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
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