INCREDIBLE INDIA – the Journey Begins…
People from India understand the challenges of a religiously pluralistic society. Most of the world’s “Great Faiths” were spawned in India, my motherland. Hinduism, the oldest of the living faiths, thrives with branches worldwide and manifests itself in the New Age Movement – the fastest growing eclectic “religion” in the west. Buddhism, from ancient India, is the most missional and popular faith in the west (beside the Abrahamic) with more adherents outside its land of origin. Modern India has more Muslims than the entire Middle East. Sikhism was started so that Hindus and Muslims could coexist, can draw elements from each other, yet remains a unique faith in their god. India is the largest secular democracy with over 1.3 billion. Its socio-cultural norms blend into its religious beliefs encouraging Indians to “live and let live” recognizing and respecting the many different yet valid paths to experience the ultimate reality – “god”.
My parents sent me to a Christian missionary school where I heard of Jesus’ unique person and work. I learned that while the Gospel is “inclusive”, salvation is exclusive since “whosoever wills” may come to God but by Jesus. Mr. Guruprasad, a Hindu convert, taught us how professing to be wise, many become fools in rejecting God’s offer of forgiveness in Christ alone. My karmic mind struggled to do something to merit or earn God’s salvation until the concept of “grace” gripped me. I valued Christianity’s great exchange – God’s righteousness for my sinfulness, that no other god, but Jesus accomplished on behalf of all repentant sinners. Convinced that I was saved to serve and taking the Great Commission seriously, I passionately told everybody of God’s “so great a salvation” in Christ.! But soon I was disturbed when some “Christians” felt that such an evangelistic attitude and activity was somehow: (1) intolerant, (2) ignorant and (3) arrogant!
GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY: missioning from America
This paper is a reflection by an evangelical who was shaped by western missions to India, who studied both in the east and the west, now serving in Asia’s restricted-access nations and at a “Christian” University in the USA. Today change is the only constant. Technology has wired us together and shrunk our globalized world. Societies are characterized by uncertainty due to terrorism and racial unrest that is affecting our economies and employability. Churches are thankfully addressing inequalities and taking up advocacy. Yet fluid spiritualities with cultural diversity strongly value and champion virtues like tolerance, compassion and community.
Postmodernity has radically altered theological concepts and even the meaning of words in our “post-truth” society. The content of truth is misunderstood by a pragmatism that suggests if something produces the desired results or feels good, it must be right! Historic Christianity is losing its credibility as a counterculture due to the moral failure of some church members, and the subversive Gospel of Christ is losing its evangelistic edge. Truth is on the scaffold and wrong is on the throne. Decades ago, John Stott succinctly stated our missional task with its challenge:
We are called both to the difficult and painful task of “double listening” both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity. Only in doing so will we avoid the opposite pitfalls of unfaithfulness and irrelevance.
Christianity molded by postmodernity is characterized by the loss of absolutes, lack of authority and loose accountability. While organized religion with hierarchical structures is declining, new spiritualities are on the rise. What one believes hardly matters as long as one is “sincere”, since “in this pluralistic politically correct environment, normative religious claims are increasingly difficult to maintain… Christ is usually reconstructed as a symbol pointing to God’s universal salvific presence”. Weiner’s words, although to marketing CEOs is relevant to mission leaders: “Don’t stray too far from the original values. Companies that grow too fast and chase shiny new things risk losing their core customers to competitors. This paper is an urgent call to retain our Christian identity, the non-negotiables of our apostolic faith, and to speak the truth in love.
Three perspectives govern Christian missions in pluralistic societies – exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. We will consider each of their appeal, assumptions and evaluate their assertions in the light of biblical theology. I intend to draw out essential truths that will help expediate our missional task with a sense of urgency, and suggest an approach that is truthful, yet gracious.
1. EXCLUSIVISM – Is salvation only by conscious faith in Jesus Christ alone?
Exclusivism asserts that Christianity is the only true religion and only those who subscribe to its beliefs and practices receive God’s salvation. A twofold truth claim undergirds this ‘particular’ point of view and each posit a subsequent outcome:
- Jesus Christ is God’s full and final revelation and the only Savior of all people. Therefore Christianity, the faith revealed through the Bible, is God’s only way of salvation.
