One Hell of a Sleight-of-Hand
I’ve got all these thoughts going on now and I’ve got to get them out. Brian left an insightful comment on my pluralism/inclusivism/exclusivism post from April. I argued for a separation between theological exclusivism (the belief that those who do not believe as we do are wrong) and soteriological exclusivism (the belief that those who do not believe as we do are not saved). He wrote:
(1) Your proposal concerning theological and soteriological exclusivism/pluralism only works if it can be proven that within a theological construct, exclusivism or pluralism is not a central element. If it is, then we cannot separate dogmatism concerning a particular theology from the declaration of that theology concerning who is and is not saved.
Thanks for your comment, Brian. First off, the pronouncement of soteriological exclusivism on the basis of theological exclusivism has such drastic consequences that I cannot help but ask myself, what if a piece of the puzzle is put together wrong? What if we have misunderstood the way the atonement works? What if salvation is an issue about knowing God instead of an issue of eternal destiny? Who are those people standing outside the New Jerusalem (Rev 22.24-27) after all the sinners have been thrown into the lake of fire(in 20.15)? We must resist answering these questions too smugly.
Have you ever done this little sight test. Read the the words in the triangles on the picture. Read them out loud. Go ahead. Do it right now.
If you thought it said, “Paris in the spring,” “Bird in the hand,” and “Once in a lifetime,” you are wrong. Read them again. This time put your finger on each word as you say it. The words the and a are repeated in each triangle. In our quickness to make judgments, it can be easy to miss important details. My point is simply that it is so easy to be wrong.
But my real issue is that I think we miss the point when seekers ask about soteriological exclusivism. The typical response seems to go: (1)The fact that hell awaits those who reject Jesus is inherent in our theology, (2)Our theology is plausible based on other factors (things like manuscript evidence or arguments for the resurrection), therefore (3)The fact that hell awaits those who reject Jesus is plausible. But internal consistency was not the issue behind the seeker’s question. I think most seekers have no problem with (2) unless it leads to (3). The plausibility of Christian theology is undermined by soteriological exclusivism.
The conclusion of my argument in the original post bears repeating:
The problem many of my friends have with Evangelical Christianity, I would suggest, is not its claim to theological exclusivism. It is rather in the fact that traditional evangelical theology includes a harsh pronouncement of soteriological exclusivism. I am not convinced that our faith has a strong enough epistemic foundation to make such bold exclusivist claims. I think what people find offensive is not when we claim “Jesus is Lord,” but when we claim “if you don’t believe the gospel you will go to hell.” To conflate the two forms of exlusivism and then defend theological exclusivism seems to me a rhetorical sleight-of-hand which does not really address the issues my non-Christian friends typically have.