Thursday, March 25, 2010

Do All Religious Roads Lead to Heaven? The Question of Religious Pluralism


Is there a God? If there is a God, can we know anything about God? Is God an impersonal, indistinct force in the universe? Or is God a personal transcendent being? What is the nature of humanity? What is wrong with the world? What is wrong with us as human beings? Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Do ethics matter? What is the nature of salvation, or enlightenment, or liberation? What is the path to “heaven” or “nirvana”? How are we saved? What is the relationship between belief and reality, faith and reason?

These are all core religious questions. Some of them are more important than others. Broadly speaking, one could narrow down the key religious questions to three: a) what is the nature of ultimate reality (i.e. God); b) what is the nature of humanity; and c) what is the nature of salvation. More crassly, we could pose them thus: a) where did I come from?, and b) where am I going? How these questions are answered is vitally important – indeed, I would argue that these are the most important questions that someone can contemplate. Ideally, such contemplation leads one into a relationship with Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Different religious traditions answer these core questions differently (as we are going to see in more detail shortly). But does that matter? Can the different religious answers to those questions be harmonized, so that we understand religions to be fundamentally alike? That is the central issue which we will address tonight. First, let’s take a look at the Christian answer.

I. Orthodox Christianity

In John 14:6, Jesus declares: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This is the quintessential Christian claim to being the one true religion. But there are others like it. Acts 4:8-12 reads:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: "Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is "the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.” Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."

Catch that – salvation is found in no one else. If we are to be saved – whatever that means – we are going to be saved by Jesus. Nothing and no one else. This is the traditional orthodox biblical Christian claim. Notice also that Peter is not expressing some relativistic version of salvation by Jesus. He’s not saying that salvation is found in no one else “for us as Christians,” the way that some reinterpreters like to argue. Rather, he is speaking to the Jewish Sanhedrin, and is insisting that “for you as for you, salvation is found in no one else.”
Historically, the Christian claim is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that salvation is found in no other place. In a nutshell, the claim is that “salvation is by grace through faith in Christ”. The key words there are: a) salvation, implying that we have a need to be saved (from sin); b) grace, demonstrating God’s initiative and work, not our own; c) faith, as the instrument of God’s grace; and d) Christ, as the object of faith. This Christian exlusivism (or particularism), broadly speaking, has three fundamental principles.

a) The Bible is God’s authoritative self-revelation; therefore, where Scripture is incompatible with the teaching of other faiths, other faiths are to be rejected.

b) Jesus is the unique incarnation of God – fully God and fully man – and only through the person and work of Christ is there the possibility of salvation.

c) God’s saving grace is not mediated through the teachings, practices, or institutions of other religions.

It is important to note that exclusivism does not necessarily imply that those outside of the Christian Church will all go to hell – it may imply that, but it does not in and of itself do so. This is not, however, a discussion that we will pursue here – unless there’s time at the end and you want to go down that road! Basically, the historical Christian claim is that Jesus is the way to salvation, and that Christianity represents the one religious road to a true knowledge of God.

II. Religious Pluralism

Religious pluralism disputes these exclusive claims of orthodox Christianity. What is religious pluralism? In its weakest sense, religious pluralism is simply a true observation about the state of religious affairs around the world. In other words, pluralism simply states that people do embrace different religious perspectives.
However, that is not the way in which religious pluralism is generally used. Instead, it is usually used in its prescriptive or normative sense – as Harold Netland defines, “an egalitarian and democratized perspective holding that there is rough parity among religions concerning truth and soteriological effectiveness.” (Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 12) In other words, different religions are equally true, and equally able to save us (from whatever it is that we need to be saved from).

Pluralism, then, holds that salvation (or enlightenment or liberation) should be acknowledged as present and effective in its own way in each religion. No single religion can claim to be somehow normative and superior to all others, for all religions are in their own way complex historically and culturally conditioned human responses to the one divine reality. Thus, although Christians can claim that Jesus is unique and normative for them, they cannot claim that Jesus is unique or normative in an objective or universal sense. (Netland, 53)

Let’s take a deeper look at religious pluralism. My desire is that through this study, you will come to know with certainty and be able to show with confidence that there are three fatal flaws in religious pluralism, and that all religious roads do not lead to heaven.

Please note: this will NOT be an in-depth study of various religions, nor an aggressive presentation of Christianity's truth over and above other religions, nor a discussion of the nature and degree of God’s truth evident in other religious traditions, nor a critique of other religious practices which Christians might seek to incorporate into their spirituality. My purpose is more modest - simply to show that religious pluralism does not work, that the major world religions cannot all be legitimate paths to salvation – that they cannot be realistically harmonized without maiming them beyond recognition.

