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On Inclusivism — #1

I mentioned in an online discussion a few weeks back that I am beginning to consider myself an “Inclusivist.” The context of the discussion was Evangelicalism, what are its main tenets, and how do you know when someone’s in or out. (That discussion was mainly in response to Rachel Held Evans’ announcement that she was leaving Evangelicalism because of the World Vision gay marriage controversy.) In that context, I admitted that I’m not towing the line for any particular Christian group or denmoination and that holding to a position of Inclusivism possibly “forces me to the edges of — if not outside of — the parameters of evangelicalism.”

Not surprising to me were the immediate reactions of some to my admission. Several folks said they’d never heard of Inclusivism, one reminded me that Scripture seems to contradict such a position, another suggested that believing Inclusivism could quench evangelistic zeal and give the non-believer “false assurance,” while another called the belief “heresy straight up.” 

As I said on that thread, “Frankly, I don’t care what camp it makes me in or out of. I need to be true to what I understand the Bible to be saying, no matter where it lands me.” I have great respect for other positions that have been hammered out through decades, even centuries, of prayerful study and debate. This is a position I arrived at not because it’s held by any one person or movement, but through my own wrestling with Scripture.

Anyway, as I continue to think this out, and since it seemed of concern to some, I wanted to jot down some brief thoughts on Inclusivism. As I’m seriously pressed for time these days, my entries on this subject will be often short, choppy, and probably disjointed. My apologies.

Inclusivism (at least, as I’ve arrived at it) seems largely a response to the question:

What happens to the “good pagan,” and/or to those  non-Christians and non-Christian cultures who never hear the Gospel? Are they automatically consigned to hell?

I’ve heard this question answered a variety of ways, with extremes on both ends:

  1. The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are eternally damned.
  2. The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are judged on the basis of how they would respond had they heard the Gospel (an appeal to God’s foreknowledge).
  3. The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are judged on the basis of their response to “general revelation” — creation and conscience (infants being excluded until they reach an “age of accountability”).
  4. The unsaved who don’t hear the Gospel are automatically saved.

Of course, there are many variations in between. Many Calvinists and hyper-Calvinist hold to a form of #1, some even admitting that infants who die go to hell. On the other end (#4) are the Universalists, or soft Universalists, who believe that all those without an explicit knowledge of the Gospel are saved. As I see it, #2 and #3 are the most biblically tenable positions because they allow for

  • God’s love and righteous judgment of every individual, and
  • a degree of human culpability, autonomy, and responsibility.

Position #2 seems to be held mostly by some Arminians and by some moderate Calvinists. It integrates the clear biblical teaching of God’s foreknowledge and predestination with an acknowledgment of human free will. This position is represented in Molinism, a system which attempts to reconcile God’s providence with human free will.

Molinists hold that in addition to knowing everything that does or will happen, God also knows what His creatures would freely choose if placed in any circumstance.

Two noteworthy adherents to the Molinist position are apologists and philosophers William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. (You can find a brief Q&A with Craig regarding Molinism vs. Calvinism HERE.) Dr. Craig has proffered an interesting speculation about the fate of the “good pagan” or “unreached person” in light of his Molinistic view. Because of God’s foreknowledge or “middle knowledge, He could allow only those whom He knows will NOT accept the Gospel to be born outside its reach. Thus, those pagans or unreached peoples who do not hear the Gospel are those who, if they were given the chance to, would have rejected the Gospel. In this way, both God’s love and righteous judgment and human responsibility and autonomy are served.

Inclusivism falls into the category of #3 — God neither automatically damns or saves anyone based on their proximity to the Gospel; he judges them according to the Light and Law they have and their embrace or rejection of these revelations. In this sense, making broad judgments on any one people (or age) group is impossible.

As C.S. Lewis famously put it in Mere Christianity:

“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”

In this sense, Inclusivists affirm the clear biblical teaching of Christ’s exclusivity (Jn. 14:6). We know that Christ is the only way. What we don’t know are the many ways to Christ.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Suzan Robertson April 24, 2014, 6:28 AM

    Mike, I don’t necessarily think Calvinism takes position #1 or #2, as I understand it. Calvinism believes in grace and regeneration by God alone, which lines up with your CS Lewis quote. Even if a pagan doesn’t ever hear the Gospel, he/she may be part of the Bride of Christ, chosen before the foundation of the world. Regeneration doesn’t always need Gospel preaching because it is solely God’s work and He can regenerate anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any circumstances, whether they’ve heard the Gospel from missionaries or radio, or whatever. Now, God often chooses to do His salvation work by using believers for sure. But:

    All truth is God’s truth.

