Christian exclusivism

Is it petty of God that he would condemn people to eternal punishment for the mere crime of not believing in the right God or adhering to the right set of religious doctrines?  Now, I don’t lay all the blame on critics wgo think this is the case, per se, but it seems to be a common complaint regardless of how often it is addressed.  The grievance implies that Christianity is some kind of exclusive club which non-members are kept at bay, while members look out upon those unfortunate souls who are not worthy of acceptance.

Theologically speaking, biblical Christianity is exclusive.  Only by professing a salvific trust in Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your transgressions against a Holy God will one be saved from an eternal punishment for those transgressions.  But as far as inclusion into the group, no one who wants inclusion is rejected.  Critics charge that they and other non-Christians are just out of luck, as it were.

“But I can’t can’t believe”, says the skeptic.  There isn’t evidence, or the evidence that is offered is uncompelling, or Christians haven’t been good enough apologists.  However, For the past two thousand years, millions of people have trusted on the Christian message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — and with far less evidence than is available today.  They believed without textual criticism or philosophical argumentation.  Since the genesis of Christianity, it has grown in the face of persecution, and in spite of the “lack of evidence”.  Apparently the amount and quality of evidence is not the problem.

So what does this mean?  I am inclined to believe the critics (and other religious adherents) are dissatisfied with the idea that they cannot believe what they want and behave relatively unrestrained according to their sensibilities and still be “saved”:  I should be allowed to believe what I want and act as I wish and if God were truly loving, He would be OK with everything about me.

That doesn’t sound like someone who is interested in what’s right, but rather, what’s preferable.  But even I can think of a more preferable reality.  What is preferable isn’t the issue.  Whats true, is the issue — or should be at least.  The skeptic can claim they and other non-Christians are getting the shaft, but it’s entirely self-imposed.  Skeptics have the information, what they do with it is not God’s liability, it’s their own.


  1. Wow. This post basically sums up the Christian message:

    “Regardless of your prior faith or non-belief in any religious system, you have been told the Jesus story. It’s your fault for not accepting this salvation (it’s free, after all) and as a result you’ll be sent to hell. It’s not exclusive – you’re free to abandon your position and accept the only real way to get to heaven.”

  2. Indeed. The idea seems to be that if I believe I’m a good person, that should be enough for any god. But it’s never been about merely “being good”, if “being good” is a condition at all. It’s always been about God, about believing in Him and living life on His terms for His sake, to love, honor and serve HIM. “Being good” might be evidence of that belief, but by itself it is as nothing. “Do no harm” is not the measure.

  3. I am totally sold out on Christian exclusivism. Prior to Jesus, salvation was through whatever current covenant God was offering. Now with the latest covenant it’s Jesus. But along with the exclusivism we have to keep an open mind on how people will be evangelized and what will be the result of evangelism. If people are stuck on being part of a mass water baptism and becoming “churched” and serving as an usher, etc then we will miss the simplicity of the gospel and the truth of salvation as it will fit into world cultures. It has been reported by diverse amounts of Christian traveling evangelists including Ravi Zacharias that people who have never heard of Jesus are dreaming about him. God is soverign and wants to give people a choice to choose him.

  4. Christian exclusivism has never really bothered me from a philosophical standpoint. I guess I feel that if there were a God, He would be entitled to deal with “salvation” and “condemnation” however He saw fit. It doesn’t seem counterintuitive at all.

    The only time I see this subject broached by non-Christians is when people are discussing the seeming contradiction it poses regarding the nature of God. I think in that case it is a worthwhile conversation to have.

    • George

      How is it a contradiction? I suspect people have an idea that it violates some idea of justice or fairness. But ive never read anything about God being “fair”, not as 1st world American idealistic fairness anyway. If its a matter of punishment fitting the crime, I thknk the objection is a matter of wrong perspective.

  5. I’m not suggesting there is a contradiction. There is an apparent one when Christians and atheists argue that God is omnibenevolet, omnipotent and “just”. I put “just” in scarequotes because it is a term that is used differently on both sides of the fence.
    Regardless- there is virtually no biblical evidence that God is omnibenevolent, and only slightly more evidence that He is omnipotent. People are arguing an extra-biblical “conception” of God as opposed to one based solely on the source material.

  6. George,

    What do you mean by “omnibenevolent”? I am concerned that you are doing a Dan Trabue and asking for evidence from Scripture that uses that exact word or some evidence that satisfies your specific standard. I hope not, but as we get that routinely from Dan, it resembles such an unreasonable standard.

