Some great questions and comments came in on the last post regarding Inclusivism and my thinking through its tenets and objections. I wanted to take Sally’s comments to address some of the questions raised. Let me begin with the “good pagan.”
SALLY: The problem comes for me with the idea of a “good pagan.” The Bible teaches that all the animals begat after their own kind and that sinful Adam and Eve, who had fallen short of the glory of God, begat sinful children who were also fallen short of the glory of God.
So I don’t see how there can be a “good pagan.”
Mike, I think you and I agree on this: there is no one righteous, no not one.
MIKE: Sally and I DO agree on that. The Bible is far too clear on the subject.
Before I proceed, please note that this is an important component in the anti-Inclusivist position. If it can be established that sin has utterly ruined Man’s ability to know, seek, or serve God, then special revelation (i.e., an act of God via explicit preaching of the Gospel) is required. No amount of good deeds or generic worship can save the unenlightened soul.
The term “good pagan,” at least as I use it, is not meant to skirt the doctrine of the Original Sin or the depravity of man. It only serves to illustrate a category of person who has no “special revelation,” no explicit knowledge of Christ or the Gospel, but who seeks to do good, to pursue love and righteousness, to respond to the Law of God which is “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15).
One notable example in the New Testament is Cornelius (Acts 10) who illustrates that one can be a God-fearer, in right relationship with God, BEFORE explicit Gospel revelation. In the case of Cornelius, he was said to be a Gentile, “a righteous and God-fearing man, who [was] respected by all the Jewish people” (vs. 22), a man who “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (vs. 2). Nevertheless, Cornelius was not a Christ follower. Cornelius had not embraced the Gospel. Through a series of visions, Peter meets Cornelius, preaches the Gospel, and Cornelius and his party are saved and baptized.
Peter’s proclamation upon seeing God’s orchestration of events is incredibly important:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10:35)
This could be rightly used as an example of how God leads evangelists to those who are genuinely seeking. However, this story also corroborates an Inclusivist position in that even BEFORE he hears the preaching of the Gospel, is converted or baptized, Cornelius is described as a “God-fearing man” whose good works have become “a memorial offering before God.”
The angel answered [Cornelius], “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God (vs. 4).
Remember, this is BEFORE Cornelius hears and responds to the Gospel. Which prompts Peter’s admission that, “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (vs. 35). The implication is that it is possible to NOT have an explicit knowledge of the Gospel but to still fear God and do what is right.
If Cornelius had died before he had a chance to hear the Gospel, would he have perished? The Exclusivist is forced to answer “Yes.” Which is why, from my perspective, the Inclusivist position is far more in line with the heart of God and Scripture.
There are other verses that buttress this. Like Romans 2:6-11:
God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.For God does not show favoritism. (Rom. 2:6-11)
Again, there’s this idea of favoritism, that all of humanity is held to the same standard. The Jew is really no better off than the Gentile. “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (vs. 7). In this context, an explicit knowledge and embrace of the Gospel is NOT contingent upon one receiving “eternal life.” And on the other end, “There will be trouble and distress for EVERY human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for EVERYONE who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (vss. 9-10 emphasis mine). Once again, the embrace of an explicit Gospel does not seem to be a precursor to ANYONE seeking “glory, honor and peace.”
But to Sally’s point: While the Bible clearly declares all people unrighteous, our sinful state does not appear to completely obstruct an intuitive awareness of God and His law. Take Romans 1 which frames the argument in terms of general revelation:
…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Rom. 1:20-21)
If Original Sin prevents us from understanding “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature, then we are NOT without excuse. How can Man be blamed for something he CANNOT know? The fact that “people are without excuse” is evidence that His creative power and deity are able to be “understood.” And if people are able to intuit God’s majesty and His Law, then positive responses toward them must also have positive consequences. (This isn’t to suggest that such responses are necessarily salvific, but that they CAN, at least, point one toward immortality.)
Another example of this would be Paul’s preaching at Mars’ Hill in Acts 17, where he says:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ — Acts 17:24-28
Again, Paul is appealing to general revelation as a spiritual prompt. God has ordered the world in such a way and “made all the nations… that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” ALL NATIONS. This would include pagan nations. Apparently, even though we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), we can still “reach out for him and find him (vs. 27).” That phrase is interesting because it contains the idea of stumbling, fumbling, and groping forward:
- “feel their way toward him and find him” (NLT)
- “grope for Him and find Him” (NKJV)
Point being that without special revelation, sinful man can only grope forward to God. Nevertheless, this still implies that Man is capable of, at least, intuiting a spiritual summit which he must ascend.
Arminians describe this in terms of “prevenient grace,” as opposed to the “irresistible grace” of Calvinism. According to those perspective systems, prevenient grace is available to ALL people, while irresistible grace is only available to the “elect.” The Inclusivist believes that all people have a measure of grace to which they can intuit and respond to or reject. Which is why Scripture repeatedly reminds us that God is not a respecter of persons; He judges each one according to their response to His internal and external revelation.
Theologian Don Thorsen, in his book Calvin vs. Wesley, puts it this way:
Wesley followed the historic theological views of Roman Catholicism, Orthodox churches, and Anglicanism, which viewed human freedom as a gracious gift of God available prior to the fall, and that continued to be available — albeit in diminished form — after the fall. By means of the prevenient (also known as preceding, prevening, or preventing) work of grace, God permits a measure of freedom, through the Holy Spirit, which is sufficient for people to act responsibly.
The idea of a “good pagan” is not necessarily a dodge (although, I admit some use it as such). From an Inclusivist position it simply refers to the person without explicit knowledge of the Gospel who is, nevertheless, “groping for God,” and “those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality.” So while “there is no one righteous, no not one,” sin has not completely removed our ability to comprehend God’s “invisible attributes” nor to intuit evil and good, and choose between the two. In this way, prevenient grace bestows “a measure of freedom” to all. Even pagans. Some of whom may respond by seeking God and His good. It also becomes the basis through which all souls are rightly judged.