Christian Exclusivism Explained and Defended
The Christian Church has always taught that Jesus is the only way to God. This doctrine is called Christian Exclusivism. Many people stumble over this doctrine, others think it is arrogant, and still others think it is unreasonable. Therefore, it will be profitable to examine more closely exactly what this doctrine is and what evidence there is to believe it. While this may not compel acceptance, it will at least compel understanding.
Our exploration and defense of Christian Exclusivism will have three main parts. First, we must establish that the Bible does in fact teach Exclusivism. There are many philosophers, and even so-called Christian theologians, who would claim that Exclusivism is not taught in the Scriptures, and thus for the last two thousand years the Christian church has been misinterpreting its own Bible. Thus, we must make sure that the Biblical foundation for this doctrine is secure, because there would be no use in defending Christian Exclusivism if the authoritative standard of Christian beliefs did not teach it. The process of showing where this doctrine is taught in the Scriptures will also provide a good opportunity for explaining exactly what is meant by this doctrine and clearing up any false notions of it. Once we have established the biblical foundation of Exclusivism, we will then examine whether it is a reasonable doctrine by philosophical standards, and whether there is good reason to believe what the Bible says. In other words, on what grounds can we declare that the Bible's teaching is true, but every other religions teaching is false? Third, we will briefly vindicate Exclusivism from the main objections brought against it.
The Bible teaches Exclusivism
In order to understand the Biblical teaching on this issue, we must break it open into three distinct questions. First, does the Bible teach that Jesus Christ is the only savior of the world, or does it allow for the belief that other religions also result in salvation? Second, if Jesus is the only savior, must one believe in Christ in order to be saved, or will Christ save people who know about Him but follow other religions instead? Third, if one must believe in Christ in order to be saved, what about those who have never heard? Does one have to hear of Him in order to be saved or can one be saved by Him without knowing it? As we will see, these questions very much overlap because they all involve making Christ supreme in saving faith.
Jesus is the only Savior of the world. In regards to the first question, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the only savior of the world. All other means of salvation are false. The Apostle Peter declared: "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Since there is "salvation in no one else," we must conclude that according to the Bible, those who take refuge in other so-called gods will be given the opposite of salvation, which is eternal punishment. This is reinforced by the phrase "under heaven." Nowhere on earth ("under heaven") is there any other name that saves. Not Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, David Koresh, or anything else can provide salvation. Jesus is the only source of salvation in the whole world.
The apostle Paul agreed with this truth, for he said, "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5). Since there is only one mediator between God and men, no other religions actually reach God--for that would mean that there is more than one mediator. In Galatians 1:8 Paul is very bold and declares that anyone who teaches a way of salvation different than the true gospel of Christ is under eternal condemnation: "But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed." All religions other than Christianity would fall under this condemnation, because they all teach a different way of salvation, and thus a "different gospel." No religion other than Christianity teaches salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person and work of Christ alone.
But doesn't the diversity of religions show that man is sincerely seeking after God? The answer is no. Religion does not represent humanity's sincere search for the true God, but is actually humanity's flight from God. This is obvious, for example, from a general understanding of the Old Testament, where God says He detests all other religions because they worship false gods. In the New Testament we read that men do not reach God through their own wisdom (such as religion), but only through the gospel: "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21). In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul calls the pagan religions and their followers foolish: "professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures" (Romans 1:22-23). Non-Christian religions are an attempt to replace the true Creator God with something else. They are a sinister and disguised attempt to hide from the truth by replacing it with a lie (Romans 1:25).
So it is clear from Scripture that Jesus is the only source of salvation. But why is this? Does the Bible simply ask us to accept it without knowing why? No. In fact, it is very important to understand why Jesus is the only way to God if we are going to properly understand the gospel and Christian Exclusivism. The Scriptures want us to understand why Jesus is the only way.
The Bible teaches that every person is separated from God by their sin and in need of forgiveness (Romans 3:9, 10; 6:23). Because God is just as well as loving, we cannot cross this gulf and have a relationship with Him (eternal life) unless the penalty for our sin is paid--death (i.e., eternal punishment and separation from God). If God did not judge our sin, He would no longer be just. Could we really respect God if He smiled down on us as we graffitied all over His holiness and He said, "That's okay, guys--do whatever you want, as long as you're having fun"?