    In returning to the concept of regeneration, if salvation is the work of God alone, then you are correct – God can choose to change a heart and turn it toward Christ, no matter what path they are on. He did it with me. I was a new age tarot card reading pagan witch. No one preached the gospel to me, although I read an eschatology book. After I finished the book, I did not even have a minute to ponder what I’d read. I did not “make a decision.” God pulled me out of the pit and changed my heart. It was like being hit by a train.

    I think that the word “inclusivism” isn’t the best word to describe what you are talking about, as it sounds a lot like universalism. I think that no matter who you are, where you are, and what road you are on, if/when God desires to change your heart and turn it toward Him, He can and He will.

    Hope that all makes sense. Haven’t had a second cup of coffee yet. 🙂

  • Brent King April 24, 2014, 8:40 AM

    CS Lewis nailed it! From my own viewpoint, I wonder why there are even differences of interpretation on this subject. The logic of it seems too clear to me.

    The vast majority of humans that have lived on this planet since the fall have not heard of Jesus or even of the plan of salvation. Can a fair God damn all of these men to hell because they had no chance to know the name of Jesus? Men can only respond to God according to their state of knowledge and can they be held responsible for something they have never had a chance to know? This makes it clear to me that all men are saved through the blood of Jesus, but not all men who are saved have heard of that blood.

    I talk further on this on my blog @

  • Kat Heckenbach April 24, 2014, 10:21 AM

    Glad you’re posting your thoughts on this. It’s something I’m curious about. No comments to make yet–just wanted you to know I appreciate you expanding on the topic here.

  • Travis Perry April 24, 2014, 11:50 AM

    The only thing I’m absolutely certain of on this topic is that the preaching of the gospel is necessary. I feel I can easily rule out number #4.

    However, while I dislike #1 for a number of reasons, I don’t feel I can absolutely rule it out. The Scripture does more of dropping hints on this topic that saying anything with absolute clarity. In my opinion.

    I actually find BOTH #2 and #3 plausible under differing circumstances. #2 especially for the death of infants. Because if you seek out Scripture to prove the “age of accountability” concept you’ll find yourself looking at specific instances where Jesus said let the children come and other bits that are not really on the topic in context. (If the concept of “age of accountability” were true, abortion would be an incredibly effective tool of Evangelism–a lot of those aborted kids would go to hell if they grew up, right? Clearly there is something messed up with this idea…) #3 I find more plausible for adults who have had a chance to see the world and make choices. (To me, both these options are subsets of one thing–God considering individual circumstances, which I find highly plausible.)

    So while I think your doctrinal position may be at least partially true, I don’t think you can PROVE it is true from the Bible. I think we are left with a certain level of uncertainty on this topic. Which may well be a deliberate choice on God’s part–after all, our command is to preach the Gospel. The rest is up to Him…

  • Jill April 24, 2014, 11:51 AM

    Mike, I don’t think these musings fall under heresy. At all. For my part, I allow that God can reach those he wants to reach the way he wants to do it, and far be it from me to tell God he can’t because of my own limited understanding of God’s Word. That doesn’t make me any less hesitant to accept personal revelation. One is an acceptance that God is omnipotent and omniscient; the other is my acceptance that men are not.

  • D.M. Dutcher April 24, 2014, 12:29 PM

    “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

    1 Peter 3:19-20a

    R.L. Copple talked about the Harrowing of Hell on specfaith, and there’s an argument that Christ descended into hell to preach to the dead during the days between Crucifixion and resurrection.

    I have an idea myself for a story that I need to write (my own heresy I guess.) The problem with us is that we see time as a linear progression and unalterable. What if it really isn’t? What if the Crucifixion works backwards in time, and God alters past history as well as future events? We can’t know really because we are on one point of a timeline, and can’t see the past branch out. God can act in any time or point in history as He chooses though. It would make for an interesting work of fiction at least.

  • A.J. April 24, 2014, 6:32 PM

    CS Lewis was Catholic, no? The Catholic Church has always taught that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. However, in the mid last century, they “developed” the doctrine to allow virtually everyone to be saved. And they used the same reasoning – we only know where the vidible church ends, not the invisible church.

