Only “believers” will be saved?

This is my latest discussion board post for my Systematic Theology 1 class.

The most thought provoking aspect of the topic of atonement for me was found at the very end of Chapter 13 in McGrath’s Intro.  McGrath writes, “In his Mere Christianity Lewis argues that those who commit themselves to the pursuit of goodness and truth will be saved even if they have no formal knowledge of Christ.” (Intro, 358)  Having read this idea previously (I believe it was in Brian McLaren’s Generous Or+hodoxy) and been intrigued by the implications of such a theology, it rekindled my thoughts on the topic.  McGrath goes on to quote Lewis who wrote, “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity without knowing it.”  This line of thinking makes the question of who will be “saved” a lot more interesting.

Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (Jn 14.6)  And yet Romans speaks of God’s attributes being discernible from creation so that no one is without excuse (with the implication of “even if they have never heard the name of Jesus”; cf. Rom 1.20).  I can also remember times where pagan people are faulted not for failing to serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but for worshipping creation instead of the Creator (seemingly saying they should have know the difference even if they did not know who God was; cf. Rom 1.25).

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3 Responses to “Only “believers” will be saved?”

  1. pantheophany Says:

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    Lewis also claims that similarities in other religions are due to “good dreams” that God sends in heathens. So for Lewis this claim is quite sensible, but I don’t see it as Biblical. The context for Rom 1:20 is important:

    “(18) The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, (19) since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”

    This is speaking of “godlessness” and “wickedness” of suppressing the truth (which I take to be the Gospel here). So these are not ignorant men, rather Paul is condemning them for suppressing the truth when they have heard it. It is reasonable to interpret that the nature of the Father is obvious in creation. But nothing here says that atonement through Christ is obvious, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be. Lewis in particular claims that no one would ever “guess” Christianity. (p.42 Mere Christianity) It’s one of his reasons for being a Christian.

    It all comes down to how one interprets “no one comes to the Father but by me.” If this means there is one path to God, and that path is through acceptance of Jesus Christ, then clearly non-Christians (even those with no access to the gospel) are damned. If, however, this verse means that there are many ways to the Father, but all of them eventually lead through Jesus (even if by another name for instance), then Christianity has no exclusive claim to truth even among those who have access to the gospel.

    In either case, I don’t know of any Biblical basis for saying that Christianity is the only truth, but that some “good” non-Christians will be saved, ignorant or not (except the 144,000 Jews described in Revelation). I often hear the suggestion that there is a different standard for the ignorant versus the informed, but I don’t know of any verses that support that. Thoughts?

    Any other comments on Generous Or+hodoxy? Is it worth reading?

  2. pinkhammer Says:

    Thanks for the great comment! I think Lewis’ claim just might have some biblical support. How does God get Saul’s attention? A ‘vision’ or ‘day dream.’ God has revealed tons to people through dreams. Anyway it would be interesting to read his thoughts in context since I have read a few things that referenced his thoughts but have only read “Mere Christianity” and that about a decade ago.

    Unfortunately the language we have to use makes it sound like I am toeing the line of universalism. Let me lay that to rest and say that I am definitely not a universalist. I don’t think all paths lead to God any more than I think all paths lead to Los Angelos.

    That said, I don’t know that when vs. 18 talks of truth it is referring to the “gospel.” And if it is, it may not be referring to it in the way we would think of it. Usually when folks say “gospel” they automatically think of persosnal salvation. While this is one aspect of the gospel, the good news of Jesus is more far reaching than that.

    When you said, “I don’t know of any Biblical basis for saying that Christianity is the only truth,” while I would have to go look up the verses, Paul used truths found in other pagan religions to help explain who Jesus was and what he had done here on earth. That is not to say Paul was saying that the pagan religions were “the” truth, but rather that they had aspects of truth in them. In Islam, women wear hijabs, why? To be modest. Sure there are ways in which this tradition has been twisted by some (what tradition hasn’t?), but none the less, it is a form of modesty. And it is beautiful and good in that sense. So if everything good is from above, then the Islamic hijab is good, or full of truth, in that it is definitely God honoring to be modest. When I walk around any state university campus on a warm and sunny day I think of this. Many folks walk around with 90% of their bodies uncovered because they have the ‘freedom’ to do so while muslim women wear hijabs to be modest. In other words, I think we can learn something from them. They have something to offer us in that they understand the goodness and truth of modesty much better than most Western Christians.

