Do you ‘Really’ Need to Know Jesus to Go to Heaven?
This essay will take an analytical look at the pseudo-theology of Inclusivism, as described by Ronald H. Nash, in his book, Is Jesus the Only Savior? Nash presents the two major axioms of Inclusivism as: 1) “The Particularity Axiom” focuses on Jesus Christ as the only mediator of salvation. 2) “The Universality Axiom” expresses the inclusivist’s “belief that God must make salvation available to all human beings, including everyone who lived before Christ outside the sphere of Jewish influence and everyone since Christ who has lived without hearing about the gospel” (Nash, 106). Without a clear understanding of these inclusivist axioms, it would be difficult for the reader to understand Nash’s arguments against inclusivism and the subsequent argument for Christian exclusivism.
Nash approaches the subject of inclusivism by largely dealing with the works of inclusivists, John Sanders and Clark Pinnock. Nash maintains a strong Christian exclusivist’s position on the subject of salvation. With the use of a strong scriptural hermeneutic, sound reason, and a literal interpretation of the Scriptures; Nash effectively dismantles the theories of the proponents of inclusivism and he properly elevates Christian exclusivism to its rightful place in Christian thinking. Although, there are sections in the book where his Calvinism bears heavily upon his overall assessment; Nash’s major conclusions are solid in rendering the theory of inclusivism absurd.
Amazingly, Sanders and Pinnock label themselves as Evangelical Inclusivists. Yet, they insist that large numbers of un-evangelized people will be saved. Nash points out that many evangelicals “feel” that way, even if they don’t believe the Scripture necessarily teaches such a position. “Inclusivism has become an enormously influential position among evangelicals at the end of the 20th century” (Nash, 175). He quotes Douglas Geivette’s appropriate evaluation of those who are swayed by their feelings more than by Scripture: “Capitulation must come pretty easily when sentiment is a fundamental control on one’s hermeneutics” (Nash, 172). The trend seems apparent; hermeneutical integrity is being replaced by a sentimentality towards a Christ-less majority.
Because of this breakdown in “staying true to the Word” by so many evangelicals; Inclusivism has become a dangerously relevant issue. It has also become an issue among Catholicism. “Indeed, a movement towards inclusivism is one of the major legacies of Vatican Council II (1962-65), which issued a statement declaring that ‘they also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience’” (Nash, 109). The big thinking of German theologian, Karl Rahner is, in large part, responsible for this theological backsliding presently held by the Catholic Church. His ramblings do not imply that Christ is not the only Savior; but, that Christ will save a member of an extra-Christian religion if they are truly devout. Nash points out that Rahner believes these adherents to extra-Christian religions have, in some way, already been touched by Christ; thereby making them “anonymous Christians” (Nash, 110). This belief may work for Rahner but it doesn’t seem to work for the members of traditions like Islam and Hinduism. They definitely do not think themselves to be anonymous Christians.
Clark Pinnock doesn’t seem to follow this notion of anonymous Christians either (according to Nash). He claims that Rahner’s notions “sanctify non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation in the lives of those who call out to God from within paganism” (Nash, 112). Inclusivism is not willing to suggest that non-Christian religions are sufficient for salvation (that would be Pluralism). What they are willing to suggest is, “what God really cares about is faith and not theology, trust and not orthodoxy” (Nash, 113). In essence, the jihadist could be sincerely seeking God; therefore, his heart is in the right place. Nash counters by saying, “even as we grant this, the Bible does not speak of people whose quest for the Ultimate leads them to seek after false gods (Nash, 113).
Still a little fuzzy on what inclusivists actually believe?
The typical argument of evangelicals is that two things are required for saving faith: (1) faith must be directed towards the right object, and (2) the proper object of faith must be approached with certain subjective attitudes, including sincerity and genuine commitment. (Nash, 113).
Inclusivism seems to suggest that what is really necessary is the subjective attitude and sincere commitment, and that it does not matter if the object of their faith is a false god. This smacks of pluralism and sounds a lot like some sort of universalism. Yet inclusivists say “no”. They still insist that universalism lacks biblical support and that universalism cannot do justice to the biblical teaching of a hell. “Inclusivists also disagree with pluralist, who teach that non-Christian religions offer genuine salvation. If non-Christians are saved, inclusivists insist they can only be saved on the basis of the person the work of Jesus Christ, the only Savior.
