Exclusivism: Christianity is the one true religion and it is only through Christianity that one can be saved.
Inclusivism: Christianity is the one true religion but it is possible for non-Christians to be saved through other religions.
Pluralism: All religions are equally true and equal paths to salvation.
Exclusivism is the position that Christianity is the only true religion. Other religions cannot lead people to the relationship with God required for salvation.
Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins. If you don’t believe in him, you don’t believe in his sacrifice for you. In that case, you are not partaking in the atoning power of his sacrifice because you aren’t accepting it. Faith in Jesus is required for salvation.
The Biblical basis of exclusivism
John 14:6: Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This seems to back up exclusivism. Jesus is ‘the truth’ – implying other religions are false.
However, this verse only claims that it is through Jesus that people are saved, which could only suggest that Jesus is the mechanism by which salvation occurs, not that belief in him is required to be saved. That sounds compatible with inclusivism.
There is a verse which is explicit about the requirement for belief however:
John 3:18: “Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil”. This quote backs up exclusivism as it clearly states belief in Jesus as a requirement for salvation.
In the historical context of ancient Judaism, the word “believe” meant more than a mere intellectual assent, it also meant to obey. So, while the Bible is clear that it is those who believe in Jesus that are saved, Catholics point out that it means more than only having faith in Jesus, it also involves following his teachings which involves doing good works.
The parable of the sheep and the goats arguably supports unlimited election and thus inclusivism, suggesting that exclusivism is false. Jesus says that those who have done good actions to others go to heaven and those who have done bad actions to others go to hell. This suggests that salvation is not a matter of believing the right things but doing the right actions, which anyone from any religion or no religion at all could do.
Luther claimed that doing good works are the result of being a faithful Christian, but it is the faith that is relevant to salvation. So, Luther does manage to incorporate works as having great value in Christianity, but only as a symptom of faith. He used an analogy; faith and works are like fire and heat, the latter flows inevitably from the former. This is how Luther can defend exclusivism and salvation by faith against the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus suggests the works of people are what saves them. Luther can claim those works were associated with salvation only because they were the symptom of Christian faith, which is what truly saved them.
Karl Rahner agreed with the exclusivist notion that Christianity is the one true religion as it was founded on God’s revelation through Jesus. However, he was troubled by the implications of that for anyone who lived before Jesus or simply had never heard of Christ. How could a supposedly omnibenevolent God refuse salvation for such people due to factors which are clearly beyond their control? Rahner thought this meant exclusivism had to be rejected.
Rahner thought that a religion was ‘lawful’ when it contained God’s grace acting on humans. Rahner argued that other religions contained valid natural theology and God’s grace, but mixed with error and depravity, so they can at most be said to have a degree of lawfulness and so can save their adherents They are called anonymous Christians as they respond to the Christian God’s revelation in the world and receive his Grace in their religion, though they have no awareness of this. When they come into contact with Christianity however, Rahner thinks they have no more excuse for continuing to believe another religion and so need to convert in order to be saved.
Hick agrees with Rahner that a loving God would not send those who have never heard of Jesus through no fault of their own to Hell: ‘Is it credible that the loving God and father of all men has decreed that only those born within one particular thread of human history shall be saved?’ – Hick. However, Hick would argue that Rahner does not go far enough in drawing out the implications of omnibenevolence. Hick argues an all-loving God would never send anyone to hell. This is a position called Universalism.
This means people like Hitler would go to heaven. That doesn’t seem right!
Hick believed in a type of purgatory – that after death, people could continue existing in another life or world whereby they would continue to have a chance to redeem themselves and become better (soul-making). Hitler would not instantly go to heaven, therefore, it might take him a very long time to improve morally enough!
The idea of terrible people going to heaven still doesn’t seem right to many people, even if it takes a long time.
However, human crimes are finite. No matter the scale of immorality a person’s actions are, they are finite. Proportionality is the view that true justice requires punishment to be proportional to the crime. For example, it is not justice to imprison someone for life for a minor offense such as parking their car in the wrong place. Hume argues it cannot be justice for God to give an infinite punishment for a finite crime. So, even though Hitler’s actions were immoral and on a massive scale, their immorality was finite. It can’t be justice for Hitler to receive an infinite punishment for his finite crimes – that is not proportional. Eternal punishment in Hell can never be proportional and thus never just. So, Hick is correct in thinking that it is incompatible with omnibenevolence.
John Hick began as an exclusivist but after experiencing multi-faith society while living in Birmingham, he met and observed genuine good people of other religions who were sincerely practising a different faith than him. Hick observed worshipers in mosques, synagogues, temples and gurdwara and concluded that:
“essentially the same kind of thing is taking place in them as in a Christian church – namely, human beings opening their minds to a higher divine Reality, known as personal and good and as demanding righteousness and love”
Hick pointed to the ancient Islamic parable of blind men each touching a different part of an elephant. After describing what they felt, they concluded an elephant was something different, just like religions say different things about God. However this was because they were too blind to see how they were really all touching the same thing in different ways. Hick claimed the same was true for religion as different religions are different human interpretations of the one true divine reality. Hick thought the differences between religions were merely cultural.
Hume argued that all religions cannot be true however since they make contradictory truth claims. Either Jesus was the son of God or he wasn’t. If he was, Christianity is true. If he wasn’t, then Judaism or Islam could be true. Hindu and ancient Greek/Roman religions believe in multiple Gods, whereas the Abrahamic religions believe in just one. Hume thought these multiple claims cancel each other out and make it more likely that none of the religions are true, since they cannot all be right, but can all be wrong.
Hick responds that they can all be right. He argues that those particular theological details such as the divinity of Jesus or number of Gods believed in are part of the ‘conceptual lens’ that different cultures project onto reality. Clearly Christianity can’t be right that Jesus is the son of God at the same time as Judaism being right that he wasn’t. Hick claims they can both be right in that they are both pointing to the same divine reality which exists and is true however.
Hick essentially discounts many of the truth claims of religions as cultural projections which are not true. What is true in all religions is the central element he identified in Birmingham of people opening their minds to a higher, personal and good, divine reality that demands righteousness and love.
Hick says that different religious beliefs “conflict in the sense that they are different … however this is not to say that they may not constitute different ways in which the same ultimate Reality has impinged upon human life”
However, Hick is arguably overgeneralising about the core of religions all being the same. Greek and roman religions arguably are not about opening up the mind to a higher divine reality demanding righteousness and love. Plenty of pagan religions are about making sacrifices in appeasement to capricious spiritus and Gods. Buddhism is arguably not about a personal and good higher divine reality.