Recent decades have provided Christians with an increasing evaluation of and interaction with various world religions. The growth of immigration from non-Christian nations combined with a greater global awareness through travel and communication have confronted Christians with the reality of diversity in faith and practice. Protestant Christians have responded in different ways to this reality. Often, these responses are grouped in three broad categories. However, with the rise of postmodernism a fourth category has appeared. I will endeavor to explain and evaluate these four approaches below, concluding with the approach I believe best adheres with biblical Christianity.
The first approach to world religions may be classified as universalism. Universalism proposes that all religions are more or less equal, with no one religion able to claim supremacy. Two common illustrations are used when explaining this approach, but provide slightly different nuances. The first is to picture salvation or truth as a mountain top and various religions as paths up the mountain. At points along the way these paths may appear different, but when followed to the end they lead to the same place. Thus, all religions ultimately teach the same thing. If adherents merely took the time to interact with one another they would discover how much they actually agreed. This perspective would eschew proselytizing, opting instead for simple dialogue.
Another picture is of a group of blind men approaching an elephant, with each man grabbing a different part of the animal and concluding partially true statements about it. However, none of them fully understands the elephant. In this illustration, no one religion has a claim to all truth. Instead, one must recognize that all religions have part of the truth, so the best approach is to incorporate beliefs from different religions.
Though this approach is popular among more liberal Protestants, attempts to defend it biblically are scarce. This scarcity is not surprising since there is little to no biblical support for universalism. Throughout the Old Testament, the God of the Jews is set in opposition to the gods of the surrounding peoples. The first commandment in the Decalogue places Yahweh as the supreme God. The nation is called to abandon other gods for the true God. In the New Testament, Jesus points to himself as “the way,” claiming that “no one comes to the Father except by [him].” Paul refers to the worship of idols as the worship of demons and applauds the Thessalonians for turning from idols to serve the true and living God. Nor are believers called to look to other religions to gain a better understanding of God. Jesus claimed that those who knew him knew God and that those who rejected him rejected God.
Universalism also creates logical difficulties. A thorough study of the different religions reveals that they do not all teach the same thing but often proclaim explicitly contradictory truths. Some religions are monotheistic, while others are polytheistic or pantheistic. Some believe that life is cyclical, while others hold to a linear view of history. Clearly all religions are not teaching the same thing. Arguing that all religions only have part of the truth does not ultimately solve this dilemma, for the only way to know that each religion has part of the truth is to have access to all of the truth. Those who hold universalism may have a laudable goal of reducing conflict by emphasizing unity, but they do injustice to the Bible and to other religions.
With the rise of postmodernism a modification of universalism has emerged that could be classified as relativism. Whereas universalism claims that all religions lead to the truth or contain part of the truth, relativism says that all religions have their own truths. In essence, a relativist would say that religions are not different paths up one mountain but different mountains altogether. This approach recognizes the clear differences between religions, but states that these different truths are not ultimately contradictory because they are true in themselves. There is no universal truth by which to judge the truths of the various religions. Again, the relativist sees no need for proselytizing, since no religion could be judged as better than another.
The relativist approach runs into the same biblical problem as the universalist approach. Christ not only claimed to be “the way” but also “the truth.” He called his followers to go throughout the world making disciples, which entails conversion to the truth. God is never portrayed as one choice among many but as the only God.
Ultimately, a relativistic approach to religions crumbles under the same difficulty as relativism in general—it is a self-defeating philosophy. Relativism proceeds on the idea that ultimate or universal truth is non-existent, but the claim that there is no universal truth is itself a universal truth. Further, relativism is incapable of condemning any action or attitude, since there is no standard by which to judge. In relativism, acts of terrorism and acts of charity are equally valid ways to demonstrate one’s commitment to religion. However, most people easily recognize these acts are not equally valid because of their universal sense of right and wrong. Though some may argue for a relativistic approach to religion, they never fully embrace it because of these difficulties.
A third approach to religion is inclusivism. In inclusivism, one’s own religion is the supreme religion, but other religions have truths that will ultimately lead to the truth found in the supreme religion. From a Christian perspective, that means that one can only be saved in Christ, but the Bible is not the only revelation of Christ. On the more liberal end of this perspective, proponents argue that sincere worshippers in other religions may be saved if they follow their religion and never have a chance to hear of Christ and Christianity. They believe the Quran has truths in it inspired by the Holy Spirit, so a devout Muslim who never hears of Christ may be saved by following these inspired truths in the Quran. On the more conservative end of this approach, proponents believe that someone may become a Christian by believing the gospel of Christ but continue to worship in their original religion. Thus, a Muslim may put faith in Christ but continue to practice as a Muslim because of the inspired truths in the Quran. An inclusivist would practice proselytizing but may not consider it an urgent matter.
Inclusivism does take seriously the biblical teaching that salvation is in Christ alone. It also recognizes the biblical teaching that some revelation of God has gone out to all people, i.e., general revelation. However, it fails to incorporate the Bible’s teaching on how an individual is saved through Christ. There are no biblical examples of a person being saved without knowledge of Christ. Rather, Paul states that people cannot believe in someone of whom they have never heard. Jesus’ command to go and make disciples would be less significant if salvation were possible apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. Inclusivism actually makes general revelation salvific in nature when the Bible never indicates that general revelation is able to lead to salvation. Romans 1 and Romans 2 both point to general revelation as important for the condemnation of all people, since people universally suppress the truth God has revealed about himself and his moral law, leaving unbelievers with no excuse.
On the more conservative end, proponents fail to incorporate the biblical teaching of conversion. Though they rightly recognize that salvation comes through faith in Christ, they minimize the transformative effects of that salvation. Salvation includes regeneration, which enables believers to turn from their sinful ways and turn to serve Christ alone. One of the evidences of regeneration is a rejection of false religion to embrace biblical Christianity. The proponents also distort the teaching of inspiration. The Bible claims inspiration for itself but does not extend that inspiration outside of itself. Any truth in other religions can be traced to general revelation and common grace rather than inspiration.
The final approach to world religions is exclusivism. This approach teaches that there is only one true religion and only one way of salvation. For a Christian, Christ is the only way of salvation and the Bible is the only source of saving revelation today. Other religions are sourced in man’s rebellion against God and/or demonic influence. Though other religions may have some truths in them, they are not saving truths. Exclusivism encourages proselytizing since it is the only hope for adherents of other religions to be saved.
This approach best lines up with the teachings of Scripture and of the beliefs held by the majority of Christians in church history. A potential danger in this approach is that one may develop an arrogant attitude that assumes possession of the truth entails superiority. However, a true understanding of salvation in Christianity minimizes this danger. Since the Bible teaches that salvation is a work of God graciously given to unworthy sinners, those who have been saved have no grounds for boasting. They do not have the truth because they have greater intelligence, morality, or wealth. Rather, they have the truth because they received grace and mercy and should desire to see others experience that same grace and mercy.