Living a good, moral life cannot save a person because good works do not pay the penalty for sin. Just as we can only pay a $50 speeding ticket with $50 (not by baking cookies for the judge or even paying $49), only death can pay the death penalty for sin. Being religious cannot save a person either, because religion does not pay the death penalty. That is why no other religion, such as Islam, Buddhism, or whatever, can provide salvation--they don't deal with the death penalty that we are under. The only way a person can be saved is if somebody dies in their place, thereby paying the death penalty for them.
The sacrifice that dies to pay the penalty for sins has to meet at least three qualifications: He has to be sinless in order to qualify Him as an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of others, He has to be infinite so that He can pay the infinite penalty that our sins deserved (and to pay the penalty for more than one person), and He has to be human so that He could pay the penalty for other humans. Jesus Christ is the only one who meets these requirements because He is fully man (and thus can die for humans), fully God (and thus is infinite), and sinless (and thus can make a successful offering for the sins of others since he has no sins of His own to pay for). Nobody else has even made a serious, even half-way legitimate claim to have fulfilled these conditions and then backed it up by rising from the dead. Therefore, Jesus is not just the only Savior of the world--He's the only possible savior of the world.
Because of His love for us and His glory, God sent Jesus to die in the place of those who would come to believe in Him, thus paying the penalty for their sins. "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). "For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). "The Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world" (1 John 4:14). Jesus chose to do die for sins out of His love for us and His zeal to glorify the Father.
On the cross, God judged Jesus for our sin so that we wouldn't have to be. That's why He is the only way to God--only Jesus was willing and able to die for us to pay our death penalty, thus providing forgiveness for our sins. No one other religious leader has done this; no one else could have done this.
So now there are two options. Either a person can pay this penalty themselves--and so not be saved--or Jesus can pay it for them--and they will be saved. In both ways, God is just because the penalty is paid. Before each of us is an option, for the saving benefits of Christ's death belong only to those who repent and believe in Him. Those who refuse God's free offer of forgiveness must pay the penalty themselves.
To summarize, Jesus is the only source of salvation and forgiveness because only He has taken away sins and bridged the gulf between humans and God. It took His death to pay the penalty for our sins. If there had been any other way, Jesus would not have died (Gal 2:21). Considering the sacrifice Jesus made, we should not think it is unfair that there is only one way, but we should be glad that there is any way at all.
From the Scriptures we have seen and from the fact that only Christ has taken care of the penalty of sin, we may rightly conclude that the Bible teaches that Christ is the only Savior of the world. Therefore, no other religions have any saving truth because no other religion preaches salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, who is God made man. Nobody ever reaches God through Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, American Indian religions, New Age religions, or any other variety. According to the Bible, these religions are in fact lies because they deny the truth that Jesus is God, that He died for sinners, and that He rose from the dead. Therefore, according to the Bible, the common notion that God has revealed Himself through all religions is false. The only way of salvation is Jesus Christ, and no other ways ever deliver on their promise.
One must believe in Christ to be saved. It should be obvious that since Christianity claims to be the only true religion, those who follow other religions will not be saved. So I fear that answering the second question may be redundant. But someone may say, "Sure, Christ is the only source of salvation. But that doesn't mean that followers of other religions are on the path to destruction. Rather, if these people are sincere in their religion, Christ saves them even though they don't come to Him. This doesn't contradict the Scriptures we have seen because these people are not saved by their religion--they are still saved by the work of Christ. It is just that He saves them apart from their believing in Him." For this reason, we will now probe the question of whether or not one must believe in Christ to be saved. (Note: I am not yet dealing with the question of whether one must hear of Christ in order to be saved. In the following discussion, I am speaking of situations where people have access to the good news.)
In John 14:6 Jesus rules out all other roads to God: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me." Jesus is very clear that those who do not come to Him, do not reach the Father. The only people who reach the Father are those who come to Him. Thus, it is necessary to believe in Christ to be saved. Likewise, Jesus also said "For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins" (John 8:24). Again, He states the absolute necessity of trusting in Him in order to be saved. Those who do not trust Him, will not be saved. We read in John 3:36 that "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him." Earlier in that same chapter we read "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18-19).
In 2 Corinthians 4:3, Paul says that those who do not believe the gospel of Christ are perishing. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 he says that when Christ comes He will deal out "retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power..." First John 2:23 says "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also."
Finally, it would be utterly inconsistent with the character of God to save people because they were sincerely following after their own religion. This is because these religions, as we saw earlier, are distortions of the truth and flights from the true God. "To be zealous in the worship of idols is to be zealous in the insulting of the glory and dignity of God" (R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe, p. 58). Non-Christian religion does not please God but "adds insult to injury to the glory of God (see Isa. 42:8)" because Jesus said that those who do not honor Him as the judge and savior of the world (a category into which all followers of non-Christian religions fall), dishonor His Father as well (John 5:21-23).
