The salvation of non-Christians in Africa: An Adventist perspective
Editors’ note: This manuscript merited one of two first prizes in the most recent Ministry Student Writing Contest.
Africa’s religious landscape includes all the major religions of the world in addition to its own variety of indigenous faiths.1 The existence of such varied faiths raises a fundamental question for Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists in particular. The question touches the basic issue of salvation: what will be the ultimate end of those who do not profess Christ as their Savior?
Christian groups have given many and differing answers. Adventist scholars2 have also contributed to the ongoing discussion. This article will briefly look at the answers from both perspectives.
The non-Adventist response
Traditional Christian attitude towards other religions include (1) Christianity is the only religion where people are saved; (2) salvation is in Christ alone; and (3) there are many ways to salvation but one norm.3
The approach of scholars is not too different, and it falls in one of three schools: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.4 Exclusivism follows Cyprian’s dictum extra ecclesiam nulla salus5 and assumes that “other religions are marked by humankind’s fundamental sinfulness and are therefore erroneous, and that Christ (viz. Christianity) offers the only path to salvation.”6 Inclusivism maintains “in some sense the uniqueness of Jesus Christ while also admitting that God’s grace and salvation are present and effective in and through other religions as well.”7 Pluralism asserts that other religions are also legitimate ways (or valid paths) of salvation. Pluralists who appear to reject exclusivism go further to affirm that Christ is one Savior among other savior figures.8
The Adventist response
Seventh-day Adventists approach the issue differently. Derek C. Beardsell argues that Adventists are not fully exclusivists, inclusivists, or pluralists.9 This is because the “Adventist interpretation and understanding of basic Bible teaching places Jesus Christ at the centre of the salvific stage”;10 therefore, it is impossible to accept these positions. What, then, is the Adventist position? In dealing with this question, Gottfried Oosterwal raises another important question: “Is there an Adventist response, generally acceptable to most Adventist Church and mission leaders that could guide believers as they face the challenge of the plurality of religions at their door step?”11 His answer: “Yes, there is.”12
Oosterwal states that the “basis and starting point of an Adventist response” is found in the notion of the everlasting gospel,13 with an emphasis on the saving grace of God for all humankind (see John 3:16–21).14 That is to say, Scripture does not make any distinction as to whom God gives grace. Paul’s thesis in Romans 1:14–17 includes everyone in God’s saving act. Although this emphasis places everyone as beneficiaries of God’s saving grace, it is evident that it comes with an injunction. This injunction is the absolute faith in Jesus Christ, meaning that there must be an acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as the Savior—the One through whom this grace is received (see John 3:16–21; 14:6, 7; Acts 2:38). However, it appears that Jesus Himself spoke about those who have not yet professed Him as Savior. These He referred to as His own (“other sheep,” John 10:16), with the promise to “bring them” to Himself. His plan to bring them in to Himself is seen in the sending of those already in “the fold” into the world to make His salvation (i.e., the gospel) known to all nations (cf. Matthew 28:18–20).
Ellen White states that among non-Christians (1) the working of the Holy Spirit exists; (2) people worship God, and His law is upheld, though ignorantly; and (3) there is a spirit of kindness and grace. Therefore, White appeals for the need to carry the message of salvation to those who long for “the light.”15 This view corroborates with the statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on relations with world religions.16 Although this statement is not basically on the salvation of non-Christians, clearly Adventists affirm the working of God’s Spirit and existence of “certain values and truths” among “other faiths” (world religions). Also, in this statement, the longing to be joined with adherents of world religions together with other believers in worshiping God is implicitly expressed.
