05 / 06
bird bird

Is One True Religion Even Possible?

William Lane Craig speaks at Cal Poly

Time : 01:08:39

William Lane Craig speaks at the California Polytechnic State University. In the view of the religious diversity that exists in the world, how can only one set of religious beliefs be true?


Today I want to talk about what I consider to be one of the most important, if not the most important, theological challenge facing the Christian faith in our contemporary culture which is the challenge of religious pluralism.

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [1] Thus the early Christian apostles believed and thus they preached. And that name was, of course, the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

The conviction that salvation is to be found through Christ alone permeates the entire New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul in his letter to the church of Ephesus (Ephesians 2:12) invites his Gentile readers to recall their pre-Christian days. Paul says, “Remember that at that time you were separated from Christ, aliens to the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of grace, having no hope and without God in the world.” What a poignant description of the status of these unbelievers – 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. In chapter 1 and verse 20, Paul explains that God’s eternal power and deity can be perceived through the creation around us so that all persons are without excuse for belief in the creator God. In Romans 2:15, he explains that God’s moral law is also written on the hearts of all persons so that we have an instinctual grasp of the difference between right and wrong and the demands of God’s moral law. In Romans 2:7, Paul explains that God offers eternal life to all who will seek for him in well doing. But, unfortunately, according to Romans 1:21-32, rather than worship and serve the creator God, people ignore the creator and fashion gods of their own choosing. Rather than obey and follow the moral law, men flout the moral law and plunge themselves into immorality and degeneracy. The conclusion comes in Romans 3:9-12 – all men, says Paul, whether Jews or Greeks, are under the power of sin. None is righteous, none seeks for God. No one understands. All have gone wrong for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Moreover, Paul explains in 3:19-20, no one can redeem himself from this situation of condemnation by righteous living. Paul says no human being shall be justified in God’s sight by works of the law, so that every mouth might be stopped and every human being may be held accountable to God.

But in 3:21-26, Paul explains that God has provided a way of escape. In God’s love and mercy, he has sent Christ whose vicarious death on the cross on our behalf is the sacrifice for our sin thereby freeing up God’s grace and forgiveness to restore our relationship with him. So through Christ’s atoning death, forgiveness and life and restoration are made possible.

I can make this same point through the writings of the apostle John and I think even through the teachings of Jesus himself. But just to summarize, I think the logic of the New Testament is clear. The universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrificial atoning death entail that there is no salvation apart from Christ.

This exclusivistic doctrine was just as scandalous in the polytheistic world of the Roman Empire as it is in 21st century Western society. But in time, as Christianity grew and eventually came to supplant the religions of Greece and Rome and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the scandal receded. Indeed, for medieval thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, one of the marks of the true church was its catholicity; that is to say, its universality. To them it seemed unthinkable that this great edifice filling all of the world – the Christian church – could have been predicated upon a falsehood. [2]

The demise of this doctrine of the exclusivity of salvation through Christ 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, and Ferdinand Magellan, new civilizations and new worlds were discovered which, far from believing in Christ, had not so much as even heard the name of Jesus Christ. It was realized that far from being the universal religion of mankind, Christianity was in fact largely confined to a corner of the globe – to Western Europe.

This realization had a two-fold impact upon people’s thinking. First of all, it tended to relativize religious beliefs. It was thought that no religion could claim to be the absolute truth – no religion could claim to be the universal religion of mankind. Rather, every society or culture had its own religion which was appropriate to its self. Secondly, it made Christianity’s claim to exclusive salvation through Christ seem narrow and cruel. Enlightenment humanists like Voltaire taunted the Christians of his day with the prospect of sixteen million Chinese going to hell for not having believed in Jesus Christ when they hadn’t even heard of Jesus Christ.

And in our own day, the influx into Western nations of immigrants from former colonies and the advances in telecommunications which have served to shrink the world to a global village, have increased our awareness of the religious diversity of mankind. It is estimated that somewhere between 15% and 25% of the world’s population has yet to hear the Gospel even for the first time.

The most radical response to this heightened awareness of the religious diversity of mankind is religious pluralism. The religious pluralist finds it inconceivable that any one particular religion could be true and all the others false. So he advocates a pluralistic approach. Religious pluralism comes in two forms: what we might call unsophisticated religious pluralism and sophisticated religious pluralism.