So in answer to the question, "Does one have to believe in Christ to be saved?", the Scriptures we have seen are clear that, in the very least, those who have access to the gospel must believe it in order to be saved. But this leads us to our third question. What happens to those who never hear the gospel? Can they be saved by Christ without knowing it, or are they eternally condemned?
People are not saved without hearing the gospel of Christ. Sometimes the question is phrased like this: "What happens to the innocent native in deepest Africa who never hears the gospel?" If one puts it this way, the answer is easy: the innocent person has nothing to worry about! As R.C. Sproul has said, "The innocent native who never hears of Christ is in excellent shape, and we need not be anxious about his redemption. The innocent person doesn't need to hear of Christ. He has no need of redemption. God never punishes innocent people. The innocent person needs no Savior; he can save himself by his innocence" (Sproul, p. 49).
The problem, however, is that there is no such thing as the innocent native in Africa, or anywhere! The Bible teaches that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 6:23) and "there is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). In fact, the Scriptures go so far as to say that left to ourselves, "there is none who seeks for God" (Romans 3:11).
This leads us to an important principle: the person who has never heard of Christ is already condemned--not because they haven't accepted a Savior they've never heard about, but because they have sinned against what they do know about God. But one may ask, "What has this native known about God that He could reject?" The answer is in the distinction the Bible makes between general revelation and special revelation. Special revelation is the message that Christ died and rose again for sins, and that salvation comes through trusting in Him. This message is only revealed in the Bible, and therefore the only people who get special revelation are those who either hear it from others or read it for themselves. General revelation is "the mute non-verbal witness of the creation that points men to the existence of God" (Robert Morey, Studies in the Atonement, p. 246). Since general revelation is given through nature, all humans are aware of it. The Bible teaches that everyone, through the general revelation of nature, knows that God the Father exists and is holy (Romans 1:18-21) and that they are sinful (Romans 1:32; 2:14-15) and thus are deserving of death (Romans 1:32). Therefore, all humans to ever live, whether they have heard of Christ or not, are guilty and without excuse before God for rejecting what they do know about God (Romans 1:20, 21; 3:23).
This should clear up a huge misunderstanding. Often we think that humanity is in the neutral zone, and that "the only damnable offense against God is the rejection of Christ" (Sproul, p. 50). Thus, it would seem unfair for God to condemn those who have never heard, because they never had the chance to respond to the gospel and commit the "damnable offense" of rejecting Christ. However, we have seen that the Scriptures are clear that we are not neutral, and even those who do not have the Bible are willingly and knowingly guilty of sin and rejecting God. We are sinners by nature (Eph 2:3) and by choice (Romans 6:23) even if we have never heard of Christ (Romans 1:18-32), and thus we are all deserving of condemnation. That is why we need Christ. "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him" (John 3:17). So the gospel is sent to save those who are already condemned for reasons independent of the message, not to condemn those who are neutral in the sight of God but are in danger of perishing if they are never exposed to special revelation.
Therefore, "We can rest assured that no one is ever punished for rejecting Christ if they've never heard of Him" (Sproul, p. 50). Those who never hear are condemned because they have rejected the general revelation of God the Father in nature that all people without exception receive, not because they have never heard of Christ. Those who never hear are not under condemnation for not knowing about special revelation that they never received, but for rejecting general revelation that they did receive.
Now that we properly understand the issue, we see that it would be perfectly fair for God to allow those who have never heard of Christ to perish. God would be doing them no injustice, for He would simply be giving them what they knowingly and willingly deserve. Is this what happens to them? The Scriptures seem to teach that it is.
First, the Scriptures we saw above about the need to believe in Christ seem to teach more than just that those who have heard of Christ must believe in Him. They appear to be unqualified statements. When we read things like "whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13) and "believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31), it seems to imply that everybody, without exception, who does not believe in Christ will be lost. But those who never hear of Christ cannot believe in Him (for it is impossible to trust in something that you do not know about), and therefore it seems to follow that they are lost.
