What the Hell? (Part 4): The Road is Wider than You Think

In the last section we discovered what exclusionism is and one potential problem. One of the counters to exclusionism is inclusivism, which is a hard belief to describe because there are multiple views. How do we determine what inclusivism entails? The simple truth is we can’t; to some, believing that some Roman Catholics will go to Heaven makes one an inclusivist, while others would say such a belief still falls within the exclusionist camp. Perhaps the best way to describe inclusivism is, “Those who believe that salvation is ultimately a mystery and up to God, that it is not known by a set of rules or steps, and ultimately some will end up with Him and others will end up separated from Him.”

Now, when most theologians speak of inclusivism, they are referring to people who believe that some or all who have never heard about Christ will end up in Heaven; after all, if they didn’t know of Christ, how could they be guilty? Many exclusionist point out that we’re guilty of sin simply by being human, so even if a person has never heard of Christ, he is condemned to Hell. Others may argue that even if we’re not guilty by being human, we have at least sinned and therefore are condemned. It’s not a matter of God sending good people to Hell because there’s no such thing as a good person.

But the inclusivists will argue that God is a God of mercy and that He won’t condemn a person to Hell simply because that person was born in the wrong area of the world. In fact, inclusivist would teach that at the Final Judgment, many more people would be saved than we expect because salvation is about God’s victory. They would point out that in the Old Testament, people were saved without knowledge of Christ, but rather out of faith that there was someone coming. In that faith, they acted appropriately towards God.

A perfect Biblical example is that of Abraham who was counted as a hero of faith and a friend of God. Yet this same Abraham, out of fear, let a king sleep with his wife and in turn slept with his wife’s servant. Even with all these moral failures, Abraham was still in paradise before Christ died. This means that though Abraham still led a somewhat pagan life and had no knowledge of Christ, he was still saved.

Many inclusivist point out that the idea of Hell having more people than Heaven isn’t really a Biblical idea. While we know that the “gate to destruction is wide,” some inclusivist would argue that this refers to the present age rather than eternal damnation. In turn, they look to Revelation 7:9, which points out that the redeemed exceed a number. Such language is idiomatic of a large number of people, far more than the miniscule number predicted by exclusionists (or so say the inclusivists).

One mistake that many people make – most notably David Platt in his book Radical – is confusing inclusivism with pluralism. While inclusivism teaches that some people from other religions with no knowledge of Christ will be saved (all according to God’s mercy and what Christ accomplished on the cross), none of them teach that ignorance saves a person or that all those ignorant of Christ will be saved. That would be pluralism, which teaches that some religions are so similar to Christianity that everyone is saved. Inclusivism simply deals with the cognitive knowledge of Christ that because some people lack that knowledge, they still might be saved. A pluralist is going to say that one can follow Buddha’s path or the Six Pillars of Islam and be saved (that those actually save a person) whereas an inclusivist is going to say that anyone who is saved is saved through Christ alone, in spite of what the person has done.

The inclusivist will point to Scriptures such as 2 Samuel where David says he will see his son in Heaven, or to passages such as 1 Corinthians 12-14, where it’s implied that some people worship God without knowledge or go to Heaven without knowledge. After all, David’s son had no set of propositions concerning Jesus, yet ended up in Heaven. Why is that? Because he was ultimately innocent and God, in His mercy, looked upon him with favor. To the tribe who has never heard about Christ, they will argue that some people simply know there is more, they know there is a God, and they do their best to please Him through natural revelation about God. These are people who if they heard about Christ, they would accept Him. For this, God grants them mercy.

The potential problems with an inclusivist viewpoint:

One of the first problems is the question, “Then what saves us?” Or better, “how are we saved?” If salvation is ultimately a mystery and not built upon propositions about Christ, then how can we know if we’re really saved?

The other problem is that it really pits God’s mercy against His judgment; we say that God holds off His judgment in order to appeal to His mercy, which is fine for those who have heard about Christ, but what about those who haven’t? How can their sins be covered if they’ve never accepted Christ?

A universalist or pluralist might argue that inclusivists are just simply afraid to abandon the idea of Hell; they keep it around for the worst offenders, but when it comes down to it, they use the same arguments universalists do, just not to the same degree.

Other potential problems with inclusivism will be explored in the next post on universalism.