The crux of Inclusivism’s arguments ultimately leads to its undoing. Proponents of this philosophy believe that “general revelation” is sufficient to bring people to salvation. Nash reminds the reader that general revelation “is revelation that God makes available to all human beings” (Nash, 118). This “general revelation” or knowledge is said to have worked condemnation in humanity, because they held the evident truth of general revelation in unbelief. Scripture testifies that humankind knows the invisible God by the things He created; moreover, “general revelation also gives humans general moral understanding so that certain kinds of conduct are known to be wrong” (Nash, 118). Concerning general revelation, Scripture expressly states, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Romans 1:18,19); and again, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:21). And as Nash points out “[A]ll have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)”. Nash goes on to solidify his position by emphasizing that Romans 1-3 clearly dismiss the idea that followers of non-Christian religions can find salvation through general revelation. Biblical evidence suggests the extreme opposite; according to Bruce Demarest, general revelation serves only to condemn man, not to save him. (Nash, 120).
The inclusivist builds a strawman by arguing, the Jews have special revelation and that none of them seek God either; so therefore it appears that no matter what sort of relation we have, all people are damned to hell. Clearly, this is misleading because not all Jews rejected special revelation. All of the believers in Acts 2 were Jews as were the 3000 converts who responded to Christ at Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. On this fact alone, the strawman is torn to bits. To be clear, Sanders presents this argument, not to dismiss general revelation; but, to reinforce his argument that general revelation must be a sufficient vehicle leading to salvation for all mankind. However, “the inclusivist’s view of general revelation is assumed without biblical warrant and is then used to compromise other important biblical teachings such as Paul’s identification of Christ’s death and resurrection as an essential component of the gospel” (Nash, 122).
Inclusivist’s like Sanders believe that Christian and non-Christian believers will be in heaven. He says that non-Christian believers are those that believe in God and Christians are those who place their faith in the special revelation of the work and person of Jesus Christ. This necessarily draws the conclusion that Jesus need not be the direct object of one’s faith. He says, “People can receive the gift of salvation without knowing the giver or the precious nature of the gift”; further, “God will accept in his kingdom those who repent and trust him even if they know nothing of Jesus” (Nash, 123). According to Pinnock, people are saved by the “faith principle”. He uses Hebrews 11:6 as the proof text for his claim. He states, “according to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not by the content of their theology” (Nash, 123). This begs the question; does not faith require an object? Is not that object Jesus Christ, who is revealed through special revelation? Doesn’t this line of reasoning contradict the inclusivist’s particularity axiom? How does an object-less faith agree to the irreducible inclusivist claim that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man? Although the inclusivist has no feasible rebuttal for such questions; he still insists a faith which is deficient in theological content can be salvific. This way of thinking flies in the face of Scripture and denies its essential nature. Nash comments, “This kind of faith lacks contact with biblical faith and leads to severely anti-biblical consequences “ (Nash, 129).
Nash sites Pinnock as summarizing the most important theological argument for the inclusivist, “If God really loves the whole world and desires everyone to be saved, it follows logically that everyone must have access to salvation” (Nash, 130). In essence, this makes God obligated to man. At this point Nash exhibits his hyper-Calvinistic dogma. He argues for limited atonement, and further implies all other evangelicals who do not hold to this doctrine are Armenians who deny God’s perfect knowledge of future human actions. Nash rightly refutes Pinnock’s assertion that salvation is ultimately up to the person. However, Nash seems to reject that, “salvation is a consequence of humans participating with God. God’s part was providing a Savior; humans’ part involves the use of free will to accept what God has done” (Nash, 132). Although, it is a mystery that God can be sovereign and man has free will to accept or reject God’s offering of salvation; it is not obligatory for God to reveal his salvific work to every person, in every era, and every geographical location. In this case Nash allows his Reformed theology (which is highly contested) to render his argument less palatable.
“Exclusivists and evangelical inclusivists affirm their commitment to the authority of Scripture” (Nash, 137). Yet, interpretation differs on many of the scriptural texts that inclusivists cite in support of inclusivism. One such Scripture reference is the story of Cornelius in Acts 10. The specific reference in this chapter is verse 34 and 35: “then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how to it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.’” Sanders says, “Cornelius was already a saved believer before Peter arrived but he was not a Christian believer” (Nash, 139). This is to imply that anyone who fears a supreme being and does what is right will be accepted by God. Nash counters with, “while fearing God and doing what is right are important elements of the Christian commitment, they do not exhaust what it means to be a saved believer” (Nash, 139). Nash points out that Cornelius was a God-fearer, and not at all different from the Jews who needed to come to an understanding that Jesus was the Messiah who affected salvation. Peter statement in verse 35 is merely a declaration of realization that God was willing to save the “whosoever” of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews. Pinnock hails Cornelius as a “pagan saint” because of his belief in God before he became a Christian. This seems to be a far-reaching claim and fails miserably for the inclusivist’s case. Inclusivists also suggest that Paul’s sermon in Athens, “acknowledges the authenticity of the worship of the men of Athens at the altar to an unknown God” (Nash, 141). Yet, Nash notes that Paul preached Jesus crucified and resurrected in that Mars Hill address. The biblical text explicitly suggests that God would no longer wink at their ignorance, and that all men would be judged because of their sin. Paul’s definitive claim was that all men must trust in Jesus and repent.