Based on this, Adventist scholars tend towards a moderate type of exclusivism.17 Though not mentioned explicitly by Beardsell, this position is seen in the fact that while Adventists believe that only in Christ is there salvation, they also affirm that many will be saved who have never heard of Christ.18
What does this mean? On the one hand, the position of a moderate exclusivism is based on the insight that the end of time is yet to come. Therefore, the importance of the church’s wit-ness to God’s saving work is stressed while the church (in contrast to the exclusivist view) refrains “from limiting access to salvation to persons with a nominal church membership.”19 On the other hand, although Adventists deny “the notion of the religions as parallel, or even partial, ways to salvation,”20 they view other religions in a positive light. This means that God has also revealed Himself to adherents of other religions who have some truths. While this helps to deny the “superiority of Christianity to other religions,” at the same time, this inculcates a “responsibility in sharing access of salvation to others.”
Based on this, Stefan Höschele suggests that the Adventist contribution to the answer of religious pluralism and to the question of the salvation of non-Christians is “missiological universalism.” Missiological universalism can be defined as a position that sees the need for communicating God’s plan of salvation as well as having a “positive view of people’s potential access to His grace for all humans, whatever their affiliation to particular religious systems.”23 Propelled by an emphasis on God’s grace, this position is not bound to institutional Christianity. Still, Adventists “would emphasize that this grace is not inherent in other religious systems” even as they affirm the working of God’s Spirit among non-Christians. Missiological universalism is alternative to the pluralism that asserts that “many religions are fully valid paths of salvation.” This position, however, comes with the responsibility to spread the good news of salvation. The implication of this position in Höschele’s perspective is that it does not draw a straight line to differentiate between Christians and non-Christians but leaves the issue of salvation to God.26
The Adventist response and the salvation of non-Christians in Africa
The Adventist response on the salvation of non-Christians emphasizes (1) the working of God’s Spirit among non-Christians, (2) the working of God’s grace beyond the borders of the Adventist Church and even Christianity, (3) a denial of other religions as vessels of grace, and (4) a special responsibility of sharing the message of salvation with non-Christians. How then should these salient points be applied in Africa with respect to the salvation of non-Christians?
1. God’s Spirit among non-Christians. The emphasis of God’s Spirit working among non-Christians did not develop in a vacuum. That Scripture places emphasis on “the light that gives light to every man” and the knowledge of God among all men respectively becomes evident in Scripture texts (John 1:9; Rom. 1:18–20). Paul’s argument in Romans may have been the basis of Ellen G. White’s view, although White quotes only John 1:9 on this matter.27 White states that those who will be saved at the end of the age may include those who may not have heard about Christ “but [have] cherished His principles.” Thus, people who may not have any knowledge of God’s written law may still worship God and do His will ignorantly.
This position begs mention because of the evidence of God’s Spirit working among non-Christians in Africa, especially in African traditional religions (ATR). The assumption is that, before the coming of the Christian witness to Africa, there was a “positive” tradition in which Christ (or God’s Spirit) was “somehow” at work among the people.29 Philemon Amanze affirms that one of the basic beliefs that make up ATR is the belief in God. This belief centers on God’s revelation of Himself to the Africans, a reality resulting in a distinct name for God in every African community.30Consequently, a major application of the working of God’s Spirit among non-Christians would infer a far-reaching awareness and affirmation of this reality. This awareness and affirmation will not only instill a spirit of tolerance towards adherents of other religions but also create avenues for mutual and respectful relationships with non-Christians and resulting opportunities for Adventists in Africa to witness to non-Christians in their societies.
2. God’s grace for non-Christians. While affirmed that the grace of God is available to adherents of other religions, Adventists deny the notion that all religions are valid paths to salvation. This denial results in a passionate desire to reach those who, though saved in ignorance, may also perish in it. God’s abundant grace is available even beyond institutional Christianity.