    If you mean “perfectly good”, there are plenty of verses that speak to God’s goodness and justness. Christ said the Father is the Only One Who is good. That right there should be enough. But again, I might not be down with your definition of the word.

    In any case, how a term is used and by whom is not relevant to whether God is properly described by that term, as human preference enters into such debates.

  7. By omnibenevolent I mean a God who is “limitless in goodwill and charity”. I don’t disagree that the Bible has many verses that speak tot he “goodness” of God, but I think the philosophical jump from God being “good” to God being “limitless in goodwill and charity” is an extra-biblical interpretation of the twin principles that God is good and God is all-powerful.
    It seems plain to me that the Bible claims that God is “more benevolent than man” but that this remains a far cry from being omnibenevolent. Some being could reasonably be the most benevolent being without being omnibenevolent.
    I think too many Christians (and many atheists) tend to apply an unreasonable set of attributes to God in an effort to make Him seem limitless in every possible realm. I am saying that I don’t think the Bible specifically gives God the same attributes that Christians do, and that the Bible doesn’t even intend to give those attributes to Him.

  8. George,

    The question then becomes, “what difference does it make one way or the other”? He’s certainly proven Himself possessing such a level of goodwill and charity to have sent His only Begotten to suffer and die a savage death in order that we won’t have to. That suggests way more benevolence than is found in man and it would be difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the limitless variety than that, short of simply letting people act and believe as they choose without consequence. But limiting demonstrations of goodness does not equate to limited ability to demonstrate goodness. Omnibenevolence is a logical inference even if not specifically attributed to Him in Scripture. I’m curious as to why you would even balk at the suggestion.

  9. It would have made a big difference to me 10 years ago. Today it’s more of just a thought experiment.
    10 years ago, I would have argued that every passage in the Bible where God intervenes is within the parameters of a “Post-Fallen” world. What I mean by that is that there are trade-offs to decisions after the Fall that don’t appear to be there in the Garden. So God intervenes, but inside the framework of a world where decisions and needs have consequences. It is also true that from what one can glean from the Bible, God operates within a deference to the free will of the individual.
    Given these two understandings of God’s character- that He “plays by the rules” (whether he is limited by them or not) and that He respects free will- the idea of omnibenevolence becomes an irrational trait to bestow upon Him. It logically contradicts other parts of His character. To me, and to many atheists and many Christians, God breaking the laws of logic is a powerful argument against Him. I’m specifically arguing here that I don’t think those arguments exist because I don’t believe that the attributes of the Christian God as revealed in the Bible are by necessity in logical contradiction. I don’t accept that as an obvious argument against God.

    What I am saying is that omnibenevolence is logically impossible in a fallen world- as well as in the world we observe whether through religious lenses or secular ones. It is the good/evil equivalent of asking “Can God create a rock so large that even He can’t lift it”.
    God can be maximally benevolent without being omnibenevolent- and I think this is where we need to draw a theological distinction. Just as there is some number of eggs that is the absolute maximum number you can fit in a given basket- there is no basket that can hold a limitless amount of eggs. In a world that exists with obvious trade-offs for any given choice, there is a maximally good choice- but there is never a limitlessly good choice.
    So you can argue that God’s choices are maximally good, but you can’t argue that they are limitlessly good. There is nothing in the Bible that contradicts what I’m saying- in fact, what I’m saying is infinitely more Sola Scriptura than what someone argues when they claim God is Omni(insertadjectivehere).
    Do you disagree?

    • George

      You seem to be equating a quality of God with a physical property. I think describing a characteristic of God such as benevolence or justice in terms of infinite is wrong. It implies that there is a thing called justice that God has. But I dont think God is omnibenevolent, the bible never says this about him.

  10. paynehollow says:

    Interesting points, George, from a purely linguistic and rational point of view.

    And for me, I do not necessarily disagree… it seems you’re just stating a tautology, given your reasoning. From a purely philosophical and linguistic view, it seems to be a good point.

    But, as you note, the bible makes no claim, nor does reason demand, an “omnibenevolent” God. I have no dog in this fight, as I hold no view on an “omnibenevolent” God, pro or con. I’m a literalist in that way: The Bible has not made that claim, God has not told me this, so why would I form an opinion on it?

    However, from a purely philosophical point of view, I might raise the question: What do we mean by an “omnibenevolent” God? You define it as one who is limitless in goodwill and charity. I’m okay with that.

    Is it possible that a Supreme Being could be limitless in goodwill towards everyone? I guess we might ask what that means… does it mean that this Deity has ultimate love for each person ever, wanting only the best for every person ever?

