In my latest reading of Paul Knitter’s No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I read Chapter VI, “The Mainline Protestant Model: Salvation Only in Christ”.
Can the religions of the world be ground-preparation for people to accept Christianity? Contra the mainline Prostestants whom he discusses, Knitter appears to maintain that salvation is possible even in non-Christian religions. But Knitter makes the point that non-Christian religions recognize that there is something seriously flawed in how human beings think and what they do. Some religions, such as Hinduism, may even maintain that our sins carry some sort of debt that needs to be paid, and that occurs through the sorts of lives that we get when we are reincarnated. (I am speaking here from my own understanding of Hinduism.) Does Christianity contain the answer to the problems that non-Christian religions recognize?
My impression from reading Knitter is that the mainline Protestants whom he discusses do not believe that you go to hell for not saying the sinner’s prayer before you die. One theologian held that everyone at the end will get a chance to receive Christ. Another maintained that people in non-Christian religions can arrive at some state of salvation, albeit incomplete. Even the thinker whom Knitter featured in his chapter on conservative evangelicalism, Karl Barth, has been said to have had universalist leanings.
I struggle with evangelicalism, but I do agree with its insight that there is something wrong with human nature—-that we all fall short of some righteous standard. I have difficulty going from this insight to the proposition that God, therefore, will condemn to eternal hell those who don’t accept Christ as their personal savior. I’d like to think that God is more loving than that, and that God is in the business of solving problems, not just beating people up for having them. One reason that I identify with the doctrine that we are morally corrupt is that it means that I don’t have to regard another person as better or worse than me: that person has flaws, just like me and everyone else. But God is above our flaws.
I also, on some level, identify with the Christian notion that God is just: that God punishes sin, and that somehow Jesus’ death satisfied God’s justice—-either in the sense that Jesus died in our place to appease God’s justice, or in the sense that we die with Christ, and so we have paid the penalty for sin in that way. I agree with what one evangelical once told me: If God did not punish sin, then he would not be God. Okay, I wouldn’t exactly phrase the thought that way, but the point is that God needs to uphold some system of justice—-in which right and wrong have consequences, otherwise the cosmos would arguably be amoral. Again, I have difficulty going from this to the notion that everyone who fails to accept Jesus before he or she dies is doomed to eternal torment in hell. Perhaps there are other ways for there to be consequences to wrongdoing than eternal torment.