Doctrine of Christ (Part 47): The Work of Christ (40) - Christian ParticularismMarch 28, 2018 Time: 31:18
Is Christ The Only Way To Salvation?
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture before we proceed. We’ve been talking about the doctrine of Christ for the last several months. We first looked at the person of Christ – his deity and humanity. Then we studied together the work of Christ – his cross and resurrection. Today we come to a different aspect of the work of Christ, and that is the question of who is able to access the benefits of Christ’s atoning death? Is this the only way of salvation, and if it is then what is the fate of those who have never had the opportunity to hear the message of the Gospel? This is the subject that we want to take up at this time.
I was speaking several years ago on a major Canadian university campus on the existence of God. After my talk, one rather irate student wrote on her comment card, I was with you until you got to the stuff about Jesus. God is not the Christian God. This attitude is pervasive in Western society. Belief in the existence of some sort of a generic God is still the norm, I think, but in our pluralistic society it has become politically incorrect to believe that God has decisively revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Yet, this is exactly what the New Testament clearly teaches. Just take, for example, the writings of the apostle Paul. In Ephesians 2:12 Paul reminds his converts of what it was like before they came to know Christ. Ephesians 2:12: “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.”
It is the burden of the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans to show that this desolate condition is the general situation of mankind – hopeless and separated from God. In chapter 1 of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that God’s eternal power and deity are clearly revealed in the created order around us so that all men are without excuse. He also explains in chapter 2 that God has written his moral law upon the hearts of all persons so that people are morally responsible before God. He says that although God offers eternal life to anyone who will respond to his general revelation in nature and conscience in an appropriate way, nevertheless the sad fact is that rather than worship and serve the Creator, people ignore God and they flout his moral law, plunging themselves into sin and immorality.
The conclusion comes in Romans 3:9-12:
For I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, 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.’
Moreover the situation is made worse by the fact that all men are under the condemnation of sin and cannot redeem themselves through righteous living. In Romans 3:19-20 Paul concludes this section:
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.
Fortunately, Paul says, God has provided a means of escape from this desolate situation. Namely, Christ has died for the sins of mankind thereby satisfying the demands of God’s justice and enabling reconciliation with God. Romans 3:21-26:
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.
By the means of Christ’s atoning death salvation is made available as a gift to be received by faith.
The logic of the New Testament is clear: given the universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning death it entails that there is no salvation apart from Christ. As the apostles proclaimed in Acts 4:12, “And 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 particularistic doctrine of salvation through Christ alone was just as scandalous in the polytheistic world of the Roman Empire as it is in 21st century Western society. Early Christians were often subjected to intense persecution, horrible torture, and even death because they refused to embrace a pluralistic approach to religions. In time, however, Christianity eventually grew and supplanted the pagan religions of Greece and Rome and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus the scandal of Christian particularity or exclusivity receded. Indeed, for medieval thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, one of the marks of the true church was its catholicity (with a small-c) – that is to say, its universality. To them it seemed simply incredible that this great edifice of the Christian church filling all of civilization could be founded upon a falsehood.
The demise of this traditional doctrine came with the so-called “Expansion of Europe,” that is to say, the roughly three centuries of exploration and discovery from around 1450 to 1750. Through the travels and voyages of men like Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Ferdinand Magellan, new civilizations and whole new worlds were discovered who knew nothing about the Christian faith.
The realization that much of the world’s population lay outside the bounds of Christianity had a two-fold impact on people’s religious thinking. First of all, it tended to relativize religious beliefs. People realized that far from being the universal religion of mankind, Christianity was largely confined to Western Europe, a corner of the globe. No particular religion, it seemed, could make a claim to universal validity. Every society seemed to have its own religion which was suited to its peculiar needs. Secondly, it made Christianity’s claim to be the only way of salvation seem narrow and cruel. Enlightenment rationalists like Voltaire taunted the Christians of his day with the prospects of millions of Chinese going to hell for not believing in Christ when they had not so much as even heard of Christ.
In our own day, the influx into Western nations of immigrants from former colonies, as well as the advances in telecommunications that have served to shrink the world to a global village, have heighten our awareness of the religious diversity of mankind. As a result, religious pluralism, that is to say the view that there are many roads to God, many equally valid ways of apprehending God, has today, once again, become the conventional wisdom just as it was in the early Roman Empire.
There are two forms that this religious pluralism might take. First, a kind of unsophisticated religious pluralism, and then secondly a more sophisticated religious pluralism.
Unsophisticated religious pluralism is typically advocated by college sophomores who say that all religions are equally true and therefore whatever you believe is true and all religions lead to God. This, I say, is unsophisticated pluralism because the law of contradiction requires that contradictory claims cannot all be true, and the world’s religions make contradictory claims about things like the existence of God, the nature of the soul, sin, how salvation is to be achieved, life after death, and so forth. They cannot all be true because they are mutually contradictory.
What the sophisticated religious pluralist says is that all of the world’s great religions are equally false; that is to say, none of them are true. They are all false, but they are all equally valid ways of apprehending the divine which is not called God but some vague term like The Absolute or The Real. Nothing can be known about it, but all of the world’s religions make differing and contradictory false claims about The Real. But all of them are equally effective in transforming people’s lives, changing them from self-centered individuals to individuals centered on The Real and living good, moral lives. So all religions are equally effective in the lives of their adherents even though these religions taken literally are all false.
Student: Doesn’t the sophisticated view suffer from the same problem as the unsophisticated view in that the conflicting claims would seem to contradict each other even in a sophisticated way if you want to say it that way?
Dr. Craig: Yes, but that is the position of the religious pluralist – that they are all false. They all contradict each other, and they are all false. So none of them has the truth about the nature of reality. They are all in a sense like different myths that people have found useful in living other-centered lives. But none of these myths is really true.
Student: For the unsophisticated point of view, I’ve heard the term modernist and postmodernist. What is the relationship between modernism and the unsophisticated view?
Dr. Craig: I don’t think that that distinction connects closely with this. The modernist would be your typical Enlightenment mentality that would deny the reality of the supernatural and would deny Christian claims about Jesus Christ and salvation through him. The postmodernist would tend to be more pluralistic in saying that truth is relative to the individual person so it could be true for you but not true for me. But I don’t think that the distinction here that we’ve drawn between unsophisticated and sophisticated religious pluralism maps onto that distinction very well. You could be either a modernist or a postmodernist and hold to one of these views.
Student: Doesn’t the sophisticated pluralism really get us to the greater, higher power? And what is right for you and how you seek that power is fine but don’t impose your journey onto me. And yes there is some sort of great force out there but we are not in a position to define exactly what it is, how to get there, so everybody is OK.
Dr. Craig: Yes, I think you’ve expressed it well. I think you can see – and maybe this is what someone earlier was getting at – it is very difficult for the religious pluralist to avoid making some truth claims about The Real himself. You made several. So his view, I think, trembles on the brink of incoherence. But nevertheless I think you have expressed the view very well.
Student: It is politically correct to say “the higher power” – that is a big term because that sort of is an OK kind of claim. But beyond that you are really beginning to step on toes so let’s don’t go there.
Dr. Craig: My doctoral mentor, John Hick, who was perhaps the world’s most famous religious pluralist, liked to speak of The Real with a capital-R but if you want to call it the higher power that’s fine. Ultimate reality. Something like that. But nothing can be known about ultimate reality on this view.
Student: Would it be appropriate to say that within the unsophisticated versus the sophisticated that the unsophisticated would be agnostic and the sophisticated would be more atheistic? So if the unsophisticated says all religions are true they do believe in some sort of God, where the sophisticated would say, It is all false, there is no God.
Dr. Craig: I don’t think so. I don’t think this distinction maps real neatly onto the one that I’ve drawn. The unsophisticated religious pluralist is the person who doesn’t know anything about the world’s religions and he thinks they are all basically saying the same thing. Anybody who has had a class in world religions knows that that is not true. Just take Buddhism and Islam, for example. These religions are utterly diverse. Islam believes in a personal creator of the universe. Buddhism does not. Buddhism is agnostic about that. The Muslim believes that man has a soul that God will judge. The Buddhist doesn’t believe in the soul. The Muslim believes in the reality of sin and the need of forgiveness. That plays no role – there is no such thing as good and evil or forgiveness or salvation from sin in Buddhism. The Muslim believes that after life there is the possibility of eternal life – immortality – given by God. The Buddhist doesn’t believe in life after death. These religions are just making contradictory claims. As I say, your college sophomore who says to you all religions are basically saying the same thing and they are all true just doesn’t understand the world’s religions. Anybody who understands these conflicting claims is going to have to say something more like the sophisticated pluralist – that they are all false. None of them is literally true. That doesn’t imply that you yourself are an atheist or agnostic. I just don’t see that that maps onto this very well.
Student: I’ve read that at the time of the Roman Empire that the sophisticated pluralist was actually taught, that everybody has a form of the truth. It has error in it. There is an Egyptian . . . I read that in an . . . early fathers papers, I think.
Dr. Craig: I think it would depend on who you are talking about. The Greek philosophers like Plato, I think, would certainly say that the Greek myths were not literally true but were just sort of useful as a kind of religious cult for guiding people’s lives. But probably many of their adherents did believe that these claims were really true. But what they wouldn’t accept is that there was just one exclusive way. They wanted all religions to be equally valid. It was that claim that Christians made that their way alone was true that was so offensive. It wasn’t that they were attacking these other religions. It was simply that they claimed that theirs was the only way that was so offensive and led to the horrible, horrible persecution and torture of the early Christians.
What exactly is the problem that is supposed to be posed by mankind’s religious diversity? For whom is it supposed to be a problem? When you read the literature on this issue, the recurring challenge seems to be laid at the doorstep of the Christian particularist – that is to say, the person who says Christ is the only way to God. The phenomenon of religious diversity is said to imply the truth of pluralism, that there are many valid approaches to God, and the main debate then becomes which is the most plausible form of pluralism to adopt.
But why should we think that Christian particularism is untenable in the face of religious diversity? What exactly seems to be the problem here?
When you examine the arguments on behalf of pluralism, what you discover is that many of them seem to be almost textbook examples of logical fallacies. For example, it is frequently asserted that it is arrogant and immoral to believe in any kind of religious particularism because then you have to regard all people who disagree with you and your own religion as wrong and their views as false. That is said to be arrogant and immoral. This seems to be a textbook example of the fallacy of argument ad hominem. This is the fallacy of trying to invalidate a view by attacking the moral character of the person who holds it. This is a fallacy because the truth of a position is independent of the moral qualities of those who believe in it. An obvious illustration would be suppose someone has claimed to discover an AIDS vaccine. Suppose this person is utterly conceited. He looks down on all his colleagues as mental midgets because they didn’t discover the vaccine. He boasts that he is the only person who has discovered this successful HIV vaccine. He is completely arrogant and immoral. Does that mean that his claim is false? That the vaccine isn’t effective? Would you refuse to take the vaccine because of the moral character of the person who makes this claim? Obviously not! The truth of the claim is independent of the moral character of the person who makes it. Even if it were true that all religious particularists are arrogant and immoral, that would do nothing to show that their view is false. It would not show that Christian particularism is false.
Not only that, but why think that arrogance and immorality are necessary conditions of being a particularist? Suppose that I’ve done all I can to discover the truth about reality, and as a result of my search I’ve come to believe that Christianity is true. So I humbly embrace Christian faith as an undeserved gift of God. Am I arrogant and immoral for believing what I sincerely think is true? What else can I do but believe it? I think it is the truth! It seems to me that arrogance and immorality are not at all necessary conditions of being a particularist.
Finally, and even more fundamentally, this objection turns out to be a double-edged sword for the pluralist also believes that his view is right and that all of those adherents to particularistic religions in the world, who are after all the vast majority of mankind, are all wrong. Therefore, if holding to a view which many others disagree with means you are arrogant and immoral then the pluralist himself is convicted of arrogance and immorality because religious pluralism is a view that is espoused by a very, very tiny minority of mankind. The pluralist has to say he alone has the truth and that all these other people are wrong. Therefore, that would be arrogant and immoral if this objection were good.
To give another example of a bad argument. It is frequently alleged that Christian particularism cannot be true because religious beliefs are culturally relative. For example, it is often pointed out that if you had been born in Pakistan you probably would be a Muslim. Therefore, your belief in Christianity is false or unjustified. Again, this seems to be a textbook example of a logical fallacy called the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is trying to invalidate a point of view by showing how a person came to believe it. This is, again, invalid. The fact that your beliefs depend upon where and when you were born does absolutely nothing to show that those beliefs are false. If you had been born in ancient Greece, for example, you would probably have believed that the sun goes around the Earth. Does that therefore imply that your believe that the Earth goes around the sun is false or unjustified? Obviously not! Again, the genetic fallacy seems to be committed by those who think that because the way in which you come to believe in something is conditioned by where and when you were born that the view is false is simply invalid.
Again, the pluralist pulls the rug out from under his own feet. Think about it. If the religious pluralist had been born in Pakistan, then he would probably be a religious particularist. Right? Therefore, by his own analysis, pluralism is just the result of the happenstance that he was born in late 20th century Western society and is therefore false or unjustified. Therefore, pluralism cuts off the branch on which the pluralist himself sits.
Student: I really think the offensive characteristic of Christianity that they find is our desire to convert others to our way of thinking. That is where we, I think, are looked down upon. When we say this is the only way, you need to accept Christ as Lord, then we have efforts either on campuses or around the world to attempt to convince people of that reality.
Dr. Craig: Undoubtedly that is true. They don’t like people who are trying to convert them. But I guess my question is still: why is that wrong? Why is it wrong for someone to try to convert someone to his belief if he thinks that that belief is true – and especially if it is true?
Student: You are right, but what they are saying to that person is, Your way of thinking is in error. I think that just in their mind you are kind of putting yourself as someone who has . . . what can I say? . . . is in a better place. I think that is what is offensive to them.
Dr. Craig: That is sort of like the first objection about being arrogant.
Student: Yeah. I guess so.
Dr. Craig: That is sort of like that. But then I already responded to that. The religious pluralist is more arrogant than anybody. How arrogant can you be to think you as a religious pluralist are the only ones that are right and all of the hundreds of millions of peoples in the world’s religions are all wrong? It seems to me that he really undercuts his own view.
Student: It is just the evangelical part of it, I think . . .
Dr. Craig: Undoubtedly what you are saying is correct, but it doesn’t tell me what is wrong with being a religious particularist. You are right.
What I am going to suggest next time is that the real difficulty – the real objection – has to do with the fate of those who never get a chance to believe. They never hear the Gospel. What is their fate? I think that is what really drives religious pluralism. But we will save that for next time.