Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One Lord, One Faith, One Post, Many Opinions

Wow. I had no idea that a discussion about the possibility of salvation for someone who's responded positively to general revelation but not yet received special revelation would create such a stir! Here are some brief observations, not about the question, but about our collective responses:

1. I don't think the question is hypothetical and therefore irrelevant. Indeed, there are no doubt people on this planet who've said yes to the creator God, and yet haven't known about Jesus. God goes to great lengths in the book of Hebrews to explain that, even in the Old Testament times, there were those who worshiped Christ without knowing it (see Hebrews 7), certainly without knowing His name. If there indeed is, "no other name in heaven whereby we might be saved" (Acts 2), then either one must know THE NAME Jesus, with a capital "J", or people who respond to the revelation of deity granted them are, in accordance with their faith, granted the gift of righteousness, just as Abraham was granted righteousness, not by the old covenant of keeping the law, but by the new of grace (see Romans 4). This is a real issue.

2. The notion that people use this as a smokescreen is, while certainly true in some cases, itself a smokescreen. We appeal to CS Lewis "Moral Argument" for the existence of God on the one hand, and then on the other, when our moral sensibilities are assaulted because we can't subscribe to a god who would cause billions to burn in hell for eternity because of some missionaries disobedience to their calls, we told to shut up and not question god. We can't have it both ways friends. If we're going to claim, as we rightly should according to Romans 2, that the law of God is written in the hearts of every person, and thus we have a sense of right and wrong, we shouldn't suddenly become quickly dismissive of our notions of morality because they don't fit with what might possibly our wrong theology. Might God be trying to tell us something by the fact that so many people are offended at the thought of God holding others accountable for a message they've never heard. After all, parents who punish their children for not guessing the parents will and doing it before they ask aren't exactly held up as models are they?

3. Is there really a fear going on here that, if we suggest that people might be saved who've never heard of Christ, all mission work and preaching would cease? That seems silly to me, kind of like saying, "if people can get by on McDonald's, better not to tell them about the far more nourishing and sustaining food available..." Love demands that we declare Christ, and serve in His name...doing justice, loving mercy, loving our neighbors, and more.

4. Opinions seem to range from a wooden and mechantistic 'protectionist' mentality, to an open ended sense of "mystery" and since we can't know, we shouldn't bother talking about it. The ends of the spectrum seem, to me, unduly flavored by modernity and post-modernity respectively. "protectionism" means my grid has been created, and I've got the answers already so the rest of my days will be about defending. The "mystery" people will see answers as so unattainable that time would be better spent listening to the latest indy band. Neither viewpoint helps us become salt and light in the world. I'm pleaing here for us to become people who hold our convictions, and live by our convictions, but who hold them with an open hand, always open to the possibility that, just perhaps, we don't yet understand everything. I know I don't.

Thanks for the discussion so far... perhaps these observations can keep it going. I'm in Los Angeles teacching this week - pray for me.


At 31/7/08 00:35, Blogger postcall said...

I agree that this question is very relevant. Christians love to point out that their faith requires nothing but faith, in comparison to the 5 pillars of Islam, or the 8-fold path in most Buddhist practices, for example. The catchphrase in evangelism now is, "It's not a religion, but a relationship." Okay, fine. But are there certain irreducible "requirements" for entrance into heaven, such as knowing the name of Jesus, knowing his life events, praying the "sinner's prayer," baptism, etc? Unfortunately, neither Jesus nor Paul lay out a strict definition for how to get to heaven, except "through Jesus." It's so incredibly frustrating. It's clear that we don't know what these requirements are. And there's the question of whether these requirements for entrance actually exist at all.

I don’t think they exist.

I can’t prove this, of course. But in seeing the patterns in the bible, this is my conclusion. Look at the way Jesus performed his miracles. Take his curing of blind men, for example. Sometimes he just told them to open their eyes. Other times he touched them. In John 9, he spit on the ground, made some mud, then placed it on the guy’s eyes. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Look, it’s not the way in which you encounter Christ, but that you encounter him.” That being said, the manner in which you receive the revelation is not insignificant. Clearly, Jesus could have performed healing in absentia all the time, like the way he did the Centurion’s son. But time after time, he does it through some highly stylized way. For the outcasts, like lepers and blind men, he often did it in the open, making a big scene. For others, it was a private healing, behind closed doors. It was appropriate for every person, and for the onlookers as well.