- An explicit, repentant faith in Jesus Christ is required to be saved and to receive eternal life. Without this, God condemns all people to an eternal conscious hell.
What are the grounds and reasons for this assertion and some objections and challenges to it? Evangelical Christianity, committed the Great Commission, is a “revealed” faith. Orthodoxy or right belief matters as it determines right behavior including personal obligation to evangelize the lost at any cost. I was taught that truth was objective, coherent, reasonable and “the Bible tells me so”! It struck me that the God of the Bible has a name, and a book available for me to read! We know him as the Creator-Redeemer only because he is Revealer, not only of all truth but of Himself and his Son as the only true “God and Savior” (Dt. 6:4; Jn. 17:3; Tit.2:13). He made us imago Dei – with the capacity to know and make him known, which we cannot apart from his initiative and self-disclosure. Evangelical truth is anchored on two propositions: God has spoken and, it is written!
God’s revelation is in two distinct forms, purposefully related to each other and inseparable toward his salvific purpose: 1) Universal revelation through God’s world – his creation and our response to his sovereign greatness, 2) Special revelation through his spoken-written Word, the Bible and redemptive history – ultimately in the “Word made flesh” and our response to God’s saving grace in Christ. Exclusivism adamantly clarifies this directional difference between divine revelation as redemptive (the top-down only Way to God) and human speculation that creates the “religions” of the world (our many ways to God) and why he still rejects “the way of Cain”!
Christianity is about a named God. Hinduism has 33 million gods and Islam has 99 names for Allah but no religion dares to call God: “Father”! The incarnation explains how God sent his unique Son, named him “Jesus”, and offers salvation in His Name, and no other (Acts 4:12). Eliminate the founder of a religion and that faith will survive with its precepts. Remove Christ and no faith is left because Christianity is Christ. It is the power of his resurrection that saves (Phil. 1:21). Salvation belongs to God. Jesus Christ is human and divine at once. Being human, Jesus can be the Substitute for repentant sinners, and as God the Son, Christ can forgive sins and give them God’s gift of salvation instead of his wrath or condemnation! (Jn. 3:36; Rom. 8:1) Notably, Jesus’ ascension as “Lord” makes his Great Commission mandatory for his followers.
Asians find it difficult to use the word “exclude” as it suggests that we ignore, deliberately leave out or reject others for whatever reason. Virtues like mutual respect and hospitality culturally warrant Christians to welcome, show kindness to and entertain strangers. Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” sets a higher standard of regard for people of other faiths. Rather than to exclude any faith, they are encouraged to “tolerate” and treat all other beliefs the same way. Humans yearn for God and the goal of all religions is to experience ultimate reality. So, though superficially different, are all religions at their core fundamentally the same?
The Love of God Our Father, and the “Intolerant” Christians?!
Exclusivists are accused of being “intolerant” for certain reasons: Historically, Judeo-Christians have an advantage of having access to God’s unfolding plan of salvation while all other religions are excluded from the start. They are further deprived being culturally conditioned and molded within their non-Christian traditions. Thus, God seems to foster favoritism and appears unfair. In response, we must realize that God as sovereign can do whatever he pleases. Besides his special revelation had to start sometime, somewhere and with someone. After the Fall, there was none righteous for anyone to demand a second change or deserves his love. Even if God chose not to extend his love to anyone, he would still be just in condemning all sinful humans.
Today “tolerance” has taken on a “new definition” to become “the greatest virtue” to be priced above all else. Baucham explains how “we not only put up with but embrace and celebrate the ideas and practices of others. Furthermore, the new tolerance demands that we value the view and practices of others to the degree that we value our own”. The Christian as a person, rather than the position or perspective, is labeled “intolerant”. Ironically, as a double standard, those who champion tolerance, are themselves intolerant toward the inconvenient truth of Biblical exclusivity, i.e. God’s prescribed path of salvation that is offered to all peoples equally.
