by Rodney Clapp
Rodney Clapp is a senior writer for Christianity Today. He lives in Oak Brook, Illinois.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 28, 2004 pp. 26-30. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Is there no salvation except through Christ? The author suggests we might take a lesson from earlier Christians who did not assume God’s judgment on others, but worried first and foremost about their own shortcomings.
According to the claims of classical Christianity, there can be no salvation except through Christ. So what of those who reject or apparently never receive an invitation to join the party? Does God’s generosity, and the generosity of classic Christian spirituality, extend only so far? If spurned, does God turn to spite and everlasting punishment?
Clearly the language of scripture and the tradition can be dramatic and severe on this point. There is in both no little talk of hellfire and God’s implacable wrath. Heard from some distance, such talk often terminates any consideration of God or Christian spirituality as loving, generous and compassionate. But it is such distance -- as well as the church’s own clumsiness and sometime vindictiveness – that is the problem. When we draw a little closer to the tradition, we may see that the (inescapable and significant) doctrines of judgment have a place but can take on a light different from the red glow of hate.
It is affirmed in most if not every quarter of orthodox Christianity that God desires the salvation -- the willing and celebratory personal communion -- of all. This entails the preservation of human freedom. God will never give up on any community or person, but God will not override the rejection of God by any community or person. In the kingdom of God, as in any party, the more the merrier. But full and ultimate salvation really is this personal communion, this divine party. Those who reject the invitation made in Israel and Christ cannot, by the nature of the case, enjoy the party. Thus the call or invitation to the party is enthusiastic and even urgent.
The Christian conviction on this count is like the modern rhetoric about diet and physical exercise. Exactly because our doctors believe we will be better and happier human beings for it, they and others often speak quite urgently and drastically about proper exercise and dieting. They tell us we must mount the exercise bikes and cut out the fatty foods, or die. Of course, we will not die immediately or lose any hope of happiness if we persist with couch vigils and pizzas. But we could have so much more -- fit, energetic bodies and alert minds -- that the couch and pizzas are death by comparison.
On a much greater scale, the invitation to salvation is similar life now and everlastingly in personal communion with the triune God is true and full life. Anything short of it can only be death by comparison. The prophets and apostles speak urgently for a reason.
Drawing closer to the tradition of classical Christian spirituality, we can see that much of the talk of judgment is directed first and foremost at those who have met God in Jesus Christ. In the Old and New Testament alike, the strongest condemnatory language is addressed to other members in the nation of Israel and in the church. Judgment begins "with the household of God" (1 Pet. 4:17). The apostle Paul declares, "What have I to do with judging those outside [the church]? Is it not those inside who you are trying to judge?" (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
Jesus says that the only unforgivable sin is rejection of the Holy Spirit, which the tradition has interpreted to apply to someone who has clearly and explicitly known the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, through Christ, but then perversely -- willfully and deliberately -- denounced and rejected that Spirit (Matt. 12:31).
Salvation in Christ is mediated, through scripture, church and sacraments. We know, to our sorrow, that not all mediations of Christ present him truly and winsomely. European Jews in the mid-20th century saw their parents or children hanged by Christian Nazis. African-American slaves were whipped by Christian masters. Muslims now encounter supposedly Christian attitudes at the point of a gun barrel or through mass media entertainment that seems grossly hedonistic, violent and greedy.
Less dramatically, there are many just across the street from Western churches who often see the Bible wielded against them, as a club to beat them over the head. How fully and accurately have these people encountered Christ? Many are rejecting not so much the real and true Christ as ugly and distorted representations of him -- the Savior of the world obscured in a Frankenstein or Mengelian mask.
Traditional Christian spirituality has accounted or allowed for the possibility of these distortions. So the Bible speaks of God’s patience in delaying the end and day of judgment (2 Pet. 3:8-9). The tradition -- never denying that Christ is the only true light -- has conjectured that the light may get through to many people in some form (such as general revelation) without their knowing exactly how to name or identify it. (Imagine that you had never encountered the electric lamp. Then you do. Its light shines objectively, illuminating you and your surroundings, even as you know nothing about electricity and may name it nothing more accurate than "a really bright torch.")
Yet other orthodox Christians, looking to such texts as 1 Peter 3:18-20, have wondered if there may be a postmortem evangelization or after-death revelation of Christ, with the dead meeting Christ perhaps for the first time and in any event more clearly and truly than during their earthly sojourn, and with the chance to choose for or against communion with him.
Again, these are not newfangled or modern ideas: they arise from deep within the tradition and its commitment to a gracious God and, secondarily, to human freedom. As theologian George Lindbeck recently observed, Christians in the first centuries appear to have had an extraordinary combination of relaxation and urgency in their attitude toward those outside the church. On the one hand, they do not appear to have worried about the ultimate fate of the vast majority of the non-Christians among whom they lived. We hear of no crises of conscience resulting from the necessity they were often under to conceal the fact that they were believers even from close friends or kindred. The ordinary Christian, at any rate, does not seem to have viewed himself as a watchman who would be held guilty of the blood of those he failed to warn (Ezek. 3:18).