And so I think it is with spiritual revelation. There is no way I can imagine all the ways that Jesus will encounter people. For most of us, we have encountered him through the church and scripture. But for others, it will be through nature, their consciences, the stuff talked about in Romans 2. Jesus is the author of that as well. Most importantly, because he chose the way in which he revealed himself to me, he therefore shapes the way in which I will respond to him. For me, this was through a standard church service and not some cool dream. And so I now am a part of a church. While it may seem arbitrary and culturally-defined, I guess it was appropriate for me. It’s not important that I know Jesus’s name, or even understand what has happened to me. I love the story in John 9, cuz it gives a post-miracle update. After the blind man encountered Jesus and could see, he was confronted by the Pharisees, and it becomes apparent that he doesn’t know Jesus’ name (he calls him “prophet”), and the Pharisees end up talking to his parents because the blind man is so unaware of what happened. He keeps saying, “All I know is that I was once blind, but now I see.” Fortunately, Jesus comes and sees him a second time, and sets everything straight, indicating that he doesn’t intend for things to be forever confusing.

And so to answer Richard’s original question, would the yak herder in Nepal have been saved if the missionaries had not gotten to him? I’d say sure, why not. But that’s not to say that I, myself, should stop going to church and just wait for my special dream. Personally, I think that my spiritual revelation, which includes all the interesting stories in the bible, a personal relationship with Jesus, cool church friends, etc, is much more useful and long-lasting than a fleeting vision. Which is why I’d go and evangelize to him, if I could.

At 31/7/08 01:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with almost everything you've said, except that probably only about 10% of the world hasn't yet heard of Christ or Christianity in some form, so i'm still not sure how relevant this topic is, & if our goal is to be salt & light regardless, again, how does this discussion help & not distract us? i'm not belittling the value of mere discusssion, i'm just honestly asking the questions. thanks.

At 31/7/08 21:04, Anonymous GDG said...


I really appreciate your views, and observations on this subject. It seems that many feel that this specific discussion tempts us not to follow through with what the bible teaches, as it may question the core belief in Jesus.

When people truly have faith, nothing allows that to waiver, and only solidifies it with the more strength we gain with such questions.

What I find interesting is that we know we get to heaven only "through Jesus," but Jesus is God. God is Jesus. As long as we know him.

It would amaze me to find out that 90% of the population has heard of Jesus. Far more travel is needed to continents outside of N.A., because soooo many still do not know his name.

At 1/8/08 00:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, when i said i agreed with everything you said, i meant richard. and i would be incredibly surprised if not 90% of people have HEARD of Christ or christianity, that's not to say they've accepted it. unless they've been living under a rock, or in the jungle, which makes for the other 10%. there are actually very few people groups left in the world where evangelists have not yet gone, & the world outside NA is not ignorant so give them some credit for the knowledge of major religions. if anything, NA needs to be 're-evangelized' as most people who think they know Jesus or call themselves christian actually have nothing to do with it. there are no such things as christian & non-christian nations.

At 1/8/08 10:44, Blogger Ryan said...

Richard- as a pastor I love this discussion and find it relevant (especially to the Yak herder). In agreement with your perspectives and postcall's, I think we do see general revelation at work in scripture (sometimes more than special reveltaion). We are saved through Jesus but how exactly this works is less clear than we have made it (Not even Paul walked someone through the "Romans Road").
As far as believing that 90% of the world has heard the salvation message of Jesus, I think that number is way too high. Having lived in the Middle East, I can tell you that many in the Muslim and Jewish communities have not heard anything more than the name of Jesus. Most do not know any real message about His saving power.... and they don't live under rocks.
Thanks for the great discussion.

At 1/8/08 12:53, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, but they've heard the name, & they therefore know something of the man. and i would argue, if they cared to know more, they would. the middle east is not the deep, dark, heathen territory it is sometimes portrayed as being. there are christian monks & monastaries in northern iraq. half of turkey is of european origin. and you know that jerusalem is shared by all three of the major religions. it is the 'holy land'. people know who Jesus was and what he means in general, how well he has been represented to them when america is bombing them for supposedly righteous reasons, and nothing is done about palestinian persecution by israel (rocks & suicide bombings are no match for tanks, machine guns & missiles) is another question. so... i wouldn't say they haven't heard, i'd say they've seen plenty of bad witness. and i would say that is the case overall, worldwide. it's not that countries or places haven't been visited, because most have, it's what each new generation does or thinks of that knowledge, and so, yes, we need sustainability.

anyway, this is a tangent, my point was, if we are called to be salt & light anyway, regardless of whether God works with or without us, He asked us to keep working, so why does a discussion like this - whether or not people have revelations with just God or Jesus - matter, except for mere pontification? it doesn't change the end result, we still are called to work, are we?

At 2/8/08 00:01, Blogger postcall said...

