As a Christian inclusivist, I maintain that Christianity is the fullest revelation of God, but that people are able to receive salvation without professing to be Christian. I believe the inclusivist position allows us to maintain traditional understandings of core Christian doctrines, while also acknowledging the force of a religiously plural reality. We are to hold firm to the belief that it was only through Christ’s death and resurrection that salvation was made available to all people. Jesus is the only mediator between God and man and no one goes to the father except through him, but it may be possible for people to go through Christ without totally knowing that it is on account of Christ’s work that they may commune with God.
At this point, I think Pinnock has incredible insight into this issue. Karkkainen points out Pinnock claims salvation is on faith, not the content of our theology. This elucidates a tension I’ve had with early believers of Christ. It would be unlikely that the early believers had quite the comprehension we do about the nature of the trinity or Christ’s hypostasis. Given that some foundations for these doctrines came about developmentally, are still developing, and aren’t agreed on by all Christians, suggests that one’s systematized knowledge about Christ may not be as important for salvation as it may feel. The point I’m straining to make is that it is not totally clear what one must believe in professing that Jesus is Lord, died for our sins and rose three days later.
If we loosen up on the propositional content that must be affirmed to be considered Christian, this broadens the bounds of who may receive the gift of salvation. I think it gives us a solid starting point in moving towards making room for those who have never heard of or met Jesus. Exclusivism’s requirement for people to verbally profess Jesus’ name and Lordship for salvation does cause great conflict with a loving and just God for me. To not extend grace to those who have never heard of Jesus in this lifetime does not exemplify love nor justice. Also, to think that people are supposed to be led by general revelation and natural theology alone to Jesus makes too much of those means of accessing God, and too little of the reality of one’s context. To think a Hindu born and raised in India or a Muslim in Baghdad would have the language or even the concepts necessary to understand and verbalize a cry for help to Jesus of the bible is unreasonable.
Taking this in consideration with the ever present and consistent work of the Holy Spirit, we can reasonably come to see the value of other religions and how they may be a part of the Spirit’s salvific work. To think the Spirit only moved through those in the middle east who are a part of the Bible is quite a limiting assumption. I would argue that the Spirit was always moving everywhere on earth where ever there were humans. To me this suggests that even other religions may have genuine portions of revelation in their scriptures and beliefs. We could even say that other religions have expressed truths about God in clearer ways than the history of Christianity has, but I would contend that these other faiths do not have any additional information or truth about God that is not present in Christianity and the Scriptures. Given these rays of truth in other religions, one’s salvation would be intimately connected with how one responded to the basis of this light.
At this point, I need to be clear though that these other religions aren’t salvific in themselves. It could be that an exemplar of another faith is evidence that one has followed the light in that faith, but it won’t be that faith that saves them, their salvation like everyone else’s is on account of Jesus dying for their sins. So, a Buddhist who responds to the light of God in Buddhism may end up looking like an extremely devout Buddhist. It may even be that their devout Buddhist nature is directly correlated to their responding to the “Christian light” in Buddhism. Yet in responding to this light they are doing all they can to except Jesus to the best they can. If our salvation is best understood in a relational way with the triune God, we may say to the extent one responds to the light in their religion is the extent they accept a relationship with Jesus.
On this quite intense relational understanding of salvation, one is exempt from salvation when they can be demonstrated to have rejected Jesus. I will concede that only God knows what this means for someone to have appropriate revelation of Jesus in order to make an appropriate judgement about whether one wants to follow or not follow Jesus, and only God knows when someone has had that adequate knowledge. Thus, if a devout Buddhist were to respond to the light in the Buddhist religion the best they could, but had some other way been deemed to have a sufficient understanding and experience of Jesus but rejected Jesus for Buddhism, this person would not receive salvation.