Yet, on the other hand, missionary proclamation was urgent and faith and baptism were to them life from death, the passage from the old age to the new, So it is at least plausible to suppose that early Christians had certain unrecorded convictions about how God saves unbelievers and how this is related to belief in Christ and membership in the community of faith.
Theologians speculate that such "unrecorded convictions" may include the sort I have just mentioned, general revelation and postmortem evangelization. In any event, we may rest assured that the early Christians looked first to the love and grace of God and to God’s creation and sustenance of human freedom. Unlike some later Christians, they were not ready to assume they knew all the details of salvation and its extent. It is clear that in terms of assuming God’s judgment on anyone, they worried first and foremost about their own shortcomings.
Nor does classical Christian spirituality assume that there are for the dead only two options: heaven and eternal bliss or a hell of great agony and pain. The doctrine of purgatory demonstrates as much. Dante’s rendering of purgatory is especially instructive, allowing as it does a place for the pagan Virgil. Not only does Virgil fail to suffer great punishment, but he reliably guides the (Christian) pilgrim Dante on his spiritual path, leading him to the threshold of paradise.
More recently the Anglican C. S. Lewis, who like Dante drank deeply at the well of Christian orthodoxy, rendered hell not as an undifferentiated expanse of fiery torture but at least in its outer environs as a lonely place for those who want nothing to do with God or others. Lewis’s picture retains both the love and mercy of a gracious God and the enduring reality of human freedom. Those who insist on separating themselves from God live in isolation. It is hell, but hell as freely chosen isolation rather than hell as torture chamber.
This is not to say that such pictures as Dante’s and Lewis’s rule out a hell of active agony. The residents of Dante’s lowest circles of hell, or of Lewis’s farthest distance from heaven, are those who deliberately habituated themselves to unmitigated evil. They have so distorted their humanity that, inescapably faced with final reality, they can only suffer horribly. To again use the metaphor of light, it is as if they have intentionally and so thoroughly accustomed themselves to darkness that even the faintest and most distant glow of truth burns their eyes.
Dante’s Virgil suggests yet another possibility, quite compatible with orthodoxy, for followers of the great spiritual traditions other than Christianity. (Here I can barely sketch a picture more compellingly presented in S. Mark Heim’s extraordinary book The Depth of the Riches.) As I mentioned, Virgil’s wisdom and goodness are not entirely denied. Virgil has something to teach the Christian pilgrim in the afterlife, even if Virgil himself does not attain the fullness of paradise. Similarly, we need not pretend that the Buddhist or Hindu or holy person of another faith is necessarily stripped of all real wisdom and goodness after death. In earthly life the Hindu, for example, may through grace and discipline come to know something of the reality of God in Christ. She may finally reach an end that is not salvation -- personal communion with the triune God -- but is an-other religious end.
For the orthodox Christian, this end can be seen only as a lesser end or goal than salvation, just as the Hindu would see the Christian’s personal communion as a less mature and full spiritual goal than a monistic unity with the cosmic principle Brahman. But the traditional Christian can affirm real wisdom and insight in the devoted Hindu’s intense awareness and pursuit of impersonal union with the cosmic principle underlying and sustaining reality. After all, Christians understand God not simply as personal and transcendent but also as immanent in creation, undergirding and upholding it by "natural law" or other impersonal means. From the Christian vantage point it is better, of course, to know God more fully and triunely, yet the Hindu may -- in this world and in the coming new world -- have something to teach the Christian about meditation or about God’s willingness to empty God’s self (Phil. 2:5-8).
Far from simply being generous, this view strikes me as an occasion for Christian sobriety and humility. A Gandhi or a Dalai Lama might travel farther and more faithfully on their paths than many Christians have on the way toward Christ. Inasmuch as they have been drawn to a true vision of an aspect of the true God, they can be the Christian’s worthy -- if not final or only -- teachers.
So classical Christian spirituality is and can be generous without relinquishing its convictions and worshipful practices centered on Christ as the unique, only and final Savior of the world. It is the Creator-Redeemer God who sustains the cosmos, whether or not every person in the world consciously knows this. The rain falls and the sun shines "on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45). Christ’s death and resurrection saved and will save the world from self-destruction. At history’s end, the Christian faith and hope could be proven wrong (just as other faiths and philosophies will be proven wrong if creation is consummated in the kingdom of God). Of course, orthodox Christian conviction and practice is not regarded by those committed to it as wrong or false. Classical Christian spirituality is grounded in what its adherents take as objective reality -- objective in the sense of being true whether or not any given person thinks or feels it to be true.
Imagine children raised in a cave, never allowed outside. Unless told, they would know nothing of the sun. Yet the sun would remain an objective reality -- indeed, a very important one -- of their world. The cave-reared children would be aware only of the light and heat of a wood-burning fire, yet it would remain true that the heat of the sun affects the cavern’s temperature. The light and heat of the sun enables the production of earthly oxygen, breathed by and sustaining the children despite their cavernous ignorance.
