William Lane Craig
A rigorous attempt to answer the problem of the fate of the unevangelized and the challenge of religious pluralism.
I recently spoke at a major Canadian university on the existence of God. After my talk, one slightly irate co-ed wrote on her comment card, “I was with you until you got to the stuff about Jesus. God is not the Christian God!”
This attitude is pervasive in Western culture today. Most people are happy to agree that God exists; but in our pluralistic society it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus.
And yet this is exactly what the New Testament clearly teaches. Take the letters of the apostle Paul, for example. He invites his Gentile converts to recall their pre-Christian days: "Remember that at that time you were separated from Christ, aliens to the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2.12). It is the burden of the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans to show that this desolate condition is the general situation of mankind. Paul explains that God’s power and deity are made known through the created order around us, so that men are without excuse (1.20), and that God has written His moral law upon all men's hearts, so that they are morally responsible before Him (2.15). Although God offers eternal life to all who will respond in an appropriate way to God's general revelation in nature and conscience (2.7), the sad fact is that rather than worship and serve their Creator, people ignore God and flout His moral law (1.21-32). The conclusion: All men are under the power of sin (3.9-12). Worse, Paul goes on to explain that no one can redeem himself by means of righteous living (3.19-20). Fortunately, however, God has provided a means of escape: Jesus Christ has died for the sins of mankind, thereby satisfying the demands of God's justice and enabling reconciliation with God (3.21-6). By means of his atoning death salvation is made available as a gift to be received by faith.
The logic of the New Testament is clear: The universality of sin and uniqueness of Christ's atoning death entail that there is no salvation apart from Christ. As the apostles proclaimed, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12).
This particularistic doctrine was just as scandalous in the polytheistic world of the Roman Empire as in contemporary Western culture. Early Christians were therefore often subjected to severe persecution, torture, and death because of their refusal to embrace a pluralistic approach to religions. In time, however, as Christianity grew to supplant the religions of Greece and Rome and became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the scandal receded. Indeed, for medieval thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, one of the marks of the true Church was its catholicity, that is, its universality. To them it seemed incredible that the great edifice of the Christian Church, filling all of civilization, should be founded on a falsehood.
The demise of this doctrine came with the so-called “Expansion of Europe,” which refers to the three centuries of exploration and discovery from about 1450 until 1750. Through the travels and voyages of men like Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Ferdinand Magellan, new civilizations and whole new worlds were discovered which knew nothing of the Christian faith. The realization that much of the world lay outside the bounds of Christianity had a two-fold impact upon people's religious thinking. First, it tended to relativize religious beliefs. It was seen that far from being the universal religion of mankind, Christianity was largely confined to Western Europe, a corner of the globe. No particular religion, it seemed, could make a claim to universal validity; each society seemed to have its own religion suited to its peculiar needs. Second, it made Christianity's claim to be the only way of salvation seem narrow and cruel. Enlightenment rationalists like Voltaire taunted the Christians of his day with the prospect of millions of Chinamen doomed to hell for not having believed in Christ, when they had not so much as even heard of Christ. In our own day, the influx into Western nations of immigrants from former colonies and the advances in telecommunications which have served to shrink the world to a global village have heightened our awareness of the religious diversity of mankind. As a result religious pluralism has today become once again the conventional wisdom.
The Problem Posed by Religious Diversity
But what, exactly, is the problem supposed to be which is posed by mankind's religious diversity? And for whom is this supposed to be a problem? When one reads the literature on this issue, the recurring challenge seems to be laid at the doorstep of the Christian particularist. The phenomenon of religious diversity is taken to imply the truth of pluralism, and the main debate then proceeds to the question of which form of pluralism is the most plausible. But why think that Christian particularism is untenable in the face of religious diversity? What exactly seems to be the problem?
When one examines the arguments on behalf of pluralism, one finds many of them to be almost textbook examples of logical fallacies. For example, it is frequently asserted that it is arrogant and immoral to hold to any doctrine of religious particularism because one must then regard all persons who disagree with one's own religion as mistaken. This appears to be a textbook example of the logical fallacy known as argument ad hominem, which is trying to invalidate a position by attacking the character of those who hold to it. This is a fallacy because the truth of a position is independent of the moral qualities of those who believe it. Even if all Christian particularists were arrogant and immoral, that would do nothing to prove that their view is false. Not only that, but why think that arrogance and immorality are necessary conditions of being a particularist. Suppose I’ve done all I can to discover the religious truth about reality and I’m convinced that Christianity is true and so I humbly embrace Christian faith as an undeserved gift of God. Am I therefore arrogant and immoral for believing what I sincerely think is true? Finally, and even more fundamentally, this objection is a double-edged sword. For the pluralist also believes that his view is right and that all those adherents to particularistic religious traditions are wrong. Therefore, if holding to a view which many others disagree with means you’re arrogant and immoral, then the pluralist himself would be convicted of arrogance and immorality.
Or to give another example, it is frequently alleged that Christian particularism cannot be correct because religious beliefs are culturally relative. For example, if a Christian believer had been born in Pakistan, he would likely have been a Muslim. Therefore his belief in Christianity is untrue or unjustified. But this again seems to be a textbook example of what is called the genetic fallacy. This is trying to invalidate a position by criticizing the way a person came to hold that position. The fact that your beliefs depend upon where and when you were born has no relevance to the truth of those beliefs. If you had been born in ancient Greece, you would probably have believed that the sun orbits the Earth. Does that imply that your belief that the Earth orbits the sun is therefore false or unjustified? Evidently not! And once again, the pluralist pulls the rug from beneath his own feet: for had the pluralist been born in Pakistan, then he would likely have been a religious particularist. Thus, on his own analysis his pluralism is merely the product of his being born in late twentieth century Western society and is therefore false or unjustified.
Thus, some of the arguments against Christian particularism frequently found in the literature are pretty unimpressive. These aren’t really the problem. Nevertheless, I find that when these objections are answered by defenders of Christian particularism, then the real issue does tends to emerge. That issue, I find, concerns the fate of unbelievers outside one's own particular religious tradition. Christian particularism consigns such persons to hell, which pluralists take to be unconscionable.
But what exactly is the problem here supposed to be? What is the difficulty with holding that salvation is available only through Christ? Is it supposed to be simply the allegation that a loving God would not send people to hell? I don’t think so. The Bible says that God wills the salvation of every human being. "The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3.9). Or again, "He desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2.4). So God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel:
'Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?,' says the Lord God, 'And not rather that he should turn from his way and live? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,' says the Lord God. 'So turn and live! Say to them, "As I live," says the Lord God, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways. For why will you die?"' (Ez. 18.23,32; 33.11).