I left something out yesterday in the discussion of Universalism. When I said this, ‘It is not because, as Albert Mohler suggests, of “superficial preaching in church pulpits” that most American Christians believe that Christianity isn’t the only way to heaven – it is because their belief in the goodness of God is more real to them than the details of doctrine,’ I left out a major point.
That is that people intuitively understand that “belief” is a nearly useless criterion for separating the sheep from the goats, so to speak. Certainly, some beliefs are better than others – and certainly some are very wicked. And just as certainly, we must take responsibility for our beliefs – wicked ones aren’t excused simply because they are “our beliefs”. The point is that people intuitively understand that whatever basis for “salvation” (however you understand that term) there is must be moral, and can never reduce to what is essentially an intellectual function – the “belief” in (which must preceed a belief “on” – however that is meant) Christ.
Generally speaking, a person’s beliefs are less important than their heart – their good will toward others – their actions in this world.
Biblically speaking again, again with the caveat that I am not qualified nor tasked with working out the Bible but do have some opinions to share, this fact is difficult. It isn’t perhaps as difficult as the issue of Universalism, but it is difficult nonetheless.
If we treat Matthew as it was written – as a unique expression and account of Jesus, rather than as a part of a larger canonical whole which must be harmonized, then Matthew’s Jesus surely expresses the attitude that I express here – that it is our relationship to other people by which we are judged, not by expressions of faith. Matthew 7:21-29 makes this point. Matthew 25:31-46 also shows very clearly shows that righteousness toward other people is the important factor – not belief. (Likely this was the Ebionite viewpoint). Nowhere does Matthew indicate that salvation can come through faith.
James is in agreement with Matthew against Paul and John and couldn’t be more clear that works with respect to others and not faith is the criterion of judgment. James 2:14-24 is adamant:
What [doth it] profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be [ye] warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what [doth it] profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
In short, there is unavoidable tension between Matthew, James, and presumably the “Hebraic” early Christians and the Pauline soteriology of salvation through faith. It is only because of the orthodox view of scripture that any attempt is made to harmonize the competing viewpoints, and only because of the historical emergence of a Pauline orthodoxy that it is harmonized in favor of justification by faith.
In other words, a much stronger Biblical case can be made against the doctrine of faith than against eternal damnation (especially considering Matthew above!) Yet it is still complicated, and there is certainly a strong Biblical witness in favor of justification by faith to set up against the Biblical witness against it.
It cannot be resolved Biblically. Other criteria are important. And of course the criteria that I champion are reason and good-will.
Reason demands that belief is only tangentially related to redemption. If one has nurtured a good heart, then one’s beliefs will likely be in tune with that. And if one has nurtured a wicked heart, then one’s beliefs will be more wicked. But the important thing is the heart, and its expression in relationships with people. A) may believe that ghosts haunt his house, and B) may believe that the strength of gravity correlates inversely with the square of distance. A) may be wrong and B) may be right, but there is nothing about belief that makes A) less worthy and B) more.
Belief simply isn’t a moral quantity. Our intuition that people are judged on moral quantities if anything – and certainly not something as arbitrary as belief – is a good intuition. It serves us well. And we should avoid undermining it by doctrines that proclaim otherwise.