Religious Pluralism (part 3)

August 04, 2008     Time: 00:27:32

You will remember that we’ve been talking about the subject of religious pluralism. I promised that today we would discuss arguments in favor of sophisticated religious pluralism with a view toward seeing whether or not there was any good reason for being a pluralist.

Religious pluralism raises a host of different questions philosophically, but I’d like to just focus on one with you this morning, namely why think that religious pluralism is true? In other words, why can’t Christian particularism be true? What is wrong with religious particularism – that one particular religion is true? Specifically, what is wrong with Christian particularism?

As I read the literature, some of the objections that are offered by religious pluralists against particularism are just obvious logical fallacies. For example, pluralists will often say that it is arrogant and immoral to believe that any one particular religious belief is true. This seems to be a textbook example of the logical fallacy that philosophers call argument ad hominem which is the fallacy of trying to invalidate a position by attacking the character of the people who hold it. This is simply logically fallacious. The truth of a person’s position is not invalidated by the defects or faults of the character of the person who believes in the position.

To give an example of this, suppose that some medical researcher finally hits upon a successful AIDS vaccine – a successful vaccine for preventing the HIV virus from mutating into full-blown AIDS. Suppose that he is the only person in the world who has successfully discovered this vaccine. But now in addition, let’s suppose that this guy is totally arrogant, and he goes about bragging about how he is the only person in the world to have discovered the AIDS vaccine. He looks down on his colleagues as mental midgets because they couldn’t discover the successful vaccine. He thinks that he should receive the Nobel Prize in medicine because of his discovery. And he brags and boasts about how great a researcher he is because he is the only person in the world to have discovered the successful AIDS vaccine. In other words, this person (I think we would agree) would be totally arrogant and immoral in his character for his boasting and cockiness. Yet, would that have any effect at all upon the truth of his claim that he has successfully discovered an AIDS vaccine? In particular, if you had AIDS, would you refuse to take the vaccine simply based on the fact that the person who discovered it is arrogant and immoral? Obviously not. In exactly the same way, it is simply irrelevant to the truth of a particular religious claim whether or not its adherents are arrogant or not. This is simply to commit the fallacy of argument ad hominem.

In any case, secondly, I think what we want to say is why think that all religious particularists are arrogant? Why think that everyone who is a religious particularist is an arrogant person? Suppose I’ve really done my best to discover the truth about God. Suppose that I studied various religions of the world and read their scriptures; that I’ve tried my best to understand their views and the arguments on behalf of each religious view.[1] Suppose I sought God in prayer and meditation and earnestly tried to discover God in my spiritual journey. Suppose that after doing so, I come to be convinced that the Christian religion is true. Well, now, what am I supposed to do but believe in it? I think that it is true. What else can I do but believe in it if, to the best of my ability, I sought the truth and in my eyes it appears that this belief is the truth. Am I arrogant or immoral because I believe in what appears to be true? Surely not.

A final irony of this objection is that I think it turns out to be a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. For if it is arrogant and immoral to hold to a religious belief which is rejected by most other people and which implies that their views are false then immediately it follows that the religious pluralist is himself arrogant and immoral because the religious pluralist (you remember the sophisticated religious pluralist) thinks that everybody else’s religious beliefs are false. That none of the various religions in the world is true. That the religious pluralist alone has seen through the charade and has alone discovered the truth. Only religious pluralists (who are, after all, a tiny, tiny minority of mankind) turn out to be right and everybody else is wrong. How arrogant can you get? So this argument, I think, turns out to be a double-edged sword, and if it is successful against the particularist it is even more successful against the religious pluralist.

So this first argument, I think, is simply a logically fallacious argument.

Another bad argument that you will often hear against religious particularism is the claim that people’s religious beliefs are culturally relative and therefore are not objectively true or you are not warranted in believing in them. For example, it is pointed out that if you had been born in Pakistan then in all likelihood you probably would have been a Muslim. But if you had been born in Ireland then you would have probably been (at least nominally) a Catholic. Therefore, one’s religious beliefs are relative to the culture in which one was born and raised. It follows from this, certain religious pluralists claim, that none of these particular religious beliefs can therefore be true or, at least, justified.

Again this argument seems to be a textbook example of a logical fallacy that philosophers call the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is trying to invalidate a position by showing how a person came to believe in that position. It is trying to say a position is false because of the way in which a person came to believe in it. This, again, is an obviously fallacious objection. To give a parallel illustration: if you had been born in ancient Greece then you would probably have thought that the earth goes around the sun, and maybe even believe that the earth was flat. But does it follow from that that therefore your belief that the earth goes around the sun or that the earth is roughly spherical is therefore false or in some way unjustified? Obviously not. This argument is, again, simply fallacious.

This argument also turns out to be a double-edged sword. If the religious pluralist had been born in Pakistan or in Spain then in all likelihood he would probably have been a religious particularist. Therefore, it would follow from his own argument that religious pluralism is false, or at least unjustified. It turns out that the religious pluralism that he believes in is just the result of his being born in late 20th century Western society. Therefore, religious pluralism could not be true. So this argument also tends to undercut the person who uses it. If it is sauce for the goose, it is sauce for the gander as well.

