the Achilles heel of inclusivism

The Evangelical Theological Society’s national conference focused this year on the issue of how salvation comes through Christ. The majority of the society seems to be exclusivists, though there is an increasing and sizeable group that argues for some variety of inclusivism (that it is possible to be saved by Jesus without knowing that he did it).

I found the Q/A period after one inclusivist paper to be particularly enlightening. I’m withholding the professor’s name as a professional courtesy. I am sure he would have no problem with me giving it, but I know that I wouldn’t necessarily like one of my immediate remarks broadcast to the whole world.

This gracious and thoughtful professor made many of the standard arguments for inclusivism—there are no biblical texts which explicitly state that people must hear the gospel to be saved (at least on his reading), and our responsibility rises and falls with the amount of revelation we have received, so that those without special revelation will hardly be held accountable by God for not obeying what they did not know.

When the distinguished professor completed his paper and opened the floor for questions, someone asked why, if responsibility rises with revelation, would we ever want to share new revelation with the unknowing innocents and so risk their damnation? The professor responded that we share the gospel because God has commanded us, and that we hope we’re not playing the role of Jeremiah, sent by God to preach a gospel that contributes to their damnation. He also added that we want all people to presently experience our joy in the gospel, and that the Bible never uses exclusivism as a motive for missions (I would respond with the entire book of Acts).

This seemed like an important moment, for this wise and accomplished professor had obviously thought long and hard about this question, and his answer was the best he could come up with. It seems to me that if his view is correct, then he would have to admit that there is a significant difference between our mission and Jeremiah’s. Jeremiah was sent to people who were already in trouble with God. They were heading for judgment unless they repented. But if inclusivism is right, then people who have never heard of Jesus are potentially already accepted by God. So why would we give them more light, and so risk their damnation?

After all, which is easier, to respond to the simple truth that there is a God who made the sun and moon and wants me to be nice to others, or to believe the historical facts about the Son of this God who came to earth, died for our sin, rose again, and ascended to heaven? I can imagine people saying that they believe in a generic God, but not the specific God that the missionary has in mind. If people can become right with God by stepping over this low bar of generic theism, why would we ever want to raise the bar on them? Some of them may believe and have the pleasure of rejoicing now in their great salvation. But is that worth the damnation of even one who doesn’t?

We can and should debate the biblical merits of inclusivism, but we should also admit that anyone who shares the gospel of Christ inevitably acts as if exclusivism is true. Inclusivism cannot support Christian mission. If those who bring the gospel have beautiful feet (Rom. 10:15), I think I’ve found the Achilles heel of inclusivism.

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  1. Excellent observation. We have been dealing with this thought in our church and constantly refer back to Romans 10:9-17. It certainly makes things clear that there is sending, hearing and confessing involved in Salvation. It is also a sobering and motivating verse because if we are NOT going, “how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

    ‘Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    14How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?[g] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.’

  2. Mike,

    While I am not an inclusivist myself I recently had this question explained in a way that I thought was a better response than the professor’s mentioned in your article here. Many inclusivists also believe in some form of purgatory and the requirement for total transformation to holiness before one is fit for heaven. This makes the inclusivist’s motivation for missions make much more sense. If those who don’t hear the gospel will have to spend more time being transformed into perfect holiness in purgatory than one would want to get the fullness of the gospel and the Kingdom to them as soon as possible so they could start their transformation. In this view a post-mortem chance to believe in the gospel is somehow given to where not all who die without hearing the special revelation of Jesus Christ will actually be saved… just some. I don’t understand it fully as it’s not my view… but this adds another nuance to what the professor above responded with.
    – John

  3. This is interesting, John, as it raises new questions concerning purgatory and post-mortem salvation, neither of which are taught in Scripture. I may be missing something, but I also don’t see how it solves the inclusivist’s problem, as they are risking the damnation of the person (in case he rejects the gospel) in order to give him a head start on purgatory. Perhaps they would say that God will give this person a second chance after death, but then we’re back to what biblical reason is there to believe in post-mortem salvation. I also think that supplying a head start on purgatory isn’t quite the same motivation as giving people the gospel that will rescue them from hell. I doubt that Paul and Peter would have given their lives for something so small.

