A week or so ago we began a series of posts on three main reasons why people find belief in God difficult. We listed those reasons as:
- The problem posed by human suffering
- Christian exclusivism
- Bad experiences with Christians or with a particular church
We talked about the last of these reasons in that first post, and I wish to take up the second reason in this one.
Some people find it very difficult to accept the belief, which is orthodox among conservative Christians, that only those who possess a firm belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will have eternal life. Everyone else is pretty much damned to spend eternity separated from God.
This is a very difficult doctrine to explain to non-Christians and one which many of them find not only implausible but also repugnant. Almost everyone has a loved one, a friend or relative, who has died outside the Church. The thought that that person is lost forever pushes people away from accepting a faith that insists that they're doomed.
There are three ways one might respond to this reaction:
The first is to say that the truth cannot be compromised just because people find it unpleasant. One difficulty with this is that the problem is not so much that people find the doctrine unpleasant but rather that they find it unjust.
The second is to argue that exclusivism is incorrect and that salvation is not limited only to Christians. The problem with this is that the primary source book of Christian doctrine, the Bible, seems to say that it is.
The third response is to argue that whatever Christianity teaches about salvation it is not really germane to the question of whether there is a God. In other words, one is behaving irrationally if one rejects belief in God simply because one rejects a particular tenet of Christian theology.
It is of course the case that unpleasant truths are still truths and that the existence of God does not hinge on the truth of the doctrine of Christian exclusivism, but, even so, there have been some Christians, including luminaries like C.S. Lewis, who think that the second option may also be correct. People who believe this are called "inclusivists," and they hold that it is reasonable to believe that young children, the mentally infirm, and some, perhaps many, people who lived prior to the Christian era will have eternal life. Thus, it is possible, they reason, that those in the present era who never heard of Christ, or who for various reasons were psychologically unable to accept the truth of the revelation of God in Christ, might also be embraced by God.
These Christians insist that Christ's death on the cross is crucial because it's the reason why anyone who receives eternal life does so, but they also believe that there may be many who receive the gift without knowing how or why.
These Christians also insist that this view is compatible both with scripture and with much of the Christian tradition although it must be said that it is a minority view among conservative Protestant theologians, most of whom believe that the Bible squarely rules it out.
In any case, the recent decision of the Catholic church to abandon its teaching on limbo has interesting implications for this issue.
Consider this comment by a Notre Dame theologian:
"If there's no limbo and we're not going to revert to St. Augustine's teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we're left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
"Baptism does not exist to wipe away the "stain" of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church," he said in an e-mailed response."
If McBrien is correct, his words lead logically to the acceptance of Christian inclusivism. If it's true that people are born in a state of grace, or that some people who did not - because they could not - make a conscious decision to accept Christ as their savior, will nevertheless enjoy the "beatific vision," it's very difficult to exclude from that experience others who have, for the same or similar reasons, also not made such a decision.
The mentally infirm, or people in the ancient world, or people in the modern world who never heard the gospel, or, perhaps, people who are aware of Christianity but who for deeply seated psychological reasons have great difficulty believing that the God they love actually became a man and who have such a high view of God that the notion that He was human strikes them as blasphemous, might all, like the child, be psychologically unable to make the decision to believe.
It may be, inclusivists argue, that God saves all who love Him and who want to spend eternity with Him. If so, the essential Christian contribution is the emphasis on the fact that it is only through what God did on the cross in Christ that makes it possible for anyone, Christian or non-Christian, to have eternal life. The difference between Christians and non-Christians in this regard, then, is that Christians have a deeper, more thorough understanding of how God has worked in the world than do their theistic cousins. But that doesn't mean that those others who are non-Christians are necessarily outside the grace of God.
Whether inclusivism will ever be accepted by the majority of Christians remains to be seen. It certainly has a very big hurdle in its way for it has to show that it does not distort the meaning of Scripture and this, its detractors believe, it will never be able to do.RLC