Please don’t think that because these sorts of obviously fallacious arguments are offered on behalf of religious pluralism that pluralism does not pose a serious threat to Christian belief or that pluralism is something that we don’t really need to take seriously.[2] On the contrary, I think that religious pluralism does pose a significant challenge to Christian beliefs. I think we must take it very seriously. But by clearing away these fallacious objections, I think it helps to clear the ground so to speak for getting at the real issue which lies behind the challenge of religious pluralism., and which is usually lurking in the background until these fallacious objections are dispersed. Then this real problem begins to emerge. I think that the real problem that is raised by religious diversity in the world is the fate of unbelievers who lie outside of one’s own religious tradition. Sometimes this is traditionally known as the problem of the heathen in Africa or in perhaps more politically correct society we would say the problem of the unevangelized. Those who lie outside one’s religious tradition.

This problem is especially poignant for Christians because Christians believe that salvation from sin and eternal life are available only through Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross. Given the universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning death, it follows that there is no salvation outside of Christ. But religious pluralists find this simply unconscionable. The idea that all of the rest of the world is going into eternal separation from God simply because they haven’t had the opportunity to place their faith in Christ is morally unconscionable. This, I believe, is the real problem raised by religious diversity – the problem of those who are unbelievers and who are outside of one’s own religious tradition.

In order to discover what the solution to this problem is, I think we need to first ask ourselves exactly what is the problem supposed to be here? What is the problem that is raised by the fate of the unevangelized? Let’s turn to an analysis of this problem to see if we can understand exactly what the objection is supposed to be.

Is the objection supposed to be simply that a loving God would not send people to hell? Is that what the problem is supposed to be? That a loving God would not send people to hell? As I think about it, I don’t think that that really is the essence of the problem. You see, the Bible indicates that God wants all persons to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Peter 3:9 says that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” 1 Timothy 2:4 says that “God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” Therefore, God (through the work of the Holy Spirit) is involved in drawing all persons to himself. He wants all persons to be saved and come to a knowledge of himself, which is eternal life. Therefore, God works to effect the salvation of all persons by drawing them to himself. Anybody, therefore, who makes a well-informed and free decision to reject Christ thereby seals his own fate. In a sense, God doesn’t reject that person at all. Rather, that person rejects God and his offer of salvation in Christ. That person is really in a literal sense self-condemned. He damns himself to eternal separation from God despite God’s will, contrary to God’s will, and despite God’s every effort to save him. So God cannot be blamed for the fact that some people irrevocably reject him and his grace and separate themselves from him forever.[3] So the problem that we are confronted with here isn't simply the idea that a loving God wouldn't send people to hell.

Is the problem then supposed to be the idea that a loving God wouldn't send people to hell because they were uninformed or misinformed about Christ? In other words, granted that persons who make a free and well-informed decision to reject Christ and God's offer of forgiveness are self-condemned – they separate themselves from God irrevocably – but what about those persons who have never heard about Christ or who have been misinformed about Christ and given a distorted caricature of Christ and the Gospel? Is the idea here supposed to be that a loving God wouldn't condemn people who were uninformed or misinformed about Christ? Again, as I think about this question in light of New Testament teaching, I don't think that that is the essence of the problem. You see, the New Testament suggests that God doesn't judge all persons on the same basis. He judges people on the basis of the revelation that they have. He judges people based upon the amount of information that he has revealed to them. Therefore, God is not going to judge people who have never heard about Christ on the basis of whether or not they believed in Christ. That would be manifestly unfair. God would not expect people to believe in Christ if they have never heard of Christ. Rather, persons who have never heard of Christ will be judged on how they respond to God's general revelation in nature and conscience. He will judge them on the basis of the light of general revelation that they do have. You will remember that according to the Scriptures all men everywhere at every time in human history are responsible for recognizing at least the existence of a powerful, eternal creator God of the universe and recognizing their moral responsibility to God because his moral laws are written on their hearts so they grasp instinctually the difference between right and wrong. Romans 2:7 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 of salvation. If a person will respond to general revelation in repentance and faith then God will accord to that person salvation.

I want to add immediately that does not in any way mean that person could be saved apart from the work of Christ. It is only through Christ's shed blood on the cross that anyone's sins could be forgiven. Rather what this would mean is the benefits of Christ's atoning death could be applied to that person without his having a conscious knowledge of Christ. He would be like certain persons in the Old Testament like Job and Melchizedek who obviously had a personal relationship with God but who had never heard of Jesus Christ. Indeed, people like Job and Melchizedek were not even Israelites. They were not even part of any of the Old Testament covenants that God had made with the descendants of Abraham. We have there examples of persons who clearly had a relationship with God who clearly, I think, are benefits of his salvation, but who are in no contact at all with God's revelation to Israel because they had responded in an appropriate way to God's revelation that they did have.

