It’s not usually kosher to complain when a book written for lay people and even for non-believers fails to reference a particular part of the scholarly discussion of something. But when in fact ignorance of the discussion leads to misinterpretation of Biblical texts, on issues as large as — ‘on what basis are people saved by Jesus’ then it is time to raise a red flag. And this chapter definitely raises a few flags.
Let’s start with the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10. ‘The rock was Christ’ says Paul, referring to the famous story in Exodus about water coming forth from the rock. What in the world is Paul trying to say? Well, this would not be a conundrum if a person will have read the good commentaries on 1 Cor. 10 and realized that we are dealing with something called Wisdom Christology — the applying to Jesus of ideas and terms previously applied in Jewish wisdom literature to personified Wisdom. Lady Wisdom, as she is sometimes called, is discoursed on in places like Proverbs 3, 8-9 but also increasingly in Intertestamental Jewish literature like Wisdom of Solomon and in Sirach as well. Both Jesus and Paul are very much familiar with and indebted to those two books, as I have shown at great length in my book Jesus the Sage. Paul believes that the Son of God existed before and participated with the Father in the making and sustaining of all of creation. And, in 1 Corinthians 10 he believes the pre-existent Christ had a role to play in the sustaining of God’s people in the wilderness. He has transferred what was previously predicated of Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon to Christ, who is presented as Wisdom in person, not merely a personification.
How does this help us? It makes clear that God the Son, like God the Father, has been in the lives of God’s chosen people all along. What the Exodus story does not suggest, and Paul does not say, is that we can then conclude that the ‘hidden’ Jesus is somehow present in all world religions, saving people through them all. Paul, frankly, would be appalled at this application of his use of Wisdom ideas in 1 Cor. 10, especially in light of his extensive polemics against pagan religions! Now I would be the last person to insist that we should ignore the fact that the Son of God and his work throughout the world is more vast that we can imagine, and exists in places we have never conceived. True enough, and a good reminder to us all that are making the mistake of trying to shoe-horn Jesus into certain narrow parameters that will not contain him.
However (and it is a big however), when it comes to these kinds of discussions we need to be broad where the Scriptures are broad, and not broad where the Scriptures are not. It’s no good citing the broad texts and ignoring the narrow ones, or vice versa — at least not if you have, as you should, a high view of Scripture. And this brings us to p. 154 in Love Wins: “What he doesn’t say is how or when or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him even know that they are coming exclusively through Him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”
This is where we need, frankly, to back up the truck and dial down the rhetoric.
First of all, the text in Exodus is not about salvation — it’s about water to a parched group of people who are already God’s people! This is not about the mysterious salvation of the lost through foreign religions. Secondly, the use of this text in 1 Cor. 10 is to make the point that, just as the Hebrews had divine benefits (manna, water etc.) from God, these divine benefits didn’t guarantee them salvation any more than the Corinthians were automatically saved because they had partaken of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What Paul is countering here is a magical view of the sacraments and their salvific potential, or lack thereof. What he is not doing is providing an all-too-modern argument for Jesus as the universal Force by which all persons are saved, whether they’ve heard of Jesus or not.
The chapter had begun with the recounting of various weird conversion experiences. Yes, there are a lot of those out there. Most recently, I have been intrigued about Muslims in Muslim countries having dreams of Issah (the Arabic name of Jesus) which alters the way they have thought of him. Now what is interesting about these accounts is that they are not about some vague divine force changing a human life. They are Jesus-specific dreams or visions. There is something essential about knowing who your savior is. You cannot have a personal relationship with someone whom you do not really know the nature/name of. And here is the real problem with a chapter like this one.
In numerous places in the NT, and in numerous ways, we are told that it is necessary sooner or later to confess with our lips and believe in our hearts not only that Jesus is the savior, but that God raised him from the dead. Missions, in the book of Acts, is all about making clear that the mechanism by which salvation happens is repentance, genuine faith in Jesus, and a genuine change of a person’s life so that they become a follower of Jesus. Paul is equally insistent on this. This doesn’t mean that we cannot see the prevenient grace of God working in those who are not yet Christians. Of course we can. It also doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in some mysterious ways. Of course he does. Those who are not opposed to Jesus should not be treated as if they are.
But it does mean that when the Scriptures are specific about the means of salvation, both objectively and subjectively, we should be specific as well. And it is no help to play the ‘anti-religion’ card at this juncture — namely, ‘Jesus didn’t come to found a new religion’. Even if it were true in some sense, it would only be a half-truth. Jesus did come to be the Way and the Truth and the Life, and no one can come to the Father but by Him. In Mt. 11 Jesus, using again Wisdom language, makes clear that no one knows the Father except those to whom the Son reveals him. Apparently we need such revelations from and about the Son, and need to process them and receive them, in order to be saved. When Paul talks about his own conversion he uses the precise language of God revealing his Son ‘in me’. This is what happens when conversion happens, and the revelation is specific enough that the person is able to know it is Jesus and respond by naming Jesus whether with lips or in the heart, or both. Jesus is not some fuzzy divine revelation of love, and love is not some indistinct fuzzy revelation of Jesus. There is a specificity to all this — Jesus is a name brand, a particular quantity, a knowable and known savior. And in order to have a relationship with Him, you need to be saved and to know him.
And this is the Good News. It is the News that has always impelled a proper sense of urgency to missions. We are to make disciples of all nations, we are not called to go to all nations and explain that if they are devout people they have always already been disciples of Jesus. Nope. A change needs to happen, a conversion needs to transpire, and a knowing of and belonging to the Lord needs to result. Jesus did not come into the world, die on the cross, and rise again, just so we can go out and tell the world ‘Don’t worry, be happy, you’re already saved, you just don’t know who did it. It was an anonymous benefactor who wishes to remain nameless.’ The real Jesus is never satisfied with remaining nameless, and the real reason for that is that salvation is only the means to an end — the end of worshipping the one true God, by name.
Adoniram Judson was a missionary to Burma. He spent nearly twenty years out there with no converts. There came a day when one of the tribal chieftains decided he had heard enough about conversion to Jesus, and was going to burn Judson at the stake. Tied up, and about to be lighted up, Judson was asked by the chief, ‘What do you think of your god now?’ His memorable reply was ‘the future is as bright as the promises of God’. At this point, it was the chief who blinked, and said he would hear more of this Jesus. That was the day Christianity first broke through the darkness of Burma. I tell this story to remind us all that the world is lost outside of Christ. And Christ’s people have an obligation to make him known. Were the implications of this chapter true, Adoniram Judson could have been spared twenty years of frustration and hard labor for Christ. He wouldn’t have had to insist that the Burmese people needed to name the name that is above all names, here in this lifetime. Thank goodness, Judson hadn’t drunk the water from some rock other than the Biblical one.
Ben Witherington, “And Now, The Case for Permanent Residence in Hell”
Timothy Dalrymple, “What Launched the Bell Battle? – Rob Bell is No C. S. Lewis“