James McGrath, of Exploring Our Matrix, has begun a “blogversation” with Michael Halcomb on Christianity, salvation, pluralism and related issues, all of which are relevant to my interests here at C.Orthodoxy. James begins with an intriguing thought-experiment that can be used to determine whether you are an “inclusivist” or an “exclusivist” when it comes to salvation (i.e. whether you think that belief in Jesus is necessary to salvation). He calls it “the flaming meteorite test”:
Basically, it involves a reenactment of the story from Acts 10 about Peter being sent to communicate the Gospel to Cornelius, a non-Jew who has nonetheless been righteous enough to be noticed by God.
Now, imagine that, as Peter is on his way to tell Cornelius about Jesus, a flaming meteorite appears in the sky, heading towards Cornelius’ house. BAM! It is levelled and all inside are killed.
So, the question is, how do you view Cornelius? On the one hand, he had already through his righteous life achieved recognition in God’s eyes. On the other hand, he had still not been told about Jesus. If you think that God can have a place for Cornelius in his kingdom, then you are an inclusivist. If you think that Cornelius came close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades but not salvation, then you are an exclusivist.
He admits that, like all thought-experiments, this is a simplification. For instance, one could believe that folks like Cornelius could be saved without hearing about Jesus, but still believe that not everyone will be. Or one could believe that ultimately everyone will be saved, but might disagree about how this will happen (perhaps they will turn to Jesus after death). I tend to think that it is possible, though not certain, that people can be saved by Jesus without hearing his name before they die (just consider the Old Testament patriarchs), and so I think Cornelius would be safe.* I guess that makes me an inclusivist, but I have a somewhat different take on James’ thought experiment:
Let’s imagine that Peter knew that this meteor was bearing down on Cornelius’ house, and knew that if he hurried, he would have time to warn Cornelius and save him from death. Do you think the possibility that Cornelius might see the meteor himself, and so escape without Peter’s help, would justify Peter in leaving him to his own devices?
I ask this because I think sometimes inclusivistic thinking tends to short-circuit evangelism – since we conclude that it is possible to be saved without ever hearing about Jesus, we feel less motivated to go and tell people. But that is a dangerous game to play with other people’s souls. Granted it is entirely possible that they might find God without ever reading a Bible or meeting a Christian, we can no more assume that, than we could assume that since Cornelius might see the meteor himself, we have no need to warn him about it.
*Note: I don’t deny that salvation is found only in Christ, merely that one needs to know that to be saved by him. Neither am I affirming universalism; I believe no matter how many “chances” God gives, some people will still choose to reject him.
UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.