This is the argument the apostle Paul takes up in Romans 10:13-17. In verses 13-14 we read: "...'whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.' How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?" Thus, "effective calling presupposes faith in the one called. This rules out the argument that one might call on God savingly without faith in Christ" (John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Missions, p. 155). Paul continues in verse 14: "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" This verse seems clear that "faith presupposes hearing Christ in the message of the gospel. This rules out the argument that a person might have saving faith without really knowing or meeting Christ in the gospel" (Piper, p. 155). Continuing with verse 14, we read: "And how shall they hear without a preacher?" As Piper comments again, "This rules out the argument that one might somehow meet Christ or hear Christ without a messenger to tell the gospel." And as if to make the point absolutely clear, Paul says in verse 17: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." This makes very clear that Paul is talking about special revelation--because he is speaking of a message that is told by a messenger and that the person must hear. Since "faith comes from hearing," those who do not hear the message cannot have faith and therefore, it seems, will not be saved.
Therefore, one cannot say that if someone who has never heard the gospel lives up to the light they have they will be saved. Nor can we say that, since our conscience sometimes reflects the morals of Christ, following conscience is the same as following Christ, and therefore those who sincerely follow their own conscience will be saved. We cannot say those things and be biblical because we have just seen that the Bible teaches that one must call on Christ Himself to be saved (not just give an appearance of acting like Christ), and that in order to call on Christ, they must hear of Him, and in order to hear of Him, somebody must tell them. Saving faith is not doing the best to follow your conscience and act like Christ--it is an act of will to call on Christ which "comes from hearing" (v. 17) the gospel of Christ given to you by a messenger (v. 14).
Some may object that in verse 18 Paul says that everybody has heard the words of God. Since we know that not everybody has heard the special revelation (the gospel), it might be argued that Paul is therefore speaking of natural revelation and therefore one does not need to hear special revelation to be saved--the general revelation is sufficient. Thus, people can be saved without hearing the gospel. However, this would make Paul contradict himself, for he had just said that one cannot hear the gospel without a preacher and that one must believe in this gospel, which is carried by preachers, to be saved (v. 14). So it is clear that Paul has been talking about special revelation (since that is what comes through human messengers) as being necessary for salvation in verses 14-17.
Why, then, does Paul seem to say in verse 18 that the whole earth has heard the words of God? Most commentators agree that "Paul uses the words of the of the Psalm [which he is quoting] to draw a parallel between the universality of general revelation and the universal spread of the gospel. The point is that God has set in motion a missionary movement (the sending of verse 15) that will reach to all the peoples of the earth on the analogy of the universal spread of God's glory through natural revelation...The words, 'their voice has gone out,' does not have to mean that the spread of the message is finished. In Paul's contrast the natural meaning is that the gospel has been propelled into the world to reach all peoples. Olshausen suggests that 'their voice has gone out' is to be understood as prophetically spoken; 'that which is begun is viewed as if already completed.'" (Piper, p. 157). Thus, Romans 10:14-17 seem to clear teach that one must hear of Christ in order to be saved.
Another evidence for this is Ephesians 3:6, which says that "the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." Notice that the pagan nations come to salvation through the gospel, not apart from the gospel.
Acts 4:12, which we saw earlier, is a key passage on the fate of those who have never heard: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." Those who believe that people can be saved without hearing the gospel will respond that "the verse says that salvation comes only through the work of Jesus but not only through faith in Jesus" (Piper, 150). However, the text is saying more than just "there is no other source of salvation than Christ." As Piper explains, "The point of saying, 'there is no other name,' is that we are saved by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus. Calling on his name is our entrance into fellowship with God. If one is saved by Jesus [without hearing of Him], one does not speak of being saved by His name" ( Piper, p. 150). In other words, Christ's name is His reputation. The verse says that we must be saved by taking shelter in this reputation. But if someone hasn't heard of His reputation, he cannot take shelter in it and thus there is no means of salvation him. Thus, to believe that people can be saved without conscious faith in Christ is to go against this verse, which says the only way to be saved is by Christ's name.
Earlier in John 14:6 we saw how Jesus said that "no one comes to the Father except by Me." Thus, those who have never heard of Christ are not saved, because you need to hear of Christ before you can come to Him, and you need to come to Him before you can be saved.
Piper comments on Acts 26:15-18 that "without making any distinctions, the Lord says that those who do not yet have the gospel are in darkness and in the power of Satan and without the forgiveness of sins...[the gospel] delivers from the power of Satan. The picture of nations without the gospel is that they are blind and in the darkness and in bondage to Satan and without forgiveness of sins and unacceptable to God because they are unsanctified" (Piper, p. 158).
