Dr. Philip G. Ryken
©1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
The problem with Christians is that they insist they have the only way to salvation. Sometimes they talk about being "born again." Sometimes they tell you to "believe in Jesus." It all boils down to the same thing: Christians think they worship the only true God. But how can Jesus be the only way?
One writer who objects to the uniqueness of Christianity is Alan Watts. Once a minister in the Anglican church, Watts has now written more than twenty books trying to combine all the religions of the world into one universal faith. Over time he has found Christianity strangely resistant to being incorporated into a global religion. In the end he has had to leave it behind. As he writes in the preface to Beyond Theology:
There is not a scrap of evidence that the Christian hierarchy was ever aware of itself as one among several lines of transmission for a universal tradition. Christians Š did not take at all kindly to ideas that even begin to question the unique and supreme position of the historical Jesus Š. Christianity is a contentious faith which requires an all-or-nothing commitment to Jesus as the one and only incarnation of the Son of GodŠ. My previous discussions did not take proper account of that whole aspect of Christianity which is uncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious and invincibly self-righteous. They did not give sufficient weight to the church's disagreeable insistence on the reality of a totally malignant spirit of cosmic evil, on everlasting damnation and on the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. These thorny and objectionable facets of Christianity cannot be shrugged off as temporary distortions or errors.1
Watts is right. Christianity is the one piece of luggage which refuses to fit into his theological trunk. It requires an all-or-nothing commitment to Jesus. Authentic, biblical Christianity has always been an exclusive religion. Just to be safe, the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus added an image of Jesus Christ to the other gods he worshipped in his private chapel.2 The Romans could not understand why Christians refused to reciprocate. If the emperor could worship Christ, why couldn't Christians worship the emperor? The Romans wished Christians would place their God beside all the other gods in the pantheon. But Christians insisted that in order to worship Christ at all they had to worship Christ alone. And they were willing to stand up for their conviction by playing Christians and lions at the Coliseum.
Jesus Christ refuses to have any colleagues. This is why Christianity has always seemed like such a scandalous religion (from the Greek skandal, meaning "that which gives offense or arouses opposition"). Insisting that Jesus is the only way is an especially unpopular stance in a culture based on freedom of choice. If you can go to the school of your choice, root for the team of your choice, watch the cable channel of your choice, and eat the yogurt of your choice, why can't you pray to the god of your choice? Why can't religion be like the Mall of America? It is a fair question. If Christians are going to insist that their religion is true and that all other religions are false, they have some explaining to do.
Three Kinds of Pluralism
Donald A. Carson explains the uniqueness of Christianity in a book called The Gagging of God. Carson identifies three forms of pluralism.3 The first he calls empirical pluralism, by which he means we live in a diverse society. America is a country of many languages, ethnicities, religions, and worldviews. It is more accurate to speak of American cultures than American culture.
Christianity is losing its force as the dominant religious viewpoint in America. This is because more Americans than ever before claim to be atheists or agnostics. Furthermore, immigrants bring their native religions with them. Beyond these factors, the West has a new fascination with the religions of the East. Islam is among the fastest growing religions in America.
Christianity is also losing its cultural force because more people are making up their religion as they go along. In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah tells us about an interview with a young nurse who describes her religion as "Sheilaism": "I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice."4 The radical privatization of religion means that America is more religiously diverse than ever. When religious diversity is added to ethnic and linguistic diversity, the result is empirical pluralism, one of the facts of our existence.
A second kind of pluralism Carson terms cherished pluralism. Cherished pluralism goes beyond the fact of pluralism to its value. To cherish pluralism is to appreciate it, welcome it, approve of it. It says that pluralism exists, and it's a good thing, too. "It has become a commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society--not merely a society which is in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished."5 Swami Chindanansa of the Divine Life Society would agree. He teaches that "[t]here are many effective, equally valid religions. They are to be equally reverenced, equally recognized, and equally loved and cherished--not merely tolerated."6
One of the best examples of cherished religious pluralism comes from the mind of that great American philosopher and theologian, Marilyn Monroe. She once was asked if she believed in God. With a flirtatious grin she said, "I just believe in everything--a little bit."7 This is the Monroe Doctrine, the view that it is good to believe a little bit of everything. It is perhaps the most popular doctrine of postmodern times. Many Americans are eclectic in their beliefs with little concern for logical consistency. They believe in the existence of God, being nice to animals, a woman's right to choose, their own basic goodness, the necessity of sexual gratification, and being loyal to friends. But this hodge-podge of conviction is not organized into a coherent worldview, nor can it be.
