In our modern, secular Western world, society and culture, there is a now common, but relatively recent, belief in what is termed “religious pluralism”. This is the idea that there is so much overlap between all of the major world religions, and sometimes not just them, that they all really teach the same essential things, they all lead to the same God and they all result in eternal life and salvation. The analogy which is often used here is of a series of mountaineers who all climb a mountain and get to the summit, having all taken different routes and paths. The end is exactly the same (they reach the summit) but the means (the paths and routes) were different but this difference no longer matters once the end results and outcome is realised.
Michael Ramsden has astutely pointed out that the only viewpoint from which one can see if all paths from the bottom lead to the summit is a perfect, bird’s eye view from above the summit of the mountain, exactly above it and in the middle. However, no human has access to that viewpoint in this Earthly life and only God has access. Therefore, we are really claiming to be God when we claim to know that all religions lead to God, salvation and eternal life. On the one hand, of course, religious pluralism is false as religions which believe there is no God, such as Buddhism, cannot obviously lead to God. Furthermore, when we say all religions, this would have to include despicable and hateful religions such as the “German Faith Movement” which was a religion based on Nazi ideology and German paganism. Where do you draw the line when defining a religion? One cannot say that it relates to a divinity or a god as Buddhism does not.
At the heart of this debate is, then, what it means to be religious. However, different religions will have very different answers to that same question. For example, as a Christian myself, what it means to be religious is to believe in the life, death, resurrection and work of our only Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ and to follow Him above all others. However, a Buddhist may say that to be religious is to follow the teachings of the Buddha, which include the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Mahatma Ghandi had a very different definition again: ‘I call him religious who understands the suffering of others’. There is seldom much in common between such definitions.
G.K. Chesterton, one not often known for mincing his words, once characterised religious pluralism thus:
‘There are those who hate Christianity and call their hatred an all-embracing love for all religions’
(G.K. Chesterton in the “Illustrated London News) on 13th January 1906)
While he may perhaps have overstated this point a little, I think his underlying rationale is sound. To say that all religions believe in the same God, have the same value and moral systems, the same laws and commandments and lead to salvation necessarily diminishes the claims of any one religion. It ensures that there is nothing distinctive or unique about the religion in question which is of any significance. Religious pluralism is, in fact, in essence saying that all religions are basically the same. In my opinion, this could not be further from the truth.
On this particular question, there are three main points of view: religious exclusivism, religious inclusivism, and religious pluralism. Religious exclusivism is where one believes that only their religion contains any truth at all and it alone leads to God, salvation and eternal life. I oppose this viewpoint as there is, for example, a good amount of overlap between different religions philosophically, theologically and especially morally, especially between the Abrahamic and monotheistic religions.
The second viewpoint is religious inclusivism. This is where one believes that all major religions contain some truth but that only their religion contains the full truth and that only their religion will lead to God, salvation and eternal life. This is my own belief as there is overlap philosophically, theologically and morally but only Christianity is centred on the life, death, resurrection and work of Jesus Christ, only Christianity believes in a Triune God and only Christianity believes that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart and separate from deeds and works.
The third and final main position is religious pluralism. This is the belief that all major world religions lead to eternal life and this viewpoint is advocated by people such as John Hick. They believe that the religion in which one believes is entirely dependent upon the society and culture in which that person was born, brought up and now lives. This seems to me to be a naive position as Christianity has been shown throughout world history to grow fastest in the areas where it is in a minority by a country mile and where there is severe persecution. That is still the case today as is attested by, for example, the growth of Christianity in China and Africa. Furthermore, many people convert from one religion to another but religious pluralism does not seem to properly take this point into account. If all religions are essentially the same and lead to the same God and salvation, why would anyone ever even begin to consider converting from one religion to another? If, by now, you are struggling to understand why anyone would believe in religious pluralism, there is, I’m afraid another belief to get your head around: universalism. This is the idea that every single human being will be saved, regardless of what they do or don’t believe and regardless of how they have lived, even the most immoral, militant atheists and haters of religion, in general, will have the special privilege of inheriting eternal life and salvation handed to them on a plate. John Hick is of this viewpoint.
