Religious Pluralism (part 2)

July 27, 2008     Time: 00:39:14

As I was praying, one thought just came to mind regarding Harriet Myers from a call-in program that I heard on the radio with Tom Hughes here in Atlanta. He was asking callers to call in and say do you think that it is appropriate that an evangelical Christian should be nominated to the Supreme Court. You would think “Duh!” How could this be wrong? I was shocked to hear people from Atlanta calling in and saying, “We do not think that evangelical Christians should be appointed to the Supreme Court – they should not be allowed to be on the court.” I thought, “Don’t these people realize this is religious discrimination! This is illegal what they are advocating!” Evangelical Christians – or in some cases Catholic, say – would be barred from holding judgeships because of their private personal religious beliefs. It just astonishes me that these people think that this undemocratic illegal activity is something that they would sanction. Yet, that is the kind of prejudice that is out there. I suspect, frankly (I can’t prove this), that a good deal of criticism of her on the right may come from people who are fiscally and politically conservative but who feel uncomfortable about religious conservatives and feel uncomfortable about having an evangelical on the court. I don’t know that but one can’t help but suspect it as one sees who has been criticizing her. That is just something that I heard on the radio that really astonished me.

The subject that we began to broach last week is the problem of religious pluralism and Christian particularism. We saw that the testimony of the New Testament is that salvation is available through Jesus Christ alone, and that the logic behind this claim is very clear. Given the universality of sin all persons find themselves justly condemned before a holy and righteous God. If we had to get to heaven on the basis of our goodness none of us would make it. We would all find ourselves condemned and guilty before a holy and righteous God. But God has provided the death of Christ as an atoning sacrifice for our sin. So all who place their faith in him are the beneficiaries of his substitutionary death, and God’s forgiveness and grace is thereby mediated to them. So there really are only two people who can pay the penalty for your sin – either Jesus Christ or yourself. Therefore, there just isn’t any salvation available outside of Jesus Christ and his atoning death. The logic is pretty straightforward.

We saw that this doctrine was just as scandalous in the polytheistic Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was introduced as it is in 21st century Western society. But as Christianity grew and eventually supplanted the religions of Greece and Rome it became the established religion of the Roman Empire, and for medieval thinkers the universality of the Christian church was one of the earmarks of the church.[1] It was one of the tokens of the truth of Christianity – that the whole world was believing in the truth of the Christian Gospel. Now, of course, the medievals were aware of Islam and aware of the challenge that that posed, but Islam was a Johnny-Come-Lately, it arose six centuries after Christ and had conquered by force by the sword many lands that formerly were Christian. So obviously they were aware of Islam but that didn’t do anything to contradict the view that the Christian church basically filled all of the civilized world and was therefore the universal truth and universal religion.

But we saw that this conviction was shattered during the so-called Expansion of Europe – those three centuries between about 1450 and 1750 during which new civilizations and whole new worlds were discovered which had not so much had even heard of Christ much less believed in him. We saw that this had a two-fold impact upon people’s religious thinking. It tended to relativize religious beliefs. Religions seem to be relative to the culture and society in which you were raised, and no one religion could truly claim to be the universal religion of mankind. Secondly, it made Christianity’s claim to be the only way to God seem narrow and dogmatic and cruel because everyone outside the pale of the Christian tradition was consigned to eternal damnation.

I indicated and closed with the thought that in our own day and age this impression has only been heightened by the influx into Western nations of immigrants from former colonies – Pakistanis, Indians, Africans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and so forth. They have come now back into the West and brought their religions with them. This has heightened our awareness of the religious diversity of mankind, particularly Islam and its resurgence has heightened our awareness of 1.2 billion people in the world holding to the teachings of Muhammad. Also the advances in telecommunications where a tsunami hits Thailand or South India and we are instantly aware of it and can see these people on television. So we are much more aware of the religious diversity of mankind than we were before.

