When God created the world and declared it was good, there were no Christians. When Jesus, the Son of God, was born into their world there were no Christians. And yet, God loved the world.
Over the course of the history of Christianity disciples of Jesus have wondered what it means to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples. Some have equated salvation with a person becoming or being a Christian. Some have said that if the Gospel has not been proclaimed to people in a certain place or time, then those people are not held responsible for the fact that they are not, or were not, Christians. The witness of scripture, particularly some passages in the Gospel of Matthew (Please see chapter 28), make it seem that salvation is only possible if a person becomes a disciple of Jesus and takes up responsibility for the mission to proclaim his teachings and baptize new disciples. It is logical, therefore, that many have concluded that scripture teaches that the world needs to be converted.
But, we come back to the nagging fact that God loved the world before there were Christians, God in Christ Jesus came into the world when their were no Christians, and since Jesus’s earthly ministry Christianity has always been a minority religion in the world (even when it has been one of the biggest of the world’s faiths). What does God think of all those people who have, indeed, heard of the teachings of Jesus Christ and yet remained Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever else? What of the people who hear the invitation to discipleship and remain people without a religion? What of all those who do not join up, seek baptism, and enter into membership in the Christian family?
Now there is a question.
A simple answer is, “They have been invited and they did not come.” For those familiar with the Christian scriptures the image of the king who sent invitations to his feast comes to mind, perhaps. (Please see Matthew 22) Too bad; you had your chance.
But the simple answer is not really so simple. While there are many scriptures that make that conclusion a logical one, there are also many that cause doubt. The questions that arise are unsettling. If God is love, as Jesus tells us (Please see 1 John 4.7-21), then where is the love in condemning the overwhelming majority of God’s children to damnation on account of their having a different religious identity than as a disciple of Jesus? Did God so love the world that he sent his only begotten son into the world so that the result of his incarnation would be the death of many more souls than he would save by forming a group of disciples in his name? What does that say about love? What does that say about God’s ability to save us? Is God really capable of saving so few?
These sorts of questions make writing about evangelism and its relationship to Christianity in general very difficult. When we speak of unity in the love of God, where does God draw the boundaries on who is in or out? When Christians argue over details of different people’s credentials for being Christians, what happens when we consider unity in the love of God from the standpoint of the overwhelming majority who never want to take on the name of one who is a Christ-follower? What kind of claim to unity in God’s love can really be made if only Christians matter? How does the part of creation that is not human at all figure in such a vision of being united? Of having life and life more abundant?
One logical sequence of reasoning says that there are the elect (that term shows up in scripture sometimes) who hear the teachings of Christ and become his followers — and then there are those who do not. Everyone else, in a sense, is demoted (or demotes themselves) to the status of “extras” in the drama that is our Christian story of salvation. Then there are the parts of creation populated by creatures not of human lineage. Some attribute to them a life in God based upon some bliss of innocence because, although they suffered on account of humankind’s sins, they were never themselves responsible for rebelling against God. So, they’re alright. No need to worry. Others, especially after the Cartesian philosophical revolution, are of the opinion that those non-human creatures are organic robots, unaware, incapable of “sentient” thought or emotion. They are the props to go along with the human “extras” in that drama that is all about the few.
One of the strangest experiences I’ve had was sitting down with a group of people meeting under the auspices of an ecumenical organization and charged with the task of writing a statement on evangelism. The distinction between Christian and non-Christian, and the understanding of how God works in the lives of all of us, raised painful clashes within people who were trying to write about the good news as proclaimed by Jesus. In many of the formulations of that good news, the news is not so good for most people and maybe not good at all for creation outside the human family. It was hard for many of us to agree with ourselves as individuals. Different teachings of Jesus collided inside of us. The discussions around the table were quiet and careful. This time, I think most of the tip-toeing had to do with not wanting to say something that would immediately make the individual uncomfortable with their own claim.
The easiest way to talk about proclaiming the good news was to say that it was offered to all. Leave off, as much as possible, discussion of what might happen if the offer was not taken. Avoid talking about what happens if you don’t choose to become a Christian.
These sorts of discussions were easier long ago, perhaps, when non-Christians were half a world away. You knew little or nothing about them, and you were not likely to ever meet them in this life. It is, perhaps, easier to say the offer is made and that salvation is found in becoming a Christian. But in a world where it is much more common to know people, near and far, of other religious traditions (or none), proclaiming the gospel is not so much like tying an invitation to a helium-filled balloon and leaving the responsibility for the response on the receiver’s end.
Moreover, historically and in the present day, Christians themselves have been confronted by efforts at religious conversion that demand they turn away from Christianity and to another religion. Being on the receiving end of such missionary efforts — that sometimes also claim that salvation is only possible if Christians convert away from their religion to the new one — does not feel so good on the receiving end.
What does it say about God when God’s followers say, “become one of us or die?”
Whether we are saying that as a promise to be enforced by the sword or as a promise to be reckoned with when this life is over the message is basically the same. Is this really what God has in mind? Is this what Jesus meant?
I am absolutely convinced that Christians are called to witness to the love of God and to life and life more abundant. I am absolutely convinced that we are to celebrate that God loved all of us so much that God entered into history by incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth. The teachings of Jesus’s earthly ministry are, I am certain, applicable in all lives and to all of creation. But, I am not so sure that being blessed by the good news and learning from Jesus’s teachings lays upon each person the requirement that they become a disciple — a Christian.
Let’s look again at the life and teachings of Jesus during his earthly ministry. He preached in towns and villages wherever he went. He preached on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had compassion and healed the sick wherever he went. He healed Jews and non-Jews. He even healed a member of the household of a Roman soldier. His teachings were offered to everyone who would listen and his compassion was shared with whomever he encountered in his path. Very few, a tiny number, became his disciples — committed their lives to learning from him and teaching and healing in his name.
Is it possible that two things have gotten conflated into one? Is it possible that Jesus’s message of love, life, and healing is for all and that becoming a disciple (to learn and to be entrusted to carry his message to all creation) are for a few who feel called by Jesus to take this one? The notion is no less radical. It is no less transformative of the world. But, perhaps in thinking of the mission of Christ this way we can see that God’s love is indeed powerful and not limited to a few.
This question I lift up here — What if the gospel is for all and discipleship is for a few? — is given to you as a question with which I hope you will wrestle. I do not claim that I am correct. Rather, I think that after so many centuries of tearing ourselves apart with disputes that have become divisions — and the world with us (as we have included it in our quarrels that have turned from love to violence) — that it makes good sense for us to look again at the scriptures and what Jesus is teaching us. What will we discover as we ask, pray, and discern our way forward?
What I will say is that I do not believe that Christians have salvation and no one else does. Christ framed the understanding of all his teachings and of all scripture — gave us a hermeneutic — when he taught that the essence of God is love. Everything else needs to be understood beginning with this claim.
Among Christians, the question of, “What about non-Christians,” is one of the most divisive that one can ask. There is a tender spot in the hearts of disciples of Jesus on this point — often among people who would venture very different answers in reply. Most Christians I know are not comfortable with the suggestion that salvation is just for those who are called Christians. And yet, even to pose the questions I have lifted up in this chapter causes many Christians a different sort of pain. It is the pain that comes about when we are asked to consider our own identity and the nature of our relationship with God and God’s creation.
If Christians are to follow faithfully after Jesus, though, we need to deal with the fact that we are called to him as disciples to a rabbi. Learning is found in the context of questioning. Every attempted answer needs to be challenged and tested. Faithfulness is having the confidence to grow in love and wisdom as we walk along the Way with him.