Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 6, Number 1



Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

Is there anything of which one could say, "Look! This is something new?" Hardly! "What has been will be again;... there is nothing new under the sun," Ecclesiastes 1: 9, 10.

This is certainly true of religious pluralism. There have been and still are numerous systems of worship. These religions -- both ancient and modern -- possess tremendous significance as life-determining and community-governing forces. They cannot be ignored.

Religious pluralism is not a distant phenomenon. Adherents of non-Christian religions are found throughout the world. They are our neighbors. They use the same banks, shop at the same stores, eat in the same restaurants, and drive on the same streets. What, then, is the difference between them and us? They attend their temples and worship their gods, while we assemble at church and praise Jehovah God.

I. Some Searching Questions

Religious pluralism, as a pervasive reality, raises some disturbing concerns among many Christians. For example, are non-Christians as destitute as they have been made out to be? As students in institutions of higher learning, they appear to be intelligent and creative. As professionals in business corporations, they are skilled and industrious. As tourists, they are inquisitive and polite. These so-called "heathens" are not like we imagined them to be. Any motive for mission based on the destitute condition of the pagan is gravely weakened.

This leads to the second question: are non-Christians lost? Examining the deeper elements of their religion, entering into the experiences of their poets, philosophers, theologians, prophets, and priests brings one face to face with the noblest expressions of spirituality found anywhere. Has God disclosed Himself to them? Is not Christ the Lord of history who at no time and in no place has left Himself without a witness, John 1: 9; Acts 14: 17; Romans 1: 18-20; 2: 7, 10, 14, 15? Does the Holy Spirit work in non-Christian religions? Does not the Lord operate through historical processes so that in the fullness of time He might gather together into one all things in Him, Ephesians 1: 10?

These questions cannot be dismissed lightly. They challenge the very foundation of mission, the integrity of Christ, the heart of the Gospel. A thoughtfully worded reply is demanded. To facilitate such an answer, three items will be discussed: commonality among religions, claims of Christianity, and contemporary theories regarding religious pluralism.

II. Commonality Among Religions

Religion is not an unnecessary addendum to life. Instead, it deals with the ultimate issues of existence: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? It is the most meaningful, the most sacred activity of mankind. To assume that humans have matured beyond religion, have advanced toward a post-religious world is a mockery of the universal preoccupation with the holy. This preoccupation is expressed in a striking confluence of similar features among all religions.

A. All Religions Contain Ritual Practices. In writing about the commonality between Christian and non-Christian religions, J. H. Bavinck said,

A Christian who is accustomed to prayer cannot help recognizing that the Muslim whom he sees praying is doing something similar. And seeing a Hindu bow down before his god stirs the Christian because he himself has learned to bow his head before the God who appears to us in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we cannot deny that our Christian faith and those other religions have something in common, that there are certain similarities between them (1966: 13).
Such similarity goes far beyond prayer to include the symbolic process, religious language, and sacramental regulations. To be sure, a host of variations exist, but ritual practices of one sort or another are found in all religions.

B. All Religions Serve Specific Purposes. Religions have meaning because they make sense out of the nonsense of life. They are maps of the invisible world, a guide for living, an anchor within society. They ask and answer questions about ultimate reality and immediate need. All religions suggest ways of dealing with the tensions of life (Carmody and Carmody 1988: 3). They address the chaotic complexities of human existence, set priorities, and help adherents survive threatening situations. People expect their religion to offer answers, to produce results, to perform a benevolent service.

C. All Religions Possess Discernible Structures. Just as there is no unstructured society, so there is no unstructured religion. Instead, certain foundational features are found in all faiths (Ellwood 1992: 20).

Common Elements In All Religions
Beliefs regarding the origin, reality, and destiny of things.
Arrangements for religious instruction and practice.
Formulations for evaluating acceptable human behavior.
Within a wide range of variations, there is substantial commonality of structure. For instance, all religions have functionaries -- ordained priests, officiating personnel, or spiritual leaders. All religions have institutions -- sacrifices, holy days, pilgrimages, and sacred places. These elements are buttressed by codes of conduct, in the form of written or unwritten ethical rules, as well as systems of belief whether formulated or not, which determine or at least influence the lifestyle of the devotees. The details are certainly different but the basic structures are surprisingly similar.

D. All Religions Involve Spiritual Experiences. No religion can survive as a mere doctrinal system, ethical code, or ritual practice. Religion must reach into the soul with a deep and lasting impact. Without some kind of spiritual experience, religion would be empty, lifeless, and unnecessary. There are examples, here and there, of persons and groups who espouse no religion. But, overall, history bears eloquent testimony to the human capacity, indeed the human need, for spiritual experiences. It is common to call human beings homo sapiens, that is, "creatures who think;"there is also good reason to call them homo religious, "creatures who are religious" (Cunningham, et. al. 1995: 1). People, then, are incurably or inherently religious, their religions universally involve spiritual experiences (Hopfe 1991: 7, 8).

