Popular Christian commentator Janet Parshall, whose show airs weekdays on 89.1 FM Moody Radio South (WMBU—Forest, Jackson, Meridian), reported last week that a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod pastor in Connecticut is in trouble with his denomination after participating in a community prayer service following the Sandy Hook shooting. LCMS policy prohibits clergy from participating in interfaith or interdenominational worship services.
The LCMS’ prohibition of interdenominational fellowship is a hard pill to swallow for most evangelicals, who tend to see denominations as insignificant so long as the same Messiah is being followed. However, evangelicals for the most part sympathize with a ban on interfaith services, as these have a tendency to blur the doctrine that Christ is man’s only means of salvation (incidentally, the Lutheran minister in question affirms Christ’s centrality, but argues the Sandy Hook gathering was a memorial service, not a worship service and that he was acting in the capacity of a “community chaplain”).
There’s no getting around the fact that historic Christianity is “exclusive”, in the sense that Christ’s work on the cross is believed to be central—the sacrifice for sins without which no one can be saved. Does that mean, though, that all non-Christians, to put it as bluntly as possible, are “going to hell”? The question deserves very careful treatment.
1. Clarifying the question
At the back of many people’s minds when objections are raised about Christianity’s exclusive claims is a fear of injustice—it’s not fair for so many people who’ve never even heard the gospel to be punished for not believing it, right? As R.C. Sproul once framed the question, What about the innocent native in some remote corner of the earth, who’s never heard the gospel? Addressing this, David Tillman, an Eastern Orthodox clergyman, said in his pamphlet, What About the Non-Orthodox?: “No one will be unjustly excluded from the Presence of God and the bliss of [heaven].”
Often, the objection is based on a false premise, which says people are admitted or excluded from heaven solely on the basis of how they have responded to the gospel. Scripture actually never spells things out quite like that. Scripture says that those who are separated from God for eternity are separated because of their sins. Of course, rejecting the gospel is a sin, but it’s not the only sin that counts, and it’s not a sin that unreached people groups could ever be accused of. If rejecting the gospel was the only sin that separate someone from God, then God in fairness could never banish anyone who’d never heard the gospel.
All people, regardless of whether or not they’ve heard the gospel, have at some point disobeyed the Moral Law of God—the law of right and wrong written on the human heart. Therefore, as Sproul has said, there are no “innocent” people who are separated from God because there are no entirely innocent people, period. All of us are guilty and all of us have deserved punishment. The gospel is good news for all people because all people have broken God’s law.
Lest we caricature God as capricious and whimsical, we must believe without any doubt that no one has ever been punished by him in the afterlife who didn’t, according to the standards of his holy justice, deserve punishment. We mustn’t stop there, though, lest we imagine God is a tyrant who thrives on punishing people the first chance he has. God is Love, the Bible tells us. Think of the people you love, the people you long to see enjoy the delights of heaven, and rest assured that God loves them more—infinitely more than you do. Nothing that can be accomplished to ensure their salvation has been overlooked by God, as is evidenced by Christ’s suffering on the cross, which was for all mankind.
2. Avoiding sectarian haughtiness
“It must be admitted that the exclusive claims regarding Christ and the Church are insufferable when proclaimed by haughty souls who would not recognize the virtue of humility if they fell over it,” said Tillman. “As much damage to sensitive souls is probably done by presumptuous arrogance on the part of Orthodox believers as is done by all the anti-Christian postmodernist academicians combined.”
There is a fine line between proclaiming what God has said in Scripture regarding the final judgment and setting oneself up as mankind’s final judge. Tillman went on to say, “It must be remembered that it is Jesus Christ alone that judges who is or is not saved. The Bible teaches that not all those in the Church will be saved, but some who are never visibly in the Church are nevertheless near and dear to the Lord.” To make his point, he mentioned how often the gospels record “Samaritan heretics” demonstrating real faith in the Messiah.
While it’s safe to say with certainty that certain people will be in heaven (the apostles, prophets, those who’ve died in the Lord, etc.), Tillman said it’s extremely presumptuous to talk with certainty about anyone not making it to heaven. The hope that all will be in heaven has sometimes been so fervent among Christians that early church fathers such as Origen, Saint Clement of Alexandria, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa espoused a form of universalism, which teaches that all creatures will one day be reconciled to God and be saved. Tillman calls this an “error of charity”, pointing out that the Council of Constantinople (543 A.D.) condemned universalism. If universalism isn’t an option, is the only other option the rigid position of consigning all who are not visibly members of the Christian church to the flames of hell?
Tillman, thankfully, shows this is not so. Even with people whose lives appear to be very much out of sync with God’s moral standards, it is not our responsibility to pass sentence on them or presume what God will do in the end. “It is simply not for us to speculate about how any individual or group we encounter today will fare on Judgment Day,” Tillman said. “Depravity among those outside the Church is understandable; our own sinfulness despite being in the Church is not. This conviction must permeate our being before we discuss the Church with those outside.”
A popular saying among the Orthodox, but one that all Christians can recite, is, “We know where the Church is; we do not know where it is not.” This goes to the centuries old distinction of the visible/invisible church. We do not know, and have no ways of knowing, who is ultimately going to be “in” or “out” on Judgment Day; we can say that all genuine believers in Jesus will be forgiven, but we dare not presume to know whom Jesus’ flock will consist of. Many who appear disinterested in the things of God may be part of God’s elect nonetheless and be drawn to him in due time. Many who live and die with no outward evidence of faith may have been drawn to God moments before death, their faith in Christ a secret that won’t be announced until the Last Day.
“We must walk the narrow way of loving obedience to Jesus and maintain vigilance against the pitfalls of arrogance and presumption on the one hand, and sentimental universalism on the other,” Tillman said. “There are laudatory things and people both within and outside Christendom.”
This is something we need to be reminded of. If Lutherans, and evangelicals in general, are leery of interfaith gatherings, it should never be because we believe we have a monopoly on truth or virtue. As Thomas Aquinas said, “All truth is God’s truth”, meaning that since God is the Creator of all that exists, there are traces of real truth to be found throughout the human race.
As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, Christians are free to believe that all religions, even the most obscure, contain some element of truth. Christ’s Body, Lewis said, is the means through which the kingdom of God is advanced; every addition to that Body strengthens its ability to accomplish that task. When we are worried about those on the outside, the most illogical thing we could do, Lewis said, would be to remain on the outside ourselves. Rather, we should join ourselves to Christ and be about the business of spreading his kingdom, knowing that all who know Christ are saved, but never arrogantly presuming that those who do not know Christ—explicitly, visibly in this life at any rate—will not be saved.
“We are simply not given all the facts regarding the mystery of even our own salvation, much less anyone else’s,” Tillman cautions. Conviction that one is an adherent of the one true faith “can never be used as an excuse for arrogance or presumption on the part of Orthodox Christians. It is better to hymn the mystery of the Church in awed silence rather than say too much, or to behave as though one’s membership in the Church is due to excellence on one’s own part.”
This is an especially poignant reminder for Presbyterians who, if they are faithful to the historic confessions of their tradition, believe that what separates believers from unbelievers, the elect from the non-elect, is strictly God’s mercy, nothing praiseworthy in the redeemed themselves.