Unsophisticated religious pluralism responds to the phenomenon of religious diversity by saying, “Well, they are all true! All of the world’s great religions are basically saying the same thing.” This view, which one frequently hears expounded by laymen and college sophomores is, frankly, rooted in ignorance of what the world’s great religions teach. Anyone who has studied comparative religions knows that the worldviews propounded by these religions are often diametrically opposed to one other. Just take Islam and Buddhism, for example. Their worldviews have almost nothing in common. Islam believes that there is a personal God who has created the world and is omnipotent, omniscient, and holy. Islam believes that man is sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness and that everlasting heaven or hell awaits us after death and that we must earn our salvation by faith and by performing righteous deeds. Buddhism denies all of those things! For the classical Buddhist, ultimate reality is impersonal. The world is uncreated. There is no enduring self. Life’s ultimate goal is not personal immortality but annihilation The ideas of sin and salvation simply play no role at all. Examples like this could be multiplied. Clearly, all of these religions cannot be true for they have contradictory views about the nature of ultimate reality, the world, man, moral values, salvation, and so on. They could all be false but they cannot all be true. Unsophisticated religious pluralism is, therefore I think, untenable.

What the sophisticated religious pluralist says is that all of the world’s religions are, in fact, false. [3] None of them is true. They are all culturally relative ways of misconstruing reality. Ultimate reality, which you cannot accurately call “God,” should be given some nondescript name like “The Real” or “The Absolute.” Nothing can be known about it. But the world’s religions all picture it in different ways. Though literally false, all of the world’s great religions are effective in transforming people’s lives.

Sophisticated religious pluralism raises a host of questions, but I want to focus on just one – why think that religious pluralism is true? That is to say, why can’t only one particular religion be true? What is wrong with religious particularism? Specifically, what is wrong with Christian particularism?

Some of the arguments offered by religious pluralists seem to be obvious logical fallacies. For example, pluralists will often say that it is arrogant and immoral to claim that any one particular religion is true. But this seems to be a textbook example of the fallacy called argument ad hominem. That is to say, trying to invalidate the position by attacking the character of the people who hold it. Such a procedure is clearly fallacious. To give an illustration, suppose some medical researcher manages to finally discover a successful AIDS vaccine. But suppose that this fellow also happens to be an absolute jerk. He is totally arrogant. He looks down on his colleagues because they didn’t have his medical brilliance to discover the AIDS vaccine. They are mental midgets compared to him. He thinks that he ought to get the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery. He boasts that he is the only one – the only person who has discovered the AIDS vaccine and so he is filled with vanity and pride for his accomplishment. Now clearly such a person would be a very arrogant individual but would that do anything to affect the truth of his claim that, in fact, his AIDS vaccine is successful in treating the disease? In particular, if you suffered from the disease, would you refuse treatment because the person who discovered it is arrogant or immoral? I think clearly not! In exactly the same way, it is simply irrelevant to the truth of a particular religious worldview whether its adherents are arrogant or not. That doesn’t affect the truth of what they say.

But in any case, why think that religious particularists are arrogant? Suppose that I’ve done my best to figure out the truth about God and the world. Suppose I’ve researched, I’ve read the various scriptures of the world’s great religions, I’ve looked at the evidence for their various truth claims. Suppose that I sought God sincerely in prayer and gone through spiritual exercises in an effort to find out the truth about reality? Suppose I’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity is true? What else can I do than believe in it? I think that it is true! What else can I do but believe in this religion that my best efforts have determined in my thinking to be true? It is hard to see how someone can be indicted for being arrogant simply because he believes in something that he sincerely thinks to be the truth.

A final irony of this objection is that it also turns out to be a double-edged sword. For if it is arrogant and immoral to hold to a religious belief which is rejected by most other people and implies that their religious beliefs are false, then it follows that the religious pluralist is himself arrogant and immoral. For he thinks that everybody else’s religious beliefs are false – that the religious pluralist alone has seen the truth. The majority of the world’s population who follow particular religions are all deluded and wrong. Only religious pluralists, who are after all a tiny minority of mankind, are right and everybody else is wrong! How arrogant can you get?

Another bad argument against religious particularism is that people’s religious beliefs are culturally relative. [4] For example, the pluralist points out that if you had been born in Pakistan, then you would likely be a Muslim. One the other hand, if you had been born in Ireland, then you would more likely have been, at least nominally, Catholic. Therefore, none of these particular religious beliefs can be true. Again, this argument seems to be a textbook example of a logical fallacy call “the genetic fallacy.” This is trying to invalidate a view by showing how a person came to hold that view. Such a move is obviously fallacious. For example, if you had been born in ancient Greece, you would have likely believed that the sun orbits the Earth and maybe even believe that the Earth is flat. But does that, therefore, mean that your belief that the Earth goes around the sun and that the Earth is round is therefore false or unjustified? Obviously not! This argument, too, turns out to be a double-edged sword. For if the religious pluralist had been born in Pakistan or in Spain, then he would have likely been a religious particularist. So by his own argument, religious pluralism is false. His believing it is just the accidental result of his being born late 20th century politically correct Western society.

