Religious Pluralism (part 1)

July 21, 2008     Time: 00:35:06

It occurred to me sitting in church this morning listening to Bryant Wright speak about the Second Coming of Christ that this is an area of Christian theology that actually involves some apologetical issues that I hadn’t even thought to mention during this sermon series that he has just concluded. What Bryant Wright’s sermon series has been on is the subject of eschatology. If you don’t know that word, eschatology comes from the Greek word eschaton which means “last.” The area of eschatology is the study of the last things – the final things, the end of the world. In eschatology you study the second coming of Christ, the doctrine of the last things, and the final state of humanity. Bryant has been talking about eschatology in the morning services now for a number of weeks.

But what you may not be aware of is that eschatology is not only a branch of theology. In recent years eschatology has actually emerged as a branch of physics. They even use the term eschatology – physical eschatology is now a part of physics. It is a subcategory of cosmology which is the study of the universe as a whole. The large scale structure and history of the universe. Cosmology has two subareas. One is cosmogony. That is the study of the origin of the universe – where did the universe come from, the beginning of the universe. The other subarea is eschatology. That is the study of the future of the universe and how the universe will end. So interestingly enough, eschatology is no longer simply theology; it is a part of physics as physicists and scientists study how the universe will end.

Believe it or not, there are actually some lessons that emerge from physical eschatology that can be helpful to us as we think about theological eschatology. One of the problems, I think, in talking about the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world and how everything will be dissolved is that, in some ways, it just seems so hard to believe that that could really happen. It is hard to imagine that next year or next week Christ could suddenly come again and everything would be over. The history of the world will come to an end. Everything seems to be going along so nicely. Everything seems to be just continuing in a hunky-dory fashion. It is hard to believe this could all be ended in another year or two. Yet this is one of the conclusions that physical eschatology emphasizes.

In physical eschatology one of the questions about the future of the universe is whether or not the universe exists in its lowest energy state or vacuum state. The possibility is that the universe, as it exists now, is actually in a false vacuum, represented by this little cup or bowl. So the universe is not really in its lowest energy state that it could be in. It is in this sort of false vacuum state.

The interesting thing about this false vacuum state is that it is radically unstable. Because of subatomic indeterminancy, subatomic physics says that if the universe is in one of these false vacuum states then at some time in the future (and we don’t know whether it is near or far) the universe will probably tunnel through this barrier and plunge on down into a true vacuum. If it does so, everything would be changed instantaneously throughout the universe. All the laws of physics would be rewritten. The universe would be completely altered if this were to happen. It would happen in an unfathomably brief instant of time. It is called a phase transition when the universe goes through this false vacuum state into a true vacuum.[1] An analogy for such a phase transition would be water changing from liquid to ice. When water freezes – say the surface of a pond – it doesn’t sort of freeze at one part and then kind of creep across the pond. Rather, the whole surface is cooling, and when it reaches this point of phase transition the ice begins to form all across the surface. The whole surface will go through a phase transition in which it will turn from liquid to solid and then thicken. In the same way, if the universe were to go through one of these phase transitions, this would sweep across the universe in less than a blink of an eye and everything would be dissolved. Gravitation, the laws of thermodynamics, everything would be changed and everything would be destroyed that we know now instantaneously. The whole universe would be rewritten. It would be a new heavens and a new Earth – well, the Earth probably wouldn’t even exist. It would be a dissolution of the present universe.

This idea of the sudden dissolution of the universe as we know it now and its replacement by a new space and time isn’t just some sort of fantasy of theology. This is something that could really happen physically. It could happen instantaneously without any warning. We would have no idea such a thing was approaching. Yet, this is what lies in the future of the universe if we should happen to be in such a false vacuum state.

As I read the description of this in a physics journal on the future of the universe, my mind just instantly went to what the Scripture says about the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. This is from 2 Peter 3:10, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire and the Earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” What a vivid description in the Scriptures of just this sort of scenario that is physically possible.

So when you hear preaching on the Second Coming of Christ, such as we have in this series and we heard it today about being alert, being watchful, knowing that this could come at any time, and your mind has been hesitant or doubtful and say How could that really happen? or How could such a thing really take place?, be aware that even in secular physics, this kind of radical transformation of space and time of the universe and everything in it is something that could happen tomorrow without warning. Therefore, as Peter goes on to say what kind of people ought we to be in light of this fact? And what kind of lives should we be living knowing that everything in the heavens and the Earth are to be dissolved in this way. We need to be ready. We need to be prepared.

That by way of encouragement to you with respect to the issue of eschatology that Bryant has been speaking about. As I say, it hadn’t even occurred to me until listening to him this morning and seeing that little skit of how relevant these contemporary findings in physics are to the subject of the sermon series.