Those who judge the exclusivist view as intolerant appeal to God’s Fatherly love, which they believe must unconditionally accept his disobedient children. Theodicy is a difficult doctrine that seeks to reconcile the dialectic tension between God’s forgiving love and punitive justice. Yet we cannot individually examine one, apart from the other since both are integral to God’s singular inseparable holy being. Our loving Father is also the Judge of all the earth who always does only what is right (Gen. 18:25). There are three kinds of exclusivists: the restrictive insist conscious faith is a must for salvation, the nonrestrictive find in the Bible, ways wherein God supernaturally draws the lost to himself, and the pessimistic are convinced that often through signs and wonders, God, sooner than later will lead true seekers to hear and trust the Gospel.
2. INCLUSIVISM – Can salvation be affected without hearing and responding to the Gospel?
Inclusivism seeks to be tolerant, at least socially. It takes the other religions within its scope to give them access to God’s salvation in Christ, yet in their own instinctive way. God’s forgiving grace is mysteriously active within and implicitly made available to the adherent soul’s search for the true God. Christ’s grace is deemed unlimited and mercy wider than the boundaries and restrictive conditions the exclusivists set. They agree salvation is only through Christ. Their basis is God’s gracious offer of salvation demonstrated in Jesus’ mission of compassion to the last, lost and least-reached that still has no limits. God is at work in an “anonymous Christians” who intuitively accept his general revelation within their non-Christian faith.
Such a view is attractive and readily embraced by Asians on many fronts. It respects all faiths recognizing God’s common grace is active within his good world. It affirms the dignity of imago Dei reflected by people and explains the moral goodness of leaders like Gandhi irrespective of their different beliefs. It does not force nor cause fear but gives individuals freedom and the right to choose and practice their preferred faith. It does not seem to violate Christianity’s core values yet it retains the primacy of Christ’s atoning work for the salvation of all humans.
The Hindu concept of sin, more than disobedience to a law, is ignorance (agnana) of truth often a mystical inner reality. Given religion and culture are inextricably intertwined in society, are exclusivists “ignorant” in limiting God’s sovereign grace? Many Bible passages indicate God is pre-evangelistically at work among the heathen (Rom. 2:7-11; Acts 17). Is a Christian insensitive to discount the possibility of Jesus’ constraining love drawing them to himself? Recognizing the redemptive potential in god-fearing people, reacting to crash Christian fundamentalism, and voicing the need to be gracious, today there is a growing consensus among evangelicals toward inclusivism. Are we ignorant of the “grace that brings salvation” that Titus 2:11-12 discusses?
The Grace of our Lord Jesus, and “Ignorant” Christians?!
We need to be biblically and apologetically trained with reasons for the hope of salvation in Christ, yet do so with meekness towards unbelievers. We must maintain reverence for God’s authoritative Word knowing we are called to defend and contend for the faith once handed down, not over, to us (1Pet. 3:15; Jude 3-5). With proper hermeneutics, we need firm criteria to discern what is true and not blend in pagan beliefs. What, rather Who, is this grace and how does God require all people to respond to it? Jesus, meaning Savior, is God’s salvific Grace personified. He came to us “full of grace and truth”. The former without the latter is impotent and the latter without the former is insolent! Jesus expects us to treat others in the same way.
God’s nature and power are clearly revealed to all to the extent that all people are conscious, morally responsible and without excuse to worship God in Spirit, and in truth (Rom. 1:18-21; 2:14-15). Despite the Fall, God’s image though marred has a trace of his common grace in all homo religiosos who phenomenologically revere the sacred, supplicate and sacrifice to him. Yet Asian Christians are not ignorant, but acutely aware of the demonic and Satan, the god of the world is behind the idolatry, pagan rituals and occult practices, typical of most religions. These are an abomination to the Lord and strictly condemned in his Word (Dt. 18; 1Tim. 4:1-12).