Please don’t think that because such fallacious arguments are often given on behalf of religious pluralism that pluralism does not pose a significant challenge to Christian belief. On the contrary, I think that it does. But by clearing away these fallacious arguments, we can help to get at the real problem which is lurking in the background. That problem concerns the fate of unbelievers outside one’s particular religious tradition. That problem is especially poignant for Christians who believe that salvation from sin and eternal life are to be found only through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Given the universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s substitutionary death on our behalf, it follows that salvation is available only through Christ but religious pluralists find this unconscionable.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the life of my own doctoral mentor John Hick. John Hick began his career as a relatively conservative Christian theologian. His first book was entitled Christianity at the Centre. That was where he conceived the Christian faith to belong. But as Professor Hick began to study the world’s religions, and particularly as he began to meet persons who were sincere adherents to those various religions, it became inconceivable to him that such good and decent people could be destined to eternal damnation. Therefore, the claim of the exclusivity of salvation through Christ must be false. In particular, Jesus Christ must somehow be got out of the way. He must no longer be at the center. Jesus Christ must be somehow marginalized to the circumference of belief. So Professor Hick came to write a book entitled The Myth of God Incarnate in which he explains that he now believes that the incarnation and the deity of Christ is simply a myth; a pictorial way in which Christians grasp The Real or The Absolute but which cannot be understood literally. He writes the following:

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 [5]. 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? [6]

Hick thinks the answer to that question is “no” and therefore he came to deny the deity and incarnation of Christ. This I believe is the real problem posed by the religious diversity of mankind – the fate of those who stand outside one’s own particular religious tradition.

But what exactly is the problem supposed to be that is posed by the unevangelized or the unreached? Is it supposed to be just the idea that a loving God would not send people to hell? Is that what the problem is supposed to be? Well, as I reflect on it, it seems to me that the answer is “no” that isn’t the core of the problem. You see the New Testament indicates that God desires 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. In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul explains that God’s desire is that all persons be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Therefore, God seeks to draw all persons to a saving knowledge of himself. Anyone who makes a free and well informed decision to reject God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ seals his own fate. In a sense, he is self-condemned. The only reason that he is lost is because he resists God’s will, desire, and every effort to save him. Thus his condemnation literally lies in his own hands. In one sense, God doesn’t send anybody to hell; rather, people send themselves by freely choosing to separate themselves from God irrevocably and God mourns their loss.

If the idea then is not simply that a loving God wouldn’t send people to hell, is it the idea that a loving God wouldn’t send people to hell because they were uninformed or misinformed about Christ? Is that what the problem is supposed to be? Again, it seems to me no that isn’t the essence of the problem because the New Testament suggests that God does not judge all persons on the basis of whether or not they have responded to Christ in faith. Many people have never had the opportunity to respond to Christ in faith having never heard the Gospel of Christ. It would be manifestly unfair to judge someone on the basis of his response to something about which he has never heard. Rather, the New Testament seems to suggest that God will judge people on the basis of their response to the light that they do have. In particular, to the light of God’s general revelation in nature and conscience. Remember we saw that all persons everywhere are responsible for acknowledging at least the existence and eternal power of God the creator and of their culpability before God on the basis of his moral law written on their hearts. In Romans 2:7 Paul says, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life.” I take it that this is a bona fide offer of salvation. If persons that have never heard the Gospel of Christ will respond appropriately to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience they will be saved. I hasten to add that that does not mean that people can therefore be saved apart from Christ. Rather, we’ve seen that only through the atoning and vicarious suffering of Christ are the benefits of salvation to be found. But what this would imply is that the benefits of Christ’s saving death could be applied to persons without their having a conscious knowledge of Christ. [7] They would be like certain persons in the Old Testament, for example, Job and Melchizedek, who had never heard of Jesus Christ and yet clearly enjoyed a personal relationship with God. In fact, Job and Melchizedek were not even members of the Old Testament covenant – they were not Israelites. Clearly they had a personal relationship with God based upon the response that they gave to the light that they had. They were saved only through Christ’s atoning death; the benefits of Christ’s death were applied to them without their having a conscious knowledge of Christ. Similarly, it could be that today there are living in the world persons who have never heard the Gospel of Christ but are, so to speak, modern day Jobs or Melchizedeks who respond appropriately to God’ s general revelation in nature and conscience and so have the benefits of Christ’s death applied to them without having a conscious knowledge of Christ.

Sadly, however, I think we have to honestly admit that the testimony of the New Testament is that there do not appear to be very many people who actually do access salvation in this way. The testimony of the New Testament as we’ve seen is that people don’t even measure up to these much lower standards of general revelation so even when judged by these lower standards they find themselves condemned before God. Perhaps there are a few that do respond in an appropriate way to general revelation and so God applies to them the benefits of Christ’s blood but I think we have to say that there is little grounds for optimism that there are many people like this. Nevertheless, it remains the case that salvation is truly universally accessible for anyone at any time or any place in history who will simply respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience in an appropriate way. So the problem is not simply the problem of persons who find themselves condemned because they are uninformed or misinformed about Christ.

