I’m still working my way through Zondervan’s More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Since my last post on this topic, I’ve read Clark Pinnock’s defense of inclusivism, the responses to that, and Alister McGrath’s article. Today, I will look at Clark Pinnock’s contribution to the book.
In my discussions of this book, my purpose is not to present a comprehensive summary and critique of each article, but rather to highlight the ideas that I find compelling. Also, I’m saying how I read the articles, and I may be wrong in my interpretation of them. Scholarly articles are like mazes, so I tend to misunderstand them a lot.
Okay, so what did I get out of Pinnock? Well, Pinnock is an inclusivist. That means he believes that other religions can prepare people for faith in Christ. And so he can maintain that God is somehow involved in other religions, even as he holds fast to the superiority of Christianity.
He talks about those who’ve never heard the Gospel. For Pinnock, God judges them on the basis of how they responded to the light that they received. Did they show some faith towards God as they understood him, even as they tried to live a good life? Then, in Pinnock’s eyes, they may qualify as holy men who will enter God’s kingdom.
On what does Pinnock base his arguments? First of all, he believes that God’s love is broad, inclusive, universal, and generous (he cites Psalm 65:5; Matthew 20:15; I Timothy 2:4; I John 2:2; Revelation 22:2). For him, that contradicts the notion that God will limit his salvation to those fortunate enough to hear the Gospel, particularly people born in the Christian West.
Second, he refers to Acts 14:17, which says that God “has not left himself without a witness in doing good– giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy” (NRSV). Paul is talking to Gentiles, who up to that point did not have God’s direct revelation (the Torah). But Paul says that God still managed to communicate his nature and goodness to them. And Pinnock maintains that God similarly communicates to non-Christian cultures today. Pinnock dismisses the Calvinist idea that God does this to exasperate the guilt of non-Christians, making them more culpable for rejecting God’s goodness. Pinnock sees that as psychotic, and I can see his point. Rather, Pinnock believes God testifies to himself as a means of grace: he invites all people into a relationship with him.
Third, Pinnock refers to dispensationalism, which holds that God dealt with people in various ways throughout history. In Old Testament times, for example, God favored those who believed in him and obeyed his commandments. According to Pinnock, Abraham had no explicit knowledge of Christ, but God justified him anyway because he trusted in God’s revelation. And so Pinnock speculates that God may deal in this way with people from non-Christian cultures.
I like Pinnock’s article because it presents God as generous. It maintains that God takes notice of people in non-Christian cultures and has a beneficent plan for them. But I have some problems with it, from both a rightward and a leftward orientation. Yes, I am a man of contradictions!
1. Hick raises this point: If God is using other religions to bring their adherents to Christ, then he’s not been that successful. Hick says the following: “Already the majority of human beings who have lived and died on this earth have done so outside Christianity. And while the number of Christians is increasing, the proportion of Christians in the world population is decreasing and has shrunk during the present century from a third to about a quarter” (125). Shouldn’t God succeed in what he sets out to do?
2. I know good non-Christians who do know about the Gospel, yet they choose to stick with their non-Christian religions. And I don’t mean those self-righteous atheists who pat themselves on the back and say, “Who needs God? I don’t believe in God, and I live a good life” (pat, pat, pat). I mean various people I’ve known over the years who respect Christianity but just don’t believe in it. I think of a Buddhist monk who was interested in Christianity and other religions, yet he’s still a Buddhist. I’ve met a lot of Jewish people who are familiar with Christian ethics and admire them, but they choose to remain within their own religion. And, overall, they can be as loving and generous as Christians. (If I were to identify a difference, I’d say that many in non-Christian religions tend to reflect the world on sexual issues, such as pre-marital sex and homosexuality, but I can’t be sweeping on that, since I’m sure that Orthodox Jews and Muslims are quite traditional on these things.) So why do we always focus on those who’ve never heard? A lot of decent people have heard, and they choose not to be Christians.
3. This brings me to another point: Why should a non-Christian believe in Christianity? What evidence does he have that it is the only true religion? Jesus did miracles to convince people that he spoke the truth. He says in John 15:24, “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.” Some argue, “Well, God knows that such people will reject him anyway, even after hearing the Gospel and seeing miracles. So even those who haven’t heard are guilty.” But shouldn’t God at least give them the chance to reject him? Sure, God’s technically not obligated to do so. He’d be just to condemn them for their sins. But God is more than just. He’s loving as well. That brings me to point 4:
4. My Armstrongite heritage had an answer to this hard question: God will offer people salvation after their deaths. Personally, I won’t object if God ends up doing that. How many chances has he given me? But I don’t see much evidence for the Armstrongite view in the Bible. Plus, from my experience, the impression that many Christians (and non-Christians) get from this doctrine is that their decisions in this life do not really matter. After all, God will give them a chance in the afterlife! Ron Dart said in one sermon that there’s a reason that the Bible doesn’t emphasize this doctrine too much, even though (for Dart) it is true. I think he’s right: it generates spiritual apathy.