    Which brings up “treasuring it up’s” point–if we are truly exclusivists then our lives should show it. I guess we know what we really believe by what we do.

  4. I appreciate your reflections on inclusivism,and I’m glad this discussion is taking place. I guess I would consider myself an inclusivist of sorts, though not of the stripe dealt with in your post. Here’s my two cents:

    First, if you deny post-mortum salvation, how do any infants who die at birth gain salvation? Seems to me like most everybody (unless you wanna side with Augustine on this one) accepts some form of post-mortum salvation.

    Second, the type of inclusivism which believes in an opportunity for post-mortum salvation (not salvation through general revelation and not having anything to do with purgatory)–for this type of inclusivism, the motivation for evangelism is the same as any good Calvinist would have. God will save whom he elects, most of the time he’ll use missionaries as the means, sometimes he will not.

  5. A brief disclaimer: I tend to espouse inclusivism, but I’m still trying to figure out all of the details.

    “Treasuringitup,” how do you make sense of Colossians 1.21–23 (“the Gospel that you heard … which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven”) and Romans 2.6–8 (“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, He will give eternal life“)?

    Romans 10, I think, is written particularly in relation to Israel. Just after verse 17, where your quote ended, we read: “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry'” (Romans 10.18–19). The implication here is that the people of Israel have heard the word of Christ, and yet remain “a disobedient and contrary people.” Now, the inclusivist might claim that God reveals Himself to some people to whom Christians never preach the Gospel to the extent that they do “hear” and can believe, and there are other ways of interpreting Romans 10.14–17.

    My concern is particularly for stillborn babies, people with severe mental disabilities, and people with permanent deafness and blindness in a culture without the resources to share the Gospel in (say) Braille. Are they to be automatically condemned? Surely a loving God would not do such a thing; if there are texts in Scripture which seem to support such a view, it is very likely that we have misunderstood them. Look to Jesus to see the character of God, and tell me what you think.

    Mike, I think one of the primary reasons for preaching the Gospel is found in the idea of new creation. The Christian hope is for new heavens and a new earth, a resurrected cosmos. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ,” as Paul wrote to the Philippians; and Revelation describes the heavenly Jerusalem (in the shape of a cube, like the Most Holy Place in the Jewish Temple) coming down to earth: God living with His people. 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.23 both point to the “redemption of our bodies.” This world is our home; it groans under the weight of evil and human rebellion and irresponsibility, but God will renew, redeem, restore, and resurrect it. And He has commanded Christians to be a part of that process: by proclaiming Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, by baptising people in God’s name, and by preaching the Gospel we participate in God’s renewal of the world. The Gospel has the power to change not just individual lives but societies as well; and God has engaged us to proclaim the Gospel, perhaps, so that people, now and in the future, might be saved not by our work but by God’s work. So God may use, say, your proclamation of the Gospel to give rise to environments where people will be open to God’s revelation of Himself.

    All of this, of course, must be seen under the umbrella of God’s sovereign providence over the world.

    At lot more could be said, and should be said, but I’ll leave it there for now.

  6. Ryan,

    I think for the first part of your stance I also wondered about. For anyone who does not believe in Calvinist Reformed stance that would be hard to answer. I have had people say “All aborted babies go straight to heaven” which means we should abort all babies and in fact it would unloving of us if we didn’t abort every baby and therefore give them a chance to turn away from God. Others have said “all aborted babies go to hell” which is also unbiblical. The only explanation is pre destination or election. The unborn baby’s fate must have been predestined before it’s birth. Election must have some role in those cases.

  7. Brian:

    People don’t ‘go to heaven’; Revelation speaks of new heavens and a new earth, and the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth where God’s people are.