Last week I said that we had completed our section on Christology, which is the doctrine of Christ. But then I realized that there was an elephant in the room, so to speak, namely a huge apologetic issue in Christology that I had failed to address. We simply cannot move on without addressing this subject. That is the question of how can Christ be the only way of salvation? In other words, it is the issue raised by religious pluralism. How can you, as a Christian, say that there is only one way to God? Isn’t that the epitome of narrow-mindedness, dogmatism, and bigotry to say that Christ and Christ alone is the way of salvation?[2] Although we’ve talked about the work and the person of Christ so far – his death on the cross, his divinity and incarnation and humanity – we haven’t addressed this key Christological question of how could Christ be the only way to God? The only way of salvation? That is the subject that I want to turn to today.

[Opening prayer]

Acts 4:12 says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This was the message that was believed and preached by the earliest apostles of Jesus Christ – that salvation was available only through the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This conviction of these earliest apostles was not a peculiarity of certain thinkers in the early church. Rather, this conviction permeates the entire New Testament.

The New Testament teaches the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. If you have your New Testament with you, I’d like to begin our lesson by looking at some of the biblical data concerning the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.

The apostle Paul certainly believed that salvation was available only through Jesus Christ and his atoning death. Look, for example, at Ephesians 2:12. Here Paul is writing to his Gentile converts. Ephesus is in Asia Minor – modern day Turkey – and these Gentiles had become Christians through Paul’s missionary work. In verse 12 of chapter 2 he says, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” What a poignant description of persons apart from Christ – having no hope and without God in the world.

It is the burden of the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to show that this desolate condition is the general situation of mankind. Turn with me to Romans 1 and follow Paul’s train of thought here. In verse 20 of Romans 1 Paul explains that God’s power and deity are revealed through creation to all persons. Romans 1:20 says, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” All persons everywhere are responsible for knowing at least that there is an eternal and powerful deity who has created the world and whose existence and power is evident in the handiwork of nature around them.

In Romans 2:15, moreover, Paul says that God has written his moral law upon all men’s hearts so that they know instinctually the difference between right and wrong.[3] Romans 2:15-16, speaking of the Gentiles again who are not part of Israel, he says, “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” So all men everywhere are responsible for acknowledging not only the existence of a creator of the universe but also their moral responsibility to this creator because the demands of his moral law are written on their hearts and therefore instinctively perceived or sensed.

In Romans 2:7, Paul says that God offers eternal life to anyone who will respond to this general revelation in nature and conscience in an appropriate way. In Romans 2:7 he says, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” I think this is a bona fide offer. If a person will respond appropriately to God’s general revelation in conscience and nature and to the demands of the moral law on his heart, God says I will give him eternal life.

Unfortunately, the testimony of the first chapter of Romans (Romans 1:21-32) is that rather than believe in the Creator and obey him, people turn away from the Creator to polytheism and idolatry and they flout his moral law. So, for example, in verse 21, Paul says, “for although they knew God [through nature] they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” Then he says God gave them up therefore in the lusts of their hearts to impurity. In the rest of that chapter he describes how people plunge themselves into immorality and degeneracy, flouting the moral law of God rather than obeying the moral law that is written on their hearts.

The conclusion of this comes in Romans 3:9-18 where Paul says that all men are therefore under the power of sin and justly condemned before God, whether Jews or Greeks. Romans 3:9-18 says,

I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles], are under the power of sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave,
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Paul says when judged by the demands of general revelation in nature and conscience all men find themselves condemned before God.

Moreover, Paul goes on in verses 19 and 20 to emphasize that no one can redeem himself from this state of condemnation by righteous living because no one is good enough. So he says in verse 19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” So all men find themselves in this desolate condition of condemnation before a righteous and holy God and unable to redeem themselves from this condemnation through righteous living or good works.

Fortunately, Paul goes on to say that God has provided a way of escape. Through Christ’s atoning death on the cross the demands of God’s justice can be met thereby freeing up God’s grace and forgiveness to all who would place their faith in Christ as their Savior and Lord.[4]

In Romans 3:21-26 we find one of the most fabulous passages in the New Testament which encapsulates the Gospel.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

So Paul’s logic is very clear. Given the universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning death it follows that there is no salvation outside of Christ. Through Christ alone is forgiveness of sins and salvation possible.

This teaching was not unique, as I say, to the apostle Paul. John taught exactly the same thing. For example, in his Gospel, John 14:6, we have the often quoted saying of Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” In John’s Gospel Jesus claims that he is the only way to God and no one can come to the Father except through him.

John 3:18 explains that all persons already find themselves condemned before God. Everybody in virtue of his sin is in this state of condemnation, but Christ is the way of escape from this. John 3:18: “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The person who fails to trust in Christ for salvation is already condemned because he has not been rescued from that state of condemnation in which all men find themselves.

In his epistles, John reiterates this truth. Look at 1 John 5:12, “He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.” It couldn’t be clearer. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.