I once heard a missionary talk about evangelizing in Mongolia in the early 1990's, as one of the first Western missionaries allowed open access into the country. Somehow, he was granted an audience with the Minister of Propoganda, along with all his advisors. It began with a rodeo, then an amazing dinner, and everyone was seated together. Taking a page out of Acts 17, the missionary began by talking about how much he admired Ten-gri, the all-powerful God of their native culture. (Literally, I think he is the "sky-God.") Everyone nodded their head. Then he said that there was more to the story. Ten-gri loved the world and sent his son into the world, and he lived among us. He talked a little bit more about Tengri's son, and everyone continued to nod their head.

Now, at this point, the missionary didn't know whether to mention he had a copy of the new testament in his coat. The laws still outlawed any distribution of religious materials, specifically the bible. And this is where our current discussion becomes very relevant. Would his new Mongolian friends be saved if they believe in Ten-gri and live according to their consciences? (for those of you who just Wikipedi'ed Tengri, that's about all I know about Tengri, too. Man, isn't Wikipedia the god of our age?) Or do they also need to believe in Jesus? Is this approach too syncretic and bordering on heresy? (yeah, probably...) Do they need to read the bible? Would bringing out his bible have been worth the risk?

I don't know the answer, but here are two thoughts. First, I feel that Jesus calls us to be both a general (i.e. "salt and light") and a specific witness. If Jesus is going to vouch for my name in heaven, I'd better be vouching for his name on earth. And secondly, the essence of salvation is to have new life. There were many people who approached Jesus and asked specifically, "Lord, what must I do to be saved?" To the rabbi, he said you must be born again. To the rich young ruler, he said to give away his possessions. To go all the way out to Mongolia and tell the people that they can probably continue living the way they had been sounds to me like it misses the essence of the gospel.

Anyways, I'm curious to hear other people's thoughts. As far as I know, this encounter actually took place.

At 2/8/08 10:18, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Richard for not dropping this issue. It's so easy for people to give a canned answer when faced with such a big question. I think it is for fear of showing the holes in a well constructed paradigm. "Don't pull the thread! It might unravel!"
I personally love the challenge. It brings me back to when you were talking about the difference between King Saul and David. Saul spent so much time just trying to "maintain" where David was always open to whatever lay ahead no matter the risk. I want to be like that!

At 5/8/08 00:45, Blogger Jon said...

I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful points you have made in this post to some very difficult questions. It is awesome to see people who are willing to think about these sorts of things, not just dismissing them outright, and even willing to ask themselves if perhaps they had a misconception or two.

At 8/8/08 05:13, Blogger lemonscarlet said...

The part in this post that really struck me is where you posed the idea abut how maybe we should consider that God is trying to tell us something by how uniformly people seem offended by this idea about the person in the remote, far away from America part of the world being kept out. I think I've heard more people "worry" out loud about that than I have of people worrying about orphaned children dying of AIDS in Africa.

I wonder, what IS God trying to tell us in that? Back in my more "obnoxiously evangelical" days, when I was living in a Christian bubble and had little life experience, I always felt a little annoyed at that response, like "oh, here we go, the people in the jungle thing again." (Now I find myself also wondering, what was God revealing to me in MY response...that I stopped caring about that person and just wanted to get through the discussion and be right and put another notch on my Christian belt?) I felt it was an excuse that I needed to help the person overcome and I would pretend to listen carefully and ready myself with some quick response I'd probably heard in some lame workshop.

I think of myself back then and am annoyed at myself. And I wonder now why I never noticed how God may have been putting something really interesting in front of my face over and over, and I just kind of ignored it. I don't know for sure, but I find myself thinking now, maybe it was a reminder that God can and will reach whoever he wants. He wants me to "help" but he, in his infinite creativity, is more than able.

I am still curious and pondering over the idea of why people are so consistently concerned about these remote, unreached tribes when faced with the opportunity to put themselves on one side of the fence or the other. Both people who could rattle off sub-Saharan AIDS statistics and those who don't know what a conflict diamond is, or care. People across the boards come up with this "argument." Is it just that - a piece of "evidence" to suport their case that the Jesus belief system isn't "fair" and is, therefore, not true? Or is it something deeper and more profound? I think people hate the idea of anyone being left out. Because we all hate being left out. And we worry about our friends and loved ones and we know how good and wonderful and kind that atheist friend of ours is, and how wise and at peace our Budist neighbor is. We don't want to accept something that leaves them out. We don't want to have to draw the line. It's a hard possibility to face - you're in or you're out and if you happen to be out, it's not just sitting out of the dodgeball game or not going to the big dance - it's possibly eternal torture. It's heavy stuff, the position we put people in when trying to offer them grace.


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