Doctrine of Christ (part 26)May 06, 2012 Time: 00:16:52
We have been talking about the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. I explained last time that the universality of the Christian church was taken by medieval theologians to be one of the marks of the church. One of the evidences that Christianity is true is the universality of the Christian church, filling all of the civilized world.
The Demise of this Doctrine
The demise of this doctrine came about through the so-called “Expansion of Europe,” which refers to the roughly three centuries of exploration and discovery between about 1450 and 1750. Through the travels of men like Marco Polo to the Orient and the voyages of people like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, new civilizations and whole new worlds were discovered which had not so much as even heard the name of Jesus Christ, much less believed in him. Far from being the religion of mankind, it was discovered that Christianity was largely confined to a corner of the globe.
This realization had a two-fold impact upon people’s religious thinking. First of all, it tended to relativize religious beliefs. It was seen that no religion could truly claim to be the universal religion of mankind. Rather, it seemed that every society or culture had its own religion which was appropriate to its own needs and concerns and that no religion could claim to be the universal religion of man. Secondly, it therefore made Christianity’s claim to exclusive salvation through Christ appear narrow and cruel. What was the fate of all of these people in the world who had never heard the name of Christ? Were they all damned and going to hell simply because they were born outside the perimeter of the Christian sphere of influence? Enlightenment rationalists like the French philosopher Voltaire taunted the Christians of his day with the prospect of one hundred million Chinamen (that’s how many there were at that time) all going to hell for not believing in Jesus Christ when they hadn’t even heard of Jesus Christ.
Today the advances in telecommunications, especially the Internet, as well as the influx into Western nations of immigrants from former colonies, have only served to heighten our awareness of the religious diversity of mankind. It is estimated that between 15% and 25% of the world’s population has still yet to hear the Gospel even for the first time. 15% to 25% of the world’s population is still completely unreached. The result of this heightened awareness of the religious diversity of mankind has had an impact theologically and missiologically.
Mainline denominations have largely lost the sense of missionary calling as a result. Rather, if they engage in missions, missions are reinterpreted as a way of engaging socially with developing countries – improved health or AIDS relief in those countries, clean water systems, hospitals, helping with education, and so forth – if you will, a sort of Christian Peace Corps. That is the new face of missions in the mainline denominations, but not focusing on proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to lost and dying people.
Perhaps this realignment of the attitude toward missions is nowhere more evident than in the documents of the Second Vatican Council1 held during the 1960s. The documents of Vatican II, I think, radically reinterpret the church’s task.2 According to the documents of Vatican II, “those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God”3 – the true church. It says Jews are especially dear to God, “but the plan of salvation also includes all those who acknowledge the Creator”, including Muslims.4 They also add that people who by conscience strive to do God’s will can also be saved. So, according to the proclamation of the Second Vatican Council, the church declares that Catholics should pray for the Jews, not for the conversion of the Jews. And it declares the church also looks on Muslims with esteem.5 Missionary work is to be directed only toward those who are still involved in the worship of idols. So what the documents of the Second Vatican Council seem to imply that there are great multitudes of persons who reject Christ and are nevertheless saved. Therefore, they are not appropriate subjects for evangelization. You do not go out and share the Gospel with these people.