III. Unique Christian Claims

All religions have some things in common. Does this mean all religions are alike? Are all of them true? How can Christians claim a superiority for their religion? Is Christianity the only true and right faith? Certainly the followers of Christ make the most astounding claims for Christianity. Though these assertions may not always be fully recognized by every member of the church, they are the essence of the faith.

Christians do not say they have discovered or invented the genius of religion. Rather, they humbly confess that their unique claims are a gracious disclosure of God through the Holy Spirit to human beings. The tenets of the Christian religion are not western in origin. The first disciples were Jews. Their convictions were merely what they had received and experienced as true and real. Christians take no credit for themselves for the uniqueness of their religion. Notwithstanding, they accept and advocate the following truths.

  1. Christianity is absolute in authority, contending for the control over the mind, consciences, actions, and relationships of mankind in all spheres of life.

  2. Christianity is complete as a revelation of the person, work, and purpose of God, allowing no possibility for Him to be found in or through other religions.

  3. Christianity is perfect, bringing wholeness to human hope, desire, potential, and need.

  4. Christianity is universal in scope and rule, taking the place of all other religions, making Jesus Christ the sole savior and sovereign Lord.

These unique claims prompt some challenging questions. Are not these convictions detrimental to a harmonious relationship with non-Christian religions? Can one be as forthright and confrontational as these claims suggest? In a world which encourages unity, tolerance, and peace, concern for the brashness of these claims is obviously legitimate. It seems apparent, nevertheless, that the Bible leaves no alternative: Christians should be as closed as truth requires yet, at the same time, as kind as the Scripture bids them to be.

To believe, then, that all religions are alike -- emanating from the same source and leading to the same destiny -- is a serious mistake. It is neither historically nor biblically accurate. The revelation of God in the incarnate Christ, an eternal redemption through the vicarious suffering of Jesus, and the empty tomb are distinctly Christian. No matter how much of value -- whether ethical precepts, social cohesion, or elements of truth -- may be found or ascribed to non-Christian religions, there is a significant otherness to the Gospel. The latter is simply incomparable. Christianity has been and will remain a "nonmixer" (Hammer 1962: 91). It possesses an inherent "discontinuity" (Kraemer 1956: 351). It allows no peer, tolerates no partnership among religions. It is the absolute, complete, perfect, universal faith "once for all" delivered unto the saints, Jude 3.

IV. Serious Contemporary Theories

Theories abound concerning the relationship between the Gospel and non-christian faiths (see Braaten 1977: 93-118; Knitter 1985: 21-167; Peters 1972: 320, 321). One theory in particular has won a host of sympathizers. It constitutes the core of the contemporary debate about religious pluralism. The issue can be stated in two propositions:

  1. Jesus is Lord of all history. He is present in the development of every clan, caste, tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Nothing happens beyond or outside of his sphere of influence.

  2. Since He is the Lord of all history, He is present everywhere. Everyone can find Him regardless of their religious affiliation, whether they recognize Him as Savior and Lord or not.

Consequently, devotees of other religions are called "anonymous Christians" (Rahner 1974) who worship the "unknown Christ" (Panikkar 1981) and belong to the "latent church" (Tillich 1969). Though these positions represent extreme views, they express widely held beliefs. From a human standpoint, these two propositions appeal to the mind and heart. One could wish they were true. Therefore, they deserve careful evaluation.

A. Jesus is the Lord of all History. The universe and all that is in it was created by the Lord, John 1: 3; Colossians 1: 16, 17; Hebrews 1: 2. He is the King of kings on whom all depends and in whom all authority resides, Matthew 28: 18; Romans 14: 9; I Corinthians 12: 3; Philippians 2: 9-11; Revelation 19: 11-16. As such, Jesus Christ is the ultimate source, hope, purpose, meaning, and destiny of everything and everyone. To these statements, Christians give hearty consent; but, to say "nothing happens beyond or outside His sphere of influence," requires the surrender of two pivotal doctrines of the Christian faith.

