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Christian Pluralism

I finished Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today a few weeks ago, but I still find myself returning to it from time to time. It’s a thought-provoking book—one that I would highly recommend reading. Especially interesting was his chapter on “Christian pluralism.” Ever since I was a kid, I remember wondering how/if God could justly condemn those who didn’t make an explicit verbal profession of (the correct version of) faith in Jesus when so many throughout history have never even heard of Jesus (which is what I was told, by various people at various times). That sure seemed, well, immoral and for some time it was a significant stumbling block for me.

Willard has this to say about Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6):

It is absolutely crucial that we understand the statement correctly, for it has become the central bone of contention with reference to Christian pluralism or exclusivism. Clearly, according to it, Christ is exclusive. But is Christianity?

If you take the statement to be saying that no one can “come to the Father” (be accepted by God) without specific knowledge of the historical personage Jesus—as many people do take it—then of course billions of people, before, during, and after his time on earth are eliminated from all possibility of “coming to the Father” simply by accidents of time and place and over which they have no control… This is surely impossible in a world of which John 3:16 is true.

Impossible indeed. Willard’s statements remind me of what C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) had to say on the matter, nearly sixty years ago:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.

I just finished listening to a couple of lectures on the atonement where the speaker went to great lengths to discuss the extent of God’s glory, how he is jealous to preserve it, how it is revealed in his wrath, and how if we’re not “preaching God’s wrath” we’re not preaching the gospel. For this person, it was extremely important that people come to cognitive knowledge that God was infinitely ticked off at them because of their sin (because sin against an infinite God is, apparently, infinitely awful), and that they had to accept that the cross was about Jesus absorbing God’s anger toward us. This, apparently, simply is the gospel without remainder. And if you don’t accept and articulate this, you stand condemned.

What I see in Willard and Lewis is just a bit more hopeful—it is something that I could genuinely imagine calling good news. It is not good news, in my view, that God predestined us to be born condemned by virtue of inherited Adamic sin, that he is infinitely angry with us for our sin (which we are by nature enslaved by from birth), that he is so concerned that his glory not be tainted or diminished by our wretchedness that he must punish us, and that Jesus died so that God’s wrath could be pacified. That sure sounds horrific, but the lecturer seemed to think that believing anything less represented a compromise of the gospel.

The quotes above, however, suggest a God who is genuinely good, who is genuinely for us, and for whom mercy, not wrath, is the final word. I came across this quote a few years ago in an intro to theology book, and have returned to it often. It strikes me as a good start, when thinking about matters such as these. From Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding:

It is best… to hope and pray, on the basis of the astonishing love of God in Jesus Christ, for a redemption of the world far greater than we are inclined to desire or even able to imagine.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It is very hard for us to accept the mercifulness of God. It was hard for Jonah, and it is hard for the speaker you heard.

    As we have discussed before, in Dallas Willard’s theology, in spite of his words here, I continue to hear a narrowness and an emphasis on morality, judgment and wrath in his writing, not as straightforward as in the speaker’s words that you heard, but still there.

    I imagine the words of Willard, those quoted here, would be quite offensive to my Jewish friends. It is offensive and wrong to say that Jews are saved through Christ.

    (I actually heard a conversation between a Dallas Willard disciple and some Jewish friends – it was ugly.)

    I think ultimately the hope of the world was expressed in the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. The promise of Christ is the same – “by you (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

    July 17, 2009
    • I can appreciate that claims like Lewis’s might sound offensive to Jewish ears—I’m sure they would have a similar effect upon Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, agnostics, and innumerable others. Of course as you know, whether such claims sound offensive or not has no real bearing on their truth or falsity. On the face of it, it’s not obvious how salvation through the promise to Abraham is qualitatively different than through Jesus. It’s not hard to imagine people being “offended” or resenting the unique role Israel is supposed to play in their salvation either.

      I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree about Willard 🙂

      July 17, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I have not read Lewis.

