We live in a world that is growing increasingly uncomfortable with religious exclusivism. The traditional Christian claim that Jesus Christ is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" and that salvation is available only to those who consciously put their faith in Him is now regarded as both arrogant and offensive. The "scandal of particularity," as it is commonly called, may well be the most volatile and urgent issue facing the church in the 21st century. There are a number of reasons that help account for this.
- A significant contributing factor is the increase of globalization - No longer can one live in isolation from the rest of the world. Television, ease of travel, and especially the development of the Internet have contributed to the interconnectivity of all peoples and cultures. The world has shrunk. Once foreign and strange cultures, religions, and people-groups are now but a mouse-click away from walking into our living rooms. Traditional national, cultural, and ethnic boundaries are eroding under the collective force of modern communication and technology.
- Immigration - Consider Chicago, for example, in which there are now 100,000 Hindus, 150,000 Buddhists, and 250,000 Muslims. Such folk are no longer exotic or strange but part of the mainstream of American life. They are our next-door neighbors, making the exclusive claims of Christianity less attractive to those who are now faced with having to "get along" with those around them.
- A redefinition of tolerance - The traditional definition of "tolerance" has included "the deliberate decision to refrain from prohibiting, hindering, or otherwise coercively interfering with conduct [or beliefs] of which one disapproves, although one has the power to do so" (John Horton, "Toleration," in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig [London: Routledge, 1998], 9:429-30). But in our "politically correct" society, the definition has now changed to include the idea that one must never say anything negative about another religion's beliefs or practices, that one must never say or do anything that another person or religion should find offensive. To suggest that a religious belief is false or inadequate is offensive, and thus intolerant. Ever to disagree with someone's sincerely held belief is necessarily intolerant. Harold Netland writes:
"In popular consciousness tolerance and pluralism are linked in the perception that particularism (the view that one religion is distinctively true and thus normative for all peoples) is inherently intolerant of other faiths whereas pluralism, which holds that all religions are equally legitimate responses to the religious ultimate, is appropriately tolerant" (Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism [IVP, 2001], 142).
- A related factor is the widespread, and seemingly "more loving", belief that sincerity is more important than truth, that sincerity is enough when truth is absent.
- Pragmatic view of religion - People are less concerned with universal truth claims and more with what works, what brings fulfillment, what feels good and facilitates self-growth and sense of well being.
- A growing sense of "postcolonialist guilt" (Netland, 30) - It is often believed today "that one way to atone for the past sins of colonialism is to embrace uncritically non-Western cultures and religions, refusing to make negative judgments about their beliefs and practices, and this sentiment naturally finds religious pluralism attractive" (30).
- The so-called "fulfillment" view of non-Christian religions - This comes from the recognition of undeniable truth and beauty in other faiths, believing these to be incomplete anticipations of what had been definitively revealed in Christ. In other words, what was imperfectly and only partially revealed in other religions is perfectly and completely revealed in Christianity. The former are thus moving gradually to their consummate fulfillment in Christianity. Christianity does not replace, but fulfills, what is good and true in other faiths.
- Harold Netland has argued that perhaps the greatest influence is the widespread loss of confidence in Christianity as traditionally defined. This comes largely from the influence of biblical criticism which has undermined our confidence that what we read in the Bible (the gospels in particular) is objective truth. Related to this is the growth of epistemological skepticism, often associated with postmodernism. Many now say we must be less confident in our ability to know anything with absolute and objective certainty. Without such confidence in our "knowing" we dare not suggest that we are right and others wrong when it comes to religion and matters of the spiritual and eternal world.
- The emerging belief that the real enemy of Christianity is atheism and secularism, not other religious movements.
We must acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of human beings in history have died without ever hearing the name of Jesus. What may be said about the eternal destiny of these millions of souls? Are they forever condemned to hell? If so, how can it be fair or an expression of divine justice that they entered eternity without having had the advantage or opportunity afforded those who live in a place or time where the gospel of Christ is preached?
(1) Particularism (also known as Exclusivism or Restrictivism) - Advocates of this view insist that all are lost apart from a conscious and volitional embrace of Jesus as personal Lord and Savior. Salvation is available only to those who by faith in Jesus have become confessing Christians. It should be noted, however, that most particularists believe in the salvation of those dying in infancy.