A third kind of pluralism is philosophical pluralism. Empirical pluralism is a fact. Cherished pluralism values that fact. Philosophical pluralism demands it. It refuses to allow any single religion or worldview to claim that it alone is true. It insists that all religions and worldviews be seen as equally valid. According to Carson, philosophical pluralism holds that "any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false."8 To put it another way, your worldview is just your opinion.
In 1993 a shrine to philosophical pluralism was built on the campus of Vanderbilt University. The All Faith Chapel was dedicated by Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, the Baha'i, and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship. No religious symbolism is incorporated into the design of the chapel. However, storage cabinets are provided to accommodate the accoutrements of various worship traditions. Jewish students go to the cupboard and get out a menorah. Muslim students pull out a prayer mat and some copies of the Quran. Christians get out a cross and some Bibles, and so forth.
At the dedication of the All Faith Chapel, University Chaplain Beverly Asbury said, "This place is for all faiths. Its dedication consists of many acts and of one. There is diversity in our unity, and there is unity in our diversity as we dedicate this space and add to its light, each in the way of a distinctive tradition."9 That is philosophical pluralism at its most self-contradictory: diversity in unity and unity in diversity.
One of the implications of philosophical pluralism is that it does not matter which religion you choose. Truth is relative. Since all worldviews are equally valid, choose whatever is right for you. As President Eisenhower famously said, the American system of government makes no sense "unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith--and I don't care what it is."10 The philosophy of pluralism is also portrayed in the 1975 film Man Friday, based on Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). In the film the man Friday represents pure religious pluralism. "Worship any way you like," he says, "as long as you mean it. God won't mind."11
Christianity and Tolerance
What does Christianity say about pluralism? It depends on what kind of pluralism is meant. Christianity recognizes empirical pluralism and tolerates cherished pluralism, but rejects philosophical pluralism.
First, Christianity recognizes the fact of empirical pluralism. Christians recognize the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of modern culture. Pluralism is not a startling new discovery for Christianity. The diverse religions of the world do not pose a new challenge. On the contrary, Christians have always had to argue for the truth of Christianity over against other religions.
The Bible was written in a pluralistic context. All through the Old Testament the God of Israel insisted that his people turn away from idols to worship him alone. Joshua gave the children of Israel a choice: "If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15). Joshua's people did not make their choice out of ignorance: they were familiar with all the religious options. Later, the prophet Elijah gave the Israelites the same choice: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). The people of God in the Old Testament needed constant reminders of God's uniqueness because they were surrounded by foreign gods and goddesses.
The same was true throughout the New Testament. The global village is not a new address for Christianity. The first Christians lived in cosmopolitan cities like Antioch, Corinth, and Rome, at the crossroads of multicultural exchange. This means they were surrounded by other worldviews. They were not Christians because they had never heard of anything else. Rather, they were converts to Christianity from other religions. When they said, "Jesus is the only way," they knew what the other ways were: Judaism, eastern mystery religions, Roman imperial cults, and various schools of Greek philosophy.
A good example of the clash between Christianity and other worldviews comes from the book of Acts. Acts tells that Paul visited Athens and entered into a dispute with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:18). Philosophers like nothing better than a good argument, so they invited Paul to a meeting of the Areopagus, the philosophical society that met on Mars Hill overlooking the city of Athens. It was the intellectual center of the Mediterranean world. As the historian who wrote the book of Acts wryly observed, "All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas" (v. 21).
Paul had seen all the pagan altars and statues, so he began his seminar by acknowledging how religious the Greeks were: "Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: 'Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD'" (vv. 22-23a). Paul then explained Christianity to the philosophers. He did not say, "Here, let me tell you about another god to add to your pantheon." Instead, he insisted, "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else" (vv. 24-25). Paul argued that the true and living God supersedes all other gods. He went so far as to say that to make representations of the divine being in gold or silver or stone is an act of sheer ignorance (vv. 29-30). Throughout his defense Paul presented Christianity against the background of empirical pluralism, as Christians have had to do ever since.
In some cases Christians are willing to cherish pluralism. They certainly cherish ethnic diversity. On a recent Sunday morning Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia welcomed a number of new members into its congregation. The new members came from the African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian communities of Philadelphia. They also included Chinese, Japanese, and Indians. Christians not only permit such diversity, they cherish it because God cherishes it. God is not color-blind; he is colorful. At his throne he welcomes worshipers from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev. 7:9).