    If salvation can only come through Jesus or His Church, but they might extend to cover everyone, then its unnecessary to spread the gospel. It might even be evil if giving somebody knowledge might cause their damnation by giving them the opportunity to reject the gospel.

    • Jill April 25, 2014, 9:49 AM

      No, he wasn’t Catholic.

  • Nick Houze April 25, 2014, 12:36 PM

    I am not a Universalist. There will be humans in the Lake of Fire. However, in John 3, those who are condemned already are those who actively disbelieve. There are a great many people between belief and disbelief. Paul clearly states that all men are without excuse, as the Creation itself declares the truth that there is God. Also, no man can be saved apart from Jesus’ atoning death (Acts 4:12). Nonetheless, I remain convinced that for those who have never truly heard the Gospel that God will judge them according to their response to the light that they do have. The problem for those like this is that the lower their degree of light, the harder it is to see. Only in Christ do we have the greatest light.

  • sally April 26, 2014, 10:55 AM

    Mike, thanks for continuing the discussion. Great things to ponder here.

    The problem comes for me with the idea of a “good pagan.” The Bible teaches that all the animals begat after their own kind and that sinful Adam and Eve, who had fallen short of the glory of God, begat sinful children who were also fallen short of the glory of God.

    So I don’t see how there can be a “good pagan.”

    Mike, I think you and I agree on this: there is no one righteous, no not one.

    So I hear you saying that you are investigating whether or not the pagan, who is conceived in iniquity, as we all are, must have faith in the blood of Christ in order to be saved by the blood of Christ.

    You tell us that one belief is that the unsaved who haven’t heard the Gospel are judged on the basis of how they would have responded had they heard.

    I have to wonder why God commands us to pray for workers to go into the harvest field if he is planning to save people who have never heard?

    The church has not historically believed that men could be saved without the gospel being preached. Why, all of a sudden, in our sin-besotted land, have so many Christians discovered this new truth? We live in a time and place where we have come to love our comforts. We loathe idea of even being dissed on Facebook for our faith, let alone the idea of actually traveling to bug-infested jungles and possibly dying for our faith. It feels a little convenient, then, that we have suddenly found this new truth that God is saving people without the preaching of the gospel.

    God commands us still to go out and make disciples, and he allows so many to be martyrs for the sake of the gospel. So many have been tortured and killed. Why would he command them to go into danger if his way of saving unreached peoples doesn’t require the preaching of the gospel?

    You tell us another theory is that people who have never heard the gospel are to be judged on the basis of their response to “general revelation” — creation and conscience.

    So when the Bible says we are saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves, it is a gift of God, so that no man should boast (Eph. 2:8-9), I take it people who hold to the “general revelation” theory believe these verses are speaking only to those who have heard the gospel. And they believe others who have not heard are saved by grace without faith.

    Are they suggesting men might be saved because they see the stars and believe in intelligent design and because these men who believe in intelligent design also obey their consciences?

    What does that mean? How good is good enough and how much sin is too much?

    They are saved because they are kind to their neighbors? Because they love and obey Allah, or Vishnu, or Buddha, or whichever god they believe? Because they don’t pollute? Because they don’t rape children?

    Are these things good enough for them to be saved apart from faith in Christ?

    And how much bad is bad enough to send them to hell? If they love their children and never sexually molest another person, but they refuse to give food to the widow begging on the street, do they go to hell? If the abortionist loves his neighbors and sincerely believes that he’s doing women a good service when he performs third-trimester abortions, and if he pays to put orphans through school, does he go hell? A man can be sincere and still be wrong. Does it not matter if a man is wrong? Does God save based on how sincere he is?

    I’m not trying to be sarcastic. I’m asking serious questions. If faith in Christ is not required to be saved, what exactly is required?

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 27, 2014, 7:31 AM

    Mike, because I know you take Scripture seriously and because you said you’re leaning toward inclusivism because of what the Bible says, I’m hoping in Part 2 or 3 or some point down the line, you’ll show us how God’s Word lines up with either points two or three above.

    I mean, I can hypothesize any number of ways that God could act, but I don’t have Scripture to say incontrovertibly that this is what He said He’d do.

    We do have incontrovertible Scripture that says he who believes will be saved. We even have “anecdotal evidence” from Ezekiel 3 and 33 that he who doesn’t hear will be lost. So, I guess I’d like to see from God’s Word something definitive about this position.


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