The results of this have been very significant both missiologically and theologically. By missiological implications I mean the implications upon the missionary calling and enterprise. The fallout of this religious diversity has been that our mainline denominations (that is, the traditional large denominations in our society) have lost the sense of missionary calling. Or the task of missions is reinterpreted to mean the social and economic improvement of these third world countries – helping them agriculturally, medically, with farming, hospitals, and so on. A kind of a Christian Peace Corps if you will. I think no where has this realignment of the missionary enterprise been more evident than in the documents of the Second Vatican Council – Vatican II. In the documents of the Second Vatican Council held during the 1960s, the church declared that those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. You cannot simply say they are all condemned. Rather, they relate to the people of God in various ways. Jews are especially dear to God, according to the Council, but they add the plan of salvation also includes all who acknowledge the Creator including Muslims. The Council goes on to say that those who by conscience strive to do God’s will can also be saved. So, according to the documents of the Council, the church declares that Catholics should pray for the Jews, not for the conversion of the Jews.[2] The Catholics should now pray for the Jews, not for the conversions of the Jews. It declares that the church also looks upon Muslims with esteem. Missionary work is to be directed only toward those who are still involved in the worship of idols. Only idolaters or polytheists are legitimate targets for evangelization. In other words, what the documents of the Second Vatican Council seem to imply is that there are great, great multitudes of people who consciously reject Jesus Christ as their savior and yet who are saved and who are therefore not appropriate subjects for evangelization.

In recent years, this same reorientation of missions has begun to infiltrate into the evangelical church as we see evangelical theologians beginning to compromise in this same area. For example, Clarke Pinnock is a very prominent evangelical theologian. He was in fact my systematic theology professor years ago before he began his theological odyssey. Several years ago, in 1992, at a meeting of the Evangelical Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco, Pinnock publicly gave a paper in which he says, “I am appealing to evangelicals to make the shift to a more inclusive outlook much the way Catholics did at Vatican II.” Pinnock expressed great optimism that large numbers of the unevangelized will, in fact, be saved. He says, “God will find faith in people without the person even realizing he or she had it.” He even entertains the possibility of people’s given another chance after death. Once they are freed from the effects of sin then they get another chance to receive or reject Christ. He says, “Imagine it. People are raised from the dead by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, free of whatever had obscured the love of God and prevented them from receiving it in life. God is a serious lover who wants everyone with no opportunity to respond to his offer to have one. No sinner is excluded who, having been included in salvation by God but lacking opportunity to respond to grace.” Pinnock realizes that this raises the question “Doesn’t this undermine the rationale and the urgency of world missions?” He says no, it does not. He gives three reasons. Number 1, he says, “God has called us to engage in mission work, and we should obey God’s calling.” Well, the problem with that answer, I think, is that doesn’t provide a rationale for why God would give such a call. All this is is just blind obedience to a call that seems to lack any rationale whatsoever. What is the rationale for the call to world mission on Pinnock’s view? Secondly, he says, “Missions is broader than just securing people’s eternal destiny.” In other words, you are back to the Christian Peace Corps idea again – social and economic improvement. Those are certainly part of missions, but they are not the basic rationale for them. Thirdly, he says, “Missions should be positive. It is not an ultimatum ‘Believe or be damned.’” Well, of course it is not. But nevertheless it is hard to deny that on Pinnock’s view there really isn’t much urgency to the task of world mission. Why should you give up 15 of the best years of your life to go and live in Kyrgyzstan proclaiming the Gospel to people who are already recipients of salvation and don’t really need to hear it?[3] I think it is very difficult to deny that, on Pinnock’s theology, the urgency and the rationale of the task of world evangelization are seriously undermined. In fact, surveys have shown that in those denominations which have this sort of inclusivistic theological outlook, it is a fact that missions have declined in terms of the number of missionaries going out and the support for those missionaries. This is simply born out by the data that this sort of theology is deleterious to the call to world evangelization.

I find it tremendously ironic that as the church here in the 21st century is on the verge of completing the task of the Great Commission that it should be her own theologians that would threaten to trip her at the finish line.