Finally, in the book of Revelation which is traditionally attributed to John, Revelation 5:1-15, we find that it is only the lamb of God who is able to open the scroll and who is able to provide salvation to people on Earth. He says,

And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

It is Christ who is the mighty one who has the power to discharge life and death, who is the one who controls human destiny and human history. So in John’s writings as well we have this same teaching that it is through Christ alone that salvation is available.[5]

In Revelation 20:15 we find, “and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life [which is the Lamb’s book], he was thrown into the lake of fire.” So it was only through Christ that salvation was accessible.

In fact, I think that this doctrine of salvation through Christ alone plausibly characterized the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth himself. I think that when you read the Gospels Jesus probably also shared this conviction. Look at Luke 12:8-9. Jesus says, “And I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” So Jesus thought of himself as the plumb line so to speak that determined salvation or condemnation. It was how people responded to him that determined their eternal destiny. The one who believed in him and acknowledged and confessed him would be confessed before God; but the one who denied him before men would be denied before God.

Indeed, it is possible that Jesus even believed that a minority of mankind would be saved. Look at Matthew 7:13-14. This is in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus advises, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” That is a sobering, sobering passage. One can only hope that perhaps Jesus was speaking of the people of his day perhaps. When you read the parallel passage for this, he goes on to describe how when the Gospel comes to Gentiles then there will be vast numbers of people that will come in a great harvest who will sit down with Abraham and Isaac in the Kingdom of God while those who belonged to Israel will be cast out. So maybe in the historical context this warning was for the people of Jesus’ day. We can only hope that. But if the application is even broader it may well be that Jesus believed that ultimately only a minority of mankind would be saved and who would respond to the Gospel and be saved and that the majority would be lost, which would be devastating indeed.

In any case, I think you can see clearly the logic that is behind the New Testament. The universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning death entail that there is no salvation outside of Christ. This doctrine of the exclusivity of salvation through Christ was just as scandalous in the polytheistic world of the first century as it is in 21st century Western society. In the first century, all of the various religions of the people throughout the Roman Empire were thought to be equally valid, equally useful means of accessing God. So, for example, in Athens the city was filled with idols and altars and temples to various gods and goddesses. No one would think to say that only one way was the way to God. So this claim of salvation through Christ alone was just as politically incorrect in the first century Roman Empire as it is in 21st century America. They were not preaching a message that was popular or acceptable.

But in time, as Christianity grew and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire with Constantine and the Greco-Roman religions were supplanted, the scandal receded.[6] In fact, when you get to medieval authors like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, for them one of the marks of the true church was its catholicity, that is to say, its universality. One of the earmarks of the true church was that it is a universal church that fills all of the known world. For men like Aquinas and Augustine it was simply unthinkable that this great church universal filling the entire world could be predicated upon a falsehood. Its very universality was one of the tokens of its authenticity and its truth.

The demise of this doctrine came with the so-called expansion of Europe which refers to the roughly three centuries of exploration and discovery between about 1450 and 1750. Through the travels and the voyages of men like Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and others, it was discovered that the Christian religion, far from being the universal religion of mankind, was largely confined to a corner of the globe – to Western Europe. Whole new societies and civilizations were discovered which had not so much as even heard the name of Jesus Christ much less believed in him. This had a two-fold impact upon people’s thinking.

First of all, it tended to relativize religious beliefs. It was seen that no religion could claim to be the universal religion of mankind. Rather, every society had its own religion which was appropriate to it, and therefore religious beliefs were relative to the society in which you were raised.

Secondly, it made Christianity’s claim to be exclusively true seem dogmatic and cruel. Enlightenment rationalists like Voltaire taunted the Christians of their day with the prospect of 16 million Chinamen (that’s how many there were in the 18th century) all going to hell for not having believed in Christ when they had not so much as heard the name of Jesus Christ. Therefore Christianity’s claim to be the only way to God seemed narrow, dogmatic, and cruel. In our own day and age, with the influx into Western nations of immigrants from former colonies and with the advances in telecommunications that has served to shrink the world to a global village, our awareness of the religious diversity of mankind has even been heightened in a greater way. Now we are very much aware of the religious diversity of mankind, particularly now our awareness of Islam in the West and, the 1.2 billion people that follow the Muslim religion has come clearly into consciousness. It is estimated by missiologists that between about 15 and 25 percent of the world’s population has yet to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ even for the first time.

This relativization of religious beliefs and this impact has been augmented even in our day. What I want to do next week is describe the impact of this realization of the relativity of religious beliefs to various societies and the reactions to it. I think we’ll see that both missiologically (that is to say, the impact upon world missions) has been tremendous, and theologically we will see that this increased consciousness of religious diversity has had enormous impact and has raised the problem of religious pluralism which I believe is the burning theological and apologetical issue that the church needs to confront today. Next time we will turn to that subject and see the impact missiologically and theologically of this heightened awareness of the religious diversity of mankind in our day and age.[7]

[1] 5:06

[2] 9:58

[3] 15:03

[4] 20:07

[5] 25:07

[6] 30:04

[7] Total Running Time: 35:06 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)