5. On a related point, Pinnock says that the Gospel should be more than fire insurance. For him, there should be a motive for spreading the Gospel, even if people from other religions can be saved apart from Christianity. That motive includes “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, spreading the news about Jesus, and summoning people into the historically new people of God” (120). A friend of mine on this blog made a similar point: The Gospel is not just about escaping hell, for it primarily concerns new life, righteousness, and liberation from Satan’s oppressive dominion. I agree, but the Gospel is also about fleeing God’s wrath, as one can see by looking up “wrath” in a Bible concordance.
6. God has revealed himself to all people, but all have rejected him. That’s why Jesus had to come. That’s Paul’s whole point in Romans 1:19-32: Everyone knows about God, even without God’s direct revelation (the Torah). But all have sinned, which is why Jesus died on the cross. So is general revelation (God’s revelation of himself through nature, conscience, and morality) a means of salvation, as Pinnock suggests? According to Romans 1:19-32, the answer seems to be “no.” People got general revelation, yet they were still on their way to hell.
And, yet, I cannot be dogmatic here. First of all, Paul may believe that general revelation could have been salvific, but it wasn’t because people chose sin. Even before Christ came, God’s kindness was meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2:4). So was repentance a possibility apart from Christ, but people did not avail themselves of that opportunity? Why would God be kind to people to lead them to repentance, if repentance were not a genuine option for them?
Second, Cornelius was a righteous Gentile, even before he heard and accepted the Gospel. And God acknowledged him as righteous. God didn’t say to him what many evangelicals would say about non-Christians: “Sure, you’ve done good things, but you’re not perfect, and God demands perfection. Plus, God sees your righteousness as filthy rags anyway. And no one is truly righteous. I’m sure you’re corrupt in a lot of areas!” I know these things are based on Scripture, but God does not say them to Cornelius. Rather, the angel tells him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). God was impressed with Cornelius! At the same time, Cornelius still needed to hear the Gospel. He obviously was not perfect, since God said he needed to be cleansed (Acts 10:15; 11:9; 15:9). So the situation may be more complex than a lot of us think!
7. I can understand why Pinnock sees other religions as a preparation for Christianity. Pinnock believes that Christianity is superior to other religions, and I don’t fault him for this, for he is, after all, a Christian. Many people criticize Karl Rahner because he says that a righteous Buddhist is an “anonymous Christian.” Why not say that the righteous Christian is an “anonymous Buddhist?” they ask. I admit that the approaches of Pinnock and Rahner can appear rather condescending to practitioners of other religions. But Pinnock and Rahner are Christians, so what do you expect? Of course they think that Christianity is better! Why else would they believe in it?
At the same time, I have a hard time saying myself that Christianity is better than other religions, even though I stick with Christianity. Religions in general have both things that attract me, and also things that repel me. I like the idea that God became incarnate to suffer and die on behalf of humanity. That shows a lot of love on God’s part, more than I see in other religions. But I don’t like the Christian concept of eternal torment in hell. I much prefer reincarnation–giving people a number of chances to get it right. I don’t believe in reincarnation, since I try to avoid a cafeteria approach to religion. I’m just saying that all religions have attractive and repulsive elements, so appealing to a religion’s attractiveness as a criterion of truth is pretty flimsy, in my opinion.
And this is a problem that I have with a lot of evangelicals. When I ask them why they believe Christianity is better than other religions, they say, “Well, other religions present God as mean and despotic. Ours has Jesus, who lovingly died for our sins.” Here, they base their acceptance of Christianity on something they like about it. But when I point out something that’s unattractive, such as hell, they say, “Well, we don’t understand everything, so we should just have faith.” Well, why shouldn’t Muslims “just have faith” about the unattractive parts of their religion?
Also, I have problems seeing evangelical Christianity as the end-all, be-all of everything. Do other religions have anything to teach us, or do we have to believe that we have all of the answers?
So these are my thoughts. I hope you get something out of them, whether you agree with me or not!