    I don’t see that as being impossible, in and of itself. Now, this Deity might form a grudge against the behaviors of some individuals – those who oppress and harm others whom God loves, for instance. But I don’t think that would require this deity abandoning his goodwill for the oppressor, just against the actions of the oppressor.

    Is that fair enough?

    So, a Being that is limitless in “charity,” well, I guess it depends on what we mean by that. If we mean, by charity, limitless in love – loving of all peoples, in all times and places, I’m not sure why we couldn’t have a Supreme Being so limitless. Why do you think this is impossible – because of the notion that God would punish at least some set of offenders? I don’t know that this requires an abandoning of love, any more than I’d abandon loving my children if I punished them for an offense.

    Any thoughts along those lines?



  11. First off, I’ve never really given this question any thought before, so it is kind of a running mental exercise. That said, it appears that you are focusing on God’s actions within the confines of a finite human existence. What is necessary to keep in mind is that God is not restricted to the finite universe He created. So while His choices within the context of His creation might somehow be bound by its physical limitations, I would posit that 1) He Himself is not so bound out side that realm, and 2) He is not bound within it if He so chooses to act directly, as He has in the past with supernatural actions. Those miracles, in fact, would be examples of the potential of his benevolence, despite mankind having experienced only what miracles have so far been manifested.

    I would not necessarily insist on omnibenevolence. But I think given the fact that He created everything there is, such an inference is, if not completely logical, certainly rational. We’ve seen only that which He has decided to let us see. What we have seen could be the extent of His goodness, or a mere taste. The same could be said for anything else, such as His wrath. There is really no way to know, of course, and it is equally difficult to know of references to His goodness that does exist in Scripture were meant to imply either a limited or limitless goodness.

  12. I’m suggesting that the Bible describes God as benevolent. That doesn’t meant he same as omnibenevolent.
    I think that omnibenevolece is an impossible and logically impossible standard that allows people to make unfair and unsophisticated arguments about the nature of God- and it is also a standard that many Christians are happy to attribute to God.
    All I’m suggesting is “don’t do that”- because it is a extra-biblical and unnecessary conclusion that derives from the root belief that God is more powerful than we can fathom. There are limits to the amount of grace we can imagine, the benevolence we can imagine, the power we can imagine, the knowledge we can imagine. So if God is theologically more “X” than we can imagine- that doesn’t follow that he is “omniX”, that he is “limitlessly and in every way” X. By imagining that there are no limits to His attributes- you also imply that He is not bound by logic, which I think is a non-biblical and theological mistake.
    But hey, He’s your God. You can give him whatever attribute you like, I guess. God, I suppose, can be any degree of extrabiblical, so long as He doesn’t become contrabiblical.

  13. Marshall,
    If God is not limited outside of the material realm (and that is a possible theological tack you might take), does it not follow that He is (by some reason or by choice) limited in the physical realm?

  14. My previous comment answered this question. It does not follow because He is not limited at all except by His own choice. Once again, I have never heard the argument for omnibenevolence to begin with. I’m just speculating why it might be the reality. All we can really say with certainty then, is that He is limited by Himself alone. That is, as we really CAN’T imagine the limits of His power, He is only limited by whatever limitations He has if He has any at all, if you get my drift.

  15. John, [I know I’m late into this discussion]
    Are you saying that there is no case to be made for Christian inclusivism? I consider myself to be an inclusivist. I’d love to make the Biblical case for inclusivism (not pluralism or universalism) – but I want to be clear what your thinking is first. I think we discussed this on your blog a year or two back.

    Simple definitions: (open for discussion)

    Exclusivism: Only those who consciously ask for Christ’s forgiveness will be saved. All others will go to Hell.
    Inclusivism: God judges each person by the level of truth that has been revealed to them. People are held accountable for their response to whatever level of revelation that they have received in life. Salvation is through Christ alone – but the benefits of Christ’s death MAY be extended to those who don’t believe in this lifetime.
    Pluralism: People are saved by sincere beliefs. All religions (or most religions) are equally “true”.
    Universalism: All people will ultimately be saved regardless of their earthly beliefs and actions.

    I argue that most Christians are ALREADY inclusivists. We believe that the benifits of Christ’s death extend to those who don’t consciously accept it: The unborn, children, and the mentally handicapped. Most people would include the Old Testament saints in this category too.

    A simple thought experiment demonstrates the problem with Christian exclusivism. Imagine a 1st century Jew who faithfully practices his beliefs. He dies 1 day before Christ is executed. Presumably God accepts his worship and he is accepted into Heaven. But imagine that same Jewish man lived two more days. He died AFTER Jesus’s death. Are we to imagine that God would condemn this man to Hell simply because he lived two days longer?