Religious Pluralism: an anthropocentric view
Tim Keller has astutely observed that the view that there is only one God and only one way to that one God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone is “narrow-minded”, “exclusive” and “intolerant” is actually almost-exclusively a criticism of those living in the West:
Further to this, Michael Ramsden has rightly pointed out that to complain that a truth claim is exclusive or excludes certain people is ridiculous, it would be like complaining that a bicycle has handlebars. This is because truth claims, by their very own inherent nature, always necessarily have to exclude at least someone somewhere. So yes, it is true that the claim that Jesus is the only way to God excludes those who believe there are many ways. However, it is also equally true to say that the truth claim that Jesus is not the only way excludes those who believe that He is.
Biblical Proof Texts against Pluralism
Here are some Biblical verses which specifically rule out religious pluralism and universalism. After I have quoted the verses, I will try to explain the logic and philosophical rationale behind them.
‘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’
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’
‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’
‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life’
(1 John 5:12)
‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already’
(1 John 4:2-3)
‘Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God’
(1 John 4:15)
‘And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us’
(1 John 3:23)
‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’
‘Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life’
(1 John 2:22-25)
‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’
(1 John 2:1-2)
‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed’
‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’
(1 John 1:7)
‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all’
(1 Timothy 2:5-6)
‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’
Rationale behind these verses
Michael Ramsden, the International Director RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) and one of the founders of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA), did an excellent job of explaining why religious pluralism is logically, rationally and philosophically flawed in the below-embedded video:
One of the main points which Ramsden highlights, in addition to his critique of the mountain analogy outlined at the start of this piece, is that ALL truth claims exclude people and so it is silly to say that a pluralist truth claim is all-embracing and inclusive as it fails to include religious inclusivists, religious exclusivists and, obviously, atheists! The late Billy Graham rightly pointed out that religious pluralists gloss over Jesus’ painful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed the following:
‘Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again’
If it were possible to be saved by anyone else, any other religion or religious figure, or by works, deeds, or payment, Jesus would never have had to have gone to the cross and suffered such pain, mocking and humiliation. This is shown by the fact that Jesus pleads three times with the Father but each time the answer is the same: “There is no other way to save humanity”. It was his one, complete, eternal, everlasting, innocent and perfect atoning, redemptive sacrifice for human sin which has cleansed us and given us the keys to Heaven. The following scene from “The Passion of the Christ” 2004 film shows vividly the pain and torment of that moment for Jesus:
Christianity’s unique belief in Salvation by Grace Alone
All other world religions apart from Christianity believe in salvation, at least partly or in some way, by deeds, obedience or works. Christianity is the only religion to believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone as is expressed throughout the Bible, especially in the following verses:
‘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 become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”’
‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the 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: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation 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 show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’
‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’
‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’
‘he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’
‘who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel’
(2 Timothy 1:9-10)
There are 44 specific testimonies about the coming of the Messiah (Jesus Christ) in the Old Testament/Tanakh/Scriptures of Israel which are all fulfilled by Christ as is relayed in the pages of the Gospel. They are very clear and specific and do not allow room for prophets or Messiahs from other religions, no they are particular claims which are precise. Nowhere in the Bible do we see Jesus name replaced by the following phrase “[Please insert a name of any religious figure you like]”. No, that is the subjective, relativist way of the make-believe. One of my favourite hymns of all time emphasises the importance of the uniqueness of Christ and links this in with the aforementioned 44 prophecies of His coming in the Tanakh:
The doctrinal basis of the Church of England is predicated on salvation by grace alone through faith in our only Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is shown in the thirty-first of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:
‘XXXI. OF THE ONE OBLATION OF CHRIST FINISHED UPON THE CROSS
THE Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone’
(The thirty-first of the Church of England’s “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion”)
This belief is also clearly affirmed and stated in all three of the ecumenical Christian creeds:
‘I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
(The Apostles’ Creed, as stated in “Common Worship” (2000))
‘WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
(The Nicene Creed)
‘Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.’
(The Athanasian Creed)
This belief is also made clear throughout Christian liturgy, especially in Eucharistic/Mass/Communion services. This means that the very way in which the Church and its congregants worship and pray is based upon this firm, traditional and historic belief, which has stood the tests of time, philosophy, theology and logic, that there is only one God and only one way to that one God. This is not just a historical claim though. Quite the contrary. A huge amount of modern Christian worship songs are predicted on this belief. The most obvious of these is “In Christ Alone”:
Another is this:
What about those who’ve never heard of Christianity?
I think the Christian thinker William Craig Lane gives an excellent answer to this question:
By Ben Somervell