F.A.Q. #5: What about Other Religions?

We live in a world of many faiths. A basic glance at a world religions textbook (or a night watching T.V.) reveals a plethora of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism are just a few of these. And each one has different sects, too. Islam is largely bifurcated into Shiite and Sunni camps; Conservative Jews worship differently than Messianic and Orthodox strains; and Christianity itself is fractured into some 3,000 separate denominations by some estimates. At the end of the day, what do we make of them all? At the end of the world, will everyone be saved equally — or is only one of us right?

Three main view dominate the discussion about the veracity and accuracy of world religions. Exclusivism, probably the most prominent, states that only one religion is correct is any sense (generally the religion of the one espousing said opinion). Only those who follow Allah will gain Paradise, for example. Or those who follow Torah. Or the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths (although this one gets you to Nirvana). You get the idea. Generally speaking, Christianity is an exclusivist religion (notable exceptions to follow). Christians look at passages such as John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — and Acts 4:12 — “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” — and declare the only path to eternal life with God is the salvation offered by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who do not personally know Christ as savior are damned. On the flip side of exclusivity is the problem of “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire.” If someone never hears about Christ, are they consigned to eternal punishment by default? Would God really deny them eternal life simply because they remained ignorant of the sacrifice of Jesus through no fault of their own? Difficult questions for the exclusivist to answer. With that said, this remains the dominant view (in my opinion) of most Christians and most persons of other theistic religions.

A bit more “lenient” mode of thought is inclusivism, which states that anyone of any faith will be granted entry into whichever concept of heaven turns out to be correct. If we say Christianity offers the true idea of eternal life, then the pluralist will say devout Christians as well as devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. will enter the Christian heaven after the end of the age. Christian faith per se isn’t necessary for salvation; all that’s needed is a dedication to some sort of faith. All faith is attributed to being faith in God/the true deity and thus rewarded. People without a religion or who only nominally adhere to any given faith still suffer from whichever schema of eternal damnation as might prove to be true (such as the Christian hell). Inclusivism thus retains the central notions of salvation and damnation, but it broadens the scope to allow anyone with faith to be rewarded appropriately. (A subset of inclusivism allows for multiple eternal destinies: Christians are saved to a Christian heaven, Jews to a Jewish heaven, Buddhists to Nirvana, etc.). Some Christian theologians have gone along with the Christian iteration of inclusivism. Perhaps the most well-known is C.S. Lewis. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis saves all non-Narnians who still served their own religions well (all good deeds being attributed to faith in Aslan and not Tash, for example). Other theologians have followed suit.

The final main view of world religions is religious pluralism (not to be confused with the concept of pluralism which simply acknowledges the reality of a multiplicity of faiths). Pluralists, sometimes referred to as universalists, believe everyone regardless of faith — or the lack thereof — will ultimately be saved and granted eternal life/entry into paradise. A specific statement of faith or salvific experience is not necessary. As long as you’re alive, you’ll make it at the end. This school of thought has gained ground in some progressive/liberal theological circles, but it’s never been the dominant opinion of any theistic religion (that I know of).

I keep saying “theistic religion”; what does that mean? It means any religion which believes in a single god, whether it’s God/Yahweh or Allah. There are polytheistic religions containing a pantheon of gods (think Zeus and Apollo and that lot), and there are pantheistic religions (wherein everything is god — yes, even the lettuce in your salad, you deicidal maniac). Christianity is of course a theistic/monotheistic religion: we believe God is a single God who alone rules the cosmos.

As Christian theists, then, what do we do about other religions? Do we take the exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist stance? Which one most accurately reflects biblical truth?

My seminary philosophy professor summed it up well: we need to avoid denominational leanings and side with historical, ecumenical truth. In this instance, historical truth and interpretation reflects the exclusivist view. Scripture promises all will have a chance of salvation, and Paul speaks of creation itself as a general revelation of the existence and character of God. And even if the missionary gets a flat tire (in my own view), God will grant unreached peoples a chance of the salvation made possible through the cross of Christ. Other religions will ultimately fail and be exposed as false. In our contemporary society, this isn’t a particularly popular view, and many well-meaning Christians (and others) will attempt to remake God to suit their own convictions to allow for inclusivism or universalism. Historic orthodoxy, however, will continue to refute these claims, even if it means exclusivists are made out to be hateful, vengeful villains.

What makes other religions false, then? First of all, they fail to acknowledge the gospel of Christ. We live in a post-Incarnation age, and since Jesus has been born, dead, and resurrected, the Torah is insufficient for salvation. The Quran fails to recognize the true nature of God. (Allah would never condescend to have a son, for example. For this reason and others, I do not — and scholars of Islam agree — equate God/Yahweh with the Islamic Allah.) Since they do not mandate faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his offer of salvation through the Holy Spirit, other religions cannot save; they cannot be true. Speaking personally, a second reason other religions are false are because of their origin. I consider them all works of Satan, as he is the father of lies. Any deity set up over against the Judaeo-Christian God is a false god — and quite possibly a demonic entity trying to get people to worship it on the one hand and prevent them from worshiping God on the other. Nothing born of hell is beneficial to humanity.

I do want to note, however, that I’m not saying they cannot possibly hold truth. They can, and that truth comes from God. But they then veer from or pervert said truth, creating a false religion. Or a cult. Or both.

Ultimately, how you choose to view other religions is up to you. And we should always be open to dialogue between faiths, sharing truth across religious boundaries to better serve the one True God. In all things, we show the love of God towards those of other faiths, respectfully inviting them into a relationship with the only personal Savior on the market.

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