This will be a short series on the question: does God exclude people for not believing? I am blogging on this to work out my thoughts for an article I will be writing later. Be sure to read Part 1 first.
There is an idea growing in popularity that people experience God’s salvation without conscious faith in Yeshua. John Sanders gives a classic statement of the Wider Hope or Inclusivist view:
Salvation for the unevangelized is made possible only by the redemptive work of Jesus, but God applies that work even to those who are ignorant of the atonement. God does this as people respond in trusting faith to the revelation they have. In other words, unevangelized persons may be saved on the basis of Christ’s work if they respond in faith to the God who created them. (What About Those Who Never Heard? Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995. p.36).
I hate to admit it, but proponents of Wider Hope are able to cite one of my personal favorites, C.S. Lewis:
In his well-known Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis tells of a man named Emeth (truth) who had been raised in a country where the chief god was named Tash. Emeth fought against the country of Narnia with its God Aslan (the Christ-figure), whom Emeth thought was evil. Through a series of circumstances Emeth has a vision of the god Tash and realizes that Tash is the evil one. Repulsed by the vision, he wanders into the woods. There Aslan meets him and following dialogue ensues:
“Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash.”
He answered, “Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” (Sanders, p.45, quoting Lewis’s The Last Battle).
Of course, Sanders and others who cite Lewis here do a disservice. In Lewis’s book, the character Emeth first turns away from Tash. He does undergo a sort of conversion. Lewis’s point is not so much unconscious salvation as the legitimacy of Emeth’s pre-faith righteous deeds.
At any rate, I am not an inclusivist. I believe the hope God provides this world is wide, but we should not make it wider. I believe that the God of Israel has always had strict standards for inclusion in his people. In this series I will try to give some biblical examples and provide some theological basis.
I would like to begin with the Torah. What can the Torah of Moses tell us about this issue of inclusivism versus exclusivism? Many would say nothing, thinking soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is found only in the New Testament. It is true that full-blown soteriology waits for the New Testament. But the reader will have to judge if I am stretching the meaning of Torah to find doctrinal help from it.
I think there is an area of Torah that bears on our question. It is the Torah-concept of being cut off from the people of God.
There are various opinions about what it means to be cut off from the people of Israel. It is generally expressed by the Niphal form of karet, a word whose basic meaning is to cut, as in cutting down a tree. In some texts, like Isaiah 48:19, it seems to mean “blotted out.”
What did being cut off mean practically in Israel? Some see it as a penalty of execution, since it is used in parallel with execution in Exodus 31:14. Others see this, not as a call for action from the people, but a curse from God — eliminating the person and their entire line by killing them all. Most likely neither is the case. The penalty of being cut off most likely means they were to be regarded as non-Israelites, as sojourners or foreigners living in the land. Certain privileges would be lost, such as the right to eat the Passover sacrifice.
The penalty of being cut off was prescribed for a wide array of covenant transgressions: eating leaven at Passover, making a copy of the holy incense, working on the Sabbath, sinning with defiant intent, etc.
There is no evidence that the penalty of being cut off was irreversible. It is assumed that repentance would bring a person back into the fold of Israel. There are a number of cases in which all Israel, having defied the covenant, went through revival and seem to be received by God.
Nonetheless, we find in the Torah that God is not particularly lenient about boundaries. This is far from proving that the experience of salvation is limited to people with conscious faith in Yeshua, but it is the beginning of noting God’s exclusivism. God excludes. It is his way.
Next time: the remnant in the Hebrew Bible.