By: Abbie Goldschmid
“We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”
-C. S. Lewis
Haunting words for an Evangelical college freshman. Before I came to college, I never thought about what it meant to be an exclusivist or an inclusivist. I thought that Christianity was the only truth and all other religions were evil lies Satan used to trick people. I’m not sure why I had this opinion; I did not grow up in a church where this idea was shoved down our throats every Sunday. It was just easy to assume that I knew all of the answers. I was a practicing exclusivist without even knowing it and then suddenly, college. I was surrounded by Christians who disagreed with me. That was new. It was overwhelming; as I’m sure it was for many of you when you discovered the world of Christianity is a lot bigger than your own denomination.
I began hearing other students and even professors throw around this term “inclusivism,” a foreign word to me. Isn’t “inclusivism” just “universalism” with a fancier name? I was so concerned that all of my friends were really not Christians for believing in such “heresy.” So in my typical exclusivist fashion, I tried to convert them to the “true” message of the Gospel. But they just wouldn’t listen. They would pull out verses like Galatians 1:19-20 and the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. I shut my ears to them. I had no intention of being a “Universalist,” and that was that. I even remember telling my own boyfriend that I wasn’t sure we actually believed in the same God when he told me he was an inclusivist. I was heartbroken.
I did believe that there were some good things to learn in other religions. For example, Islam puts a great amount of emphasis on prayer; Mormons work very hard to be ethical in all aspects of their lives; Buddhists look for peace and restoration. So I came to identify myself as a partial exclusivist, and I developed the confidence and love to allow my friends to believe whatever it was they wanted to. I was not convinced that inclusivism was true, but I did see the hearts of the people who believed this philosophy. They loved people. They loved God. And they were still Christians.
I made it successfully through my freshman year, but like many students, I had a few identity crises every now and again. My theology changed in certain areas, but for the most part I stayed consistent. Then this year happened. I’m only three weeks in, and I have already had a radical transformation when it comes to inclusivism, thanks to my World Religions class.
My professor explained that God is actively at work in other religions to the point that others can be saved. This made me nervous. Was it alright for me to even be asking these questions? Was it ok that I had doubts? I was still curious so I kept asking. He went on to explain that this belief, to him, represents what Christ was trying to do during His time on earth. Christ broke down barriers between all sorts of different social groups. He did not explain that one group was completely right, all others were completely wrong, and therefore all other groups should be replaced by the right group. He came to demonstrate the necessity for community amongst neighbors. Why is this view important? My professor explained it me this way:
Mainly what I discovered in that [missionary] experience is that we grow more as human beings and Christians when we are connecting in significant ways with people who are different from us. Inclusivism in this sense offers an opportunity for growth, far more than a spirit of exclusivism that keeps us in hermetically sealed little communities patting ourselves on the back for being so right. Hard to grow when you’re never challenged.
This is what sent me over the edge. I was really connecting with this sort of philosophy, but I didn’t like the idea of changing my views on something this major. But I kept thinking. We (Christians) cannot be the only people on this earth that God loves. He created all mankind and each individual is created in His image. Therefore, he must take into consideration the place in which he placed his creation. Galatians 1:19-20 states, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” For me, my family history is a huge factor in why I am a Christian. If I had grown up in a Muslim home, I would probably be Muslim, and I would imagine that is true for most of you. God knows the story of each individual, and based on my interpretation of the nature of God, it makes sense to me that He would take that into consideration.
I realize that it might sound as though I’m trying to convince all of you to become inclusivists. That’s not my purpose. In fact, I still call myself a partial exclusivist that just happens to have some inclusivist leanings. My point is simple: it’s ok. It’s ok to be wondering about ideas that are different from what you grew up learning. It’s ok to have doubts and concerns and questions. I was terrified when I began having doubts; I thought that doubts meant that something I believed in my Christianity was a lie and my whole faith was going to fall apart. It didn’t. I’m still a Christian. In fact, I’m a much stronger believer in Jesus then I ever was before I started thinking about inclusivism or any other theological issue. Don’t be afraid of people that think differently from you—they still love the same God you do. And as my professor told me, it’s hard to grow when you aren’t challenged.