In a recent discussion I had elsewhere, the topic of (Christian) salvation came up in the context of the Jewish people living before Christ. It seems to be a common Evangelical argument that at least some of these people (e.g. David, Moses, etc) were saved by Christ. However, I now take issue with this for a few reasons.
First and foremost is that the method by which ‘salvation’ is dispensed changed between OT Judaism and NT Christianity. To put it another way, the ‘OT saints’ did not believe that ‘accepting Christ as Lord and Saviour’ was the way. Sure, they may have believed in a forthcoming Christ, but their idea of this Christ would have been fundamentally different, as the Gospels clearly show that the Jewish people were not looking for a spiritual salvation but a political one. The Christian NT (and subsequent theology) fits with interpretations of OT texts only by re-interpreting these texts in light of the Christ-event. It is an intellectually dishonest claim to argue that the people up to the time of Christ read the texts in that light; it’s an anachronism. As a result of this, the OT beliefs regarding ‘salvation’ (if there were any at all) are very likely to be different than their NT counterparts.
Secondly and subsequently, if some people before the time of Christ were ‘saved’ (in the Christian sense), the person arguing such must admit she is not an exclusivist.* She must admit that people outside of the Christian religious faith are ‘saved’ in order to remain consistent. There are a few options that work, each of which I wish to address: (1) argue that ‘salvation’ comes from something other than a religious belief/faith, (2) accept some form of inclusivism,* (3) accept some form of pluralism.*
Real Faith Isn’t a Religion
I believe this may be the most popular opinion in Evangelical Christianity, as it seeks to differentiate between religious practices (which may be flawed) and ‘true saving faith’. This is a hybridisation of exclusivism and inclusivism by arguing that only people who follow the real faith (exclusivism) are ‘saved’ but that this real faith is not a single religious tradition (inclusivism). It is a short step from C.S. Lewis’s inclusivism he describes in The Last Battle.* However, there are two issues here that make this position untenable in my opinion. First, it can’t maintain its position as nonreligious with its call for proselytism/evangelism. If one must convert in order to ‘be saved’, then that set of beliefs are, in fact, religious. In other words, conversion is only necessary if there are wrong beliefs. Secondly (and less importantly), it must extend this position beyond just a few groups of people (i.e. post-Christ Christian and pre-Christ Jewish believers). In other words, it must also accept that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, etc can be ‘true believers’ while remaining within their religious traditions both before and after Christ. The combination of these requires a view very close to that of pluralism, which has had some Evangelical Christian expressions recently from figures such as Brian McLaren.
In a nutshell, this position argues that no religious tradition is ‘more correct’ than another. Unlike its hybrid cousin above, it does not need to explain a particular notion of salvation for another tradition. Its one major fault is that it is incompatible with the history and traditions of Christian belief. Attempts to integrate it within some kind of ‘orthodox Christian belief’ ultimately fails because it must eject important pieces of historical Christianity or reinterpret them in order to succeed. As such, I am unable to accept it as a plausible resolution to the above situation.*
In this context, inclusivism takes a form very similar to the hybrid position, as it argues that salvation comes only from ‘Christian’ belief. Its argument for OT Jewish believers, however, is quickly dissolved as it relies on the anachronistic reading of theology. It still has another option in arguing that even though these believers were not ‘Christian’, they happened (either by chance or by some divine intervention) to get enough concepts right to somehow have fallen into ‘Christian’ salvation before ‘Christianity’ existed (in the same way that one could argue that Augustine had fumbled into semiotics centuries before it was treated as such). Like the hybrid position, however, it must extend this belief to all people. However, unlike the hybrid, it is able to stand firmly within the field of inclusivism and accept a call to proselytism/evangelism without being backed into an intellectual corner. In other words, faith comes from some kind of theological revelation that is most easily found within the Christian tradition but not exclusively (either because of freak chance or by divine intervention). It is this position that I believe to be the only tenable response to the original situation. It is able to accept the possibility of people outside of the influence of the Christian tradition to have received the ‘right’ revelation while also being able to accept proselytism/evangelism.
NB 1: For these terms, see here for my usage.
NB 2: For an description of this, see here.
NB 3: For a more sympathetic view to integrating Christianity with pluralism, I highly suggest reading John Hick’s works (e.g. God Has Many Names).