What about religious pluralism? Although Christians do not cherish religious pluralism, they must tolerate it. Christianity insists on tolerance. By tolerance I mean allowing other people to hold and defend their own religious convictions. I do not mean that everyone has to agree with everyone else. That would not be tolerance because the word itself assumes disagreement. Tolerance does not mean I must endorse your worldview. If you are not a Christian I do not endorse it. In the context of a friendship I will even try to talk you out of it. But as a Christian I will defend your right to believe what you believe. Christianity is not a coercive religion. One of the reasons that religious tolerance is written into the United States Constitution is because Christians insisted on it. Christianity respects human freedom and teaches that faith in God is a gift of God's Spirit (Eph. 2:8-9).
Everyone knows that some Christians are intolerant. The English essayist Jonathan Swift bitterly observed, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."12 There are plenty of examples of Christian intolerance from history. The Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng concludes that "blind zeal for truth in all periods and in all churches and religions has ruthlessly injured, burned, destroyed and murdered."13 Intolerant Christianity cannot be defended, for Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:44-45a).
Christianity and Truth
True Christianity preserves a powerful combination that is found nowhere else: tolerance and truth. Some religions and most political philosophies claim to have the truth but are ruthlessly intolerant of those who disagree. They offer truth without tolerance. Philosophical pluralism, on the other hand, provides a pound of tolerance without an ounce of truth. It is perfectly happy allowing people to believe whatever they want (even things that are mutually contradictory) as long as no one steps on anyone else's worldview. Philosophical pluralism simultaneously idolizes tolerance and negates truth.
Christians reject the demand of philosophical pluralism because they seek both tolerance and truth. Thus, philosophical pluralism is where worldviews collide. When Christianity is treated as only one among many equally true and valid religions, Christians start to become (as Alan Watts put it) "uncompromising, ornery, militant and rigorous." The reason Christians become so ornery is that philosophical pluralism forces them to leave four essential beliefs behind.
1. The first is the belief that the truth is one. Christians reject philosophical pluralism because they believe in Truth.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and Jane Fonda once had an exchange which illustrates how Christians understand the unity of truth:
Archbishop: "Jesus is the Son of God, you know."
Fonda: "Maybe he is for you, but he's not for me."
Archbishop: "Well, either he is or he isn't."14
Jane Fonda evidently believes in philosophical pluralism. What is true for you may not be true for her, and vice versa. As a Christian, the Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that truth cannot contradict itself. Either Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, or he is not. It is either one or the other; it cannot be both.
To believe that two contradictory religions are both true is like saying "2+2=4, or 5, or 37, or whatever you like." To believe all religions simultaneously is to become hopelessly self-contradictory. One simply cannot accept the Hindu belief that there are some 300,000 gods and accept the Muslim belief that there is only one god at the same time. Nor can one embrace either Hinduism or Islam and Buddhism because Buddhism does not believe in God at all. Or consider religious opinions about the afterlife. Shintoism says there is no afterlife, just the here and now, so make the most of it. Buddhists seek Nirvana, the complete absence of desire. On the other hand, Christianity teaches that heaven is a place where all pure desires are satisfied in the face of Jesus Christ (Rev. 22:4). Well, which is it? They cannot all be true.
Although people are allowed to hold their own opinions, they cannot make up their own truth. It cannot be done with religion any more than it can be done with mathematics. To insist that all religions are equally true is another way to say that all religions are equally false. Theologian Harold O. J. Brown has observed that pluralism "purports to respect all ideas and opinions, but in the last analysis ends by denying that any idea or any conviction has validity." One is reminded of historian Edward Gibbon's comment that in the last days of Rome "all religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the politicians as equally useful."15 Gibbon's remark may be an accurate generalization but it cannot be applied to Roman Christians. They, at least, maintained that Truth is one.
2. A second belief Christians refuse to abandon is that Jesus is the only Savior. The reason Christians make this claim is because Jesus himself made it. In John's Gospel, Jesus declares, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved" (John 10:9). On another occasion he said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). These statements are exclusive. Jesus claims to be the gate, the way, the truth, the life. One must go through Jesus to be saved. There is no other gate, way, truth, life or salvation. No one has access to God except through Jesus.
Yet, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." This is Christianity at its narrowest Š and its broadest. On the one hand, Christianity is the narrowest, most exclusive of religions because it insists that Jesus is the only way to God. You have to believe in him to get eternal life. On the other hand, Christianity is the most inclusive of religions because it offers Jesus to everyone. Out of his great love God sent his only Son Jesus into the world. Anyone who believes in Jesus will live forever with God. There are no racial, social or economic criteria which prevent anyone from joining God's family. Christianity is both universal and exclusive. "There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men" (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Although Jesus is the only way to God, he is available to everyone.
