Deconstructing salvation: a thought experiment

How much theological knowledge (alongside personal commitment to God) does a person have to have in order to be saved? Normal presentations of the good news of Jesus Christ present explicit belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ as a necessary condition for salvation. The presentation I heard included “asking Jesus into your heart”, “believing that Jesus died for your sins”, etc. I don’t put them in quotes to suggest that such statements are silly or untrue, but to keep the formula that we often hear in tact. Nearly every American has heard something along these lines, many believe it, and most understand Christians to unanimously preach that all who do not believe specifically in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, as the son of God and savior of the world, will perish.

Honestly, I don’t know exactly where I stand on this issue. I affirm everything in the original Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus was concieved of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontious Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, that He rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God.

I just don’t know how much of that (or more) we need to believe in order for Jesus to “remember us in his kingdom” as the thief who died at his side asked. So, here’s the thought experiment that I hope will at least prod some on to deeper thoughts about Jesus and his great work: Taking the standard claims, that one must know who Jesus was, i.e. that he lived, was the son of God, was sinless, was crucified to death, took the sins of the world upon himself, rose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of God in heaven, I want to isolate each point and ask if it is necessary for salvation. Here goes.

Would you deny that a person was saved if, while following his ethical teachings wholeheartedly, they mistakenly believed just one of the following things about Jesus:

1. That he was a woman?
2. That he was a sinless man, but a normal man in every other respect (i.e. not “divine” in some metaphysical sense)?
3. That he was hanged, not crucified?
4. That his name was Sam? (Interestingly, noone ever called Jesus “Jesus”. Jesus is an anglicized version of his latin/greek name Iesous [ee-ay-sous], which is a hellenized version of his aramaic name, Yeshua.)
5. That God had not raised him from the dead (and also assuming he never prophisied his own resurrection).
6. That God had raised him from the dead spiritually, but not physically, that his body rotted away in the grave, while he made real appearances to his disciples as a seemingly-physical apparition?
7. That he rose from the dead miraculously, but then moved away to India and was never seen again?

If you would allow that a person with just one of these misconceptions could be saved, what if someone held to three of them, or all of them? It is not too difficult to imagine someone arriving in heaven and remarking in surprise, “so, he was crucified? I thought he had been decapitated! Imagine that…”, but it might be a bit harder to think that someone has a salvific relationship to the person of Christ, believing that the messiah was Sam, a mere sinless woman who was hanged for blasphemy, and rotted away while she made a few appearances in dreams to her disciples. Somewhere in that list, has slavation been compromised?

  1. #1 by Taren on 8.7.07 - 2.41 pm

    Deep stuff. I would really like to research more into this.

  2. #2 by Alex Marshall on 10.5.07 - 4.24 am

    I think the key to the question is “mistakenly believed.” If someone was given an incomplete/”un-Biblical”/”watered down” (not necessarily all describing the same thing) presentation of the gospel, I could see them believing any of these things. I think provided they understood that Christ has died for their sins and redeemed them and could put faith in that, then these mistakes would be acceptable. Where I say they become wrong is if someone who has a larger Biblical knowledge decides to believe something that is contrary to what the Bible clearly teaches (clearly being the key word). I guess the middle ground would be the individual who has larger Biblical knowledge but is “confused” and believes something un-Biblical. I’m not sure where I would stand on their condition. It would probably be more case-by-case.

  3. #3 by Michael Glawson on 10.5.07 - 7.54 am

    I think that, when I used the term “mistakenly believed” that I was misleading. I mean their belief is a mistake not in the sense that they somehow don’t mean to believe it, but in the sense that they are mistaken in believing that it is the truth.

    I don’t know that I’m committed, in this thought experiment, to anything about the person’s biblical knowledge, though I think I had in mind a person who has only heard about Jesus without ever reading the bible. But I don’t know how that consideration makes a difference for the person’s salvation.

    I mean, suppose that person A and person B both sincerely hold all of the mistaken beliefs that the original post dealt with, and they believe them with equal strength, but suppose that person A believes these things because some wacked out missionary told it to them, while person B holds these beliefs, in admitted contradiction to scripture, because they are the honest conclusions of much thoughtful study on the subject (we’re supposing here that someone could do a thoughtful study and find some tradition that supports this portrait of Jesus).

    Do you think that this constitutes a salvific difference between A and B?

  4. #4 by Alex Marshall on 10.5.07 - 2.54 pm

    To an extent. I think to a certain extent we are held accountable for what we know. General revelation is enough to convict someone of sin and defiance of God, but I don’t know that it is enough for someone without the Bible to determine between theological positions or maybe even belief systems (to some extent). In light of that, I think that God would not reject an individual who was earnestly seeking him but was given bad information. The second part of your thing, though, the person who reaches these conclusions after thoughtful study, I think fits in the gray area I was talking about. Someone with a larger degree of knowledge is, I think, going to be held more accountable for that knowledge. However, I am unsure of the extent to which they are held accountable for reaching the wrong conclusions in earnest study. Honestly, I am still somewhat confused myself as to how or why God might allow someone to come to wrong conclusions in earnest study seeking the truth. I think there are major questions about the individual person’s motives, willingness to listen to the truth, and perhaps other issues. Which I guess is why I would say it would have to be case-by-case in those situations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: