Doctrine of Christ (part 28)

May 20, 2012     Time: 00:27:02

We have been looking at religious pluralism. Last time we looked at some bad arguments for religious pluralism, but I want to caution you that simply because there are fallacious arguments that are offered on behalf of religious pluralism, doesn’t mean that religious pluralism isn’t a serious challenge to Christian belief. On the contrary, I think religious pluralism does pose a very serious challenge to Christian particularism. But getting rid of these fallacious arguments can help us to clear the underbrush, so to speak, so as to reveal the real problem.

The Fate of Unbelievers

It seems to me the real problem that is occasioned by religious particularism concerns the fate of unbelievers who lie outside of one’s own religious tradition. That is an especially poignant problem for us Christians because we believe that salvation from sin and eternal life are available only through Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Given the universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrificial death, there is no salvation outside of Christ. You can only find salvation through Jesus Christ, and religious pluralists find this attitude simply unconscionable.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the life of my own doctoral advisor John Hick at the University of Birmingham in England. Professor Hick began his career as a Christian theologian as a relatively conservative Christian. His very first book was entitled Christianity at the Centre. That is where he thought Christianity should be. But as Professor Hick began to study the religions of the world, and particularly he began to meet adherents in Birmingham of these various great world religions and found what good and decent people they are, he found it just incredible to think that all of these people could be going to hell. To him it seemed that their religions must also be equally valid avenues of salvation as well as the Christian way. So he began to move more and more in the direction of religious pluralism. Now he understood what that implied. That meant that Jesus Christ had to be moved out of the center and somehow marginalized – put on the periphery. So Hick embraced a radical form of what I’ve called sophisticated religious pluralism, according to which God, or as he puts it, The Real, is simply this unknown ultimate which is falsely pictured in all of the various world religions, but all of them are equally effective in transforming our lives to become less self-centered people and people more centered on The Real. This is what he writes about the implications for traditional Christianity. He says,

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.

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?1

His answer to that question is no, it is not credible.2 Therefore, he came to deny the incarnation of Christ, and he wrote a book entitled The Myth of God Incarnate, in which he denies the deity of Jesus Christ.

So I think you can see that the theological implications of religious pluralism are even more far reaching and damaging than the missiological implications that we talked about earlier. This, I think, is the real problem that is raised by the religious diversity of mankind, namely, the fate of those who stand outside of one’s own particular religious tradition.

But, we may ask, what exactly is the problem supposed to be here? Help us to understand what the problem is that is raised by the fate of persons outside of one’s own religious tradition. Is it just the idea that a loving God would not send people to hell? Is that what the problem is – that a loving God would not send people to hell? As I think about it, it seems to me that that is not the nub of the problem. The Bible says that God desires all persons to be saved and to come to know him and eternal life. Let’s just look at a couple of passages. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” So God’s desire is that no one would perish and that everyone would reach repentance. Then look at 1 Timothy 2:4. Paul says “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Therefore, God draws all persons to himself. He tries to save all persons. He is not willing that any should perish. His desire is that all persons should reach salvation and come to the knowledge of the truth. What that means, I think, is that anybody who makes a free and well-informed decision to reject Christ seals his own fate. In a sense, God doesn’t send anybody to hell. God pleads with people to come to him. He tries to save people. He tries to draw them to himself. But people shut their hearts against God’s grace. They resist the drawing of his Holy Spirit. They repulse God from themselves. They irrevocably separate themselves from God forever. So people who are in hell are like the drowning man who consistently pushes the life preserver away that has been thrown to him. He is like the person in the burning building who locks the door from the inside against the firefighters who are trying to get in to rescue him. He is like a person who chooses to remain in a condemned building rather than to escape before its destruction. He freely and irrevocably separates himself from God against God’s will and every effort to save him. Therefore, I think, in a real sense such a person is self-condemned. I don’t think that the problem raised by religious diversity is simply the idea that a loving God wouldn’t send people to hell. God gives people freedom to irrevocably separate themselves from him forever by resisting his will and his every effort to save them.3

If that is not the problem, could it be instead, then, the idea that a loving God would not send people to hell because they were uninformed or misinformed about Christ? Is that what the problem is? That many of the unevangelized or only marginally evangelized have never heard about Jesus Christ or maybe they heard a distorted, twisted image of Christ and so rejected that caricature but not the real Christ? Is the problem with religious diversity that it would be unloving for God to send people to hell because they are uninformed or misinformed about Christ? Again, as I reflect upon it, it seems to me that that is not really the nub of the problem because the New Testament seems to indicate that God doesn’t judge people who have not heard the Gospel on the basis of whether or not they have placed their faith in Christ. That would be manifestly unfair. He couldn’t expect people to believe in Christ who have never heard of him or had only heard a distorted caricature of him. According to Scripture, God will judge the unevangelized, not on the basis of their response to the Gospel which they never heard, but he will judge them on the basis of his general revelation in nature and in conscience. In Romans 2:7 where Paul talks about God’s general revelation in conscience and in nature, he says “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” I take this to be a bona fide offer that is universally available.

Let me add quickly that that does not mean people can be saved apart from Christ. Rather, it suggests that people can have the benefits of Christ’s death applied to them even though they didn’t have a conscious knowledge of Christ. Just as you might find yourself suddenly the heir to a fortune from an unknown rich uncle that you never knew you had, so these persons, through their response to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience, could find themselves beneficiaries of Christ’s atoning death without having a conscious knowledge of Christ. They would be like certain persons in the Old Testament. Many Old Testament figures had no conscious expectation of the Messiah. They lived before the prophets prophesized about Messiah. Or in some cases they weren’t even members of the Old Testament Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants. Think, for example, of people like Job and Melchizedek. Job was called “my righteous servant” by God4. But he wasn’t even a Jew, he wasn’t an Israelite, he was from Uz. Melchizedek, who met Abraham, was called the priest of the most high God5, but he obviously wasn’t a descendant of Abraham; he wasn’t a Jew. He had some independent knowledge of God. So clearly there are persons in the Old Testament who are beneficiaries of Christ’s atoning death who had no conscious knowledge of Christ because they had responded in an appropriate way to the revelation that God had given them.

Unfortunately, when we read Romans 1, I think we have to say, candidly, that most people don’t measure up even to these much lower standards of general revelation, if any do. Maybe a few might respond appropriately and be saved and God would apply to them the benefits of Christ’s blood. But I think if we are candid, we have to say that Romans 1 doesn’t give us any grounds for optimism about this. If anything, Romans 1 would incline us to think that there is just universal condemnation to people based on their failure to respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience. Nevertheless, the fact remains that salvation is universally accessible for anyone who would respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience. So the problem isn’t simply that a loving God wouldn’t send people to hell because they were uninformed or misinformed about Christ. I agree with that. He wouldn’t send them to hell for that. God is a fair and just God, and he will judge them on the basis of the light that they have. Therefore, if they will respond to the light that they have, they will be saved.6 So I don’t think that is the real problem.

Rather it seems to me, as I reflect on this issue, that the real problem is this: if God is all-knowing, then he knew who would freely receive Christ and be saved and who would not. Even before he created the world, God knew who would freely respond to the Gospel and be saved and who would freely reject it and be lost. But if that is the case then certain very difficult questions arise. For example,

(1) Why didn’t God bring the Gospel to people who would accept it if they heard it, even though they reject his general revelation in nature and conscience that they do have? Why didn’t God bring the Gospel to people who reject his general revelation but who would have responded to his special revelation had they heard it? For example, let’s imagine a North American Indian living on the Great Plains during the Middle Ages before missionaries came to this continent. Let’s call him Walking Bear. Let’s suppose that as Walking Bear looks up at the stars at night and looks at the beauty and intricacy of nature around him, he senses that all of this has been made by the Great Spirit. And as he looks into his own heart he senses there the moral law written on his heart by the Great Spirit, telling him that all men are brothers and that we should live in love for one another. But instead of worshipping the Great Spirit and obeying his moral law, let’s suppose that Walking Bear turns his back on the Great Spirit and instead constructs gods of his own making or worships the spirits of the forest and the trees and objects of nature around him. And instead of living in love for his fellow man, he lives selfishly and with hatred and rapacity in his heart toward his fellow man. Now I think you would all agree that when judged by God on the basis of his general revelation, Walking Bear would be justly condemned before God.

But now suppose that if only the missionaries had arrived, Walking Bear would have believed the Gospel and would have been saved! In that case, it seems that his eternal damnation hinges upon the contingent facts of history and geography. He just had the bad luck to be born at a time and place in history where the Gospel had not yet reached. So his eternal fate hinges upon the accidents of history and geography. Is it consistent with a loving and just God that Walking Bear would be condemned for something beyond his control – for his bad luck of where and when he was born?

(2) Even more fundamentally, why did God even create the world when he knew that so many people would not receive Christ and be lost? If God knew that so many people would fail to believe in the Gospel freely and be saved, then why did he even bother to create the world? Why not just do nothing and not create anybody at all?