Rather, it seems to me that the essence of the problem is this. If God is all-knowing, then even before he chose to create the world, he knew who would freely receive Christ and be saved and who would not. But then certain very difficult questions arise. For example,

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, consider a Native American Indian living during the Middle Ages before the arrival of missionaries to this country. Let’s call him Walking Bear. Let’s suppose that as Walking Bear looks up at the stars at night and sees the beauty of nature and the intricacy of the animal and plant world 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 demands of the moral law of the Great Spirit telling him that all men are brothers and that he should live a life of love and charity toward his fellow man. But let’s suppose that instead of worshipping the Great Spirit and following his moral law, instead, Walking Bear ignores the Great Spirit and fashions for himself gods of his own making. And rather than worship and serve the Great Spirit and live in love for his fellow man, he lives in selfishness and greed and cruelty and hatred. I think we would all agree that when judged by his response to general revelation, Walking Bear would be justly condemned before God. But now let’s also suppose that if only the missionaries had arrived and shared the Gospel with Walking Bear, then he would have responded and been saved. In such a case, it seems that his damnation is the result of historical and geographical accident. He just had the bad luck to be born at a time and place in history where the Gospel had not yet penetrated. But surely for him to be lost due to the accidents of geography and history is incompatible with the existence of an all-loving and all-just God.

2. Even more fundamentally, why did God even create the world if he knew that so many people would not believe in Christ and be lost? [8]

Why not create a world in which fewer would be lost? Why not eliminate those who would reject Christ or would refuse general revelation? Why create this world if he knew that so many persons would freely reject Christ and separate themselves from God forever?

3. Even more radically, why didn’t God create a world in which everyone freely believes in Christ and so is saved?

This would not be a puppet world or a marionette world where there would be no free will. Rather, it is logically possible that every person in any situation that he might be in would choose for Christ and choose to believe and be saved. So why not create a world like that if God is all-powerful? Why not create a world in which everyone freely places his faith in Christ and is saved?

What are we to say in answer to these difficult questions? Does Christianity in fact make God out to be cruel and unloving? Well, in order to deal with this objection, I think we need to penetrate more deeply into the logical structure of this objection. Basically, what this objection is saying is that it is impossible for God to be all-powerful and all-loving and yet for some people never to hear the Gospel and be lost. It is in a sense an example of the broader problem of evil, what we might call a soteriological problem of evil. A problem of evil pertinent to the doctrine of salvation. But why think that this is impossible for God to be all-loving and all-powerful and for some persons never to hear the Gospel and be saved?

The pluralist is basically saying that there is a logical contradiction between these two statements:

A. God is all-powerful and all-loving.

B. Some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.

But, why think that these are logically inconsistent with one another? After all, there is no logical contradiction between A and B. One is not the negation of the other. There is no explicit contradiction here. So, if the pluralist is saying that these are implicitly contradictory, he must be assuming some hidden premises that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit.

But what are those hidden assumptions? I have to confess that in my reading of the literature on religious pluralism, I have never encountered a religious pluralist who makes explicit what those hidden assumptions are that would serve to bring out the contradiction that is alleged to be implicit between A and B. But let’s see if we can help the religious pluralist out here by suggesting what those assumptions might be.

It seems to me that if the religious pluralist is to maintain that A and B are implicitly contradictory, he must be assuming the following sort of hidden assumptions.

Assumption 1. If God is all-powerful, then he can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.

Assumption 2. If God is all-loving, then he prefers a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.

Given the truth of those two assumptions and the truth that God is all-powerful and all-loving, it follows that everyone ought to hear the Gospel and be freely saved, which they are not if the doctrine of Christian particularism is true.

Now the question arises: are these assumptions necessarily true? Are (1) and (2) necessarily true? Let’s think about them together.

Take that first assumption, that if God is all-powerful, then he can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. I think we can agree that God could create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel. But so long as people are genuinely free, there is no guarantee that everybody would be freely saved in such a world. In fact, when you think about it, there is no reason to think that the balance between saved and lost in that sort of world would be any better than the balance in the actual world. [9] It is possible that in any world of free creatures which God could create, some people would freely reject him and be lost. It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. That is as logically impossible as making a square circle or a married bachelor. Therefore, God’s being omnipotent does not imply that he can make everyone freely do the right thing. It is possible that in any world of free creatures that God might create, some persons would freely reject him and be lost. So that first assumption is simply not necessarily true. Therefore, the argument offered by the religious pluralist is simply logically invalid.

