Question: "Inclusivism vs. exclusivism: what does the Bible say?"
Answer: Is personal faith in Jesus the only way to heaven (exclusivism), or did Jesus’ death also provide salvation for some who do not believe (inclusivism)? This question is often posed by non-Christians when first confronted with the claims of biblical Christianity. Many skeptics charge that it is unreasonable for God to demand allegiance to Jesus Christ in order to receive the forgiveness of one’s sins. In the last several decades, many Christians have begun to opt for a different answer than that which has traditionally been given by the majority of Christian believers. The trend is toward “inclusivism.”
Inclusivism is the view that people actually appropriate God’s gift of salvation only on the basis of Jesus Christ’s atoning work, but that the sinner need not explicitly believe the gospel in order to actually receive this salvation. Inclusivism teaches that Christianity is the only true religion (including the belief that Christ is the only Savior of men), but that this salvation could be made available through means other than explicit faith in Christ. The inclusivist believes that adherents of other religions and even atheists can be saved by responding to God’s revelation in creation or through the elements of truth contained within their non-Christian religion.
Inclusivists will quickly point out that any person who is saved is ultimately saved by Jesus Christ, but the sinner need not believe that Christ is Savior in order to receive this salvation. Inclusivists will sometimes refer to such people as “anonymous Christians.” Inclusivists refer to several biblical texts in an attempt to support their view; however, their primary argument is more philosophical than exegetical (derived directly from the Scripture). The question of the ultimate destiny of the un-evangelized is often raised by inclusivists, along with issues related to the salvation of infants, the mentally handicapped, and others who are prevented from making a rational choice for or against Christ.
“Exclusivism” or “restrictivism” is the traditional evangelical Christian view dealing with the salvation of non-Christians. This is the view that a sinner can only be saved by a conscious, explicit faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Exclusivists argue that a positive response to general revelation is simply insufficient to ensure salvation from a biblical perspective. Exclusivists appeal to multiple scriptures to support their view, including John 14:6; John 3:16–18; and Romans 10:13–15.
It appears that a straightforward reading of these texts reveals the inspired Scripture is clearly teaching Christian exclusivism (that one must place his faith in Christ in order to be saved). It is important to point out that there may be exceptions to this principle (such as the death of infants or children of a very young age who have not yet developed sufficiently to comprehend their sin and to make a rational choice of trusting in Christ). Second Samuel 12:23 states that King David’s infant child went to heaven after death. Isaiah 7:15–16 also hints at an age of moral accountability: “He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”
These exceptions would in no way undermine the position of Christian exclusivism. Rather, they show the infinite mercy of God in providing salvation for those who might otherwise not attain it. Our position is that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for all sinners who are capable of actually trusting in Christ and believing the gospel. Christian exclusivists believe that the biblical texts used to support inclusivism are far from compelling and that the texts used by exclusivists are, in fact, clear. It is difficult to see how the inspired writers could have been clearer that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation (for those who are capable of it). It is also important to point out that the Christian exclusivist does not necessarily believe that the un-evangelized person will be condemned for failing to believe in a Jesus that they have never heard of. Rather, such a person would be judged for his or her failure to respond to the message of general revelation and for sinning against God’s moral law that had been written on the heart.
In the end, we can be confident that God will not judge anyone unfairly. The un-evangelized will only be judged based on the sins that they have willfully committed. Christian exclusivism certainly should provide the church with more than sufficient motivation to evangelize every person on Earth, for, literally, people’s eternal destiny hangs in the balance. God has simply not informed us of any back-up plan He may have for those who do not hear the gospel in this life. We must assume that there is none.