As already stated, Adventists believe that God has made His grace available to everyone. In this respect, it is important to note that non-Christians have theologies in respect to salvation and grace, although different from that of the Christians. For example, among representatives of ATR, it is believed that religiosity, which connotes an affirmation of the Supreme Being, influences their understanding of grace. This understanding is evident in the reality that grace is seen in the working of the Supreme Being in the affairs of humans. Therefore, to speak of grace speaks of the Divine.31
Although this is structurally similar to the Christian understanding, the theology of salvation is different. Salvation in ATR is achieved in life after death when the individual becomes an ances-tor.32 These ancestors then serve as mediators and intermediaries between the Supreme Being and the human,33 a belief that is in contrast to the Christian teaching that Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. Based on this major difference, it is understand-able why Adventists do not accept other religions as ways to salvation. Therefore, Adventists in the African context are encouraged to acknowledge the universality of God’s grace beyond the borders of institutional Christianity but should deny any notion that accepts that salvation is inherent in all religions. It may be affirmed that although salvation is gained through Christ alone, those who might never hear of Him may be saved by letting the Holy Spirit direct their lives according to the light they received.
3. Responsibility of mission. Furthermore, the understanding of the Adventist response comes with an important task of spreading the good news of this salvation. White’s assertion, and basically the Adventist emphasis in the working of God’s Spirit and the availability of God’s grace among non-Christians, comes with a clarion call for mission. The call was centered on the reality that some adherents of other religions are seeking “the light.” These will continue in their ignorance except as the gospel is taken to them.34
White’s assertion, as well as the Adventist position on missiological universalism, reveals a tension between general and special revelation, although this tension is considered fruitful.35 The tension is fruitful because the mission of the Adventist Church in Africa will emphasize the uniqueness of special revelation in the person of Christ and, at the same time, refuse to deny the existence of general revelation among non-Christians. Consequently, Adventists in Africa will develop a radical passion to reach adherents of the multiple traditional religions and indigenous faiths.
The Adventist response to the question of the salvation of non-Christians appears to be a reaction to the positions that (1) exclude non-Christians from the grace of God, (2) include other religions as vessels of grace and salvation but still emphasize the uniqueness of Christ, and (3) affirm that other religions are valid paths to salvation. When we apply this position to the African context, it will affirm the working of God’s Spirit and grace among adherents of different religions as well as multiple indigenous religions.
This means that it is possible to agree with Ellen G. White that those non-Christians in Africa who may not come to know Christ might be saved if they live up to “the light” they are given. Although it is reasonable to agree to this, it may be better to leave the issue of the salvation of non-Christians for God to decide. Even in this affirma-tion, Adventists still deny the notion that other religions in Africa are valid paths to salvation. Based on this, that the desperate action of taking the gospel to non-Christians is encouraged, implications that arise from this might suggest a rethinking in the ways of sharing the gospel to these adherents. Though sharing the gospel involves different strategies and several methods, the author suggests that interfaith dialogue,36 critical contextualization,37 and religious education38 might be considered and adopted for the cause of the gospel among non-Christians in Africa.
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1 See John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Gaborone, Botswana: Heinemann, 2008, 1st edition 1969), xiii, 1. In the preface to the second edition of this book, Mbiti posits that it was the “diversity of African religiosity” that made him use “African Religions” in the plural.
2 For a comprehensive bibliography, see Stefan Höschele, “The Emerging Adventist Theology of Religions Discourse: Participants, Positions, Particularities,” in Passionate Reflection [Festschrift in Honour of Jerald Whitehouse], ed. Bruce Bauer (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2011), 355–76. Also online at http://www.academia.edu/1752769/Adventist— Theology—of—Religions
3 Paul Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 73–144. One norm here according to Knitter is in reference to the revelation of Jesus Christ in other religions. This argument in his view shows that Christ, the final cause of salvation, is incarnated in other religions. See Knitter, 120–44.
4 Although these views are more popular, John Sanders’s classification (restrictivism, universalism, and inclusivism) is also referred to and quoted by scholars when it comes to discussing the faith of the unevangelized. See Adventist scholars like Jon L. Dybdahl, “Is There Hope for the Unevangelized?” in Adventist Mission in the 21st Century: The Joys and Challenges of Presenting Jesus to a Diverse World, ed. Jon L. Dybdahl (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1999), 55–57; Clifton Maberly, “Adventist Use of Non-Christian Scriptures,” in Adventist Responses to Cross-Cultural Mission: Global Mission Issues Committee Papers, vol. 1: 1998–2001, ed. Bruce L. Bauer (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2006), 61. Cf. John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Diversity of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992).
