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Christian View on the Salvation of Non-Christian
In dealing with this topic, there are 4 major views: universalism, pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. We will define each of this term in Christian context. Universalism views that everyone will be saved. Pluralism views that all religion will lead to salvation. Inclusivism views that Christianity is the absolute truth, but salvation is also accessible to those outside of Christianity; this is mainly embraced by several mainline Protestant and also the Catholics. Exclusivism views that outside of Christianity there is no salvation; this is also embraced by some groups within Christianity. The Protestant and Catholic view on this topic will be discussed.
Catholics and Eastern Orthodox tradition
Catholics are embracing inclusivism since the Vatican II council. Before that, they believe that salvation is only in the Catholic church, which means that Protestant are also condemned to hell. Now they are open to the possibility of salvation in other religions. They believes that “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.”1 In regard to those unevangelized, the Roman Catholic Church recognises the “Baptism of Desire”, which means the fruit of baptism is brought about as a result of their desire to be baptised. “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”2 Hence, the Catholic church stated in Vatican II Council that they places a high regard for the practices from other religion that reflect a ray of truth that will enlighten humanity. The Eastern Orthodox Christian have similar doctrine of baptism of desire and hence categorized as inclusivist.
In Protestant tradition however, salvation is through faith alone and not baptism. Baptism is done to obey and follow the example of Jesus Christ, hence no issue of baptism for the unevangelized. For the salvation of those unevangelized, some are adhering to inclusivism and some to exclusivism. Some famous inclusivist includes C. S. Lewis, John Wesley, John E. Sanders, John Stott, and many others. Those that embraces exclusivism back their claim on John 14:6: “Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me...” (NIV) and also Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (NIV) as well as other verses in the Scripture. Those who embrace inclusivist based their argument both from the Bible and philosophy. It is quite insurmountable to imagine that God will punish those people who have never heard about him. Our God is a loving God and he is longing for the salvation of humanity. “Sanders argues that God has ways of making himself known to all people, so that they can receive the redemption he offers.”3
C. S. Lewis mention an inclusivist claim in his famous writing 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?”4 In his famous novel, The Chronicles of Narnia, this point is made implicit and beautiful in his last book, The Last Battle. Emeth (which means truth in Hebrew) is serving the god Tash the whole of his life. However, his truth-seeking heart leads him to Aslan, the creator of Narnia, in the after-world.5 In other words, Lewis is depicting God as justifying a heathen that is faithful to the light that he had. For more details, read The Spirituality of Narnia.
It may be helpful to distinguish between Christian and 'believers'.6 “Believers are those who have responded to general revelation and exercised the faith principle of responding to God; however deficient their theology they are made acceptable to God on the basis of this faith.”7 Whereas Christians are those who know the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ explicitly. Of course, this does not imply that there is salvation out of Jesus Christ. What it means is that although these people do not know God, God knows them. The important issue is not that we know God, but God knows us. These people are also cleansed and redeemed only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Note that this view does not contradict John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 mentioned above.
In handling this topic, Catholics (and Orthodox) and Protestant differs only in the interpretation about the necessity of Baptism. The Scripture teaches us that Jesus was baptized and he ordered us to be baptized also, and this is the only thing that we surely know. Catholics has a high regard for the sacrament of baptism and salvation is achieved through this sacrament, whereas Protestant did not agree on this matter. Regarding those people that is unevangelized and from other religions, the Bible mentions to us that Jesus is the only way for salvation; there is no other way. It can be used for both inclusivism and exclusivism, though rationally inclusivism is more refined. Just as it is stated above, human beings may be able to judge whether we know God, but we will never know whether God knows us. C. S. Lewis put it best: “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 through Him.”8
1Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 1257
2Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 1260
3J. Sanders, No other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
4C. S. Lewis, ’Mere Christianity’ in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 60
5C. S. Lewis, ’The Last Battle’ in The Chronicles of Narnia (London: HarperCollins, 2008), p. 756-757.
6C. Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: the Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
7Alan M. Linfield, “Sheep and Goats: Current Evangelical Thought On The Nature of Hell and The Scope of Salvation,” Evangelical Review of Theology 21.1 (Jan. 1997): 51-62.
8C. S. Lewis, ’Mere Christianity’ in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 60