But we can go on. What about the second assumption that if God is all-loving, then he prefers a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. Let’s suppose that there are possible worlds which God could create in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely accepts it so that there are worlds in which everyone freely responds to the Gospel and is saved. Does God’s being all-loving compel him to choose one of these worlds to the actual world? Well, again, I think I would say not necessarily. For you see these other worlds might have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable than the actual world. For example, suppose that the only worlds in which everybody would freely believe the Gospel and be saved are worlds that have only a handful of people in them and if God were to create any more people, then at least one of them would have been lost. Does God’s being all-loving mean that he must prefer one of these radically underpopulated worlds over a world in which multitudes freely receive his grace and are saved, even though some will freely reject it and separate themselves from God forever? That is certainly not obvious to me. It seems to me that so long as God provides sufficient grace for salvation to all person that he creates, that he is no less loving for preferring a more populous world even though that implies that some people would freely reject him and be lost. So this second assumption as well is simply not necessarily true.

Therefore, the argument is doubly invalid and therefore the religious pluralist has not been able to show any sort of an inconsistency between God being all-powerful and all-loving and some people never hearing the Gospel and being lost. Therefore, the argument for religious pluralism and against particularism seems to me simply unsuccessful.

But we can actually push our analysis a step further. I think we can show that it is entirely possible that God is all-powerful and all-loving and that many persons do not hear the Gospel and are lost. All we have to do is find a possibly true statement which is compatible with God being all-powerful and all-loving and which entails that some persons do not believe the Gospel and are lost. Can we find such a statement? Let’s try.

As a good and loving God, God desires as many people as possible to be saved and as few as possible to be lost. His goal, then, is to achieve an optimal balance between these; to create no more of the lost than is necessary to attain a certain number of the saved. But, it is possible that the actual world has such a balance. It is possible that in order to create this many people who would be saved, God also had to create this many people who would be lost. It is possible that had God created a world in which fewer people go to hell, even fewer people would have gone to heaven. It is possible that in order to achieve a multitude of saints, God had to accept an even greater multitude of sinners.

It might be objected that an all-loving God would not create people who he knew will be lost but who would have been saved if only they had heard the Gospel. But how do we know that there are any such persons? [10] It is reasonable to believe that many people who never hear the Gospel would not have believed the Gospel even if they had heard it. Suppose then that God has so providentially ordered the world that all persons who never hear the Gospel during their lifetime are precisely such people. In that case, anybody who never hears the Gospel and is lost would have rejected the Gospel and been lost even if he had heard it. Thus, no one could stand before God on the judgment day and complain, “Well, all right God. So I didn’t respond to your revelation in nature and conscience. But if only I’d heard the Gospel, then I would have believed.” And God will say, “No. I knew that even if you had heard the Gospel, you would not have believed in it. Therefore my judgment of you on the basis of nature and conscience is neither unloving nor unfair.” Thus, it is possible – and here we have the third proposition:

C. God has created a world which has an optimal balance between saved and lost and those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have freely received it even if they had heard it.

So long as this statement is even possibly true it proves that there is no incompatibility between an all-powerful, all-loving God and some people never hearing the Gospel and being lost.

Let me head off here a possible misunderstanding. Someone might say, well then why engage in evangelization or missionary work if all people who are unreached would not receive Christ even if they heard of him? Well, the question forgets that we are talking only about people who never hear the Gospel during their lifetime. God, in his providence, can so arrange the world that as the Gospel spreads out from first-century Palestine, God places in its path people who he knew would believe it if they heard it. But, in his love and mercy, God ensures that no one who would believe the Gospel if he heard it remains ultimately unreached. Once the Gospel reaches a people group, then God providentially places there persons who he knew would respond to it if they heard it. He ensures that those who never hear it are only those who would not have accepted it even if they had heard it.

On the basis of this possible scenario, we are able to provide possible answers to the three difficult questions that prompted our inquiry. Let me take them in reverse order.

First, why didn’t God create a world in which everyone would freely receive Christ and be saved? Answer: it may not be feasible for God to create such a world. If such a world were feasible, God would have created it. But, given his will to create free creatures, God had to accept that some would freely reject him and be lost.

Question two: why did God create the world when he knew that so many people would not receive Christ and be lost? Answer: God wanted to share his love and fellowship with created persons. He knew that this meant that many would freely reject him and his every effort to save them and so be lost. But he also knew that many, many others would freely receive him and be saved. The happiness and the blessedness of those who would freely respond to his offer of salvation should not be precluded by those who would freely reject him. Those who would freely spurn God’s love and grace should not be allowed to have, as it were, veto power over which worlds God is free to create. But God, in his love and mercy, has providentially so ordered the world as to achieve an optimal balance between saved and lost by maximizing the number of those who accept him and minimizing the number of those who freely reject him.