The glorious truth of predestination also makes clear that one must know of Jesus in order to be saved by Him. Jesus declares that the Father has chosen who will be saved and given these people to Christ (John 10:26; 17:2, 9). In John 6:37, Christ declares that all of these elect will believe in Him. "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). Obviously, since they all come to Him, they will all hear of him. Thus, everyone that is saved is saved by hearing of Jesus and then coming to Jesus. Nobody, therefore, is saved without having heard of Christ: "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me." Likewise, we read in many other places that those whom God elects to salvation are predestined to believe as well (2 Thessalonians 2:13; Acts 13:48).
The truth that people must hear the gospel to be saved has an excellent application to our lives. God has a wonderful rescue mission of gathering His elect. We can be a big part of this rescue mission because He brings them to Himself through faith in the gospel, not apart from the gospel. There are many elect out there who are already ransomed, but have never heard the gospel. Go get them! And do it in the joy of knowing that Christ Himself is calling them through your words (John 10:16; 17:20).
This brings us to our final arguement: Why would God command Christians to preach the gospel to all nations if those who never hear it can do just fine without it? As Robert Morey put it, "If the ignorant and sincere can be saved as long as they don't hear the gospel, do missionaries actually damn more than they save?...If men were not already lost and without hope, would missions make any sense?" (Morey, p. 254).
We have now seen enough Scriptures to be in a position to respond to the claim that those who never hear of Christ will be saved if they sincerely follow their conscience or other aspects of general revelation. To be fair to the other side, they are not claiming that these people are saved by sincerely obeying false religions, but by obeying the general revelation that God has revealed in nature and in conscience. Is this view biblical? On the basis of the many Scriptures we saw above, the answer must be no. As we saw, no one is saved apart from explicit faith in Christ, which comes from hearing about Him.
Another important fact that this objection overlooks is that nobody ever lives up to the light of general revelation, such as their conscience. Paul says in Romans 3:20 that the law of God (and thus our consciences, since they are reflections of God's law) shuts all of our protests against God's fairness because it reveals, through our failure to keep it, that we are guilty before God. "Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (v. 9). Therefore, "by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (v. 20). Since attempting to follow conscience is basically attempting to follow the law (the law he put in people's hearts), it seems that we may also say "by the works of the [conscience] no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the [conscience] comes the knowledge of sin."
One may respond that the attempt to obey conscience is not a salvation by works, but a salvation by faith because all that is required is a sincere effort to follow conscience, not flawless obedience to it. But what kind of conscience/law is this that does not require perfect obedience? Paul says that everybody who does not fully follow God's law is under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10; see also James 2:10). Further, this seems like a contradictory supposition. When Paul says that salvation is by faith, He means it does not come through following rules (such as the law or conscience), but by trusting in someone else--namely, Christ (Romans 3:21-24). Further, as we saw earlier, the only faith that saves is faith in Christ Himself--not faith in the general revelation of God revealed in nature and conscience.
What, then, are we to make of Romans 2:14-15? "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternatingly accusing or else defending them." I do not see how this verse can be used to argue that one can be saved without hearing of Christ if he follows his conscience. First, that is never said in this verse. Second, this interpretation violates the context. Paul is arguing that all people are guilty of sin. He has just said in verse 12 "all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law." As John Murray argues in his commentary, Paul is most likely, in verse 14, addressing the question, "if the Gentiles are without the law, how can they be regarded as having sinned?" (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 72). Paul is answering that while they do not have the law that God revealed in special revelation, but they do have God's moral law by virtue of general revelation. God has written his law on all people's hearts, meaning that he has put in all people an understanding of what is good and what is evil. This is proven when the Gentiles "do instinctively the things of the law" because it shows that "the work of the law is written in their hearts," and thus they are a "law unto themselves"--which means they reveal God's law to themselves. Paul is not saying that these people meet the demands of the law because he says that their consciences judge them for having failed: "their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them." "Therefore in reference to the law as it bears upon them in this way they are transgressors of the law and have therefore sinned" (Murray). Far from this verse teaching that people can be saved by sincerely following their conscience, it teaches that they are justly lost and need to be saved because they knowingly and willingly fail to follow the general revelation of God's law revealed in conscience.
Thus, we cannot say that God saves those who have never heard by means of their following their conscience. This is because nobody follows His commands until after they are saved, Christianity is a religion of salvation by faith and not works of the law, and many verses teach that one must hear of Christ and explicitly trust him for salvation in order to be saved.
