Outline of Christian views on religious pluralism

Two key traditional Christian teachings:

  1. Scandal of Particularity. Jesus is the only & unique savior of the world and the unsurpassable revelation of God. No Salvation outside of Jesus. Problem: not all have heard of him (Acts 4:12; Jn 14:6).
  2. Scandal of Universality. The Christian God wants to redeem everyone through Jesus (1 Tim. 2:3-4; Acts 10:34-5; See Sanders’ No Other Name p. 25 for other texts).

Can Christianity claim to be the ultimate truth? If so, does this rule out salvation for adherents of other faiths? If not, does God use their religions & scriptures as instruments of divine salvation?

  • Religions are not identical. They all have some general concerns (deliverance from bondage, how to live properly etc.) but they disagree on how to define bondage and what the solution is. Some religions have a personal God of grace while others deny both.
  • The Bible has both positive and negative statements about other religions (both the “holy pagan” tradition and of the devil). Regarding the religious practices and beliefs of other religions; the Bible adopts some, modifies some, and rejects some.

Major Christian views: [There are Hindu, Muslim, etc. forms of these positions as well]

Exclusivism (Karl Barth and many evangelicals)

  • Affirms scandal of particularity. No salvation outside of Jesus.
  • Most, not all, affirm scandal of universality: God wants to save everyone.
  • Other religions have no salvific value. Their scriptures are not revelations from God.
  • Knowledge of and faith in Jesus’ gospel is necessary for salvation. However, exclusivists manifest a range of views regarding the opportunity for salvation for adherents of other religions. (See my chart on views on the destiny of the unevangelized.)
    • Restrictivism: must put faith in Jesus before you die.
    • Postmortem evangelization: they receive an opportunity after death.
    • Universalism: all will eventually be saved by Christ.

Inclusivism   (Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, some evangelicals.)

  • Affirms scandal of particularity. No salvation outside of Jesus.
  • Affirms scandal of universality: God wants to save everyone through the work of Christ.
  • Knowledge of and faith in Jesus’ gospel is not necessary for salvation in Jesus. Saved if one responds in faith to what is true in the revelation of God available to them. Two versions:
    • Other religions as such are not means of grace and do not save but God can use aspects of the religions to save. Their scriptures are not normative revelations.
    • The Holy Spirit can use other religions as such as means of grace for they are part of God’s providential economy. Their scriptures may be normative revelations but, even so, other religions find the fulfillment of what they seek in Christ and the Christian community.

Normative Pluralism  (John Hick’s “pluralistic hypothesis” & Paul Knitter)

  • Rejects scandal of particularity. All major religions are legitimate and none are ultimate. No normative “revelations.” Parable of the blind men and the elephant.
  • Rejects scandal of universality. From theocentrism to soteriocentrism to Reality centered.
  • Dialogue rather than evangelism—don’t seek to convert others.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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