Finally, number three: why didn’t God bring the Gospel to people who he knew would accept it even though they reject the light of general revelation that they do have. Answer: there are no such people. God in his providence has so arranged the world that those who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it, do hear it. [11] Those who do not respond to the general revelation in nature and conscience and never hear the Gospel would not have responded to it even if they had heard it. Thus, no one is lost because of a lack of information or due to historical and geographical accident. Anyone who wants, or even would want, to be saved will be saved.

These are merely possible answers to the questions that we posed. Is (C) true? Only God knows! I certainly don’t know. But I think that these answers are attractive because they do seem quite biblical as well. For example, in his address on Mars Hill in Athens, the apostle Paul spoke the following words:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and . . . gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ [12]

So in conclusion then it seems to me that the presence of other world religions does not undermine the Christian Gospel of salvation through Christ alone. On the contrary, I think what I’ve said today can help to put the proper perspective upon Christian mission and evangelization. Those of us who are Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, trusting that God has so providentially ordered things that through us the Good News will come to persons who God knew would accept it if they heard it. Our compassion toward those in other world religions is expressed not in pretending that they are not lost and dying without Christ but rather by our supporting and making every effort ourselves to communicate to them the life giving message of the Gospel of Christ.



QUESTION: Professor Craig. I basically disagree with your underlying assumptions of your talk that salvation and damnation are absolute in Christianity. You also have a very literal reading of the New Testament. You said very little about other religions other than Christianity. But the characterization of Buddhism as nihilism is a distortion. Just for example, when the Abby Hugh went to Tibet, he went there to convert Tibetans who were very happy to hear about the wonderful bodhisattva Jesus Christ and how he sacrificed himself for his people. They said this is exactly what we wish to do. We wish to renounce nirvana and renounce salvation for any personal self which is an illusion and live and strive for the redemption of every people and every person upon this earth. They didn’t reject Christianity. They simply had the notion, which also Christian Gnostics do, that the Christos within is the only way to salvation. In other words, materialism has got to be rejected because deep within the self there is the spiritual soul and the buddhi. So certainly the Tibetans, the American Indians such as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Chief Seattle also have this universal view. So, instead of talking about pluralism and all these different religions which seem to be wrong in your view regarding an unprovable metaphysical assumption that we are cycled through this globe for only one lifetime and then have one chance at heaven or hell, there is also the unprovable metaphysical assumption of rebirth which has a deep compassion about it and which Gnostics believed in – that everyone will eventually wake up to the idea that Christos and buddhi are universal in all men. [13]

DR. CRAIG: There are a number of things that I would like to say in response to that. First of all, I wasn’t trying to give any sort of an argument for what you called the metaphysical claim of the truth of Christianity. Rather, what I was trying to do was to defend religious particularism against the objections of religious pluralism. Actually, a Muslim could very much agree with what I said today, except he would substitute in Islam for Christianity. So that would be a talk for another day – to try to actually prove that the truth claims of Christianity are true. What I am simply trying to argue is that there isn’t any kind of demonstrated incoherence in the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone. With respect to Buddhism, I realize that obviously there are multifaceted faces of Buddhism; there are different kinds. But what I said in my lecture was according to classical Buddhism. I think you would agree there are schools of Buddhism that are characterized by the doctrines that I listed. That is not to say that all forms of it are, but certainly there are some. Remember the overriding point that I was making, and I think you would agree with this, that all of these religions cannot be true because they make mutually incompatible claims. That was the overriding point against unsophisticated religious pluralism – because these religions are contradictory in their truth claims, they can’t all be regarded as true. Now, the final point that I would like to make is that in all honesty and all candor, I think it is really hard to deny that the New Testament does teach the truth of salvation through Christ alone. I mean, in some ways, I wish it didn’t. But honesty, as an exegete, just compels me to say this. Paul seems to me to be very clear. I mentioned John as well. In the published version of this lecture, I go through a lot of the Johannine writings. And I think, as well, Jesus. Think of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount about how he warned that we need to enter by the narrow gate because the gate is broad and the way is easy that leads to destruction and many go in at that gate. The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to salvation and those that find it are few, Jesus said. [14] So I just can’t persuade myself that the way to solve this problem is to exegete the New Testament in such a way that it doesn’t teach the reality of heaven and hell. That just seems to me to be an uncomfortable fact of the matter that one has to deal with honestly. So that is the motivation behind the talk today to try to see if there is some incoherence in holding to a particularistic religious view.