III. Fatal Flaw #1 – Rejection of Orthodox Christianity

The first fatal flaw of religious pluralism has already been hinted at in our brief discussion of orthodox Christianity. Namely, believing that all religions (or at least the major world religions) are all equally legitimate human responses to the “Divine Reality,” and each lead to “salvation,” requires one to reject orthodox biblical Christianity. The orthodox Christian faith, based on God’s self-revelation in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, holds firmly and unapologetically to the belief that salvation is found exclusively in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Religious pluralism, again, holds that all religions are legitimate paths to salvation, and that Jesus Christ is merely one of many ways to touch the Divine Reality. Thus, religious pluralism, of necessity, represents a rejection of the historic, orthodox, biblical Christian faith.

While this fatal flaw may not bother too many religious pluralists (for reasons we will see later), it ought to be decisive for followers of Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:6-8 reads:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

We are not to be mesmerized by teachings and philosophies which are derived from human reason but contradict biblical revelation. Rather, as 2 Corinthians 10:5 encourages us, We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. As Christians, this fatal flaw is enough to doom the false teaching of religious pluralism. But it is not the only one.

IV. Fatal Flaw #2 – Logical Incoherence, Irrationality & Inconsistency

While the first fatal flaw of religious pluralism is only of consequences to those of us who are biblical Christians, the other two apply to all people. That is, the remaining fatal flaws are recognizable by all people (Christian or non-Christian), and provide sufficient reason for us to conclude that religious pluralism is necessarily false, and that all religious roads cannot possibly lead to a saving knowledge of the Divine Reality.

The second fatal flaw of religious pluralism is its logical incoherence, irrationality, and inconsistency. This is a large charge—after all, religious pluralism is a perspective held by millions of people around the world, including some incredibly brilliant and well-educated people, like John Hick, John Dominic Crossan, and the Dalai Lama. Thus, I cannot simply state that religious pluralism is logically incoherent—I need to demonstrate it.

Surprisingly, it is disturbingly easy to demonstrate the incoherence of religious pluralism. Let’s James Sire’s classic book, The Universe Next Door, considers fundamental beliefs within six basic worldviews. Sire examines these religious worldviews according to how they respond to seven fundamental religious questions: a) the nature & character of ultimate reality; b) the nature of the universe; c) the nature of humanity; d) the question of what happens to a person after death; e) the basis of human knowing; f) the basis of ethics; and g) the meaning of history.

Glancing briefly at the way different religions respond to these fundamental questions will quickly uncover the incoherence of the claim that all religions are just different responses to the same “ultimate reality.” For example – what is the nature & character of that ultimate reality? Naturalism (or atheism, or secular humanism) says that there is no such thing! There is no ultimate reality – only the matter, the physical substances, within the universe. As Carl Sagan would say, “The Cosmos is all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be.” New Age spirituality teaches that the self is the prime reality – that we are each, individually, God in the flesh. Most forms of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that ultimate reality is an impersonal, infinite reality. Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam), by contrast, says that there is a supernatural being, transcendent to the physical universe, who is the Creator of all that exists. Can these different conceptions of the “ultimate reality” be harmonized?

What is the nature of the physical universe? Is naturalism right, that it is all there is? Is the universe the ex nihilo creation of a transcendent God? Is physical appearance real, as Christianity and naturalism hold, or illusory, as Buddhism and Hinduism insist? Can these different conceptions of the nature of reality be harmonized? Can they all be true?

What is man? Is man fallen and sinful? Or is man basically good? Or is man, as New Age spirituality insists, essentially divine? Is personality essential to what it means to be human, or are Buddhists right that the purpose of man is to lose his personality and be incorporated into the impersonality of nirvana?
What happens to us after we die? Atheists and secular humanists agree that this physical life is all that there is; we die and that’s it. Christians, Muslims, and Jews agree that we have one physical life, but after that face the judgment seat of God and are raised either to eternal life or to eternal punishment. Buddhists and Hindus agree that the soul can go through an infinite number of reincarnations, with karma determining the status of our new lives. Can all of these perspectives be true reflections of the Divine Reality?

Epistemology is the study of human knowledge, particularly answering the questions: a) what can we know; and b) how can we know it. Can we trust our senses and intellect? Is there such a thing as “truth”? Or does reality transcend human categories as Buddhists and Hindus insist?

What is the basis of human ethics and morality? Has God revealed what is right and wrong, as all theists agree? Or are good and evil illusory, meaningless categories, as eastern religions argue? Or are ethical standards real but relative, as naturalists and postmoderns insist? Or, perhaps, do we create morality for ourselves as inherently divine creatures?

What is the nature and purpose of time and history? Is time linear, or cyclical? Is there purpose in historical events? Or is history a random hodgepodge of events that cannot be called “progress” in any meaningful way?