    Also, it seems it a bit unjustified to posit the arbitrary (otherwise the problem wouldn’t be solved) election of unborn infants to explain why we shouldn’t abort babies. The Bible doesn’t really talk about that kind of election?

    Why not just appeal to God’s purposes for the world, the value of human life, human beings’ role as image-bearers of God, and so on? I’d argue that all infants who die are saved; that doesn’t mean we should murder infants to ensure that they’re saved, which would absolutely be an abuse of the responsibilities that God has given us and the way God has established the world.

  8. Thomas:

    I completely agree with your vision of the new earth, and actually wrote a book on that. But I don’t think it addresses the objection, why take the risk of giving potentially damning revelation to a person who is already okay with God? I think it’s important to enjoy the fullness of our salvation now, but if puts one’s everlasting life at risk, is it worth it? The person who dies in ignorance will have forever to enjoy God on the new earth, and after trillions of years of doing so, I doubt they will be sad about the few decades they missed out in this lifetime. Conversely, if they reject the new revelation which comes from us, then they tragically miss out on everything. Why take that risk?

  9. Excellent!

    Now, I have a Molinist understanding of divine sovereignty, which might affect my views on this matter, but I just don’t see any reason to think that there are any people who are right with God and yet would reject the Gospel if it were properly and unobnoxiously presented to them. So every person saved without a conscious, accurate knowledge of the Gospel, on my view, would accept and welcome the Gospel given such knowledge.

  10. Mike, I was present for the same paper, and in fact I asked a question that I think is more problematic, but I’ll leave that aside! The presenter is a personal friend of mine, although I am still unconvinced of his position. I think he has a better answer available, but for some reason he didn’t give it. He is a committed Calvinist, so he argues that saving faith at any level of revelation is an effect of efficacious grace. In that framework, elect persons who have already believed at a lower level of revelation will also believe the gospel when they hear it, so there is no possibility of bringing damnation upon anyone who is presently saved. I think it should also be noted that inclusivists do not believe that everyone who has not heard the gospel is therefore free from condemnation, so there is no reason to assume that evangelizing them is likely to damn them.

  11. Thanks for this, Stan. I am also a convinced Calvinist, but I think it seems a bit of a cop-out to say that those who have already responded to general revelation will also be drawn by God to respond to our special revelation. I don’t ever want to use my Calvinism as a way to avoid personal responsibility (“I can’t hurt them with the gospel, because if they are really elect then God won’t lose them”–I’m speaking as if I was a inclusivist Calvinist here).

    Regarding your last sentence, inclusivists do think that some people who have not heard the gospel are nevertheless free from condemnation. And these people would be damned if God does not draw them to himself by the new light of special revelation. It may not be everyone, but it is some, which should give inclusivists pause.

    But I do see how a Calvinistic inclusivist may reason that God won’t allow him to harm the already accepted people by sharing more light. That’s good. However, inclusivism would still seem to diminish the urgency of sharing the gospel, as hearing the gospel is no longer considered necessary to avoid damnation. There are many other good reasons for sharing the gospel, but nothing more urgent than that one (note that avoiding damnation was a large reason why Jesus spoke about hell and the need for salvation).

  12. As a missionary practitioner I have had to wrestle with this issue–and I have become increasingly more exclusivist.

    When I spend time with a family who has never had the chance to hear about Jesus, and I get to share the good news with them, I am conscious of the fact that their rejection could mean eternal damnation. This has driven me to my knees on many occasions along with the nagging questions–‘did I communicate the Gospel clearly?’ ‘did I pray hard enough?’ ‘was I earnest enough?’ ‘have I wept enough for them in private prayer?’

    Unless what I am bringing to them is really GOOD news, why would I keep going to these people who I love so much, and continue to share this faith with them that so many of them continue to reject.

    When I consider that I have to raise support and live in poverty to go around ‘condemning people,’ it doesn’t exactly encourage my missionary endeavors.