QUESTION: [referring to Dr. Craig’s overhead slide] I am wondering if the pluralist is committed in the strong sense to a logical contradiction in the first case or whether he or see might be willing to say that there is an incompatibility or a contrariness, that the two can’t be true at the same time with A and B. That is part one of my question. Could the religious pluralist be driving at demonstrating the incompatibility of the two claims rather than the outright contradiction?

DR. CRAIG: By the logical incompatibility, I take it to mean that there isn’t any possible world in which both of these statements are true. So, in order to show that, I think that the pluralist would need to give us some sort of argument to show that both of these statements cannot be true at the same time.

FOLLOWUP: That drives me to my second question. I thought weakening that would help a bit. I am also wondering if the assumptions that were given to the pluralist couldn’t be also weakened and still have some force against the counter argument you have presented. For example, in assumption 1, couldn’t it be possible that we could say if God is all-powerful he can create a world in which everyone hears the Gospel and has an opportunity to be freely saved rather than is, in fact, freely saved.

DR. CRAIG: I guess I wouldn’t call it pluralism anymore. In fact, I would call that my view! Because that is the view that I defended – God creates a world in which everybody has the opportunity to be saved.

FOLLOWUP: That is the point. Everybody has the opportunity to hear the Gospel and has the opportunity to be freely saved. I think that might be closer to the assumption made by the pluralist in thinking there is an incompatible of the two statements A and B. [15]

DR. CRAIG: Well, I guess then the pluralist would have to show why it would be important for God to have people hear the Gospel if the end goal in mind isn’t salvation. Because the view that I am defending is that salvation is universally accessible so everybody does have the opportunity to be saved. That I think is what the pluralist really wants to say; not just that they have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. What the pluralist wants to say is they all actually are saved. I am quite willing to say that everybody has the opportunity to be saved.

QUESTION: This might be terribly confused and ill-prepared but on my infantile reasoning it appears to me that we don’t necessarily need all of the possible worlds stuff for the following reason – I would like you to explain to me why I am probably wrong about this. It is in regard to when you gave the example of the Native American and you said that maybe if he had heard the Gospel then he would have responded to God but since he didn’t hear the Gospel, he chose not to respond. It seems to me that if the Gospel would cause someone that wouldn’t have responded to respond then it might actually be infringing upon our will and so it seems like we don’t even really need all of the other stuff because we could just stop at, well, people either are going to respond to God or not and it seems weird if we start throwing in that the Gospel could compel certain people to respond. Then we would maybe have bigger problems on our hands where God’s justice where he only gives that extra compulsion to some people and doesn’t give it to others. In that case, then it just seems to work itself out. Does that make sense?

DR. CRAIG: I think it does make sense. I understand what you are saying and it is a good question. But I don’t think of the Gospel as something that is compelling. It is freedom permitting. But I think that, for theological reasons now – and this is an attempt to defend an orthodox Christian view, I think we do want to say that the proclamation of the Gospel is more efficacious in winning a free response than is general revelation. Otherwise it is difficult to see the importance of the missionary task or of evangelization if the Gospel is not more efficacious. One way to respond that one could have said, but I think would be theologically ill-advised, is anyone who fails to respond to general revelation would not have responded to the Gospel even if he heard it. Because, as you say, if his heart is so bent and distorted that he won’t respond to God’s revelation in nature and conscience, he wouldn’t respond to the Gospel if he heard it either and therefore the problem is solved. The reason I am reluctant to go there, I guess, is just theologically we want to say it is part of the Christian faith to say that the Gospel is more efficacious in winning a free response from people. Therefore, there certainly are people – we meet them all the time on the university campus – who haven’t come to saving faith simply through witness of nature and conscience but when they do hear the Gospel they say, yeah, that makes sense and they respond to it and are saved. So the Gospel is, as Paul says, the power of God for salvation. Therefore it is to be universally proclaimed. That is why I don’t want to cut short the problem by simply saying that if they don’t respond to general revelation they would not have responded to special. I think that is false.

QUESTION: I would like to ask a followup to a previous question. It may be barely possible that each and every person who has never heard the Gospel would not have accepted it had they heard it. But, given the history of evangelism, when for example it was introduced to South America, vast numbers of natives converted almost immediately and we could go on and on. It may be barely possible but it seems frankly irrational to hold that. Associated with that, with the weaker possible premise in the hidden assumptions. Given that part of your defense against religious pluralism was the idea that people could condemn themselves by hearing the Gospel and then rejecting it, it would seem that a loving, powerful God would create a world in which everyone was epistemically on a par with respect to either salvation or self-condemnation; that is, where everyone in fact did hear the Gospel. So the mere fact that we don’t live in such a world seems to be a mark against your argument. [16]

