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 opinion, 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.