3. Assume for a moment that the Bible is right in that Jesus is the only way to God. Why did God do it that way? Why did he decide that believing in Jesus is the only way to be saved? The way to the answer is to see that human beings have only one basic problem: sin.
Sin is no longer a popular concept. It sounds old-fashioned, out-of-date. Moral failures are treated as honest mistakes, or psychological disorders, or pathological diseases--anything but the sins they actually are. A sin is anything which violates the moral law of the universe. Any time we do what God tells us not to do, or fail to do what God commands us to do, we commit a sin. And every time we sin we are guilty and deserve divine judgment.
Christianity teaches that all the problems of the world spring not only from acts of sin, but from the sinful condition--in other words, from the human heart. All of humanity's economic, social, racial, military, and educational problems lie in the soul. They all come from the hatred, greed, or rebellion of the human heart. G. K. Chesterton--an English essayist, novelist, and biographer from the early part of the twentieth century--pointed out that sin is one doctrine which can be empirically proven from human history. Every generation confirms the wickedness of human beings. The story of humanity is a story of technological, medical, and artistic progress, but moral failure. If anything, things are getting worse, for the twentieth century has been the bloodiest in history.
Or what about you? You can prove the reality of sin from your own heart. Have you ever taken a serious look at what is inside you? Have you done one thing today entirely for the benefit of another human being, without any thought of your advantage? Isn't it true that your whole approach to life is essentially selfish, that you spend most of your time thinking about your own food, clothes, music, work, and entertainment?
The problem with humanity is sin. Anyone who takes a long, hard, honest look will discover that he or she is part of the problem. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah put it like this: "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way" (Is. 53:6). In the remote areas of Scotland, where farmers do not bother to fence their land, sheep roam wherever they please. It takes a team of sheep dogs to shepherd them back to the fold. Like so many sheep, human beings wander over the hills of immorality.
The mortal failure of the religions of the world--Christianity excepted--is that they do not take sin seriously enough. Other religions teach that people can become better on their own. Somehow, someway, they can work their own way back to God. People can observe the eight fold path which leads to nirvana, or follow the five pillars of Islam, or become one with the universe, or offer good deeds to be accepted before God. Yet Christianity insists that everyone is a sinner through and through. Paul puts it like this: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).
4. Thank God there is a solution. Christianity insists it is the only solution: a perfect payment for sin. Sin has to be paid for because God is too holy to overlook it. Something needs to be done about sin, which is what Jesus was doing on the cross.
The records show that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by Roman soldiers outside Jerusalem in around A.D. 30. The Bible teaches that when Jesus was crucified he paid the penalty for sin. He offered a perfect sacrifice: his life for the lives of his people. It was a perfect sacrifice because Jesus lived a sinless life. It was infinitely perfect because Jesus is God as well as man. Because God is just, there had to be a payment for sin. Because God is love, he was willing to make the payment in the person of his own Son. To quote Isaiah in full: "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:6). The sins of anyone who believes that Jesus died on the cross for him have been fully paid for.
The proof that God the Father accepted Jesus' sacrifice as full payment for sin is that he raised Jesus from the dead. Every Sunday Christians remember that three days after Jesus died he was brought back to life. That resurrection was and is the proof that Jesus really is the Son of God. When Jesus was raised from the dead he conquered death once and for all.
The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is persuasive. The Bible records multiple eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Dozens, even hundreds of people saw Jesus after he rose from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-8). They not only saw him, they spoke with him and touched him. In this case, the eyewitness accounts are especially compelling because the first of them comes from a woman, Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18). The last thing a first century Jew would do to perpetrate a hoax would be to depend on the testimony of a woman. Women were not even allowed to testify in a court of law. But Mary's testimony is accepted in the Bible because she was the first person to see Jesus after he rose from the dead.
One more thing confirms that Jesus has solved humanity's only problem. The followers of Jesus were willing to die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If the resurrection was a hoax they would have recanted when they were tortured to death. But they didn't. They were so convinced Jesus was the Son of God that they were willing to die for their beliefs. They took their faith with them to the grave. In the face of persecution and death they continued to testify that Jesus died for their sins and rose again from the dead.
If those disciples were right, they bear witness to the most important event in history. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has been raised from the dead and the deepest problem of humanity has been solved. Sin has been paid for and death has been overcome. If you believe in him your sins will be forgiven and you will live forever with God. Jesus Christ is the only way because he has solved your only problem.
A graduate of Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and Oxford University, Dr. Ryken is Associate Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He is the author of Courage to Stand: Jeremiah's Battle Plan for Pagan Times, Discovering God in Stories from the Bible, and co-author with Dr. James M. Boice of The Heart of the Cross.