Farewell to Exclusivism

The traditional way of describing the fate of non-Christians, in more conservative evangelical circles, goes something like this: 

All who are not members of the Christian community at the time of their death will be tortured in hell for all eternity.

This approach is often called “exclusivism,” because it holds that the only people who are spared from hell are those who are expressly and consciously a Christian at the time of their death.

I have come to believe that there is little or no scriptural support for the exclusivist position. The reason for this is pretty simple to understand, if you know something about cheesy TV shows and movies during the 70s and 80s.

Back in the day before cell phones, word processors, and hacks who tried to falsify military documents to make presidential candidates look bad, your typical kidnapper in a TV show or movie had a real problem – how to create a ransom note without giving yourself away. After all, you can’t make the note in your own handwriting, can you?

The solution to this problem was to put on a pair of gloves and then cut and paste individual words or letters out of a magazine or newspaper until you spelled out what you wanted. Here’s an example of typical message of this nature:

Exclusivists, I’m convinced, have to do a lot of cutting and pasting to reach their conclusions. They have to take a text which says that someone who does not “believe” will be “condemned” from some place like this, and then equate “condemnation” with hell in a place like this.

Problem is, what John is saying about condemnation in the first text may have little or nothing to do with what Matthew is saying about hell in the second one, and vice versa. You can only come to an exclusivist position by equating things that were written in different times, to different people, in different contexts, addressing different issues.

To put it another way, none of the direct references to hell (whether the original word is “Ghenna” or “Hades”) ever state anything that is close to the exclusivist position: that hell is a place for all non-Christians. Instead, in each case, they describe only one action (or a small list of particular types of action) that put one in jeapordy of hell.

I’ve also noticed that the pattern in the description of hell-bound people relates directly to another important theme in scripture: power and oppression. That is, the hell-bound people are the powerful who are using that power to oppress others. This is the thing from which God, time and time again, says he will save us.

Hell, then, is not the thing from which we will be saved. Rather, it is an integral part of God’s saving work. Unless God tosses “out” those who make the world a miserable place, those who are in the world can never be saved.

I realize that this may turn a lot of things that you have always heard on their head. But I’m convinced that it is necessary to thoroughly digest this idea before you can gain appreciation of hell that is consistent with that of the New Testament writers.

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4 Responses to Farewell to Exclusivism

  1. nena says:

    Suffering some confusion here. Are you saying there is no hell or that there is not a hell as we have believed it to be? Can you clarify for a poor bewildered reader?

  2. Matt says:

    I’m confusing my own mother. Thats a bad sign, ’cause it probably means everyone else is also scratching their heads.

    At this point, all I am saying is that the New Testament doesn’t ever say, in so many words, that hell is the destination for all non-Christians. However, to answer the question very briefly…

    Yes. I think hell exists. Even if it is nothing more than being in a state where you are not accepted or allowed in God’s kingdom, it must still be a miserable place. And yes, I think that – in any case – scripture portrays it as something quite different than what a lot of us have thought it to be.

    My plan is to continue to think out loud on those questions (perhaps in more detail) in some upcoming posts.

  3. Jacob says:

    Hades is not to be confused with ‘the second death.’ Hades is simple mortality. People die, and that is unavoidable. The problem was that prior to Christ there was no resurrective path out of death. In other words, those who died stayed dead.

    Life, from a scriptural point of view, is a direct product of being in the path of God’s grace. God is doing things throughout creation, and if you align yourself with that activity, you stay alive as well. But people sin – they avoid grace, or lose the path, or worse, they find themselves following a leader who loses the path and get cut off in the process. This is why mercy was required scripturally… not just for the sake of the sinner, but for the sake of all of those who may have otherwise stayed alive but were drawn away. When a limb in the tree of life gets diseased, all the branches and fruit are pruned off – and that’s the sad thing.

    But death is just what it is… I mean it’s an end. But in following Christ we are supposedly able to traverse death and resurrect in new incorrigible bodies. At that final time, when the earth is overturned – so to speak – then yes there is only one game in town – a new creation… a sort of creation within creation… and that world plays by God’s lordship and rules.

    They envisioned it like this… you have this chaotic space of matter, and inside of that God creates an ordered world through his commands, strength, love, life, etc. And that world has people in it who try to reintroduce the chaotic elements into the mix… well inside this created order, God then creates another higher created order… like a bubble within a bubble… once that interior structure is complete and filled with those who will not try to contaminate it, God pops the outside bubble, letting that outer world go and the chaos envelopes it – and the new creation takes the place of the old…

    And if you want to be a part of that program, you need to accept God’s lordship, and following Christ is the easiest way to do that – and it isn’t easy. And those who reject that lordship and those rules are refused entry.

    If folks reject it because they don’t know it, then so be it – I mean on some level they don’t know what they are missing – maybe they are used to chaos. If they reject it because they know and despise it, then so be it – they have chosen a path of unknown chaos over a path they know they will hate, so that works for them. If those who know it are willing to accept it without question, they get in.

    So in a sense, everybody gets what they want! Perhaps the texts don’t carry the same moralistic weight that we impose… from the perspective of wisdom literature, you aren’t evil or bad because instead of submitting your freedom to God and living a life of super created glory you decided to take a dip in the chaotic sulphur springs of the second death… from a scriptural point of view, you are foolish/stupid.

    But what some consider wise, others consider foolish and that’s just the way life goes.

  4. […] well as I understood them), and indicated that I am not fully satisfied by any of them, though (a) I have rejected exclusivism and (b) I am somewhat sympathetic toward […]

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