All of these Scriptures make us conclude that, according to the Bible, one must hear of Christ and trust explicitly in Him to be saved. We cannot hold that if a person who has never heard the gospel seeks the right way to live, he is mysteriously following Christ and thus will be saved by Him. The Scriptures we have seen make clear that a person must believe the gospel of Christ to be saved, and in order to believe this gospel they must hear it. A common objection at this point is this: "Isn't Christ powerful enough to reveal Himself to everybody?" This misunderstands my whole argument. Of course Christ is powerful enough to reveal Himself to anybody. But the Scriptures seem to teach that the way He has chosen to reveal Himself is through the Gospel, not apart from the gospel. He is reaching out to the lost world--by zealously sending His missionaries everywhere to tell people about Him. And let us remember that all people without exception do receive general revelation, which they ought to respond to but don't.
Before moving on, there are a few last things that must be said about this issue. First, I am not defending the doctrine that one must hear about Christ in order to be saved because I am trying to be mean or trying to restrict the boundaries of God's saving love. Rather, I am attempting to preserve the central place of Christ in the salvation of human beings. If people can be saved without hearing of Christ, then the good news of Christ's death and resurrection are no longer the light sent out to save people in a dark and doomed world and the supremacy of Christ and the salvation He brings in the gospel seems to be lessened. Also, I am trying to be faithful to the words of Christ, which I believe to not only be true, but beautiful. If someone has a problem about this doctrine, the proper response is not to complain, but to do something about it. A person has no right to protest against this doctrine unless they are willing to become a missionary and go tell people who have never heard before about Christ. Finally, this doctrine does not result in the belief that people who have never heard of Christ are lost through historical accident. Rather, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over history and has everything exactly the way He wants it (Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11). The saving mission of the gospel of Christ always has been and always will be successful in calling Christ's lost sheep back to Him (John 6:37; 10:16). If perhaps someone does begin responding to the general revelation of God in nature, it may be that God is beginning to work in their life. But, as the Scriptures we have seen seem to indicate, He will not save them apart from the gospel of Christ. Rather, it seems best to conclude that He will so arrange human affairs so as to ensure that this person hears the gospel and responds.
The reasonableness of Christian Exclusivism
Having seen that the Bible clearly teaches Exclusivism, it is now time to philosophically show the reasonableness of the biblical teaching that sins deserve eternal punishment, and therefore if anyone is going to be forgiven the penalty for their sins must be paid by a substitute. While my aim here is not yet to prove that Christianity is true, I do believe that this section will show that if any religion at all is true, it must be Christianity.
In an excellent work entitled Concerning the Necessity and Reasonableness of the Christian Doctrine of Satisfaction for Sin, Jonathan Edwards (regarded by many to be the greatest American philosopher/theologian to ever live) gives four main arguments establishing the necessity of sins being punished. We will examine three of them and apply them to show that, based upon the truth that sin must be punished, Christianity is the only possible true religion.
The first argument is from our sense of justice. Sins must be punished because sin deserves punishment. Could we really respect God if He smiled down on Adolf Hitler and Charles Mansons and said "That's okay, guys. Do whatever you want, as long as you're having fun"? Our minds recoil at such a thought! And if there is no God at all, the situation is even worse: the terrible evils of Hitler and such people will never be recompensed. Justice would never be served. But it would be hypocritical to single out people like Hitler as deserving of punishment and ignore our own sins. We all know that we have each sinned, and therefore if we are going to believe that the terrible crimes of people like Hitler need to be recompensed, our sins need to be recompensed as well. This is where Edward's first argument comes in:
1. God's justice is His commitment to love and uphold the orderly connections which He has established in the universe. This, of course, raises a problem. Since everybody has sinned, how can anyone be forgiven? The only possible answer is that somebody else must take this punishment for us. This is what we saw earlier. Christ died in the place of those who would come to believe in Him, thus canceling their penalty. No other religion upholds justice in the solution it gives to the human problem of sin. All other religions either deny that sin is as serious as we all know it is, deny that sin is evil at all (which also goes against our common sense), or provide forgiveness to humans without proper compensation to justice. Christianity is the only religion that does justice to our sense of justice.
2. There is a connection between sin and punishment such that sin deserves punishment.
3. Thus, if God did not judge sin He would be contradicting this connection and thus violating His justice. A God who did not judge sin would not be maintaining order in His kingdom.
4. Therefore, if God is to remain just, He must punish sin.
Edward's next argument is from the holiness of God.