    This is absurd in my opinion. Thus, on a philosophical ground, I find Christian Inclusivism to be more tenable. But I think that there is also an excellent Biblical case to be made for it – but it will take me a bit of time to put together.

    • Tumeyn

      I think there is some blend of your definitions that is true. I think it’s true that only people who put a conscious trust in Christ that he takes the sins of the believers on himself. That He alone is the only way to God. But I do think God considers those incapable of making that choice differently, but only as it relates to certain people. For example, the unborn, children, and the mentally unable — but not as an ordinary practice of just anyone who hasnt heard.

      Remember the Jews were saved through faith as well, but it was a faith in the coming Messiah. So your example isn’t a proper example. The faithful Jew who died a day before Christ would be saved due to his trust in the coming Messiah. We are saved on our trust of the Messiah who came.

      I dont think people who’ve never heard are saved, if they’ve sinned. Just not hearing about the cure is not a free pass. They will still account and pay for their sins.

      Have I covered your question? Do we mean the same thing?

  16. Yep, I think we’re in agreement on definitions. I’ll put together a biblical case for it this evening. I’m curious what you think. It something I find many Christians have never considered, even though many, many apologists and Christian thinkers today are proponents of it.

    In my example, the faithful Jew who looked forward the messiah would still be condemned to Hell if he died one day too late, right? One day before Christ’s death, his penalty would have been paid for his faith in the coming messiah. But one day after Christ’s death that no longer “counts” in God’s eyes. This just doesn’t add up to me… But I’ll post more later this evening.

    • With that clarification, I’ll have to do some thinking. I’m sure there’s something there about it even if implied in the bible. After all, the Jews were God’s people.

  17. John,
    Let me make a brief case for Christian Inclusivism. Essentially I’m asking what happens to people who haven’t heard, or perhaps had circumstances that severely clouded their judgement (think about the kids who were abused by church leaders or tortured by the “missionaries” of the middle ages). If we look through history, it seems that the vast majority of people (until very recently) never had the opportunity to even hear the message of God simply because of where they were born or when they were born. This is what I want to address with the below passages:

    The Bible teaches that we all have some sort of basic knowledge of him and his standards “hardwired” inside us:

    Romans 1:18-20: 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    So, will someone end up in Hell just by being born in the wrong place at the wrong time? No. This verse says that people are without excuse. If I doomed to Hell just because I was born in the wrong place or the wrong time period, then it seems like a pretty good “excuse” to me. (What hope did anyone in the Americas or Eastern Asia have for heaven if they lived before ~1400 AD?)

    Matthew 25:31-46 (Sheep and Goats)
    The implication of this story is that many who are in hell did not expect to be there! And many who went to Heaven also did not expect to be there! The actions of the subjects says something about their relationship to the king. It wasn’t just what they said with their mouth – it was what they did with their lives. I think Christian churches today have swung too far over to the “by grace” theology and have ignored passages like this and James 2:14-26. Our actions have eternal implications. I’m not saying that our actions save us – rather that our actions say something about the condition of our heart.

    Matthew 25:14-30 (Parable of the Talents)
    In this passage the master gave his servants some money (some 5, 2, and 1 talents). The one who had 5 earned 5 more. The one who had 2 earned 2 more. The one who had 1 buried it in the backyard and returned it. The two that earned more were rewarded, but the one that buried his was cast out (ie hell). Why?
    The implication here is that we are responsible for what we are given. Some people are presented the entire gospel (like us!). Our response to it matters a great deal. It should make our lives different. But because of circumstances beyond their control, some people are only presented a portion or glimmer of the gospel – perhaps only the “general revelation”. They are responsible for responding to whatever level of revelation that they have received.

    John 16:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.”

    This verse pretty clearly claims that our guilt has something to do with the level of knowledge we have received. This is just common sense from our lives. I don’t hold my kids accountable for rules that I haven’t clearly communicated to them.

    Romans 2:6-16: “God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism….13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

    The context of this passage goes back to Romans chapter 1 where he talks about people who “are without excuse” because of the GENERAL REVELATION. (ie, people who haven’t heard the Gospel message) It pretty clearly says that obedience to the law has some eternal implications. In fact, this entire chapter (and most of chapter 1) is speaking precisely of who goes to heaven and who goes to Hell – and yet Jesus isn’t even mentioned! The context here seems to be those who haven’t heard the message about Jesus.