  1. Another force operates in the world. Christians would have to abandon the doctrine of Satan, the "god of this age," II Corinthians 4: 4, the "ruler of the kingdom of the air," Ephesians 2: 2, the author of cunning devises and crafty schemes, Ephesians 6: 11, who blinds the world and threatens to destroy it, Colotians 2: 8. This second force is evident in every area of life. Parallel lines of serious interaction and bitter conflict rage between Christ and the devil (though, thankfully, the Lord will be the eventual victor). Can we be assured that non-Christian religions are exempt from this invasion? Is Christianity insulated against demonic influences? The Bible says "no!" History shouts, "no!" Reforms may occur in all religions from time to time. Evil aspects and inhuman practices may be eliminated, but every faith is vulnerable, every religion is deceived, to some extent, by the "father of lies."

  2. A sacred story exists within the history of mankind. If Jesus is the Lord of history, Christians must not only surrender their belief in the devil but also surrender their belief in a unique story within the narrative of humanity, must believe that all history is alike regardless of its local particularity. Thus the qualitative distinctness of the history of Israel -- begun in Abraham -- must be abandoned. Faith in the uniqueness of the Christ event must be relinquished. What we have heretofore claimed to be a special development within the history of religions would cease to be a distinctive story. Though there would still be quantitative differences, the assertion of qualitative distinctiveness would be jettisoned in favor of acknowledging history as a variety of acts composing the same sacred drama. A Christian cannot champion this view and be a Christian. It contradicts the very essence of the Gospel.

B. Jesus is Present in all Religions. The situation differs little when the second proposition is considered, i.e., "since Jesus is everywhere, everyone can find Him regardless of their religious affiliation, regardless of their failure to recognize Him as Savior and Lord." The issue centers on the spiritual experiences of the "men of faith" in other religions, such as Buddha, Muhammad, Black Elk, or Mahatma Gandhi. They appear to have had genuine encounters with what they perceived to be holy. Their experiences were absorbing, ennobling, and transforming (like Christian conversion in many respects). What is the source, nature, and significance of these encounters? Where did they originate? Where do they lead? What do they mean? Though they may reflect a common yearning of the human heart for a connection with the ultimate, do they prepare mankind to accept the one and only true God? The evidence of history does not allow an affirmative verdict. Two facts must be emphasized.

  1. The Connection Between a Saving Faith and the Word of God. Faith comes from hearing the message of Christ, Romans 10: 17: cf. Galatians 3: 2. This is in keeping with Jesus' statement: " No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . . Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from Him comes to me," John 6: 44, 45. Saving faith is related to the word of God in a similar way the new birth is related to the word of God, James 1: 18; I Peter 1: 23. Does one, therefore, have a right to speak of "men of faith" apart from the word of God? While the psychological basis may be similar, is there not a qualitative difference between the spiritual experiences of the people in non-Christian religions and the experiences of the people who hear and accept the word of God? If not, why believe that Jesus is "the way and the truth and the life?" Why contend that "no one can come to the Father except through Him," John 14: 6? Why propose that "salvation is found in no one else," Acts 4: 12? Why suggest "he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life," I John 5: 12? We dare to make such claims "because there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved," Acts 4: 12. Jesus Christ was either a deceived egotist or a divine messiah. Christianity is either one among many false religions or the only true faith.

  2. Superiority of the Object of Faith over the "Men of Faith". Faith may be the channel of religious encounter but the substance of the encounter is determined by its source. If a religious experience is related to "men of faith," it will only produce what human beings can do. If religious experience is connected with pagan gods, it can only result in what lifeless idols can give. If a religious experience flows from the Lord, it will result in what the sovereign God of the universe provides. Therefore, the Bible is insistent on affirming that saving faith is in Jesus Christ alone, John 3: 16; Romans 1: 16. In other words, the object of faith becomes the decisive factor. In this the Christian rests with confidence. In this we go forth to proclaim him who is the Good News -- the only Lord and Savior of all mankind. Should we do anything less than that?



1966 The Church Between Temple and Mosque. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

1977 The Flaming Center. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

CARMODY, Denise and CARMODY, John
1988 The Story of World Religions. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.

CUNNINGHAM, Lawrence, et. al.
1995 The Sacred Quest. Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.

1992 Many Peoples, Many Faiths: An Introduction to the Reli- gious Life of Humankind. Fourth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.

HAMMER, Raymond
1962 Japan's Religious Ferment. New York: Oxford University Press.

HOPFE, Lewis
1992 Religions of the World. Fifth Edition. New York: Macmill- ian Publishing Company.

1985 No Other Name? Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

KRAEMER, Hendrick
1956 The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.

PANIKKAR, Raimundo
1981 The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. Revised Edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press.

PETERS, George
1972 A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.

1974 "Anonymous Christianity and the Missionary Task of the Church," Theological Investigations, volume 12. New York: Seabury Press.

1969 What is Religion? New York: Harper and Row.

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