Some particularists, such as Douglas Geivett and William Craig, appeal to God's alleged middle knowledge to address the moral problem of how God can justly withhold salvation from those who never have the opportunity to hear and believe in the name of Jesus. According to middle knowledge, God not only knows all that will in fact come to pass, but he also has knowledge of what would have come to pass under all conceivable hypothetical circumstances. Thus:
"Why should not God, who is omniscient, know what a person in some non-Christian land would freely decide if that person were, contrary to fact, to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ? Some who accept the doctrine of middle knowledge hold that there are individuals who never hear the gospel but would believe if they were to hear it and that God saves them on the basis of his foreknowledge of that fact. But it is equally plausible philosophically that God knows that all individuals who never hear the gospel are individuals who would not believe if they were to hear the gospel" ('Conclusion,' in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World 270).
In other words, God has providentially ordered the world in such a way that all people who would not have believed even had they heard the gospel be those who, in point of historical fact, do not hear the gospel. Knowing that their response to the gospel would have been No, had they heard it, God sovereignly sets them in a time and place in which they, in fact, do not hear it.
Alister McGrath occupies something of a middle ground between particularism and inclusivism by insisting that "where the word is not or cannot be preached by human agents, God is not inhibited from bringing people to faith in him, even if that act of hope and trust may lack the fully orbed character of an informed Christian faith" (?A Particularist View,? 179). He argues that "in the harshly intolerant cultural climate of many Islamic nations, in which the open preaching of the gospel is impossible and conversion to Christianity punishable by imprisonment or death, many Muslims become Christians through dreams and visions in which they are addressed by the risen Christ" (179).
(2) Inclusivism - Advocates of this view argue that whereas Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation, he is not epistemologically necessary. In other words, salvation is only a possibility because of what Jesus has done in his life, death, and resurrection. Apart from what he did, all would be consigned to eternal death. However, one need not consciously confess faith in the name of Jesus to be saved. Salvation is available to those who have never heard the name "Jesus" if they respond positively in faith to the revelation God has made of Himself in nature and conscience.
According to Clark Pinnock, "everyone must eventually pass through Jesus to reach the Father, but there is more than one path for arriving at this place. . . . All the paths that lead to God end up at Jesus, but they do not all start with him" ('An Inclusivist View,' 119). Pinnock argues that where genuine "faith" exists even in non-Christian religions, salvation is possible.
(3) Pluralism - Pluralists contend that there are many ways or paths to salvation, one of which is personal faith in the personal Jesus. Others, however, can be saved by other saviors, whether Buddha, Mohammed, etc. The center of the universe and the object of knowledge and faith is "God", not Jesus. Jesus (or Christianity) is like the earth, one planet among many that orbits the sun (God). Salvation is in the sun, not in any one of the planets to the exclusion of any other. In other words, notes John Hick, "the Copernican Revolution in astronomy recognized that the sun is at the center of the solar system and that our earth is only one of the planets revolving around it. A comparable revolution in theology acknowledges that the ultimate reality we call God is central, with Christianity as one of the worlds of faith revolving around that divine center" ('A Pluralist View,' 82-83). Hick contends that in spite of differences in language, culture, concepts, and liturgical actions, basically the same thing is occurring in all religions, namely,
"human beings coming together within the framework of an ancient and highly developed tradition to open their hearts and minds to God, whom they believe makes a total claim on their lives and demands of them, in the words of one of the prophets, 'to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God' (Micah 6:8). God is known in the synagogues as Adonai, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; in the mosques as Allah rahman rahim, God beneficient and merciful; in the Sikh gurudwaras as God, who is Father, lover, Master, and the Great Giver, referred to as war guru; and in the Hindu temples as Vishnu, Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu), Rama, Shiva, and many other gods and goddesses, all of whom, however, are seen as manifestations of the ultimate reality of Brahman; and in the Christian churches as the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet all these communities agree that there can ultimately only be one God!" (38).
The various concepts of "salvation" in all religions, says Hick, are "forms of the same human transformation from self-centeredness to a recentering in the ultimately Real" (44). They are, in other words, "more or less equally authentic human awarenesses of and response to the Ultimate, the Real [Hick's description of 'God'], the final ground and source of everything" (45). Hick believes in universal salvation. All people, regardless of their religious or irreligious orientation in this life "will in the end, perhaps after many lives in many worlds, attain to" salvation (45).