John Stackhouse is a professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. He is part of the Christian Vision Project, and he writes in favor of “inclusivism” here. Inclusivism, as he defines it, says that there are many outside the Christian faith who are saved because of their demeanor of faith, without having heard of Jesus.
“This is the fundamental posture of faith, and from this passage [Heb. 11], as from many others in the Bible, it is obvious that one does not have to know about Jesus to adopt this posture that results in salvation.”
In the second part of this article, Stackhouse argues for a comprehensive, integrated approach to salvation. Since God is interested in saving human beings, human cultures, and human institutions, and not just “souls,” the work of the gospel is more far-reaching than conservative evangelicals have thought. The problem with this aspect of his argument is that he extends the gospel like it was pie dough — the farther out it goes, the thinner it gets. He is quite right that evangelicals have kept the pie dough thick, and that they have done this by limiting (drastically) how far they spread it. But it should be noted, I guess for the record, that there is a Kuyperian vision out there that wants application of the gospel to every aspect of life, and wants that application to be thick not thin. But I almost got distracted from my main point.
What I intend to do here is not provide a point by point refutation, but rather to provide a few contextualizing observations about this kind of inclusivist thinking.
First, I believe that the proclamation of the gospel is necessary to salvation. I believe this, but I am not superstitious about it. By this I mean that I am fine with the statement in the Westminster Confession that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. In extraordinary situations, God may save how He pleases, and none of us should set up to lecture Him over this incipient liberalism. But having acknowledged this, we have to remember He tells us in His Word how it ordinarily goes — that is where we find our operating orders. And in His Word He tells us that sincere Hindus are dead in their transgressions and sins, and not that they are making their way to heaven as best they know how.
This relates to the central confusion in Stackhouse’s version of the inclusivist position.
“All I am arguing for here is that we do not confine salvation to this normal mode, shutting off any other possibilities and therefore implying, if we don’t say so outright, that millions of people have been lost forever simply because they lived in Asia, or Europe, or Africa, or the Americas, or anywhere else before gospel preaching got there.”
But nobody is lost because of where they live. People are lost because they are evil — you know, wicked. Sinful. Now it is possible to say that in a secondary sense someone might be lost because of where they live. An analogy might be death from a particular disease. When someone has a treatable form of cancer, but they live out in the bush where nobody has ever heard of this form of cancer, still less the treatments for it, why does that person die? Does he die because of where he lives? In a trivial secondary sense, yes. But the thing that kills him is the cancer.
The analogy must be pressed, because one of the central features of our sinful nature is its capacity for blame-shifting. If someone who has never heard of Jesus lives his entire life as a grasping, petty, censorious, lustful, greedy fool, what is the basis of his condemnation? At the judgment, he will not be asked, “Why didn’t you ever hear about Jesus?” His condemnation is on the basis of his evil works, and he knew all about those.
Ironically, this is why the inclusivist position requires us to start minimizing (in our own imaginations) how screwed up the world actually is. If we believe that millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists are groping their way to God in the dark, then we have to look out at the world as though it were jammed full of good intentions. And the problem is that it isn’t.
So we don’t proclaim Jesus because we are fixing the problem of “not having heard about Jesus.” We proclaim Jesus because we are addressing the problem of death, genocide, hatred, murder, rape, slave prostitution, senseless war, snarling greed, and as they say on television, much, much more. The problem with the inclusivist position is not that it is eager for the people to be included — every Christian wants that. The problem is that when we define the standard downward like this, at the end of the day we find that we have included much more than the people — we have opened the door to great wickedness as well. This may sound outlandish, but there it is. Tender-hearted accommodation leads to great hardness of heart. And a hardline conservatism at this point, ironically, is tender-hearted.