    The American Buddhists (of European and Christian ancestry) I have known have all found Christianity offensive, but American Buddhism seems to be its own thing, separate from Asian Buddhism. The Asian Buddhists I have known do not find it offensive. Nor do Hindus that I have known. They just find it interesting. They seem to have a way within their view of the world to accept diversity of belief and conflicting religious claims. They don’t feel threatened by them. The Hindus especially seem to have a kind of universal faith.

    I think it is mainly Muslims and Christians who take offense at Jewish beliefs.

    I think it is the history associated with the word or idea of “salvation” in Christianity that has made it such a divisive, judgmental word or idea. I would encourage only Christians to look at Genesis 12:3 as a way to move beyond their salvation system. I think it is ultimately possible for Christians to confess and practice their faith without worrying about if we are saved or how we are saved. The hope is that we are blessed, as in Genesis 12:3.

    I think our difficulty as Christians is, and always has been, to accept the mercifulness of God. It is easier to believe the Bible is literally true than to believe mercy underlies the order of life and the universe. It is easier to believe the cosmos is indifferent to us and it is easier to believe, as so many Christians have and do that justice, not mercy, rules. We don’t want mercy for others, only for ourselves. We want justice so that others, the ones who have hurt us and who are not like us, will be condemned, here and in eternity.

    July 18, 2009
    • At the risk of sliding into “sermonizing” mode, it seems inherent to the message of Christianity that it will always be perceived as offensive by some. That doesn’t make it untrue. Much as many in our culture would love for it to be the case, inoffensiveness is not the barometer for truth. Of course I would hasten to add that this doesn’t give Christians (or anyone making truth claims) the right to be offensive. 1 Peter 3:15 always applies. But I don’t necessarily think that accepting diversity of belief and conflicting religious claims is the highest goal to which we can or ought to aspire.

      I think it is ultimately possible for Christians to confess and practice their faith without worrying about if we are saved or how we are saved.

      I’m not sure about this. Leaving aside the whole missionary thrust of gospel, the problem for which Christians believe Jesus is the solution is a pretty radical one. Salvation (from sin, from evil, from death and disease, from anomie and alienation, etc) is important. It’s a pretty big thing to decide to bracket or not worry about. It may even be irresponsible and unloving for us to do so.

      Having said all that, I do agree that we struggle with the mercy of God. I have known people who are afraid of or offended by the idea that God’s mercy might be wider than they are prepared to allow. As I said (or at least implied) in the post, I think it is possible to believe that Jesus is the way the truth and the life while at the same time hoping for a redemption of the world far greater than I have the capacity to imagine.

      July 18, 2009
  3. Ken #

    I think I have implied an emphasis on setting acceptance of diversity as a high goal that I did not mean, and I can see how I did that. I meant only to say that the offensiveness of the claim that humanity is saved through Christ remains even if we drop the claim (Biblical though it seems to be) that people who do not believe Jesus is the messiah are the only ones who are saved.

    I think we can say that Christians believe that those you do place their trust in God, in Christ, will not be let down. The testimony of many people is and has been that that has made a huge difference in their lives. At the same time, I think we can say that the message of Christ is that humanity has a basis for hope, that the universe in which we live is part of a larger order, a cosmos, which is good, and that it is all infused with the kindness and mercy of God.

    I think it is wonderful in the life of a Christian to be saved, meaning having made the important confession and having sought the deliverance that only God can give, to feel thankful for the blessing that follows. I think it does not take anything away from that for someone to believe or see that God is so merciful that he forgives even the scoundrels, like the people of Nineveh and me.

    July 18, 2009
    • Thanks Ken, I think I see your point now. Well said, as always (here and below).

      July 18, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I want to add one other thought here. I have learned many things about God from Jews – friends and my teachers at the university where I studied Hebrew. Diversity was not my aim – only Hebrew. But I gained so much more than that in the process, and what I have learned from Jews has enriched my life and faith, and my understanding of God and his mercy.

    Also, I just noticed that in the first sentence of the third paragraph of my last reply I typed the word “you” but meant to type the word “who.”

    July 18, 2009

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