I mentioned in an online discussion a few weeks back that I am beginning to consider myself an “Inclusivist.” The context of the discussion was Evangelicalism, what are its main tenets, and how do you know when someone’s in or out. (That discussion was mainly in response to Rachel Held Evans’ announcement that she was leaving Evangelicalism because of the World Vision gay marriage controversy.) In that context, I admitted that I’m not towing the line for any particular Christian group or denmoination and that holding to a position of Inclusivism possibly “forces me to the edges of — if not outside of — the parameters of evangelicalism.”
Not surprising to me were the immediate reactions of some to my admission. Several folks said they’d never heard of Inclusivism, one reminded me that Scripture seems to contradict such a position, another suggested that believing Inclusivism could quench evangelistic zeal and give the non-believer “false assurance,” while another called the belief “heresy straight up.”
As I said on that thread, “Frankly, I don’t care what camp it makes me in or out of. I need to be true to what I understand the Bible to be saying, no matter where it lands me.” I have great respect for other positions that have been hammered out through decades, even centuries, of prayerful study and debate. This is a position I arrived at not because it’s held by any one person or movement, but through my own wrestling with Scripture.
Anyway, as I continue to think this out, and since it seemed of concern to some, I wanted to jot down some brief thoughts on Inclusivism. As I’m seriously pressed for time these days, my entries on this subject will be often short, choppy, and probably disjointed. My apologies.
Inclusivism (at least, as I’ve arrived at it) seems largely a response to the question:
What happens to the “good pagan,” and/or to those non-Christians and non-Christian cultures who never hear the Gospel? Are they automatically consigned to hell?
I’ve heard this question answered a variety of ways, with extremes on both ends:
- The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are eternally damned.
- The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are judged on the basis of how they would respond had they heard the Gospel (an appeal to God’s foreknowledge).
- The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are judged on the basis of their response to “general revelation” — creation and conscience (infants being excluded until they reach an “age of accountability”).
- The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are automatically saved.
Of course, there are many variations in between. Many Calvinists and hyper-Calvinist hold to a form of #1, some even admitting that infants who die go to hell. On the other end (#4) are the Universalists, or soft Universalists, who believe that all those without an explicit knowledge of the Gospel are saved. As I see it, #2 and #3 are the most biblically tenable positions because they allow for
- God’s love and righteous judgment of every individual, and
- a degree of human culpability, autonomy, and responsibility.
Position #2 seems to be held mostly by some Arminians and by some moderate Calvinists. It integrates the clear biblical teaching of God’s foreknowledge and predestination with an acknowledgment of human free will. This position is represented in Molinism, a system which attempts to reconcile God’s providence with human free will.
Molinists hold that in addition to knowing everything that does or will happen, God also knows what His creatures would freely choose if placed in any circumstance.
Two noteworthy adherents to the Molinist position are apologists and philosophers William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. (You can find a brief Q&A with Craig regarding Molinism vs. Calvinism HERE.) Dr. Craig has proffered an interesting speculation about the fate of the “good pagan” or “unreached person” in light of his Molinistic view. Because of God’s foreknowledge or “middle knowledge, He could allow only those whom He knows will NOT accept the Gospel to be born outside its reach. Thus, those pagans or unreached peoples who do not hear the Gospel are those who, if they were given the chance to, would have rejected the Gospel. In this way, both God’s love and righteous judgment and human responsibility and autonomy are served.
Inclusivism falls into the category of #3 — God neither automatically damns or saves anyone based on their proximity to the Gospel; he judges them according to the Light and Law they have and their embrace or rejection of these revelations. In this sense, making broad judgments on any one people (or age) group is impossible.
As C.S. Lewis famously put it in Mere Christianity:
“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 by Him.”
In this sense, Inclusivists affirm the clear biblical teaching of Christ’s exclusivity (Jn. 14:6). We know that Christ is the only way. What we don’t know are the many ways to Christ.