saved by the coming messiah.” And yet if assent to propositions such as (A&E) were necessary, one would certainly expect this.
Consider this analogy. In order to pass the final exam you need to know proposition p. If that were the case then it would be wrong for a professor to include p as one of many propositions in a two hour lecture without drawing special attention to the need to know p in order to pass the final. The same point applies to statements like (A&E) if we propose to imbue them with some necessary salvific role at some point in history.
Now the second question: is this still exclusivism? Epistemic exclusivism is the view that you need to have cognitive awareness of Christ in order to be saved by Christ. But descriptors such as (A&E) are so broad as to stretch this definition of exclusivism to the breaking point. It is like saying I can have a relationship with Joe Smith, the medical doctor that lives at the end of the street, simply by knowing “A doctor lives in my neighbourhood.”
Now how does exclusivism work for babies, fetuses and the severely mentally handicapped? I was surprised that MGT2 maintained exclusivism here but maintain it MGT2 did:
“We are taught by scripture that the spirit of man can communicate with the Spirit of God even when our natural understanding remains ignorant (1 Cor. 12-14). Under the conditions you described about infants, toddlers and the severely mentally impaired, God is able to reveal himself to them; even as the scripture in Luke 1:41, demonstrates. With the more cognitively developed and morally accountable persons, God reveals himself to them as the scripture declares in Titus 2 and Romans 1.”
I have no problem with God “revealing” himself to a fetus, but whatever that means, it doesn’t include the fetus assenting to a set of propositions about Jesus. The fetus could perhaps have some sort of knowledge of acquaintance of Christ but the fetus does not have propositional knowledge, which is what is required for exclusivism. (Unless of course you have some evidence that fetuses can indeed assent to propositions.) Hence, one must either accept that inclusivism is true relative to this cognitively deprived group of people or one must believe that this group is lost because they are non-linguistic. Based on those stark options it seems rather obvious to me that one must accept inclusivism here. And if here then why not elsewhere?