Not only have there been serious missiological implications from this challenge of religious pluralism, the theological implications have been just as serious. For it has tended to deny the deity of Christ. You see, Jesus Christ’s claim to be the only revelation of God the Father, the exclusive way of salvation, the only way to heaven, is politically incorrect in our day and age. Therefore, if you want to have all roads lead to God you’ve got to somehow get Jesus of Nazareth out of the way. So he has got to be moved to the circumference of your theology. He needs to be marginalized. Nowhere is this clearer than in the theological odyssey of another of my own teachers, John Hick, who was my doctoral mentor at the University of Birmingham. John Hick began his career as a relatively conservative Christian theologian. His first book that he published was called Christianity at the Center. That is where he thought Christianity was. It was the very center of things. But then as Professor Hick began to study world religions and especially as he began to get to know people who belonged to these other faiths – Hindus and Buddhists – that were there in Birmingham in England, he found it simply unconscionable to think that these good and decent people could all be going to hell just because they didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. Hick realized what that meant. It meant that somehow Jesus Christ had to be gotten out of the center and marginalized to the circumference. So he came to write a book called The Myth of God Incarnate in which he argues that the incarnation and deity of Christ is a myth which is just one culturally relative way of expressing your views about God. But as a myth, it is not something that is incumbent upon everyone to believe in order to become a recipient of salvation. Let me read to you what he wrote.

For understood literally the Son of God, God the Son, God-incarnate language implies that God can be adequately known and responded to only through Jesus; and the whole religious life of mankind, beyond the stream of Judaic-Christian faith is thus by implication excluded as lying outside the sphere of salvation. This implication did little positive harm so long as Christendom was a largely autonomous civilization with only relatively marginal interaction with the rest of mankind. But with the clash between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and then on an ever-broadening front with European colonization through the earth, the literal understanding of the mythological language of Christian discipleship has had a divisive effect upon the relations between that minority of human beings who live within the borders of the Christian tradition and that majority who live outside it and within other streams of religious life.[4]

Transposed into theological terms, the problem which has come to the surface in the encounter of Christianity with the other world religions is this: If Jesus was literally God incarnate, and if it is by his death alone that men can be saved, and by their response to him alone that they can appropriate that salvation, then the only doorway to eternal life is Christian faith. It would follow from this that the large majority of the human race so far have not been saved. But is it credible that the loving God and Father of all men has decreed that only those born within one particular thread of human history shall be saved?[5]

Hick thinks the answer to that question is “no, that is not credible.” Therefore, the incarnation must be a myth, and Hick became an outspoken proponent of religious pluralism – that all roads basically lead to God, and that no one religion has the right to say that its views alone are the truth about God.

I think you can see that indeed we are talking here about a problem with enormous significance both missiologically and theologically, and therefore it is incumbent upon the church to address, I think, in a responsible and straightforward way the challenge posed by religious pluralism in our day.

The challenge of religious pluralism arises from our heightened awareness of the religious diversity of mankind. The religious pluralist finds it just inconceivable that any one particular religion could be true and that all of the other religions of the world should be false. So the pluralist wants to advocate a pluralistic approach to religion.

