'If Christianity Is True, People I Love Will Burn in Hell'
A pastor struggles to answer his daughter's question about the fate of those who don't accept Jesus.
This time, I had nothing to offer. Exclusivism was my starting point, inclusivism was my fall-back, and conditionalism was my last resort. She continued, "So since I couldn't sleep, I went on the Internet last nightwell, really it was early this morning-and I was reading about universalism. It sounded pretty cool. What do you think about that?"
In my theological circles, universalism is one small step removed from atheism. It is probably more feared than committing adultery, and to be labeled universalist ends one's career. Decisively. So I again had to hide my shock that my little girl was not only asking questions: now she was flirting with a dangerous heresy. But I didn't know what to say, so I made a joke about not answering theological questions before 9 A.M. on Sundays, and she let me off the hook. She seemed cheerful enough when her boyfriend, Kincaid, picked her up that afternoon to drive her back to campus. Maybe just considering the option of universalism had a calming effect on her, but it had the opposite effect on her dad.
I had been taught exclusivism since childhood: everyone was excluded from heaven after death unless they were included among the personally, individually, consciously "born again" or "saved." In college, through the writings of C. S. Lewis, I encountered a kinder, gentler modification of exclusivism that acknowledges that it is possible to be saved by Christ without ever having "prayed to receive Christ." Somewhere in Mere Christianity, Lewis had written a few simple lines that comforted many of my friends, even though they made me a little nervous:
The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name.... There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.
His words "led by God's secret influence" always reminded me of Paul's Words in Romans 8-"Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God"-and that always kept the inclusivist back door secretly open for me, even though most of my colleagues and nearly all of my parishioners considered me an orthodox exclusivist.