1. God is holy.Christianity is the only religion with a God who is truly holy. Hinduism believes in many gods (or that god is impersonal) and most forms of Buddhism don't even believe in God. These "gods" (or lack of gods) do not claim to be so great that they are of infinite worth and holiness, the utter contradiction of all sin. Islam believes in one God, and does claim that this God is holy. However, the god of Islam saves people without satisfying His holiness by punishing their sin. Thus, the god of Islam contradicts himself and thus is not truly holy. These three examples illustrate this truth: in all other religions, the god worshiped either doesn't claim to be holy, or claims to be holy but contradicts this claim in the way he provides salvation from sin. Neither kind of god(s) would be worth worshiping. And surely if there is a God, He must be holy. Christianity is the only religion that can honestly claim they worship a holy God.
2. Sin is unholy, and therefore God is the utter contradiction of sin.
3. This means that God is opposed to sin, since it contradicts His nature.
4. If God is opposed to sin by nature, He must express that opposition in the world, for otherwise creation would not answer the reality of God's nature.
5. Therefore, if God did not punish sin, He would be contradicting His holiness and thereby denying Himself.
Edward's third argument is from the infinite honor and worth of God.
1. God's glory is of infinite value and worth. From what we have seen earlier, again we must conclude that the Christian view is the only one worthy of God. For all other religions end up denying the infinite worth of the Supreme Being, and why should we accept a religion with such a cheap God? Could we really call that being "supreme"? But you may be wondering, how do other religions dishonor God's worth? Because they present God as forgiving sin without vindicating the worth of His glory. Christianity is the only religion which believes that God became man in the Person of Christ, who then, as man, died on the cross. Since Christ is fully God and fully man, He is of infinite value and thus He fully vindicated the worth of God's infinite glory in His suffering. But, you may ask again, what about the religions who don't believe in a God who is of infinite honor, or perhaps the regions that don't believe in God at all? How can you say that the gods in those religions would be violating their honor, for they don't have any honor to uphold? But to this I respond again, would such a god, who has no honor, be worth worshiping? He would not even be worthy of the name God.
2. Therefore, God must maintain the value and honor of His glory in order to be righteous.
3. Sin is an attack on God's glory. It dishonors God's infinite worth.
4. Therefore, if sin is treated as inconsequential, God's glory is treated as inconsequential.
5. Thus, God must punish sin in order to uphold His honor. For if He did not, He would be denying His infinite worth and thus would be committing unrighteousness.
The fact of God's infinite value also allows us to answer the objection presented by theologians such as Clark Pinnock and John Stott, that "eternal punishment is disproportionate to a finite life of sinning" (Piper, p. 127). These theologians neglect the fact that "degrees of blameworthiness come not from how long you offend dignity, but from how high the dignity is that you offend" (Piper). As Edwards pointed out in his sermon, "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners," since God is of infinite value, and all sins are ultimately committed against God, all sins therefore deserve an infinite penalty. Thus, the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment is not only consistent with justice, but is required by justice.
Conclusive Evidence for Christian Exclusivism
Thus, it seems that if any religion at all is true, it must be Christianity. But if we approach the question from a slightly different angle, there is even more concrete and solid evidence for accepting Christianity over any other religion. First, remember that earlier we saw how all religions cannot be true because they all contradict each other. Christianity teaches that Jesus is God and man, that He died on the cross for sins, and then rose from the dead. All other religions deny these truths (there may be some religions which accept one of these truths, but none accept all three of them). Thus, all religions cannot be true any more than 2+2 can equal both 4 and 5 at the same time. John Hick's attempt to provide a framework that synthesizes all religions fails because it ignores the fact that Christianity is based upon real-life historical events: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. They only way to make Christianity consistent with other religions would be to change history.
How, then, are we to know which religion is correct? By a simple test: which religion gives the best evidence for its truth?
Christianity is the religion that gives the best evidence for its truth. We saw some good evidence from our analysis of Edward's, but now I wish to provide even more conclusive evidence: Jesus is the only religious leader who has risen from the dead. All other religious leaders are still in their tombs. Who would you believe--a religious leader who conquered death, or a religious leader who was defeated by death?
One may object that I am begging the question, for the way we know that Jesus is from the dead is that the Bible teaches it. Aren't I using the Bible to prove the Bible? No, I am not. One of the most fascinating and compelling things is that the resurrection of Christ can be historically demonstrated using only the facts that critical scholars accept. Thus, we do not need to assume the trustworthiness of the Bible to have good evidence for the resurrection. It is a solid historical fact. For a good demonstration of this, see, for example, the debate between Antony Flew, an atheist, and Gary Habermas, a Christian, in the book Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
Therefore, since Christ rose from the dead, His claim to be the only way to God seems to be verified: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me." In fact, Christ not only claimed to be the only way to God, He claimed to be God (John 10:30). Thus, the resurrection of Christ proves that there is in fact a God and that Jesus is the only way to be saved by God, for it validates the truth of all that Jesus said.