Religious pluralism comes in two basic forms – what I’ll call unsophisticated religious pluralism and sophisticated religious pluralism. Unsophisticated religious pluralism, which you will very frequently find on the lips of laypeople and college sophomores, is the view that all religions are basically saying the same thing. When you get right down to it, all of the religions of the world basically teach the same truths and that all of the religions of the world are therefore true. They are all true; they are all equally valid. This form of religious pluralism is, frankly, just rooted in ignorance and is easily dispelled by taking an introductory course or reading an introductory book on the world’s great religions. Anybody who has taken a course in comparative religion or read a book in comparative religions knows that the world views propounded by the great world religions are diametrically opposed to one another. Just take, for example, Islam and Buddhism. These two world views have almost nothing in common. According to Islam, there is a personal God who created the world and who is omnipotent, omniscient, and holy. Islam believes that man is sinful and therefore in need of God’s forgiveness, and that everlasting heaven or hell awaits us after death, and that we must earn our salvation (earn our way to heaven) by means of faith and righteous deeds. Buddhism denies all of these things. The classical Buddhist believes that reality is ultimately impersonal, that the world is uncreated, that there is no enduring self (and therefore no immortality), life’s ultimate goal is not personal immortality but annihilation of the self, that the ideas of sin and salvation just play no role at all in this religion, and therefore there is simply no need to seek forgiveness or moral cleansing from God at all. Indeed, there is no God in classical Buddhism whose forgiveness could be sought.[6] So Islam and Buddhism have almost nothing in common. They are diametrically opposed to each other. Examples like this could be multiplied. The idea that all religions are equally true is simply impossible because these religions have contradictory views of the world. They have contradictory views concerning God, the ultimate nature of reality, the world, man, moral values, salvation, and so on and so forth. They could all be false. Maybe the atheist is right – they could all be false. But clearly they cannot all be true. Therefore, unsophisticated religious pluralism is just untenable.

