Christianity is a religion that claims the exclusive path to God and eternal life. In our modern times this has come under attack. How can Christianity be the only way to God? Those outside of Christianity ask: “if Christianity is the only way to God, then what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus; will they face eternal condemnation?” Many would give the example of the billions who died before Jesus came or before the Gospel reached them, and those who even today remain geographically or culturally isolated and therefore have never heard the name of Jesus Christ.Because of this challenge two major camps have surfaced in evangelical Christianity; the exclusivists, who say that only the Gospel can save, and the inclusivists, who say that in the absence of knowledge of the Gospel it is possible to be saved through God’s general revelation. Is this latter position biblically sound? There are three claims held by inclusivists that are diametrically opposed to exclusivism, their validity is enough to prove or disprove either position: they would claim indirectly that faith in the name and person of Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation, that general revelation is enough to lead the lost to salvation, and they would claim that this has to be true because God’s will is to save all and therefore there has to be provisions made for all to be saved. Is this what the Bible teaches?
Throughout the New Testament the authors seem to, in both their actions recorded and the words they write, disagree with the idea that salvation can be found apart from Jesus. In the argument against inclusivism “one should… consider the biblical passages that suggest individuals must have explicit faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to be saved.” We find these passages in numerous places. In John 14:6 Jesus proclaims that He is the “way, and the truth, and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father but through Me” (NASB). In Acts 4:12 Peter tells the rulers and elders of the Jews that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” In Acts 16:31 Paul tells the Jailer keeping him and Silas to “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” In Acts 2:38 Peter says to the men of Judea “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Here the remission of sins comes through Jesus Christ. In 1 John 5:12 the author writes “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” These are just a fraction of the verses of this kind found throughout the New Testament. Even this small snippet seems to show a common theme of salvation only coming through Jesus Christ; under no other name can man be saved.
“A key assumption of inclusivism is the belief that general revelation is sufficient to bring people to salvation. Inclusivists have to say this. They insist that salvation is accessible to all humans, including the millions who lack any contact with special revelation”. Is general revelation enough to save us in the absence of knowledge of Jesus? We read about special revelation throughout scripture (Ps. 19:1-6, Acts 14:17, etc.), but the most relevant passage for this discussion is found in Romans 1-3. In Romans 1:18-23 we read that we can know of God from what is inside of us and from creation, but the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. A complete reading of these three chapters reveals that we can know of God through his general revelation in nature and in ourselves, but it is only enough to condemn the entire world, not to save it. Even if we were to concede the idea of a salvific effect of general revelation to inclusivists they would still have a problem. “[I]nclusivism assumes a higher view of human ability (or a lesser view of depravity) than is biblically justified. People are not naturally seeking God. They are naturally blind (2 Cor. 4:4), foolish, and rebellious to the things of God (Rom. 1:18–32).” Humans are not righteous naturally, but are sinful and corrupt to the core (Rom. 3:23, 1 John 1:10, Matt. 15:18–20, Rom. 7:18–23, etc.); in Romans 3:10-11 we read that; “There is none righteous, not even one; 11There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God….” Some inclusivist claim that the “Pagan Saints” of the Old Testament, such as Job and Melchizedek, show that General revelation can lead to salvation. But in Scripture we do not find evidence that they were all pagans, and many, if not all, were subjects of God’s special revelation. General revelation does not have the power to save us, and even if it did we wouldn’t turn to it.
Even in light of these scriptural truths an inclusivist has to cling to the idea that there has to be some form of salvation for those isolated from the Gospel because, in their reckoning, the apparent scriptural teachings of God’s will for all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; etc.) must mean that there is a plan so that every person has the possibility of coming to salvation. “After all, if anyone is ultimately lost, it appears as though God has instituted a plan of salvation that does not fulfill His stated desire.” The idea that God’s will is for all to be saved and that He has instituted a plan that will not lead to the salvation of everyone appears on the surface to be a contradiction;fortunately it is not. Theologians make a distinction between His stated desire and His determined choice. These terms rightly distinguish between God’s revealed and hidden purposes. “[A]t one level God desires the salvation of all persons, but He has knowingly chosen a plan of salvation that will not satisfy that desire.” But do these texts even truly say that God’s will is for every human to be saved? Every text cited to support universal salvation contains words such as “all” and “world”, seeming to indicate the entirety of humanity. Some theologians would contend that in some, or all, contexts this is not what these words mean. In the view of these theologians these words “do not describe what God has done or is doing for all humans without exception, that is, for every single human being; rather, they report what God did for all human beings without distinction. That is, Christ did not die just for Jews or for males or for educated people or for powerful individuals. He also died for Gentiles, for women and children, for barbarians, for slaves and the poor. He died for Jews, yes; but he also died for Romans, Thracians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Macedonians, [and] Samaritans.”
The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved. If it was possible to be saved outside of Jesus, if people could be saved simply by being faithful to what they know of God through general revelation, then Saul of Tarsus would have been saved. He diligently sought God to the best of his ability (Acts 26:4-5), and was filled with such religious zeal that he persecuted and murdered those he thought of as God’s enemies (Acts 22:20). Yet in Paul’s own judgment this was not so; he gave up everything for Christ (Phil. 3:7-11), and he considered himself the foremost of the sinners that Jesus came to save (1 Timothy 1:15). General revelation can point us to God and broaden our understanding of Him, but specific revelation is the only way in which to be saved. Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8), that is true faith that is not only held but that produces action (James 2:14-26).
Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, Colorado: David C. Cook, 2010.
Nash, Ronald H. Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.
Pyne, Robert A., and Stephen R. Spence. “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part Two.” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Theological Seminary) 158, no. 632 (Oct 2001): 384-404.
Story, Dan. Defending Your Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1997.