Likewise, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ have in fact changed the direction of the world, knocking it out of an orbit of perdition into the orbit of life. All, whether they know it or not, are affected by this changed reality. And all who are saved are saved through Christ and Christ’s work. Furthermore, Christians trust that the God met in Jesus Christ is gracious and desires reciprocal love, which means that God honors human freedom (and which in turn means, among other things, that there is a hell). Finally, Christians believe that God alone is judge of any and all -- the eternal destiny of persons is not in human hands. For orthodox Christian spirituality, that much is clear. What exactly happens after death to those who never hear the name of Christ, or those who hear it in a distorted fashion and reject it, is not so clear. I have suggested some possibilities, each deeply rooted in the tradition, so that each honors all the basic, clear truths just mentioned.
I realize some Christians will be made nervous by anything short of a stark assertion that those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior in this life will go to eternal life with God, while those who do not explicitly affirm Christ here and now will go to a hell of strict torment. Among other things, they will worry that any complication of the severely binary picture of human destiny may lessen Christian enthusiasm for evangelism and missions.
I would answer that salvation is much more than a matter of what happens to the individual, disembodied soul after death. Classical Christian spirituality is bodily as well as soulful, social no less than individual, and arrives at eternity not by skipping history and time but by passing through them. If trusting in and following Christ is participation in the healing of the cosmos ("physical" and "spiritual") of a divided world, and of the whole person (body as well as soul), there is every reason to proclaim it immediately and enthusiastically and to invite others to ultimate life and health sooner rather than later.
Imagine this scenario. Fishing in a river, I am drawn into a current and hit my head against a rock. I fall unconscious and am drowning. A woman passing in a canoe sees me go under and rescues me. She saves my life, though I am unaware of this event because I am unconscious. Then I am ashore and breathing and will live another day even though I do not know it at the moment. Now suppose that for one reason or another my rescuer cannot wait until I regain consciousness and must hurry away. When I rouse, I am alive and well, albeit with a knot on my head. This will remain a fact whether or not I ever learn the identity of my rescuer. My very life proves that I have been rescued. Footprints and mud flattened by a dragged body (as well as the knot on my head) prove that the accident and the rescue were no dream. Someone saved me. But who? Profoundly, I will want to thank my rescuer. It will only enhance my joy to see and know her. Here ignorance is not bliss -- my gratitude will only be enlarged and completed if I know my rescuer. On this count I would rather not remain agnostic.
To get closer to the Christian understanding of salvation, we need to enrich the picture. Suppose that I come from a race of folk who dwell on an island. Suppose I and my people have known only this island. We have feared leaving it because the river surrounding it is huge, and we have thought that the whole world consisted of our island and the river. In our fear and fragmentary knowledge we have never learned how to swim or how to build canoes. There are vague rumors about sightings of canoeists, who my people have seen as creatures with a single long, flat wooden leg gliding across the river’s surface. Some dismiss these as delusional myths or hallucinations, while others wonder if the wooden-legged gliders are gods from another world.
Like a Hollywood screenwriter, let us add another twist or complication to the plot. Not only have my people believed that our island is all of the world. Not only have we failed to learn how to swim or build canoes. In addition, the river is rising and our island is flooding. Some have responded to the river’s rising with fervent supplication to our gods. Others, the more fatalistic among us, simply try to live for today and today only. What is unknown to us is that there is, just beyond eyesight, not simply another island but an entire continent, and that there are dwellers on other (unknown) islands who have discovered the continent and have learned how to swim, how to build canoes, and much else.
If all this is the case, knowing my rescuer is all the more urgent and worthwhile. Not only can I thank her and live in a manner worthy of her efforts, but she can teach me (and my people) how to swim, how to build canoes, how to navigate the river. She can even, from her people’s advanced explorations, tell us of the teeming continent, an "island" bigger than our river, a whole other world. In our fears and limitations, it will be a while before we can visit the continent. But following and learning from the rescuer, some of us, bold and most learned in canoe building and handling, occasionally catch glimpses of it -- and of its stupendous promises and joys.
Christ and his salvation are somewhat like this analogy. Our world (our island) is sinking. Our rescuer enables all of us to escape to another island and live now. Our rescuer not only saves us to breathe another day but deepens and extends that salvation by teaching us how to swim and catch glimpses of another and greater world. Christ’s salvation is eternal life ultimately for a renewed, perfected heaven and earth -- a bounteous continent at which we may someday arrive. But it is also incipient eternal life now, in this day and age. Learning how to swim and build canoes will fit us for life on the continent and indeed enable us to arrive there. But it will also serve well and profoundly now, on the island of our limitations.
Venturing to other islands before we arrive at the continent, the new and mended world, we meet others who can teach us a thing or two. Our community of life will grow and deepen and take on unanticipated shades of beauty. We will hope the best for all we meet, even if they do not join our community now. Above all, we will rejoice that we have been saved, body and soul. The birds fly in a bigger sky. The dappled fish drift in a river lapping on its other side against the banks of a renewed and undying world.
All this, because the Word became flesh and tented among us.