It has been one year since Taliban boarded a school bus in the Swat Valley and shot then fifteen year old Malala Yousafzai in the head. Her crime, as the world now knows, was daring to stand up to the Taliban in defense of education for all children and a plea to end the cycles of violence. As I write, the world awaits final decision on whether the Nobel Committee will grant Malala a much deserved Peace Prize. If she wins she shall be the youngest recipient in history.
This last year has been something of a miracle, watching the remarkable recovery of this young girl with the world rallying behind her to the point where she now speaks with a wisdom and moral authority that calls to mind fabled activists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Consider, for example, this clip from her appearance on The Daily Show with John Stewart. Here she describes how, prior to the attempt on her life, she had resolved to respond to any threat of violence with peace and calm reason:
So here’s a question for theological reflection. What if this child who had shown extraordinary courage and moral fortitude, had been killed by the would-be assassin’s bullet? According to a form of Christian exclusivism of which I’ve been a frequent critic, in order to be saved by God, one must affirm the truth of certain propositions about God. (I have critiqued this form of exclusivism often in the past. See, for example, “How exclusive should Christianity be?” and “If you declare with your mouth … and believe in your heart“.)
As a Muslim, Malala would have failed to believe the right things and thus had she died she would have gone to hell. The girl who describes to John Stewart her own decision to extend kindness to her would-be assassin would have gone to hell.
Some exclusivists are uncomfortable with the thought of a child of fifteen going to hell so they hedge their bets with a hopeful age of accountability. That’s certainly an improvement. But what about the child of sixteen who appeared on John Stewart? Or of seventeen, eighteen or nineteen? What about the young adult of twenty? When is it suitable that the person who speaks as Malala speaks should be resurrected into an eternity of damnation?
Certainly I am no more equipped than anybody else to speak definitively on the eternal destiny of any particular person. The question that opens this discussion has a different purpose, and that is to isolate the troubling moral implications of a widely accepted conception of the relationship between salvation and cognitive assent. I suspect many Christians who never stopped to think about the nitty gritty implications of exclusivism before will find themselves troubled about the prospect of damning young Muslim girls who have earned the right to a Nobel Peace Prize when countless Christian kids spend their time twerking in front of the mirror or attempting to master Grand Theft Auto 5.
For an explanation and defense of soteriological inclusivism see my articles “Why inclusivism makes sense“, “If inclusivism is true, does believing in Jesus still matter?” and “Inclusivism again: how we can be saved apart from hearing the gospel, and why the gospel still matters.”