What the sophisticated religious pluralist (someone like John Hick, for example) says is that all of the world’s religions are, in fact, false. All of the world’s religions are false. They are all just culturally relative ways of misconstruing reality. Ultimate reality is a nondescript something or the other that cannot really be characterized. Hick likes to refer to it as The Real. Nothing can be known about The Real or The Absolute, if you will. That might be another name that you give to the ultimate reality. You cannot accurately call it God. Nothing can be known about The Real. You can’t say that The Real is personal, that The Real is good, that The Real created the world, or anything of that sort. This is utterly nondescript and an ineffable entity. But all of the world’s religions picture The Real (ultimate reality) in different ways which are culturally relative. If you were to take any of these different religious views literally, they would all be false. They are all basically ways of misconstruing the nature of ultimate reality. Nevertheless, even though these religious views are all ultimately false, they are still effective in transforming people’s lives. They help to produce people who are no longer self-centered but are centered on The Real. So all of these religions are, in a sense, salvivic – they produce salvation; that is self-transformation.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I would say that that may be largely true that there could be a common ethical code, but they still have radically different views about all these other questions so that how you achieve, say, salvation or heaven or immortality could be very, very different. In fact, it is not true that they all do even share the same moral code. If you look at, say, voodoo or certain ancient Aztec religions in ancient Mexico that practiced human sacrifice or some other religions of Canaan in Old Testament times that practiced prostitution and child sacrifice, or Hinduism which practiced sati which was when a man died his widow was burned alive on his funeral pyre. Or even Islam which enjoins violence in the propagation of its religious beliefs and sanctions deceit and violence – murder – in the propagation of religious beliefs. Even that statement isn’t correct that they all do share the same moral code. The moral codes will differ from religion to religion, sometimes radically. But I think the more important point is that these religions are not just reducible to morality. What they have to say is something about who God is and how we ultimately achieve salvation. In that respect, they are radically different.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is very close to what Hick would say. Let me just nuance it a little bit. I think Hick would say that all of the great world religions are equally valid.[7] But he even would recognize that some religions are really degenerate like, say, voodoo for example. There are cases that you can point to of religions that are really atrocious. He would recognize that. But he would say the great world religions are all equally valid. He would say they are all channels of salvation but he redefines salvation. It no longer means what the Christian means by it. For Hick, salvation just means personal life transformation from being self-centered to being centered on The Real.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Not necessarily, no. That is a Christian or a Muslim belief, but it is not a belief shared, say, by Taoists or Confucians or Buddhists. We can't say that there is immortality beyond the grave, no.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think that Hick does continue to practice (at least in a sort of nominal way) Christianity in the Church of England because he would say, This is my tradition. This is the tradition I was raised in. So through these mythological and culturally relative forms, this is how he would access The Real. I do not know if he attends church regularly any more. I am not in contact with him. But I know when we met him, he would still say grace before the meal, for example. He would participate in Christian forms of life so to speak. But they didn't have any literal truth to them.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Good question. I don't know the answer to that – whether he would think of Marxism as a great world religion or not. That certainly is a sort of religious belief, isn't it? Yet, it is horrible. It is horrific in the devastation that it has wrought in people's lives. I don't know what he would say about Marxism.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I did, and I can give you the footnotes for those. What I found in reading the documents is that it seemed that in the Council that there was a struggle going on between conservatives and liberals in the Council. It would tend to take back what it would give with one hand. It seemed to be very conflicted. On my website – – I have a section of my website called “Articles.” There is a section there called “Christian Particularism.” If you look at the article there called “No Other Name” you will find all of the footnotes to the documents and the quotations – the actual citations. I am worried about the church in its attitude toward world evangelization. I am hopeful that people like Ratzinger and other conservatives within the church will prevail in the task of seeing world evangelization as very important. But I do think there are significant elements there that are on the other side.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I was there at the time, and I think that there is a good deal of sympathy among evangelical theologians and philosophers for some kind of inclusivistic outlook. I told you I think earlier I was at a conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers, which is not an evangelical group, but it does have a lot of evangelicals in it. This is not the Evangelical Philosophical Society – this is a different group. At that conference at the SCP, I was the only one who was taking a kind of defense of Christian particularism view. The rest of them were all very sympathetic toward some kind of inclusivistic outlook. I think this is a really serious issue on which the church needs to think very hard. I do think that it is making big inroads.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: [laughter] I will say this very honestly. It is because this is really a hard problem. It is a really, really hard problem. Anybody who believes that these folks are going into eternal damnation, and cares about people, is going to be deeply bothered by this problem.[8] With Hick especially it was getting to know these immigrants in Birmingham (there are lots of Pakistanis, Indians, and South Asians there) and some of these are wonderful people. He just couldn't believe that they were going to hell. You might say these have at least deliberately rejected Christ, but what about some guy living in Zhejiang province in China who has never had the chance to hear about Christ? What about him? This is a hard problem. I can understand why folks would drift on this issue because it is really a tough question. I am going to face it as squarely as I can. I am not going to give pat answers. I think it is a hard problem that can keep you up at night.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think it does. What you point out is that this question of those who have never heard involves not just people who have not heard because they are geographically separated from the Gospel but people, say, who are mentally or intellectually separated from the Gospel like the mentally retarded or people who die in infancy. What about them? How does God deal with them? This problem really is even broader than the problem of those who are geographically isolated from the Gospel. As you say, it provokes different sorts of responses. Some people will say those who have not reached the age of accountability are all saved. Others who come from a more sacramental tradition may say that baptized infants will be saved, but those who are not baptized will be damned or go to limbo – a kind of in-between stage. Or some out of the Reformed tradition will say that children born to the elect parents will be saved, but those who are not born into families whose parents are elect will be reprobate and lost. This is an issue that divides Christians. These are issues to which the Bible doesn't speak clearly in answering the question. This is where the philosopher of religion and the systematic theologian needs to reflect upon the data of Scripture to try to deal with the problem and come up with some sort of solution. As I say, in our day and age, the solution that many people have opted for is religious pluralism – either of an unsophisticated variety or of a more sophisticated variety.


What we will do next time is I am going to offer a critique of sophisticated religious pluralism briefly. Then I am going to wrestle with the problem of how do we solve the problem of the unevangelized, and indeed what exactly is the problem here. What is the difficulty in saying that those who are unevangelized are damned? Where does the problem actually lie, and then how can it be addressed? So over the next couple Sundays this is the issue that we will be looking at. So don't miss it. It is important. You need to be here. I would again just ask for your prayers for us as we go off to China and talk to people who fall into this category. Some of these students will be from parts of China where they have never heard the name of Jesus Christ. What a tremendous privilege to share with them for the first time.[9]

[1] 5:11

[2] 10:14

[3] 15:03

[4] 20:00

[5] John Hick, “Jesus and the World Religions,” in The Myth of God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 179-80.

[6] 25:08

[7] 30:00

[8] 35:06

[9] Total Running Time: 39:14 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)