Soteriology is the theory or study of salvation. My soteriology is heretical in that I do not think that “accepting Jesus” in the orthodox sense of the phrase is at all consistent with the goodness of the Good One, nor with what I perceive to be the deeper meaning of salvation in the first place. Recently, I realized that there is a problem with how I think about salvation, and this problem is, interestingly, an extension of the same problem posed by more orthodox soteriologies.
Orthodox soteriologies are problematic, as I see it, for at least two reasons. The first reason is because they require people to accept certain metaphysical propositions, and the likely-hood of the acceptance of these propositions is largely determined by cultural forces that are outside the control of that individual. For example, a person who grew up in Saudi Arabia is far less likely to “accept Jesus” than a person who grew up in, say, Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is not that peron’s fault that they were born in a particular culture, and this culture contributes to conditions that “stack the epistemological deck” against these individuals.
This seems unfair. Can we really imagine that the Good One would be comfortable with that state of affairs? In other words, do we really think that God would “think” to God’s self before “deciding” to create the world, “Hey, I realize that I am about to create a world in which certain people will be more able to attain salvation than others and a world in which certain people will ‘go to hell’ because they did not accept beliefs that they were unlikely to accept through no fault of their own (because of cultural influences), but I don’t care. I’ll just make the world this way regardless?”
Many Christians have a reply to this that is at least coherent. They claim that God is secretly working in a way that is unseen to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to “accept Jesus.” They point to, for example, supposed instances where Muslims have visions of Jesus even though they have never heard of Jesus before in an awakened state. This, however, misses the point. The point is not that certain people are born in certain areas where Jesus is unknown. Rather, the point is that even if Jesus shows up in a dream to them, they will arguably be less likely to “accept him” because Jesus is a deity that is foreign to the culture. Think, for example, how a Christian would likely be reluctant to abandon his faith as a Christian simply because he had a dream in which Satan declared that he should be followed instead of Jesus.
Even if God made some sort of exception for those in unfavarable epistemic circumstances, there is a more fundamental problem with orthodox soteriologies: they seem to misplace soteriological emphasis on accepting metaphysical belief A, B, and C rather than on a salvivic transformation or rebirth. A close look at the gospels exposes this point. John’s gospel makes explicit that accepting certain metaphysical beliefs is a necessary condition for receiving salvation.
Many other passages, however, reveal that this is not a sufficient condition. Matthew 25, for example, features a parable in which persons are sent to hell because they failed to take care of “the least of these.” Barring any sort of doctrinal eisegesis aimed at preserving what Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace” as a soteriological theory, it seems reasonable to think that this parable can be interpretted to mean that caring for the poor is also a necessary condition for salvation. In other words, contrary to the commodified version of Christainity, salvation does come, in part, through works. Caring for the poor, of course, is just one aspect of the Christian ethic, but the very heart of Christainity seems more expansive.
The two greatest commandments, if they are indeed the most important, likely capture the heart of the Christian ethic (which is more originally a Jewish ethic): Love God with everything you’ve got. Love people as you love yourself. If a person living in Saudi Arabia does not accept certain metaphysical beliefs, but he strives to love people as he loves himself and Love Allah with everything he has, then it seems like he has embraced the “heart of Christianity.”
Fully explaining and justifying this point will require that I allow myself to be destracted from the main aim of this post, which is to explore a problem with the unorthodox soteriology that I have explicated. Explaining the above objections is only necessary insofar as it allows me to (finally) state the problem with my heretical-pluralistic soteriology: the non-ideal cultural situation that formed the basis for the first objection to orthodox soteriology (i.e., the objection based on the proposition that diastant non-Christians find themselves in non-ideal epistemic situations) can be applied in a structurally similar way to my current conception of soteriology, which might be stated this way: We are “saved” by loving God (I understand this phrase in a sense that is far broader than orthodox understandings of the meaning of loving God) and loving others. The way this application works follows.
The fact is that our likely-hood of embracing what I have called the “heart of Christianity” might be subject to the same sort of precarious conditions that influence the acceptance of certain metaphycial beliefs. For example, if I grew up in an indiginous tribe in which a ethic of violent hatred was pervasive, I would certainly be unlikely to accept the “heart of Christianity.” If I am interested in continuing to think that John was right when he said that “God is Love,” then my conceptual responses to this situation are limited.
An obvious move is to say that God will be “understanding” of the precarious circumstances in which individuals find themselves. (This is identical to a notion that I recently heard explained at a philosophy seminar on “embedded desert.”) In other words, these individuals will only be judged according to the best they could have done given their certain circumstances. This move, however, is only available if I think that there is an afterlife.
Most days I don’t think there is such an afterlife. Most days I think that heaven just is embracing the heart of Christianity whole-heartedly (in an ethical sense, not in an epistemic sense). This, interestingly, is not entirely incompatible with Jesus’ words in Luke 17:
20Being asked by the Pharisees(A) when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God(B) is not coming with signs to be observed, 21nor(C) will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
All of these things being said, I am faced with a choice; one of my beliefs has to change if I am interested in having a consistent set of beliefs (which, most of the time, I don’t really care about). Here is the choice: either I embrace a sort of ethical relativism by believing that the heaven that I associate with the Ethical life is equally possible for everyone regardless of the content of that ethic or I have to believe that there is an afterlife in which someone has the opportunity to experience heaven. There is a third option which is structurally similar to the one used to justify God “deciding” to “sent to hell” people who don’t believe in him. That option is this: the nature of existence is so constituted so that there is no excuse for not embracing the heart of Christianity. Notice that this is similar to saying (like the Psalmist does) that the nature of existence is so constituted so that there is no excuse for not accepting certain metaphysical propoisitions (viz., the proposition that God exists).
This third option seems obviously false. Jesus himself is the one who notes that the “way is narrow” and “few are the ones who find it.” Moreover, Jesus also makes another comment that suggests that the Christian ethic is an unobvious one although I have not the will to exegete this comment here. I need not rely on the words of Jesus to think that the Christian ethic is an unobvious one, it just seems intuitive based on the very content of the ethic. Perhaps, however, I need to reconsider my assessment of this belief.
Ethical relativism is certainly the least conceptually palatable option. Is there an anologue though between grace and relativism? In other words, is there a similarity between the possibility for us to experience the heaven associated with the Christian ethic regardless of whether we embrace it and the possibility for us to “enter heaven” regardless of our actualization of a Christian ethic (although orthodox grace would require us to “appropriate the atonement”). This is worth exploring.
The second option, if it seems most plausible, would provide me with positive reason to think that heaven (in the afterlife sense of the word) is actually a real state of being. A part of me wants this option to be the only one that I can accept, for then I will be able to quiet those fears in the darkness of the night; those fears that grip me when death itself creeps into my mind…
There is further still another option: my conception of God needs reworking. Among the possible reworkings is, of course, atheism, but I cannot abdicate among these re-workings, nor can I even completely decide among the conceptual options that I have outlined here. It has been time consuming and difficult enough to sketch out my options. Solving them is going to be exponentially more lengthy and difficult.
Recognizing the difficult conceptual road ahead, I will turn to the One who is responsible for Understanding. I realize that this seems absurd: I turn to the One whose very existence is in question, but the Love of Love beacons me towards It in order to find the peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that I have felt before, a peace that I need right now.