When a theology just doesn't feel right...

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This week’s posts challenge the fundamentalists position of exclusivism-the theology that salvation is available only to those who explicitly confess faith in Jesus Christ, leaving out the billions of people throughout history who either never heard of Jesus or who were raised in religious traditions other than Christianity. 

Having been taught my whole life that exclusivism was the only truly biblical position, I nearly gave up on the Christian faith altogether when my moral objections to it became too overwhelming for me to ignore. At the heart of the issue was the fact that exclusivism just didn’t feel right to me, it didn’t fit with my very core sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of good and evil. 

I shared the reservations of Elton Trueblood, who wrote of exclusivism: “Such a scheme is neat and simple, but it is morally shocking…A God who would thus play favorites with his children, condemning some to eternal separation from himself while admitting others, and distinguishing them wholly or chiefly on the basis of the accidents of history or geography, over which they had no control, would be more devil than God.” 

But whenever I worked up the courage to question exclusivism,  someone inevitably fired back, “who are you to question your Creator? If you have a problem with people going to hell, then take it up with Him.” Believing Calvin’s theology to be God’s theology, any moral or emotional reservations are rendered moot. As one of my friends put it in an e-mail recently,  “If God says that the moon is made of green cheese, then the moon is made of green cheese despite what the scientists and my own senses might say. Everything God does is right, so if He condemns millions of men, women, and children to eternal torment, then I have to be okay with that. It’s got nothing to do with how I feel.”  

If I had a penny for every time I was told that my reservations on this matter were the result of my accommodating to a humanistic culture,  I could afford the ACLU membership fees apparently needed to support my habit. Such “sentimentalism,” I’ve been told, comes from the misguided assumption that human beings deserve mercy. The reason I have a problem with the idea of people suffering eternally without the chance to be saved is because my sense of justice is perverted by my sin nature. This is a common argument, and one set forth by  David George Moore in his book entitled The Battle for Hell. “It must be stated quite emphatically that our sense of justice is perverted, twisted, and distorted,” he writes. “What we as humans deem to be fair can many times be far removed from what God says.” (p. 29) 

I can accept this idea to an extent, but it raises another serious question: If my sin nature perverts my sense of right and wrong to the point that I should not listen to my conscience, should I refrain from making judgment calls altogether? Is it not, dare I say, a bit of an argument in support of moral relativism? 

C.S. Lewis describes the sense of right and wrong that exist in every person’s conscience as the Moral Law written on our hearts. Although our hearts and minds are corrupted by our sin nature, this sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of love and hate, remains an important part of who we are and deserves our attention. I believe that, if my conscience tells me it is unjust for someone who never heard the gospel to suffer eternal torture for being born at the wrong place at the wrong time, I should listen to that conscience. If my heart tells me something is wrong, I’m not going to ignore it because Calvin says it isn’t real. 

Now, someone will probably post an angry comment saying that the authority of Scripture should supercede any moral objections to exclusivism, that God’s Word trumps those gut feelings that there might be a problem. 

But what if Scripture doesn’t necessarily support exclusivism?

While I have a great deal of respect for the many godly people I know  who subscribe to the theology of exclusivism, I no longer believe that it is the only biblical view. In fact, I would argue that the Bible actually has more support for an inclusive view of salvation than it has for an exclusive view of salvation. (See the previous post for references.

Also encouraging is the diversity of scholarship on the subject found within the Christian tradition. Christian history is full of theologians who struggled with the problem of the unevangelized and who posed a wide variety of ideas about it. From Origen’s hope that salvation will eventually be received by all, to Karl Rahner’s assertion that other religions can serve as pointers to Christ, to Clark Pinnock’s biblical case for a more optimistic view of salvation, I’ve found that tucked away in the dusty corners of Christian libraries is a wealth of scholarship on the subject. 

All my life I’ve  been taught that the Church is at its best when the theology is consistent and everyone agrees with one another, but when my very faith was on the line, it was the diversity of the Christian tradition that offered me so much hope. 

As I’ve worked my way through Scripture, I’ve come to realize how horribly I misjudged God when I assumed that certain theological interpretations of Him defined Him. Doubting what I thought was a core tenant of Christianity was an incredibly difficult experience, and I confess that the anger and frustration I felt often led to sinful challenges to God’s authority and insensitive remarks to other people. There’s no excuse for it. 

And  yet, I’m glad I listened to my conscience and questioned a theology that simply didn’t feel right to me. Doing so has brought me down a path of spiritual exploration that has renewed my sense of awe for God’s love and mercy and for the universal reach of His redemption. 

My hope is that, as more people listen to their intuition, the conservative evangelical community will reassess its position on the destiny of the un-evangelized.

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