More recently, we have begun to see a compromise on the part of evangelicals on this issue as well. In 1992, the late Clark Pinnock gave an address to the Evangelical Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco. Pinnock said, “I am appealing to evangelicals to make the shift to a more inclusive outlook much the way the Catholics did at Vatican II.”6 In his speech, Pinnock expressed optimism that great numbers of the unevangelized will be saved. “God will find faith in people without the person even realizing he or she had it.” Pinnock even entertains the possibility of people being given another chance after death freed from the effects of sin. After they die, the effects of sin – the blinders of sin – will be removed, and they will be given a second chance to embrace Christ as a way of salvation. He says, “Imagine it! People are raised from the dead by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, free of whatever had obscured the love of God and prevented them from receiving it in life. God is a serious lover who wants everyone with no opportunity to respond to his offer to have one. No sinner is excluded, who having been included in salvation by God but lacking opportunity, to respond to grace.” Pinnock realized that his view raises an obvious question: doesn’t this undermine both the rationale and the urgency of the task of world mission? Doesn’t this undercut the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to every creature regarding both its rationale and urgency? He says no, it does not, and he gives three reasons in defense. (1) God has called us to engage in mission work, and we should obey. Now notice that doesn’t provide any rationale for why God should issue such a pointless command. It just amounts to blind obedience to a command for which there is no rationale. Why would God command that, when these people are already saved? (2) He says, missions is broader than just securing people’s eternal destiny. In other words, we are back to the Christian Peach Corps again, all the social improvements a mission can bring. While that certainly is a part of sharing the Gospel, that doesn’t provide any rationale for sharing the Good News of salvation through Christ as opposed to just social improvement. (3) He says, missions should be positive. It is not an ultimatum, “Believe or be damned!” Well, of course, it has got to be positive; but nevertheless it is really hard to understand, on Pinnock’s view, what urgency there is to the task of world evangelization, since these people are already saved.7
So it seems to me that this sort of view does, in fact, undermine the rationale and urgency of the task of completing the Great Commission. It is interesting that in recent years this sort of inclusivistic attitude promoted by Pinnock has taken further root in evangelical theology. I think, for example, of Rob Bell, the megachurch pastor, in his book Love Wins, who envisions very much the same sort of scenario that Pinnock does. I find it ironic that we here in the 21st century, who are on the verge of completing the task of world evangelization – we have the manpower, we have the money, we have the technology to complete the task of the Great Commission in our lifetimes – I find it so ironic that as we are on the threshold of doing so, it should be the church’s own theologians who should try to trip her at the finish line.
Question: Personally, I am kind of sympathetic to some of these views. Of course, that question did come up for me as I explored these views. What I thought is that we should not deny that Christianity has more meaning than just saving people. There is a deeper meaning and a very real personal experience about coming to Christianity – like any other enlightening view, whether it is scientific or religious. If you believe in something and have the evidence to support it, then you should share it – the exchange of ideas. Christianity has personal significance and can help people overcome trials, etc. So it has sort of an importance beyond just “OK, we get to go to heaven.”
Answer: Certainly what you are saying is true. But think of what a realignment of the priorities of world missions that sort of attitude would bring. What it would mean is that the task is basically one of disciple building. These people are already saved; you are not saving them from damnation or giving them eternal life. They’ve already got that – now you are just sort of building them in their understanding and working out Christianity in their lives. As important as that is, it seems to me it just pales by comparison to finding eternal life as opposed to eternal damnation apart from God. Therefore it seems to me that it does decrease the urgency of the task of world mission in an exponential way.
Question: This is an issue of primary and secondary concerns. Certainly we should try to alleviate suffering while we are sharing the Gospel, but it is a very slippery slope when you get off focus. Look at groups like – I’m concerned with World Vision. Richard Stern wrote a good book The Hole in Our Gospel. A lot of good stuff; but when you look at the literature, the aspect of the Gospel is very minimal. It is hard to find. I’m not saying it is not done when they do these water works and these various things, but if you take another organization that started doing that – the YMCA and YWCA – look what happened to them. They are non-existent as a salt and light organization. But they made that strategic decision that they were going to reflect the Gospel socially, and there is no vestige of it anymore in the YMCA or YWCA.
Answer: That is right, yes, and there are other examples. The Student Volunteer Movement was a sort of Campus Crusade for Christ at one time and then, as you say, became wholly committed to social improvement and completely lost its evangelistic edge and ceased to exist.8 So this is an admonition for us to be extremely careful about how we interpret the task of world mission.
Question: Let’s say that we reached all the people groups this year – by the end of 2011. And next year everybody in those places were saved. But all the people who died before today in those places – would they be saved? That’s my first question. If they are able to get to heaven in some way other than through the blood of Jesus Christ, would that not have made his death on the cross in vain?
Answer: These are excellent questions. What you are pointing out is it’s not just those who are currently unreached, but what about those who lived during previous generations who will never be reached because they are now dead? I think the logic of the argument is the same for both groups of these people. As we deal in coming lectures with the logical problem that this presents to Christian particularists, we can apply it to that as well. So rather than say what I am going to be saying, we will just hang on to that and come back to it. Good question!
Next time we are going to look more specifically at the challenge of religious pluralism, which has arisen in response to the heightened awareness of mankind’s religious diversity.9
3 “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” Lumen Gentium 2.16 – see http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
4 Ibid. The council document uses the term “Mohammedans” in place of the term “Muslims.”
5 “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” Nostra Aetate 3 – see http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html
6 Clark Pinnock, “The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions,” paper delivered at the Evangelical Theology Group, American Academy of Religion, November 22, 1992.
9 Total Running Time: 16:51 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)