The Myth of the Good-Hearted Pagan

by Jun 13, 2007

If Jesus’ exclusivist claim in John 14 is true (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”), it seems to usher in a cold-hearted reality: The only people who get to go to heaven are the ones lucky enough to live in a place where they’re likely to hear the gospel.

What about all those moral, upstanding Hindus in India? And what about the innocent tribesmen in the remote valleys of Papua New Guinea? Are they doomed to hell just because they live in the wrong place?

Doug Wilson has an excellent response to this question in this post:

People are lost because they are evil — you know, wicked. Sinful. Now it is possible to say that in a secondary sense someone might be lost because of where they live. An analogy might be death from a particular disease. When someone has a treatable form of cancer, but they live out in the bush where nobody has ever heard of this form of cancer, still less the treatments for it, why does that person die? Does he die because of where he lives? In a trivial secondary sense, yes. But the thing that kills him is the cancer.

The analogy must be pressed, because one of the central features of our sinful nature is its capacity for blame-shifting. If someone who has never heard of Jesus lives his entire life as a grasping, petty, censorious, lustful, greedy fool, what is the basis of his condemnation? At the judgment, he will not be asked, “Why didn’t you ever hear about Jesus?” His condemnation is on the basis of his evil works, and he knew all about those.

Ironically, this is why the inclusivist position requires us to start minimizing (in our own imaginations) how screwed up the world actually is. If we believe that millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists are groping their way to God in the dark, then we have to look out at the world as though it were jammed full of good intentions. And the problem is that it isn’t.

So we don’t proclaim Jesus because we are fixing the problem of “not having heard about Jesus.” We proclaim Jesus because we are addressing the problem of death, genocide, hatred, murder, rape, slave prostitution, senseless war, snarling greed, and as they say on television, much, much more. The problem with the inclusivist position is not that it is eager for the people to be included — every Christian wants that. The problem is that when we define the standard downward like this, at the end of the day we find that we have included much more than the people — we have opened the door to great wickedness as well. This may sound outlandish, but there it is. Tender-hearted accommodation leads to great hardness of heart. And a hardline conservatism at this point, ironically, is tender-hearted.

(via Justin Taylor)