Does That Muslim Have to Go to Hell So I Don’t?

September 19th, 2012

“I guess I’m not a Christian anymore,” he said, “since I can’t believe that people who aren’t Christian are going to hell.”

My young adult friend–let’s call him “Joe”–was telling me the outcome of a conversation he’d had with a couple of his friends. One of Joe’s friends came from a strongly evangelical background; the other, not as much. Nonetheless, they both insisted that to be a Christian you had to believe that anyone who did not possess faith in Jesus Christ was consigned to hell. Joe thought about his close friend from high school and his cousin’s wife, both of whom are Hindu. Taking this conversation to heart, Joe was led to conclude that the Christian faith in which he’d been raised no longer had a place for him, because he can’t accept that God would send good people like his friend and his relative to hell.

“Sad story,” you might say, “but not that unusual; kids from conservative backgrounds like that decide every day that they can’t be Christian any more for just this reason.” But here’s the thing: Joe isn’t from a conservative background. His family is theologically progressive. A couple members of his family are graduates of moderate-to-liberal seminaries, and they don’t accept the traditional, exclusivist understanding of salvation. His church is one of the few places in our county where you can explore other theological options on this issue without having your faith questioned. Nor is it the case that Joe hasn’t been paying attention; he’s a bright young man with an active curiosity and a lively interest in theological questions.

If a young man with Joe’s background can conclude that all Christians believe that non-Christians are by definition going to hell, then those of us who hold to a wider view of God’s mercy have failed miserably to make that view known. Joe’s story tells me that the exclusivist view–the belief that apart from an explicit commitment to Christ there is no possibility of salvation–holds near-total sway over the public conversation about this question. I know that the reasons for this fact are varied and complex, but I want to put aside subtlety for a moment and focus on just one: we who believe otherwise have lost (or never had) a sense of “evangelical urgency” about that belief.

That loss has rendered the world a poorer place. The last week has seen an explosion of violence in the Muslim world fueled in large part by a deliberately hurtful video misrepresentation of the life of Muhammad. If this tragic and senseless event teaches us anything, it’s that religious disharmony can travel around the world while healing and understanding are still putting on their shoes (to paraphrase Mark Twain). Am I saying that the traditional, exclusivist view of salvation is by definition hurtful? I am not. I am saying that this theological position does little to heal an already hurting and divided world. Is this a reason to reject that view out of hand? It is not. But if we question the exclusivist position already; if we believe that there are other, valid theological options; and if we think (as I do) that non-exclusivist understandings of salvation can dial back the religious disunity of this fractured world, if only a little–then why aren’t we making a bigger deal about them?

Why aren’t we telling the world that for centuries mainstream Christian theologians have held to the inclusivist view, which states that the world is saved by the grace of Christ, even when it doesn’t know that’s who’s saving it? Why aren’t we letting folks know about the pluralist approach, which believes that Christianity is one among many paths to the transcendent? Why aren’t we talking about Karl Barth’s conviction that all religions–Christianity included–fall short of the gospel, leading God to apply the grace of Christ to all? Why aren’t we talking about so many other theological approaches that seek to insist both on the uniqueness and centrality of Christ and on God’s determination to be reconciled to all God’s children, not just the members of the Christian club?

I’m not counseling that we turn our churches into theology seminars. But I know that the number of us who hold to non-exclusivist views greatly outnumbers the number of those who say anything about those views. In his excellent book When Christians Get It Wrong, Adam Hamilton points to Christian views of other religions as one of the top factors that alienate young adults from the faith.

That might be different if a few more of us chose to speak up and say, “I believe that the God we see revealed in Christ will not allow the majority of people to remain forever unreconciled to God’s love. I believe that the Spirit of Christ is abroad and at work everywhere, beckoning us back to God even when we know not the name of the One who calls us. I believe that, one day, Christ will fulfill his promise to draw all humanity unto himself. I refuse to believe, in other words, that if I’m going to heaven, that has to mean that Muslims, Hindus, and all the world’s other non-Christians aren’t.”

For Joe’s friends, as for so many in the church, the love of God seems to be a zero-sum game; I have to believe that non-Christians are going to hell if I’m going to get into heaven. If I’m not willing to accept their damnation, then the Christian faith isn’t willing to accept my salvation.

I’m no good at math, but I just can’t get that to add up. The gospel, it seems to me, speaks of the boundless, inexhaustible love of God in Jesus. Why wouldn’t we, the beneficiaries of that love, want to talk about it in return?

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