    Acts 10:34 “ Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. “

    This statement is true or false. I claim that it is true. And it was true EVEN IN THE TIME IT WAS WRITTEN – a time in which most nations didn’t have access to the message of Jesus.

    Matthew 12:41 “The men of Ninevah will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah and now one greater than Jonah is here.”

    Notice who is doing the condemning: The men of Ninevah. They repented at Jonah’s preaching and it appears that God allowed them into heaven – even though they did not convert to Judaism!

    I want to be very clear here. I’m NOT saying that people are saved by their works. The Bible is very clear that we are saved by GRACE – a gift from God that none of us deserve. Rather, I’m saying that our actions demonstrate something about the relationship (or lack of relationship).

    How about John 5:28: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.

    John 5:21-23: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.”

    This verse shows that God can give eternal life to those he chooses – perhaps even people who haven’t met the “criteria” that we think of today.

    John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father known me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. **I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

    I’m very curious about these “other sheep that are not of this pen”. Perhaps this is talking about those who haven’t heard?

    John 16:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.”

    A typical Christian response to this (from an exclusivist) is asking about evangelism. What is the point? It’s a great question. But I think that question misunderstands a relationship with God. We don’t worship God as a “fire insurance” policy. In fact, it is clear from some of the above passages that some people who “do religion” as a fire insurance policy will ultimately be rejected by God! (ie sheep and goats passage) We want people to become Christians because it is TRUE and because it is the best way to “do life”.

    I’m afraid that many evangelical churches today have “watered down” the message of the Bible into an easy “formulaic” version of salvation. God didn’t define a formula by which we are saved. He describes a RELATIONSHIP by which we are saved. Ultimately, HE is the judge of whether or not someone has the relationship or not. I suspect that when we get to Heaven someday, there will be many “non-Christians” who are in Heaven and, likewise, many people that we thought were professing Christians who end up in Hell.
    Turning the gospel message into a neat little formula is a very dangerous thing in my opinion.

  18. Anyone who actually believes they are damned if they don’t belong to this ‘club’ is an idiot in the first place, and in actual fact, to be fair, the only ones this line works on are those who have already been indoctrinated, or the very young who are terrorized with it and this is why it should be declared child abuse and laws passed prohibiting such nonsense being drilled into children.
    I see that ACE is about to be legislated against in Nursery schools in the UK.
    Thank the gods for that!
    In days past you were simply executed for not following the right ”brand” – and this depended who was in power, of course.
    All extremely silly.

    • Nothing you’ve said here indicates that the idea is false, only that you think its silly.

      • With all due respect, if you with make a ‘positive” claim should you not demonstrate its veracity? I have not seen that in your post. Unless I missed something, in which case please direct me to where this was. Thanks

        • I don’t know that I made that kind of claim. What is it in the post that you think I need to demonstrate?

          • Only by professing a salvific trust in Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your transgressions against a Holy God will one be saved from an eternal punishment for those transgressions.

            Maybe I have misunderstood this, or read it out of context?
            Quite possible, of course.
            However it suggests that you are making a major claim.
            Of course I think it is nonsense, and has no bearing unless indoctrinated into children, but it would be nice if you would be prepared to demonstrate the veracity of this statement.
            Again , maybe I have misread and jumped to conclusions?

  19. Sorry, that should have read …if you make a ‘positive’ claim. No ‘with”

  20. Arkenaten, you have a point jeering at the history of the politically powerful persecuting those who hold different religious beliefs, but you show that you are guilty of the same totalitarian impulse when you demand that religious instruction be criminalized as child abuse.

    You’re not much better than the people you hate.

    As for the doctrine of exclusivism, the alternative is an affront to any possibility of ultimate justice: universalism implies that even the most wicked men can enjoy paradise without the least inclination toward repentance.

    At any rate, Jesus of Nazareth was an exclusivist — “no one comes to the Father but by me” — and those who would sneer at all exclusivists as “idiots” tells us more about their own intelligence than they do their opponents.

    • You’re not much better than the people you hate.

      I hate no one or nothing with the possible exception of boiled cabbage and Manchester United.

      when you demand that religious instruction be criminalized as child abuse.

      The terrorizing of children by teaching them the doctrine of Hell is child abuse and should be legislated against. Period.
      Teaching children creationism a la ACE schools and Ken Ham is child abuse and should be legislated against.
      Circumcision of infants – boys and girls – based on religious grounds is abuse and should be outlawed immediately.

    • At any rate, Jesus of Nazareth was an exclusivist

      Jesus of Nazareth is a narrative construct. There is not a shred of verifiable evidence for such a character.

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