Concern for friends and others who practice different religions is a common cause for self-identified Christians to doubt the doctrine of hell. In the previous portion of our interview, Christopher Morgan helped us develop a better understanding of hell. But here I asked Morgan, professor of theology at California Baptist University and co-editor of Faith Comes By Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism, to help us consider different ways some have related to other religions. He also suggests several guiding principles for engagement with friends, neighbors, and other conversation partners who do not yet believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whether it’s Billy Graham talking to Larry King on CNN or you and me talking to our neighbors about Jesus Christ, our age demands that Christians consider their claims in light of other religions. How do so-called exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists variously respond to this challenge?

Exclusivism (sometimes called “particularism”) is the position that Jesus is the unique Savior, the only hope of reconciliation with God. Inclusivism posits a variety of possible ways of salvation, including Jesus as well as various religions. Pluralism concludes that all paths equally and validly lead people to wholeness/salvation, however one may understand it.

Historically, the church has been committed to exclusivism and has regarded both inclusivism and pluralism (as the terms relate to world religions) as very serious errors. But the church’s exclusivist theology of other religions is more multifaceted than many critics acknowledge. It would typically include the following:

(1) Other religions should not be caricatured. This is irresponsible, unloving, and ultimately damages our mission. Jesus’ commands to love others and his Golden Rule apply here, too. The church must convey other religions in a way that is evenhanded and accurate.

(2) Non-Christian religions are not completely false. A Christian understanding of the goodness of creation, the reality of general revelation, the permanence of the image of God in all humans, and the gift of God’s common grace leads us to expect that non-Christian religions contain some elements of truth and add some value to their cultures.

(3) Since the Fall human beings are radically sinful and distort everything they touch—including religion, even especially religion. Harold Netland proposes that just as human cultures are the product both of God’s creative activity and of human sin and therefore reflect a mixture of good and evil, so too the religious dimensions of human experience contain elements of both good and evil, truth and falsity.[1] Human beings are not as sinful as they could be, but their sin is pervasive—it affects their minds, wills, emotions, longings, and therefore, their religion. Apart from reception of special revelation and submission to God, people will not think correctly about the true God, will not desire to worship him properly, and they will not love him. Instead, they will prefer themselves, their own agenda, and their own idolatrous religion (Rom 1:18-32). As John Stott observed, “Even his religiosity is a subtle escape from the God he is afraid of and ashamed to meet.”[2]

(4) Some—although not all—of the theology and activity of non-Christian religions is rooted in the demonic and satanic (1 Cor 10:20; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 4:17-18).

(5) The Christian God is unique, incomparable, and allows no rivals (e.g., Ex 20; Is 45). Eckhard Schnabel correctly stresses:

Both Israel and the early Christians were convinced that God had indeed provided a path to salvation, a path that is inextricably linked with the divine revelation of the perspectives, the principles, and the promises of faith and worship that please God. Both Israel and the early Christians were convinced that such a divine revelation had taken place in Israel. Jews were convinced that such a saving revelation had occurred in the history of the descendants of Abraham. And the early Christians were convinced that the climax of God’s saving revelation had taken place in the person and history of Jesus of Nazareth, the messianic Son of Man. Both Israel and the early Christians held that other systems of faith and worship were human—grounded in human concerns, framed by human beings, and controlled by human ideas about deities and sacrifices.[3]

(6)  Salvation can be found only in Christ, the unique Savior. Therefore, other religions cannot save. Jesus himself asserted, “I am the way, truth, and life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Peter declared that there are no other avenues of salvation (Acts 4:12). Paul’s message was consistent: Faith in Christ is necessary for salvation (Rom 10:9-17).

(7) Dialogue with members of other religion is valid and can serve to build relationships, express friendship, display respect, clarify the distinct theological positions, grow in mutual understanding, uncover weaknesses in our own faith and practice, advance the sanctity of human life, and promote civil peace.

(8)  Since faith in Christ is necessary for salvation, Christians desire, pray for, and work toward the salvation of all people, including members of other religions. Such mission and witness is not “arrogant” or “hate speech” as some in our pluralistic society claim, but loving and necessary. Schnabel states it well:

While the apostle Paul would not have wanted to justify or promote injustice and conflict, and while he certainly did not believe that he had “exhausted” the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God (Rom 11:33-35; cf. Phil 3:12), he was convinced of the truth of his theological affirmations, of the deception of secular religions, of the fact that God now provides salvation only on account of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and of the reality of God’s judgment. Paul was a missionary, not a religionist involved in a dialogue that proceeds from the assumption that God is present in all religions, that salvation is possible through all faiths and ideologies, and that God’s Spirit is at work in all religions, faiths, and ideologies. Paul did not suggest that Athenians who worship Zeus, or Isis, or the emperor, “walk together” with him “towards the fullness of truth.” Paul was convinced that pagan religiosity and spirituality constitute a deliberate rebellion against God. Paul did not hesitate to call idol worshipers fools whose religious activities demonstrate futile ignorance that is devoid of salvation. Paul never abandons his conviction that the sole criterion for valid religious knowledge and for relevant spiritual truth is God’s revelation in Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah (Rom 3:21-26; 1 Cor 1:23-24; 2:2).[4]

[1] Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), p. 328.

[2] John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (London: Falcon, 1975), p. 69.

[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Other Religions: Saving or Secular?” in Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2008), pp. 98-99.

[4] Ibid., p 117.

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