5 The Latin pronouncement means “outside the church, there is no salvation.” It was used in the third century by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, to express the role the church plays in the salvation of the world.
6 Gavin D’Costa, Theology and Religious Pluralism: The Challenge of Other Religions (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 52.
7 Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 52.
8 See Knitter, No Other Name? 126, 127; Veli-Matti Karkkainen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 24, 25.
9 Derek C. Beardsell, “The Unfinished Task: Is There Salvation Outside Christianity? Do Other Christian Churches Also Fulfill the Great Commission?” in Adventist Mission Facing the 21st Century: A Reader, ed., Hugh I. Dunton, Baldur Ed. Pfeiffer, and Børge Schantz (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990), 34.
10 Ibid., 28.
11 Gottfried Oosterwal, “Adventism Facing the World Religions,” in Adventist Mission in the 21st Century,
14 All scriptural references are from the New International Version.
15 See Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 638; Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), 171; Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 385.
16 This statement was originally published in Adventist Responses to Cross-Cultural Mission: Global Mission Issues Committee Papers, 179–80. Cf. Stefan Höschele ed., Interchurch and Interfaith Relations: Seventh-day Adventist Statements and Documents, Adventistica 10 (Frankfurt au Maim: Peter Lang, 2010), 168.
17 A moderate type of exclusivism differs from the exclusivist view that follows Cyprian’s dictum as earlier defined. Russell Staples suggests that this position is most compatible with the Adventist identity and mission. See Russell Staples, “Exclusivism, Pluralism, and Global Mission,” Ministry (November 1992): 13.
18 Beardsell, “The Unfinished Task: Is There Salvation Outside Christianity?” 28.
19 Höschele, “The Emerging Adventist Theology of Religions Discourse,” 362, 363.
20 Oosterwal, “Adventism Facing the World Religions,” 51.
21 Dybdahl, “Is There Hope for the Unevangelized?” 59; Maberly, “Adventist Use of Non-Christian Scriptures,” 56–66. Cf. Ellen White statements already referred to, and Adventist Statement on Relationship with World Religions.
22 Höschele, “The Emerging Adventist Theology of Religions Discourse,” 364, 365.
23 Ibid., 366.
25 Ibid., 365, 366.
26 Ibid., 367; Dybdahl also concurs to this. “Is There Hope for the Unevangelized?” 60, 61.
27 White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 385.
28 White, The Desire of Ages, 638.
29 Keith Ferdinando, “Christian Identity in the African Context: Reflections on Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 1 (March 2007): 126.
30 Philemon O. Amanze, “God of the Africans: Ministering to Adherents of African Traditional Religion,” Ministry (October 2007): 14.
31 See Ferdinand Nwaigbo, “Faith in the One God in Christian and African Traditional Religions: A Theological Appraisal,” African Journals Online 7 (2010): 61, 62.
32 Ibid. See also note on “Belief in Ancestors” in Amanze, “God of the Africans,” 14.
33 B. Afeke and P. Verster, “Christianization of Ancestor Veneration Within African Traditional Religions: An Evaluation,” In die Skriflig 38, no. 1 (2004): 49. For more details, see also Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 69.
34 See White, Prophets and Kings, 171.
35 Höschele, “The Emerging Adventist Theology of Religions Discourse,” 366.
36 Although people welcome interfaith and/or inter-religious dialogues for a variety of reasons, dialogue should not be a replacement for mission as advocated by pluralists. Rather, the aim for interfaith dialogue should be mission.
37 It is a process in which people are brought to a position where they are willing to deal biblically with all areas of their lives. For more details, see Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1985), 186, 187.
38 A religious education centering on world religions with emphasis on mission for both trained ministers in ministry and those undergoing training at the undergraduate level.