Objections to Christian Exclusivism
In conclusion, let us briefly examine the main objections to Christian Exclusivism.
Christianity is narrow minded. Just because something is narrow and exclusive does not make it wrong. Life is full of things that are narrow and true. For example, we want the airplane pilot to land on the runway, not the highway. Truth is always exclusive of error. Two plus two equals four is a narrow statement, but it is still right.
Truth changes from person to person. Sometimes people say "It may be true for you, but it is not true for me." But simply believing something cannot make it true, and simply disbelieving something cannot make it false. Truth exists independent of our beliefs. For example, people used to believe that the earth was flat, but that did not make it flat--it was still round. Jesus' statement in John 14:6, "No one comes to the Father, but through Me," is a universal truth. It applies to everyone, even if they do not believe it. And since Jesus is God and rose from the dead, He has the authority to say this.
It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. A common belief today is that God will accept people no matter what they believe, as long as they are sincere. We have already seen how unbiblical such a view is. This view is also unphilosophical, for sincerity cannot determine whether something is true. It is possible to be sincerely wrong, because faith is only as good as its object. Several years ago a nurse in a large hospital changed an oxygen tank for one of her patients. She sincerely believed that there was oxygen in the new tank she was replacing the old one with, but the next nurse to check on the patient found him dead. The tank had been wrongly labeled at the warehouse and contained nitrogen, not oxygen. This nurse sincerely believed that the tank contained oxygen, but the nitrogen still had terrible consequences for her patient.
To further illustrate that faith is only as good as its object, let's say that I put all of my trust into a potted plant to teach me calculus. Will I learn calculus from this plant? No, because it is the wrong object. In the same way, a person can not get to heaven by trusting in religion or good works, because that is trusting in the wrong object--these things cannot pay the penalty for our sin. Only Jesus can pay this penalty, and therefore He is the only legitimate object of trust for salvation.
Reason and evidence don't apply to religion. This objection refutes the very nature of our class--the Philosophy of Religion. If reason and evidence don't apply to religion, then we should all drop this class because we are trying to do the impossible. Further, "Persons who claim that reason and evidence are irrelevant to religion must be asked why they believe this is true. If they respond by appealing to any kind of reason or evidence to support their belief, they are refuting it in the process" (Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide to World Religions, p. 245).
It is arrogant and mean to claim that Jesus is the only way to be saved. This would be true if Christians thought of this idea on their own, were trying to teach it to others out of prideful motives, and thought it was true simply because they thought they were better than others. But this is not the case at all. Christians did not invent this claim. We are just being faithful to what Jesus Himself said. And we don't believe it is true because we think we have superior intellects or that we are better than others, but because Jesus Christ rose from the dead and proved that it was true. It is not arrogant to proclaim the truth. If I tell someone that it is wrong to believe that 2 + 2 = 8, I am not being arrogant, but honest.
Hasn't Christian Exclusivism led to religious wars in the past? It seems that it has. But this does not mean that it is false. First, the people who encouraged these wars were acting contrary to the Bible they thought that they were defending. Mean-spirited intolerance and persecution is not the teaching of the Bible. Thus, the problem is not with this teaching, but with the sinful abuse of it by certain people who probably weren't even true Christians (see Titus 1:16). Again, the abuse of a truth does not render it false. If people went around killing in the name of love, we wouldn't conclude that love was wrong, would we?
Having seen the clear teaching of Scripture on Christian Exclusivism, we may conclude that the Christian church has not been misrepresenting its Bible for the last two thousand years. Having seen the reasonableness and necessity of this truth, we may conclude that the Christian belief is not irrational. Having seen the inadequacy of other religions and the fact of Christ's resurrection, we may conclude that the belief of Christian Exclusivism is true. And having defending this truth against its objections, we see that it is strong and able to stand on its own. Thus, there are very good reasons for accepting the truth of Christian Exclusivism.
SourcesJonathon Edwards, "Concerning the Reasonableness and Necessity of the Christian Doctrine of Satisfaction for Sin," in The Works of Jonathon Edwards, Volume II, pp. 565-578.
Dean Halverson, editor, Compact Guide to World Religions (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1996).
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, fourth edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), pp. 109- 119.
John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993).
Robert Morey, Studies in the Atonement (Shermans Dale, PA: Christian Scholars Press, 1989).
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), original edition 1968.
R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978).
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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