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The History of Hell

The Christian History Institute, publisher of Christian History magazine, has produced a brief survey and resource guide on the history of Christian thought about hell. Given the current debate about hell, it is a helpful resource.

You can view or download the pdf here.

What happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel?

One of the hardest issues that the Christian can face is the fate of the unevangelized. At a time when we are aware of both the religious diversity in the world and the fact that many people have yet to even encounter Christianity, it can seem arrogant and intolerant to defend Biblical texts like John 14:6 (“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.””) and Acts 4:12 (“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”). For many, the idea that God could condemn individuals who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel is repugnant. And it is this revulsion at this traditional understanding that has made answers such as the one put forward by Rob Bell in Love Wins even more popular.

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Is there salvation outside Christianity?

Wintery Knight has pointed out a helpful summary by Stephen Notman of the classic title in the Zondervan Counterpoints series on Christian theology, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Edited by Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, the book surveys the different approaches in reconciling religious pluralism with the exclusive claims of Christ.newbookcover

Traditionally, the debate has been characterized by the positions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. The title includes a fourth position; agnosticism (defended by Alister McGrath). Here is a quick run-down of the positions in the debate:

  • Exclusivism/Particularism: This view maintains that the central claims of Christianity are true and only those who explicitly place faith in the Christ of the Bible are saved. Salvation cannot be achieved through the claims or structures of other religions. It is important to point out that exclusivists do not say that every religion is wrong in every respect, but that only where other religions contradict the self-disclosure of Christ, they are wrong. This is defended by by R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips.
  • Inclusivism: This view can be broken down into different positions. Generally, inclusivists affirm the truth of fundamental Christian claims, but nevertheless appeal to the love of God and insist that God has revealed Himself, even in saving ways, within other religions.  All who are saved are in fact saved on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, but conscious faith in Jesus is not necessary: some may be saved who have never heard of him, and may respond positively to the light they have received.
    • Soft inclusivism (Agnosticism): Unconvinced by the clarity of teaching of Scripture on whether those outside Christianity are truly condemned, advocates allow for the faint possibility that God may save some who have never heard of Christ – so long as these individuals respond to God’s grace in Creation and entrust themselves in repentance and faith. Some also go further in arguing that there is biblical reason to be hopeful and not simply agnostic about the possibility of salvation for those outside Christianity. Alister McGrath puts forward a version of soft inclusivism in the book.
    • Hard inclusivism: This view differs from radical pluralism in that it does argue for Christ as the absolute basis of a person’s salvation. But while Jesus may have been God’s principal plan of salvation for humanity, it is argued that salvation itself is not unavailable in other religions. Unlike exclusivism or soft inclusivism, this view emphasizes believing, but not believing in Christ. Jesus is therefore ontologically necessary, but not epistemologically necessary. Some hard inclusivists will also concede that God may yet use other religions as instruments of his salvation. Clark Pinnock argues for this position.
  • Religious Pluralism: This view relativizes every religious claim. According to it, no religion can advance any legitimate claim of superiority over any other religion. Every religion has the same moral and spiritual weight, and offers an equally valid path to salvation. John Hick has been one of the leading voices of this position, and he defends it in Four Views.

Read Stephen Notman’s summary of the debate in the book.

Although no longer recent, the book remains a significant effort to represent the strongest positions and the strongest advocates for those positions. R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips put forward a convincing exegesis of the important texts (Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Romans 10:9-15; and John 14:6; 17:20) and provide a robust defense of the traditional Christian position. For anyone who has pondered these questions, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World is an excellent introduction.

For further reading on the topic, Ronald Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? is a great book, or Paul Copan’s article If you had been born in another country, is it at all likely that you would be a Christian? The latest issue of Philosophia Christi also features a dialogue on religious pluralism with scholars Keith Yandell, Paul Moser and Paul Knitter.