    As for a different stand for the ignorant vs. the informed, I think to say that there is not a difference would be to say that salvation is law or works based. My default answer is this: I believe God is loving. I also believe God is just. And I am humbled to realize that I will never be able to understand how God is able to “function” in both love and justice at the same time. The most wrathful event in all history was Jesus’ death on the cross. It was also the most loving event. When I think about the question, “Would a gracious and loving God send someone to hell who lived a God honoring life even if they didn’t know that God’s name?” I don’t know that I can definitively say “Yes” or “No.” But I can say that God is loving and God is just.

    I think “a Generous Or+hodoxy” is most definitely worth reading. And Brain has more to say about some of what we has been said here only he does a much better job of communicating his thoughts.

    And one last thought. True this might make me sound like a heretic, but I think God is bigger than the Bible. John 1:14 says “And the word (Logos) became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This does not mean “the Bible” as we know it took on flesh. That anochronoistic. The “Bible” as we know it did not exist at this point. What this verse says is much bigger than that. I am out of my league in understanding this, but I think there is a tendency for Bibliolatry (Bible worship) in some circles of Christianity as if it were some kind of magic answer book. God cannot be defined by human language. God cannot be fully understood by human minds. Often the things we view as straight forward aren’t. And I am starting to be okay with the mystery of God. God is good, but not becauses God is predictable or “safe.” God is good because God is God.

  3. pantheophany Says:

    The quote on “good dreams” is from page 50 (the whole book is available here, and if you’re interested in amateur commentary, the beginning of mine is here and here).

    …He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again, and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.

    But this is very different than being evidence to all, which was the point at hand, thus that none would have excuse for not knowing.

    That said, I don’t know that when vs. 18 talks of truth it is referring to the “gospel.” And if it is, it may not be referring to it in the way we would think of it. Usually when folks say “gospel” they automatically think of persosnal salvation. While this is one aspect of the gospel, the good news of Jesus is more far reaching than that.

    What more do you believe Paul meant by “gospel” than personal salvation?

    When you said, “I don’t know of any Biblical basis for saying that Christianity is the only truth,”

    I’m sorry, this was a confusing comma on my part. I do believe that Bible is claiming singular truth. The point I was making was that I do not believe that the Bible’s claim on singular truth included “that some ‘good’ non-Christians will be saved, ignorant or not.” (I am using the word “Bible” here for convenience to refer to the individual books and the way they were collected. I’m not claiming that the Bible in its current form was a unified work.)

    As for a different stand for the ignorant vs. the informed, I think to say that there is not a difference would be to say that salvation is law or works based.

    I’d like you to discuss this more. I don’t immediately understand how this follows.

    “Would a gracious and loving God send someone to hell who lived a God honoring life even if they didn’t know that God’s name?”

    The question isn’t whether a gracious and loving God (the God in our minds) would send someone to hell, but whether the specific God described in the Bible would. The Bible repeatedly indicates that the answer is yes. God who commanded “they utterly [destroy] all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” He did not command that only the evil be killed, or only those who knew of Jehovah be killed. This applied to every man, woman and child. Do you believe that after ordering them slaughtered, God then brought some of them (the children perhaps) to Heaven? Cannan, Sodom, Egypt, the Amalekites, and more. The God of the Bible slaughters the children of those who are in the way of His Chosen. Why would we believe that He would redeem those He chose not to reveal Himself to?

    Paul makes it clear that works are not the route to salvation, but only grace. So we are left with one of two options: that Grace falls on everyone and averts God’s history of wrath (Universalism), or Grace is only available to those who explicitly accept Christ (orthodox Christianity). Can you provide any Biblical evidence of any other way that the ignorant but “good” (though “there are none good but the Father”) might not be damned?

    God is good because God is God.

    This could be a sermon in itself. If this is true by definition, then does the meaning of “good” when applied to humans mean something completely different than when applied to God? Forget the genocide. I mean that even God’s less controversial behavior is not a model for humans who would be called good by God. Satan’s Sin was the emulation of God. For humans to be good, we are to act completely differently from God. So what does it mean to say that God is good?

    Interestingly, mainstream Christianity does not even embrace the behavior of Jesus as the model to be emulated. As God in human form, you would think He would be the model. Jesus abandoned his family and job, never married, never raised children, lived in poverty and on the handouts of others. This is a path open to everyone, yet Christians almost never follow it while still seeking a “Christ-like life.” I think the New Testament is pretty clear on this, even outside the Gospels. Paul also encourages Christians not to marry. So I don’t think this is a problem with Christianity, but rather a near universal flaw in how Christianity has been practiced for most of its history. That’s not really related to your comment that “God is good” but it got me thinking about it.

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