Who is Jesus? Is Jesus just a man (naturalism)? Is He a prophet (Islam)? Is He God incarnate (Christianity)? Is Jesus an example of a self-enlightened guru (Buddhism/Hinduism)? Or is Jesus a bright guy who recognized His own inherent divinity (New Age)?

Did Jesus die on the cross? Muslims say no, Christians say yes. Can we both be right? That’s kind of a ridiculous thought. One of the fundamental rules of logic is the law of non-contradiction – one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time (Aristotle). Avicenna, a medieval philosopher, humorously noted: Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned. Either Jesus died on the cross, or He did not. It cannot be both – and yet this is what religious pluralism has to allow. If Jesus died, was His death necessary for the forgiveness of human sin? Either it was, or it wasn’t. Christians make a propositional truth-claim that we are fallen creatures, marred by sin, and in need of redemption. This is a proposition denied by several other religious worldviews. Can we all be right about this? Either we need atonement, or we don’t. It can’t be both.

What I trust comes through loud and clear is that in respect to each of these seven key religious questions, the different religious worldviews provide vastly different answers which are mutually exclusive and contradictory. The fatal flaw of religious pluralism is that it is forced to insist that different religious answers to the fundamental questions of worldview can be reconciled and harmonized with one another—that they are all legitimate but different human responses to the Divine Reality.

What you can see, quite clearly, is that the various religious answers to these questions could all be FALSE, but the one thing they cannot be is all TRUE. That is, it is logically impossible for all the major religions to be true, since they have contradictory answers to the most important religious worldview questions. Either God is, or God is not. The physical world is either real or illusory.

V. Fatal Flaw #3 – Redefining Religions: The Intolerance of Pluralism

Recognition of the second fatal flaw of religious pluralism generally leads pluralists to commit the third fatal flaw—the flaw of redefining major world religions out of existence. I like to call this flaw “the sin of intolerance and exclusivity.” When pluralists acknowledge the importance of logical coherence, they are forced to cook the religious books to suit their thesis. What makes this ironic is that religious pluralism presents itself as being, and truly believes itself to be, a tolerant view, which accepts all religions as equally valid paths to the Divine Reality. Ultimately, however, pluralism denies various religions the right to “be themselves” within a religiously pluralistic view of the world.

Explicitly, religious pluralists put forth three assumptions which underlie their perspective. First, there exists an ultimate reality (i.e. God in Christianity, Brahman in Hinduism) to which different religions are legitimate responses. Second, all religions are historically and culturally conditioned interpretations of this ultimate reality. Third, soteriological transformation (i.e. change leading towards salvation/enlightenment/liberty) occurs equally in various religions. So far, everything appears very tolerant and accepting. Unfortunately, as we saw with our brief overview of different religions’ mutually exclusive responses to key religious issues, this pluralistic view is incoherent and irrational.

An additional severe problem with this representation of religious pluralism is that it is forced to endorse and condone aberrant religions. Satanism is thus an acceptable and legitimate response to ultimate reality. Aztec spirituality, leading though it does to human sacrifice, is nonetheless a legitimate response which results in soteriological transformation. The Branch Davidians (David Koresh in Waco, Texas), wherein Koresh proclaimed himself the second coming of Christ and demanded the right to copulate with all females within the cult, is a similarly legitimate response. Same with the Heavens Gate cult, in which 38 members were convinced to commit suicide in 1997 in order to have their souls hitch a cosmic ride on the Hale-Bopp comet. Naturally, religious pluralists do not want to condone such groups, but I’m not sure on what grounds they can claim that they are illegitimate religious expressions. It is easy for a Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Naturalist, to condemn evil cults; but upon what foundation does a true religious pluralist do so? In order to do so, we have to have some type of objective standard which serves as the barometer of the legitimacy of different religions. Yet this is what religious pluralism, at least on the outside, claims does not exist.

In practice, however, religious pluralists do operate by such a standard. Indeed, so strongly so that there is a fourth assumption which governs pluralism in practice. In Netland’s words: “At least some of the basic beliefs of each of the major religions, as these are understood by orthodox adherents of the religions themselves, cannot be accepted as true; they must be reinterpreted mythologically when understood in relation to The Real.” (234) Religious pluralists freely reinterpret troublesome doctrines so as to accommodate them within a broadly pluralistic framework. Thus, with Christianity, Jesus becomes just an enlightened man. All notions of His divinity are mythologically reinterpreted. The result is that faithful Christians no longer find themselves described within the Christianity which pluralism accepts. In other words, orthodox Christianity is explicitly claimed to be “untrue”, and in need of radical reinterpretation. The same happens with Islam. Islam is not the “straight path” for all peoples—it is the straight path, the road to Allah’s mercy, for those who choose to follow Islam, and perhaps particularly for the Arab people. But certainly Islam is not true to the exclusion of all other religions. Rather than “infidels,” Muslims must look at Hindus as “brothers in the Ultimate Reality.” Rather than persecuting and subjugating Christians and Jews, Muslims must acknowledge them as parallel paths to heaven.