DR. CRAIG: All right, very good question. What the questioner is asking is that even if A and B are not logically incompatible with each other, nevertheless they may be highly improbable with respect to each other. The scenario I laid out is barely possible so that there isn’t a contradiction. But nevertheless it is highly improbable to think that everyone who never hears the Gospel during his lifetime wouldn’t have responded to it even if they had heard it. It is very, very important that you understand the proposal that I am laying out. If I was saying that it just happened to be the case that that is the way the world is by accident, I totally agree. That would be outlandishly improbable. But that is not the suggestion. The suggestion is that God, knowing how people would respond freely in various circumstances to his offers of grace, so providentially orders the world that he places people in history such that those who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it are born at times and places in the world in which they do get to hear it. Given that this is not the result of accident but of deliberate planning on God’s part, I can’t see how the pluralist could say that this is improbable. He would have to say there is some sort of empirically manifest property that people have that would indicate that even though they reject general revelation they would accept special revelation if they heard it. And I don’t think that there is any such empirically manifest property. Sociological studies show that persons who convert to Christianity are psychologically on a par with those who don’t. There isn’t any peculiar religious personality type that normally converts or anything. Given the proposal that I’ve made, I don’t see how there would be any way to judge that this would be improbable that God has done this. Indeed, as a Christian now speaking, Acts 17 suggests that this is in fact what he’s done. I find this proposal not only a possible proposal, but I don’t think it is even improbable. I think it is all together plausible that a God who is endowed with this kind of knowledge could and would do such a thing. I think he could do it because he has knowledge of what free creatures would do in any circumstances he places them in and I think he would do it because the Scriptures says that his desire is for everybody to be saved. Therefore, the only thing that would prevent that desire from coming true would be human free will and intransigence. It seems to me that we can’t say that this proposal is improbable although I could understand why one’s initial reaction to it might be just that.

QUESTION: I would like to hear your thoughts on a possible third kind of pluralism. It is not one that is saying that all religions are true and it is not one that is saying all are false but it is one that is rooted in epistemological concerns regarding justification or evidence. It would be motivated by saying there just isn’t enough evidence for one religion to say that they are right and the others are wrong. No one really has sufficient evidence to say that. So this would be, you think about the different world religions, and how there are well thought out through people, people have reasons for their beliefs and why they hold to that particular sect or belief system. I am just wondering. Here is an analogy that might help. The Super Bowl is this Sunday. At the beginning of the season there are probably lots of individuals who thought that their team was going to win the Super Bowl. They had reasons for that, they had maybe some evidence, they studied all of the draft and that sort of thing. But it would be out of place for somebody to say I know that my team is going to win the Super Bowl. There just isn’t enough evidence of support for that. So it is kind of a pluralism that is motivated out of that. Either that is because of divine hiddenness or your cognitive faculties aren’t able to ascertain the evidence or information. [17]

DR. CRAIG: The difficulty there is the connection between that and the doctrine of universalism – that all will be saved. That is what one would need to see which I don’t think you’ve explained. Perhaps the idea is that every person does his best with the reason and evidence that he has been given and therefore he can’t be blamed for not having believed in something for which he didn’t have sufficient evidence. I think two things could be said. I am speaking now theologically again. Theologically, it seems to me that the New Testament does teach that there is adequate evidence for God’s existence in nature and in conscience; for all persons everywhere to at least believe that there is a creator of the universe and that we are morally culpable before him. Even more than that, I think that we need to call into question the evidentialism that is at the root of the question. It seems to me that it is quite right to say that God has created us in such a way that when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly that they would respond to the witness of the Holy Spirit that God gives to all persons so that they would naturally form belief in him. God, by the work of his Holy Spirit, draws all persons to himself. So I don’t think at root anyone refuses to come to faith in God or Christ through a lack of evidence. It is ultimately going to be because he ignores or rejects the work and witness of the Holy Spirit on his heart. Therefore, at root it isn’t a question of evidence. So your question I think would only be one that would be pressing if one had a sort of evidentialist epistemology that says religious faith has to be based upon argument and evidence and I don’t think that is right.

FOLLOWUP: Is it your view that the cognitive faculties that persons have are able to ascertain the Holy Spirit’s moving and there is a general grace that everyone has received and has that ability. Or has God chosen to give certain persons that ability?

DR. CRAIG: The former. It would be the doctrine of common grace and God’s universal salvific will. I take very seriously those passages in the New Testament that says God desires all persons to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Therefore, he accords sufficient grace for salvation to every human being that he creates. He gives them gifts of grace and ministrations of the Holy Spirit which are sufficient to draw them to a saving knowledge of himself if that person is willing. It is only by rejecting these that anyone would be ultimately lost. [18]

  • [1]

    Acts 4:12

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  • [6]

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

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  • [12]

    Acts 17:24-27

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  • [14]

    cf. Matthew 7:13-14

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  • [18]

    Total Running Time: 1:08:40 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)