Thursday, June 27, 2013

Salvation for Atheists: Is the Pope an Anonymous Lutheran?

Because I have been neglecting this blog for the past month to focus on other things, there is a post I started writing when it was timely (in the journalistic sense of piggybacking on current news) that I didn't get around to finishing until this morning, when it is no longer timely (in that journalistic sense). But since the main points are timeless in a deeper sense, I post it now.

Pope Francis made something of a splash recently when, during a homily, he asserted that through Christ God has redeemed all of humanity, even atheists. More precisely, he offered the following words, which are enough to make any Christian universalist (and perhaps a few atheists) flap about in barely suppressed delight:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!
But despite how delightfully these words ring in the ears of a Christian universalist like me, I wasn't about to run around shouting that Pope Francis has come out as a universalist.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, quickly offered clarifying remarks intended--at least in part--to stave off the impression that the pope has abruptly spoken in favor of universal salvation. Rosica interprets the pope's remarks in the light of a couple of observations. First, Rosica stresses that the Catholic Church has consistently taught that God desires the salvation of all, and that Christ's self-sacrificial love is extended to all people, whether they are Christians or not. This includes atheists. Rosica wants to highlight that there is nothing vaguely heretical about such a view.

Second, Rosica invokes theologian Karl Rahner's notion of the "anonymous Christian." Rosica puts it as follows:
Rahner said that God desires all people to be saved, and cannot possibly consign all non-Christians to hell.  Secondly, Jesus Christ is God’s only means of salvation. This must mean that the non-Christians who end up in heaven must have received the grace of Christ without their realising it.   Hence the term – ‘anonymous Christian’. 
What is meant by this thesis of the anonymous Christian is also taught in “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II (no.16). According to this document those who have not yet received the gospel and this without any fault of their own are given the possibility of eternal salvation...God ‘in the unknown ways’ of his grace can give the faith without which there is no salvation even to those who have not yet heard the preaching of the gospel.
On this basis, Rosica makes the point that not all atheism (or rejection of Christianity) is created equal. Here's how he puts it:
A non-Christian may reject a Christian’s presentation of the gospel of Christ. That however, does not necessarily mean that the person has truly rejected Christ and God. Rejection of Christianity may not mean the rejection of Christ.  For if a given individual rejects the Christianity brought to him through the Church’s preaching, even then we are still never in any position to decide whether this rejection as it exists in the concrete signifies a grave fault or an act of faithfulness to one’s own conscience.  We can never say with ultimate certainty whether a non-Christian who has rejected Christianity and who, in spite of a certain encounter with Christianity, does not become a Christian, is still following the temporary path mapped out for his own salvation which is leading him to an encounter with God, or whether he has now entered upon the way of perdition.
We can think of Rosica's remarks this way. Obviously, the Roman Catholic Church holds that a sincere devotion to the moral good would never be an impediment to accepting Christianity if Christianity is properly understood, since Christianity embodies all moral goodness perfectly. Likewise, Roman Catholics hold that a sincere devotion to truth should not impede Christian belief, since they take Christianity to be true and the case for its truth adequate.

But even if we assume, with Roman Catholics, that Christianity embodies all moral goodness, is true, and has a sufficient case for its truth, it doesn't follow that every person who encounters Christianity will correctly discern these things. And so there are likely to be those who out of a sincere devotion to moral goodness or to truth will reject Christianity as it is presented to them. That is hugely different from someone who, having a fully adequate understanding of what Christianity teaches and correctly perceiving the strength of the case for its truth, rejects it out of pride or some other comparably nefarious motive.

Put simply, there's a big difference between rejecting the true and the good on the basis that you despise the true and the good, and rejecting the true and the good out of a sincere love for the true and the good and a mistaken or confused understanding of what is true and good.

Assuming that Christianity embodies the true and the good (an assumption I have no intention of defending in this post because it is irrelevant for the narrow point I'm making), what we have are two kinds of people: those who actually reject Christian truth and goodness because they are opposed to it, and those who apparently reject Christian truth and goodness because they misunderstand it through no fault of their own but would love it and embrace it if they understood it correctly. What they are rejecting, in that case, isn't Christian truth and goodness at all, but some mischaracterization of it--and they reject it because they love truth and goodness, the very truth and goodness that is found in Christianity...without their knowing it.

Surely, there are atheists who fall into the latter category. And those who do would qualify, in Rahner's terms, as "anonymous Christians."

But the Pope's comments go further than merely saying that some atheists have the right kind of personal orientation towards the truth and goodness of Christianity to qualify as anonymous Christians. He says quite clearly that Christ has redeemed all humanity, including atheists. And I think he means it. But what, exactly, does he mean?

Is there a way to fit such a statement with a doctrine of limited salvation? In fact, there is--and probably the most powerful articulation of how it can be done was developed by Lutheran theologians using the concept of "objective justification." The idea is this: Christ redeemed all humanity in the sense that, through Christ, salvation has been made unconditionally available to all persons despite their sin. All impediments to salvation, all constraints against opening the doors to blessedness that sin might have generated, are swept away. All the creature need to is choose to enjoy the salvation that is made available. Some, however, may choose otherwise, and so--while redeemed--don't enjoy the blessedness that has been secured for them.

The analogy is sometimes used of a king who, on account of something his son has done, declares all the prisoners in his dungeon free. The jailer unlocks all the cell doors, swings them wide, and announces that they are free to leave. But in order to enjoy their new-found liberty, the prisoners have to make the choice to get up and walk out the door. If they stay where they are, they remain in the dungeon--it is as if they were never set free. But in an objective sense they were set free.

It is quite possible that Pope Francis had something like this in mind--in which case he was not coming out as a universalist, an anonymous Lutheran.

Now let me say that I believe God can lift away the subjective impediments to salvation without overriding creaturely autonomy--a point that John Kronen and I develop in God's Final Victory. As such, I think an embrace of the Lutheran doctrine of objective justification is one short step from universalism. That is, I think that universalism follows from objective justification in conjunction with some other insights into human nature, divine nature, and the character of human freedom.

But not everyone who accepts this Lutheran doctrine (either explicitly or "anonymously") has taken that last step. Hence, it doesn't follow from what Pope Francis has said that he is a universalist. Although I think it follows that he should be.


  1. Watching/Listening to your lecture from September 2009(on vimeo). I'm really enjoying it. Thanks for the time you put into this.

  2. Hi Eric,
    that's pretty interesting, I didn't know you were an universalist.

    I guess pope Francis was pointing out the universality of the salvation OFFER as opposed to views such as limited atonement.

    To my mind, God won't force anyone to choose Him, and if the person refuses, he or she will eventually cease to exist.

    I've one question: as a Christian universalist, how do you interpret Jesus warnings about hell?

    Keep doing all your good work!

    Lothar's son - Lothars Sohn

  3. As a Lutheran pastor (and refugee from the ELCA), I deplore the wholly un-Lutheran teaching of salvation by grace without faith which is set forth in Braaten and Jensen's Christian Dogmatics, and has become all the rage in the ELCA and other nominally Lutheran circles whose theology has long since ceased to bear any resemblance to that of Luther or the Lutheran confessions.

    Pope Francis is no more a Lutheran- anonymous or otherwise- than Carl Braaten or Robert Jenson are.