    John Piper’s book, ‘Let the Nations be Glad,’ has a very good section on this issue.

  13. Here’s my problem with Exclusivism. Calvinists would say that Christ died only for the Elect, that in fact, his sacrifice does not and cannot cover ALL sins. So how do you preach the Gospel to someone if you cannot be 100% sure Christ died for THEM? you would have to say “Christ may have died for you, if you are lucky”. of course no one would say that, so the other option is to lie to them and tell them that Christ did die for them (even though they might not be one of the elect) That does not sound like the “Glorious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”. I believe the scriptures say over and over again that Christ died for the world. That sounds pretty inclusive to me.

  14. Ryan:

    No Calvinist claims that Christ’s sacrifice cannot cover all sins. They gladly acknowledge that Jesus’ death is sufficient for all.

    As far as telling people that Christ died for them, the Protestant Reformed Church split from the Christian Reformed Church over this very issue. The CRC (Calvin College and Seminary) claims that you can give a “well-intentioned offer of the gospel” to an indiscriminate group, while the PRC claims that you cannot, for the reasons you give. The PRC is the minority view, so actually many Calvinists do what you claim they don’t. You might argue that they are inconsistent, but they would respond that they are merely repeating God’s love for the world and refraining from splitting too many theological hairs.

  15. The inclusivism being contradicted in our church was a version held by a couple that had spent many years in Africa. They had heard some accounts of missionaries going to remote villages and being told by the natives upon hearing the Gospel, “Jesus! That is His name! We had wondered for so long,” (which would lead to some very interesting discussions regarding this topic as well). However, this couple, who were not missionaries, took this to mean that in all the villages they lived in, there were very “spiritual” people in them and that indicated faith and therefore actual Salvation. They seemed to think that any true spiritual striving would result in Salvation inadvertently through Christ’s work on the cross. Consequently, they did not make an effort to declare His name to these people. They were taking it for granted that these people were believers simply by their devout actions. To be honest, that was horrifying to me.

    Now, this standpoint is obviously wrong and shows inclusivism at its ugliest. We DID establish that they were not universalists although they were bordering on that. I can, in many ways, understand the Calvinist inclusivist viewpoint that Ryan and Stan point out. I believe it shows sincere compassion and concern while also having a tad more Biblical thought. However, I would consider myself an exclusivist for lack of Biblical grounding otherwise – the inclusivist argument seems speculative at best and heretical at worst. I am not demeaning thoughtful discussion, I just think this can be blown out of any Biblical proportion. I’m sure the fellow that presented his inclusivism paper at ETS has a very interesting argument and was probably far more coherent than what I’m saying here. But Biblically, we do know this, God is sovereign, salvation is through Christ alone, God chooses those He will choose, and we are saved by His grace alone (I’m not here to argue these, look the verses up yourself)- but on the flip side, if we are simply arguing about the technicalities of whom should hear the Gospel and what dead person could be in Heaven, we are not basing our thoughts on who God tells us He is in His Word and how we should be acting as bearers of the truth. We are told to go preach the Gospel to all nations, no exceptions. We are told that God is abounding in steadfast love and that He is infinitely just. For me, that brings comfort as I think about those that leave this earth with no known claim to Salvation, aborted babies, mentally challenged and resentful grandfathers all included. It’s in God’s hands and I am happy to leave it there. To be truly upset by inclusive or exclusive seems to be beside the actual point of how WE should be living.

    Thomas Larsen : Colossians 1:21-23 – a similar phrase can be seen in 1:5-6 “the gospel which has come to you as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing”. At the current time of Paul’s writing, the Gospel had been spread to the entire known world. It is not indicating that the Gospel had been accepted by all, but that it had been proclaimed to all. According to Justin Martyr and Tertullian, there was not one known people group that had not heard the Gospel of Jesus during the very early church age. I find this amazing and compelling. This verse is not saying that the Gospel is currently known throughout the world.

    Romans 2:6-8 – Being judged according to our earthly works is seen throughout the Scriptures (Matt 16:27; 25:31-26; John 5:28, 29; I Cor 3:12-15; 4:5; II Cor 5:10; Gal 6:7-9; Eph 6:8; Rev 2:23; 20:12,13). Taking this systematically, we must also take into account the verses that tell us salvation is by nothing we have done but by the condition of our hearts which can only be changed by God’s grace (Rom. 3:24; 5:15; Eph 1:4-7; 2:8-10; 1 Tim 1:15, etc.). Taking these two ideas together, we have to conclude that our acceptable good works are only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, being itself a gift of salvation. Romans was written to believers and this particular verse is encouraging them in their perseverance. It is not telling them that anyone who does well enough will be saved but rather that their works are proof of their Salvation.

    Romans 10 –Paul is indicating the way in which “they” (Jews & Gentiles) come to Salvation and lists in reverse chronological order how that comes about (still applicable to us) and how it came about, contextually. This is written in the same historical context as Colossians 1 regarding the spread of the Gospel and Paul is saying that the Gospel has indeed been preached. Regarding verse 18, Paul is quoting this verse from the Psalms (which, itself in context, refers to general revelation) saying that the Israelites have heard the Gospel and, like you mention, many Jews have rejected it. I believe Paul uses this Psalm to indicate that the message of the Gospel should be just as obvious to the Jews as general revelation considering their history.

    Sorry this is so long.

  16. treasuringitup, I appreciate your post. Good thoughts.

    Mike said in a comment, “… inclusivism would still seem to diminish the urgency of sharing the gospel, as hearing the gospel is no longer considered necessary to avoid damnation. There are many other good reasons for sharing the gospel, but nothing more urgent than that one (note that avoiding damnation was a large reason why Jesus spoke about hell and the need for salvation).”

    I mean, I’m open to correction on this point, but it seems to me, like I said earlier, that inclusivism (of the Calvinistic stripe) doesn’t diminish evangelistic urgency anymore than exclusivistic Calvinism does. Inclusivistic Calvinism assume that God has elected people to salvation, and the normal means that God uses to bring about the salvation of souls is through missionaries and evangelism. Thus, we should evangelize. If we don’t evangelize, then there are many people who will go to hell, b/c God has ordained the ends, as well as the means (can’t stress that point enough).

    I.e., contra Mike, normally, hearing the gospel is necessary to avoid damnation. Inclusivists just allow for the possibility that God sometimes (key key key word!) doesn’t use the normal means of salvation.

    Take for instance Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road. Paul wasn’t converted by a missionary; he wasn’t converted by the normal means of coming to salvation—i.e., a human missionary/Christian witness didn’t proclaim the gospel to him. “I did not receive it (the gospel) from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12).

  17. Ryan:

    I don’t think that your soft inclusivism is too far from my pessimistic soft exclusivism (it’s theoretically possible for people to rightly respond to general revelation, but given what Paul says in Romans 1:18-23, I don’t think that actually happens).

    I think that Paul’s conversion is a great illustration for exclusivism. Note that he wasn’t converted by striving to the best of his ability to respond to general revelation, but he received a direct, special revelation from God that literally knocked him off his horse. It would be hard to come up with a better example of how the Word of the Lord is necessary for salvation.

    I refuse to limit God and say what he can and can’t do, but in Scripture we learn by direct teaching and by example that salvation comes through proclamation of the gospel.

  18. Mike,

    There are two quotes that I hold in my mind when considering inclusivism/exclusivism. The first is from DSB: “I wish that God would save everyone from going to hell, though I can’t say that I hope so. Biblical hope springs from what God has revealed. … But he has never promised to empty hell or prevent people from going there, and so I can’t say that I hope for it. But I do wish for it. And so should you.” Wouldn’t it be great if God’s grace extends farther than he has told us it will!