And this is where the intolerance of religious pluralism becomes exposed. Christianity is indeed a legitimate response to the ultimate reality, but only insofar as it has been reduced to an unorthodox, unhistorical caricature. The same thing happens to other religious traditions, but our primary concern for today is how Christianity has to be reinterpreted beyond recognition in order for pluralists to make it harmonizable with other religious traditions.

Thus, the end result of religious pluralism is the opposite of what it claims to be. While pluralism is put forward to “avoid the implication of particularism … namely that large numbers of morally good, sincere, intelligent people are simply wrong in their basic religious beliefs”, it ends up insulting the basic beliefs of people even more strongly. “The clear implication of pluralism is that [all religious people] are all wrong in their basic beliefs. To be sure, the pluralist is quick to add that, despite their mistaken beliefs, they are all in some way responding appropriately to the religious ultimate; it is just that they are not doing so in the manner in which the believers themselves think they are. But it is hard to see why this way of rejecting their beliefs as mistakes is … tolerant.” (Netland, 246) Pluralists accuse Christians of being narrow-minded in their religious views, believing that Christianity is the truth and that all other religions are, to a greater or lesser degree, false. Yet religious pluralism ultimately accuses all religions, including Christianity, of being fundamentally false! In the end, religious pluralism is the only true religion. A pluralist might argue that their perspective at least acknowledges every human religion as containing a semblance of truth, and being a legitimate response to the Divine Reality. However, Christianity also acknowledges that every other human religion contains a semblance of truth—some religions contain relatively more truth, some comparatively less, but all contain at least some truth. And we must also insist that religious pluralism does not, in the end, acknowledge all religions as being “legitimate” responses to Divine Reality—indeed, all religions are in need of radical reconstruction. The enlightened religious pluralist is fortunately on hand to do the job for us.

All of this leads to an inevitable conclusion: religious pluralism is not an acceptance of all of the world’s religions as legitimate paths to salvation at all. Rather, pluralism represents the creation of a new religion which believes the following core doctrines. First, all human religions have some truth in them. Second, all human religions have some myths within them which must be reinterpreted or deconstructed in order to come to a knowledge of the truth. Third, pluralism contains the truth about the Divine Reality. Fourth, we can accept some tenets of each religion, but must reject others. This does not represent a tolerance of all religions. On the one hand, pluralism is the creation of an entirely new religion. And on the other hand, pluralism represents the height of religious arrogance and intolerance. For the pluralist does not just believe that “all religions except Christianity” are fundamentally false—rather, the pluralist believes that “all other religions including Christianity” are false and need to be reinterpreted.


A closing note is important to emphasize. The issue of religious pluralism is one which is necessary to address within the Church of Jesus Christ, and more so than it is for many other religious traditions. In Hinduism and Buddhism, this life is not all that there is. If we do not discover the religious truth in this lifetime, we will be reincarnated as many times as it takes for us to get it. Our soul is indestructible, and until we achieve enlightenment, we will continue to be reborn. Thus, someone dying without embracing the truth of Hinduism or Buddhism is not a tremendous tragedy.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that this physical life is the only one which we have. The religious choices we make in this mortal life determine our eternal destiny. Thus, if someone dies without Christ, embracing the false worldview proposed by Islam or Hinduism or Naturalism, then this is something which has eternal consequences for them. This is a risk which we simply cannot be willing to take! This is the reason why Christians (at least orthodox, biblical Christians) respond so strongly in the face of religious pluralism. Pluralism is much more than a passing fad to be laughed at. It is a dangerous doctrine which may be costing the souls of millions of people. We cannot sit idly by and allow the precepts of pluralism to infiltrate culture and society.

Of course, this reality is also the driving force behind Christian missions. Why do we take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people in cultures that have not heard of Him? Why do we seek to transform non-Christians into disciples of Jesus? Why are we so insistent that folks need to come to God, turning away from their sins, and accept the salvation that comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ? Because of our love for people, and our concern for their eternal destiny. Religious pluralism paves the road to hell for too many people, and we cannot sit by and allow that to happen. If we love our neighbour, we will seek to share Christ with them – not out of disrespect for their religious tradition, not out of our own arrogance, and not because we want to be brash, arrogant twits; but because sharing the Gospel with someone who does not know Jesus as Saviour and Lord is the most loving, most compassionate thing that we can do for them.