This doesn't mean that people would be therefore saved on the basis of their works. Rather, what one envisages here would be a person who senses through nature around him that there is a creator God; he senses the moral law written on his heart and realizes that he cannot successfully discharge the demands of God's moral law and is therefore guilty and rightly condemned before this moral law giver. Therefore, in desperation and out of having no recourse flings himself upon the utter mercy of this creator God of the universe begging for grace and forgiveness.[4] What Romans 2:7 suggests is that if people were to do that, God would give them eternal life.

Unfortunately, the testimony of Romans 1 is that the general mass of mankind, when judged by the standards of general revelation, don't even measure up to these much lower standards and therefore still find themselves condemned before God. Francis Shaffer used to give a very vivid illustration of this. He said imagine that ever person when he was born had a tape recorder fastened around his neck, and this tape recorder would only function when that person made moral judgments on others. “You shouldn't have done that!” “You were wrong to do that!” Then at the Judgment Day, Shaffer said, God would simply play back this tape of all these moral judgments that this person has made one after another in condemning others and then will say to that person How successfully have you lived up to the moral standards that you have imposed upon others? As Shaffer said, every mouth would be stopped before God because no one would have successfully lived up to all of the moral standards that we've imposed on everyone else. Therefore Paul says in Romans 2, Therefore, O' man, you have no excuse because in condemning someone else, you condemn yourself, the judge, because you are doing the very same things. So, the mass of humanity still find themselves condemned before God even when judged by the much lower standards of general revelation.

Perhaps a few do measure up. We have the examples of Job and Melchizedek in the Old Testament. Could there be a modern day Job living somewhere in the heart of Uzbekistan or somewhere in Africa? Perhaps. I think we don't know. We can only say God knows. But on the basis of the New Testament, I think we have to say that there are not grounds for great optimism that there are very many people like this. The New Testament seems to teach that the mass of humanity, when judged even by the much lower standards of general revelation, will find themselves justly condemned before God.

Nevertheless, the point remains – people are not condemned to hell simply because they are misinformed or uninformed about Christ. Salvation is genuinely accessible for every human being that is born on the face of the Earth if that person will simply respond in an appropriate way to the light that he has. All persons at least have the light of God's general revelation in nature and conscience to respond to.

So the problem here is not that a loving God wouldn't send people to hell simply because they were uninformed or misinformed about Christ. Rather, I think that the problem is fundamentally this: if God is all-knowing then he knew even before he created the world who would receive Christ and who would not. Given that God has middle knowledge (knowledge of what any person would do in any circumstances God might place him in) God knew who would receive Christ and be saved and who would reject him and be lost. But then certain very difficult questions arise as a result.

1. Why didn't God bring the Gospel to people who he knew would accept it if they heard it, even though they reject the light of general revelation that they do have? For example, imagine a North American Indian living in the Great Plains during the Middle Ages before the arrival of European missionaries. Let's call him Walking Bear. Let's suppose Walking Bear looks upon the starry heavens at night and the beauty of nature around him and he senses that all of this has been made by the Great Spirit. Moreover, as he looks into his own heart he senses the moral law of the Great Spirit written there telling him that all men are brothers and that he should live in love for his fellow man. But suppose that Walking Bear, rather than worshiping the Great Spirit and living in love for his fellow man, chooses instead to turn his back upon the Great Spirit and fashions instead totems and gods of his own making and begins to worship them. Rather than live in love for his fellow man, he lives in selfishness and rapacity and violence.[5] I think we'd all agree that when judged by the standards of general revelation he would find himself justly condemned before God. But now suppose that if only the Gospel had come to him in time. Then he would have believed in the Gospel and been saved. In that case, his eternal damnation seems to be the result of bad luck. He just happened to be born at a time and place in history where the Gospel had not yet come. But if only the missionaries had arrived; if only they had come with the Gospel, he would have believed and been saved. In that case, his salvation or damnation seems to hinge upon the historical accidents of the time and place of his birth. That surely seems incompatible with the existence of an all-just and all-loving God.

2. Even more fundamentally, Why did God even create the world if he knew that so many people would not receive Christ and be lost? Why did he even go to the trouble of creating the world if he knew that so many people would not believe in Christ and be damned?

3. Even more radically, Why didn't God just create a world in which everyone freely receives Christ and is saved? This wouldn't need to be a robot world or a puppet world. In any situation that a free agent finds himself in, it is possible for him to make the right choice. So why didn't God simply create a world populated by free creatures in which everyone freely chooses to place his faith in Christ and be saved? Thus, you would have a world of universal salvation of free creatures.

What is the Christian supposed to say in answer to these sorts of difficult questions? Does Christianity make God out to be cruel and unloving? Well, these are the difficult questions that we will attempt to grapple with when we meet together again.[6]

[1] 5:05

[2] 10:24

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:05

[6] Total Running Time: 27:32 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)