(3) Even more radically, why didn’t God create a world in which everyone freely receives the Gospel and is saved? Now this would not be a puppet world or a robot world. We are not talking about a world where God pulls the strings and makes people believe in Christ. We are talking about a world in which everybody freely embraces Christ and is saved. Such a world must be logically possible because it is not logically necessary that anybody reject Christ and be lost. There is a logically possible world, surely, in which everyone freely chooses to place his faith in Christ and is saved. So why didn’t God create a world like that – a world of universal salvation in which everyone freely receives Christ and is saved?

What is the Christian supposed to say in answer to these difficult questions? Does Christianity make God out to be cruel and unloving? In order to answer these difficult questions, I think we need to penetrate more deeply into the logic of the objection that is being presented to us.7


Question: What is an example of how God might reveal himself through general revelation and what is an example of a response to God’s general revelation that would be a saving response? How is salvation through general revelation not the same as salvation by works?

Answer: That is a very good question. The third is related to the second. By his revelation in nature and conscience, Paul says that God’s eternal power and deity are clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So I take it that he means that when you look, for example, at the structure of a leaf and the incredible complexity of it, this bespeaks of a sort of Designer. Maybe he thinks that the very existence of the cosmos suggests that there must be an ultimate ground for it – a kind of cosmological argument, as it were, for God. So I would say that he would think that in nature we perceive the invisible qualities of God, like his power, his intelligence, and his existence. Then, in the moral law, written on the heart, he says that people who do not have the Mosaic Law have a sense in their own hearts of right and wrong, that they know that it is wrong to hate others, for example. They know it is wrong to kill innocent people. So there is this intuitive sense that they have within about God’s moral law. If that is right, and if it’s right that all men are sinners, that would mean that every person would have an acute consciousness of having failed to live up to this moral law. If he senses that moral law on his heart, then he will also be convicted of his failure to live up to the moral law that God has given, and he will realize he is in desperate need of God’s mercy and forgiveness – that there is nothing he can do to live a perfect moral life, that he is a moral failure, and there is nothing he can do to redeem himself. And so he will need to fling himself on the mercy of this God. That is what I take to be a saving response to general revelation. It is not works-generated righteousness. Paul says no one will be saved through that. But rather it would be flinging oneself upon the grace and the mercy of this God who has created everything and asking him for his forgiveness and placing one’s faith in him. So it would be salvation by grace through faith. It is exactly the same principle. It is just that the object of faith would be the God of nature rather than Christ because he had not heard of Christ. So I take it this would not be salvation by works; it would be salvation by grace through faith, if people will simply avail themselves of it. But I want to emphasize again that I am not some sort of broad inclusivist. I think anyone who takes Romans 1 seriously would have to say that there is hardly anybody, if anybody, who fits into this category.

Question: Does the pluralist have the same problem of particularism with other religions?

Answer: Yes. You mean like Islam, for example, or certain other religions that have particular claims? Yes, it is not just Christianity.

Question: Under this system of thought, how would this conviction from the general revelation come about? In Romans 9, when he talks about the twins before they were born, he hated Esau and loved Jacob, and Paul says “I will have mercy on who I will have mercy upon.” Then he goes into how he raised Pharaoh up for his particular purpose. My question centers around the Reformed position that says there is this elect that God has chosen before the foundation of the world that would bring him glory through his mercy, and everybody else is condemned and bring glory through his wrath.8

Answer: Let me address very briefly the second part of your question first. I don’t think there is anything in this that I’ve said that determines whether you are Arminian or Reformed. What the Reformed person could say is that among the unevangelized are some elect – some people are elect through their response to general revelation. So I don’t think this is a Reformed/Arminian divide at all. In response to the first part of your question about conviction, listen to what Paul says in Romans 2:14-16. He says,

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 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.

Here he seems to present people who are apart from the Jewish law as having a conflicted conscience. Their conscience tells them, “It is all right what you’ve done here; but you’ve been wrong there.” So they are in moral turmoil because of their conflicted conscience, as a result of being aware of the moral law and their failure to live up to it. So I take it this would be feeling guilty about certain things you’ve done, like how greedy you are or how unloving you are or how selfish you are – that all persons can have a consciousness of their sin simply based upon the moral law of God written on their hearts and without a knowledge of Mosaic Law.9

1 John Hick, "Jesus and the World Religions," in The Myth of God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 179-80.

2 5:47

3 10:07

4 cf. Job 1:8, 2:3

5 cf. Genesis 14:18

6 15:05

7 20:12

8 24:55

9 Total Running Time: 27:02 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)