Nash offers the overwhelming biblical support for exclusivism, citing several major New Testament texts that suggest salvation is found in none other than Jesus Christ. Pinnock answers these Scriptures by denying them their exclusive properties.
“Pinnock agrees that Jesus is doing something unique and wonderful for the world, but he denies that this is necessarily God’s exclusive way.” In Pinnock’s own words, “but the text does not exclude from eternal salvation the vast majority of people who have ever lived on the earth” (Nash, 146). This inclusivist speculation grows more and more bizarre as one looks at the whole of Scripture.
Nash points to John 14:6 where Jesus declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The question becomes, “what good is a way and the truth and a life that people know nothing about? The words ‘no one comes to the father except through me’ are hardly compatible with inclusivist statements” (Nash, 148).
Near the closing of the book, Nash calls in to question Pinnock’s claim to be an inclusivist. He claims Pinnock supports postmortem evangelism. He effectively disassembles Pinnock’s inclusivism with this blow. Supporters of postmortem evangelism are actually exclusivists. This is true because they believe it is absolutely necessary for a person to make a conscious decision of faith in Jesus Christ (even if it’s after death) in order to be saved. If Pinnock is a supporter of postmortem evangelism, then his claim to be an inclusivist is fraudulent. It would seem that Pinnock and other so-called inclusivist must have their way, at any expense (even at the expense of biblical integrity).
Nash concludes his book with a summary chapter: “WHY I AM NOT AN INCLUSIVIST” (Nash, 163-175). He rightly concludes that inclusivism doesn’t square with Scripture; but, it makes people feel better. Citing J. I. Packer, “inclusivist are more influenced by the ‘American idea of fairness’ than by anything they have learned from Scripture” (Nash, 164).
Nash decries the effect that inclusivism has had on the psychology of missions. He shows that missions have become more ecumenical and less evangelical. In essence, missions as a whole, has become less evangelistic in their practice; while remaining evangelistic in their mission statements. It would seem that inclusivism has found its way (pragmatically) into the mission field. Nash has well said, “Throughout this book I have been arguing that ideas have consequences. In most of it I have tried to show the theoretical or theological consequences of inclusivist ideas. But it is also important to show that inclusivist ideas have practical consequences as well” (Nash, 168). These practical consequences ultimately bleed over into what Pinnock has said “even the atheist who, though rejecting God (as he understands God), responds positively to him implicitly by acts of love shown to the neighbor” (Nash, 170). One might be apt to recall the Words of God found in the Prophet Isaiah, “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who have weakened the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12).
“Weakened the nations” indeed! Inclusivism demands Jesus is the only mediator of salvation. But it also demands that one need not have knowledge of Jesus or his work to be saved. This pseudo–theology is damnable heresy. The label “Christian Inclusivist” is an oxymoron. Christianity is exclusive. Chapter 3 of the gospel of John reveals a narrative between Jesus and Nicodemus, where Jesus claims, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). In verse 18 of the same chapter (the same conversation), “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:18). The inclusivist must answer these truth claims of the Savior. They affirm the authority of Scripture; but, what of the exclusive nature of these claims? The evidence Nash presents, suggests that inclusivism has no choice but to reject these words of Christ. One can only be born again by the work of the Holy Spirit through faith in the name of the only begotten son of God (as evidenced by Scripture).
Scripture also claims that condemnation is the condition that precludes faith in Jesus Christ. The exact words are, “he who does not believe has been judged already”. This clearly indicates that judgment/condemnation is an unalterable reality for every human being. Because, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23); condemnation is the just disposition of holy God. Jesus explicitly reveals the remedy, “He who believes in Him is not judged.” The “Him” is none other than Jesus Christ. “For “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED. How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:13,14). The answer is simple, they can’t.
Christianity suffers with the ideologies of flawed thinkers. It is a good thing to be emotionally stirred by the idea of some lost person spending eternity separated from God. But it is a bad thing to bend one’s theology to such a degree that the lost person gets to heaven without knowing the Master. Inclusivism is a demonic play on the emotions, with far-reaching consequences. Its effects are global. Mission organizations are losing funding and recalling many missionaries from the field. Community outreaches have lost their evangelistic edge. The church, as a whole, has lost its palette for the preaching of the cross. All in all, inclusivism has eroded the essential belief in the person and work of Christ while trying to maintain it; inclusivity has destroyed the particularity axiom it claims to preserve.
Nash, Ronald H. Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
New American Standard Bible:1995. LaHabra: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
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