For the Christian the death of an unbelieving friend can hardly fail to be troubling. What are we to make of the language that the Church has always used about the necessity of belief as a precondition for salvation?
Here goes from the Athanasian creed for anyone who has forgotten it:
“Whosoever will be saved; before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly…This is the Catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”
The creed quoted in not is everyday use, but this is strong and worrying stuff. How are we to understand it? I think that the clue is to be found in the beliefs of the early church about the Resurrection. According to W.J. Sparrow Simpson ( 1959-1952 ), in his time a leading Anglican authority on the subject, there are two strands of teaching on the subject in the New Testament., one “lays all the stress on the solidity and tangibility of the Lord’s Risen Body…the other lays all the stress on the…ethereality and unearthliness of the spiritual body, and may be said to concentrate itself on the phrase “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.””
At the very core of Christianity is the belief in human freedom. If men and women are not free to make moral and intellectual choices then the whole project collapses. Belief cannot be coerced; which is of course why the Inquisition got it so hopelessly wrong. But coercion comes in many forms. Why, it is sometimes asked, did not Christ show himself publicly in the Temple after his resurrection ? Surely this would have established the truth of his claims beyond all doubt?
Well yes, but then- if one thinks it through- Christianity would then have become some species of totalitarianism. Christians would have become not the children of God but his slaves. It was exactly the temptation to create such a system that Christ- we are told- rejected at the very start of his ministry.
And the early Christians seemed to have sensed that their belief in the Resurrection was not just a factual statement but, as Sparrow Simpson put it elsewhere (p. 445), “a venture in faith”. In a neglected passage in The Acts of the Apostles St.Peter briefly summarizes Christ’s ministry …“we can bear witness to all that he did in the Jewish country-side,” and then continues “He was put to death…but God raised him to life on the third day, and allowed him to appear, NOT TO THE WHOLE PEOPLE, [ emphasis supplied] but to witnesses whom God had chosen in advance- to us, who ate a drank with him after he rose from the dead.”( Acts:X, 39-41 NEB)
In one sentence we seem to see here both the strands that Sparrow Simpson referred to. There is on the one hand emphasis on the physical-the aspect of the gospel accurately reflected, in the creeds of the church. But this does not seem to be the whole story. There seems to be something else going on here too. Perhaps the anonymous eighteenth century deist who lampooned Christianity as “not” being “founded on argument” was on to something despite his subversive intentions.
It seems that there is in Christianity another more puzzling and ambivalent reality beyond the reach of the apologetic writers who flocked to refute the deist in question. We need to ask why St Peter draw attention to the fact that not everyone was given immediate access to the reality of the Resurrection? The point seems to be that in some complicated way that the evidence for faith is to some extent only granted to those who already believe. After all the apostles themselves failed to recognise the risen Christ on several occasions, and yet still knew themselves able to confirm that what they experienced was no illusion.
In the same way then that in the Christian faith, justice is modified by mercy, so the Christian demand for faith must be balanced by the nature of the evidence in question. The cumulative case for the Resurrection may be strong, and I for one think that it is, but it is not coercive. We are all on a pilgrimage. But we have not all reached the exit for Damascus. For some of us, even the very best of us, faith can come slowly; perhaps so slowly that it cannot come to fruition even in the course of a single life. Here the great Eastern religions turn to reincarnation for comfort. But this intellectual manoeuvre finds no support in the Christian scheme. Perhaps though we could say, without doing too much damage to the creeds, that the subtle nature of the evidence for the Resurrection -on which, of course the truth of Christianity depends-allows us to suggest that those who cannot believe in this life, will nevertheless be granted further opportunities to believe in the good news of Easter in ways that we (and they) cannot now imagine.
Note: “Christianity not founded on Argument,” which was published in1742, is usually attributed to Henry Dodwell junior. But while this is likely it is not certain. The pamphlet gave rise to a huge controversial literature- see below.