    The second thought is from Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism: “the Christian way of salvation is narrow only so long as the Church chooses to let it remain narrow. … If, therefore, this way of salvation is not offered to all, it is not the fault of the way of salvation itself, but the fault of those who fail to use the means that God has placed in their hands.” I think this is the perfect summary of your argument: if people die in ignorance it’s the Church’s fault for failing to fulfill the Great Commission.

    Maybe we should approach salvation like an Amway sales tree – if I can reach six people, and those six people each reach six people, and all those people reach six people…. If it works for soap and vitamins, maybe it could work for salvation, too.

  19. Jonathan:

    Strangely, the analogy to Amway didn’t cheapen your point at all! I completely agree with your post, especially since you quote me (that’s a bit of a cheap shot), and I would only add one thing. As “treasuringitup” said, it is our responsibility to get people the gospel, and tragically many die in ignorance of it. But they don’t die in complete ignorance, for Romans 1 indicates that they do know something about God, and even what they know they suppress. So while there are varying levels of knowledge and culpability, no one can stand before God and claim that they would have responded if they had only received more light.

  20. Mike, I think it’s pretty clear that Romans 1 is a crucial part of this debate. I agree that Paul’s argument tells us that general revelation is sufficient to condemn, but does not tell us that it is sufficient to save. But I wonder if it is legitimate to infer that Paul assumes that no one is ever brought to an appropriate response to general revelation. It is not the case that everyone lives out the sexual perversion described as the result of unbelief. So is it clear that Paul thinks that absolutely everyone supresses the truth revealed via general revelation? Or is it possible that Paul is here generalizing about the sin of the Gentile world without saying that this is the path of every Gentile?

  21. Mike:

    I would add that the ignorance in which people die – however extensive it is – is our own fault. If we take Genesis seriously, then we all have the same ancestors, which means that somewhere along the line, someone made the conscious decision to ignore the truth that God had revealed and had been handed down from generation to generation. Because of that decision, subsequent generations were cut off from the truth. In my mind, the commandment to honor my father and mother has more to do with faithfully preserving and passing on the truth of God’s Word than making my bed or being home by curfew. I will do everything I can to help my daughter come to know God as deeply and personally as I have, and even more, and I pray that she will pass it on to her children. I think the rejection that Paul speaks of is more than just denying general revelation; it is the sad history of humanity wherein each generation willfully and selfishly denies God more and more and causes ever bigger problems for their children and grandchildren.

  22. Stan:

    I have a couple of thoughts which I think are relevant.

    1. Paul must mean that everyone is held culpable for suppressing general revelation, or his argument in Romans 1-3 breaks down. How is it true that all have sinned and fallen short (3:23) if some actually have not?

    2. So it’s clear that no one comes to God by responding to general revelation on their own inititiative. But can God possibly use general revelation to draw people to himself? I think this is what lies behind your question, whether anyone “is ever brought to an appropriate response to general revelation”? God can do whatever he wants, but in Scripture the explicit teaching and example of Paul is that the Spirit works through the preaching of the Word. Nevertheless, this possibility is why I call myself a pessimistic soft exclusivist (it’s possible for God to use general revelation to bring people to salvation, but I’m not hopeful).

  23. Mike, one final(?) comment:

    I am also a pessimistic soft exclusivist, for the same basic reasons. We don’t have any revealed reason to be on the optimistic side.

    But the point of Romans 1-3 is that both Jews and Gentiles are all sinners and fail to meet God’s standards, not to say that no Jews or Gentiles have ever admitted that need and trusted in God for forgiveness. So it seems possible within his argument for some Gentiles to have admitted their need and cast themselves on God’s mercy at their level of revelation. I don’t see any positive affirmation of that, but it doesn’t look as if that would negate Paul’s argument.

  24. Thanks for your patience, Stan! I think we agree, as long as you think that no Gentile would respond to general revelation on his own, but only through the salvific work of the Spirit.

  25. That would be an Amen from this corner.

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