Satan’s main strategy or scheme within other faiths is to blind people’s eyes to the truth of the Gospel that he knows can save them from idols and lies (2Cor. 4:4; 2Th. 2:9-10). Besides, we are not ignorant that our rebellious self is at enmity with God and against the things of Christ. Despite common grace, we willfully choose to distort and suppress the general, elementary truths about the living God designed to lead us to faith in Christ (Eph. 4:17-19). Such a choice is expressed by us resorting to and constructing our own selfish, idolatrous “religions”. Inclusivists are the ones on treacherous grounds to “ignorantly” link satanic deception and false worship to the saving grace of God that came through Christ. God’s “grace” embodied in Christ, besides bringing salvation, teaches believers to be his true witnesses in our religious world (Tit. 2:12).
Inclusivists subscribe to a high view of our human nature and low view of our sins’ depravity. They make dangerous assumptions about Christ’s person, work and exclusive claims. Jesus expressly declared himself to be the Truth and only Way to the Father. His followers died proclaiming that there is “no other name” that saves, and clarified there is only “one mediator between God and humans” – Jesus Christ. Saving faith is inextricably riveted to hearing then responding in conscious faith to this Gospel (Rom. 10:14-17). In Athens, the Apostle Paul amidst worship of the Greco-Roman gods, one “unknown”, clearly declared the truth about salvation in Christ alone. He did not develop their worldviews or improvise on their religions. He stated how “in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed and given proof of this to everyone by raising [Christ] from the dead” (Acts 17:2-31).
Despite the fervent prayers and alms of “god-fearing” Cornelius’, God gave to him, and Peter, two interlocking visions that caused Christ to be preached as Savior and Lord that resulted in salvation (Acts 10:42-48). Biblical faith is “confessional” and does not know of any “anonymous Christian”. Inclusivists will not find “anonymous Buddhists” nor “anonymous Muslims”! Yet they gamble with the Gospel. God’s grace justifies “sinners” based on the content of revealed truth that must be believed (Heb. 11:1, 6). Any other ground, takes grace for granted, distorts the Gospel, offers false hope, deceives and leads to damnation! (Gal.1:8-9) All true believers are gracious and an active part of a repentant, growing community that clearly “turned from idols to serve the living God” (1Th. 1:8-10). There is nothing “anonymous” about the Church.
3. PLURALISM – Is God’s salvation found in many different religious traditions?
To make sense of pluralism as an ideology or determine its meaning, we must clarify its context. We will examine its directional sense concerning distinct worldviews and matters of “religion”. Within each is a descriptive version recognizing the reality and a normative version advocating for diversity. We will consider its two main forms: 1) Social pluralism that accommodates diverse religious expressions to focusing on faith and 2) Metaphysical pluralism that believes that all religious truth claims are equally valid and simultaneously true! Carson usefully defines such pluralism as “the view that all religions have the same moral and spiritual value, and offer the same potential for achieving salvation, however, ‘salvation’ be construed”.
Pluralism insists in “more than one”. It claims that the “many” religions offer equally valid paths to “god”. Since the different faiths don’t get along with each other there must be diversity. Yet in each religion divine grace is mediated differently, in different places and at different times and cultures. From the one reality experienced, stem many distinct expressions of faith that are put within human systems that formulate distinct creeds or confessions. The end goal is the same. Other religions have the truth and are as good as Christianity and in some areas, could be better. So, with respect to the other religions of the world, Christianity is not unique or normative. This begs the question: What is the value of and need for “Christian missions”?
We will assess pluralism that advocates many valid paths/ways or margas that lead eventually to God. For Asians such a proposition is attractive as it seems to best reflect God’s fairness and all-loving presence in other religions. It factors in, neutralizes, and considers the disadvantages sincere seekers may have due to their background or formative cultures that determine their beliefs. It allows them to discover “truth in the inward parts”. It explains how religious leaders like the Dalai Lama can be good, holy and legitimately experience “the Transcendent”. It sets up a platform for valuable interreligious dialogue on equal terms for international cooperation and world peace. Having noted all this, pluralism makes some dangerous assumptions that are illogical, untenable, false, and unfair to each of the religions’ claims. Just because a faith is valid does not make it true, or exempt from the need for Christian mission and the Gospel of Christ!
Religious Pluralism survives on a reductionism that combines all faiths based on some single essence, common themes or desired outcome. It is wrong to suggest, for instance, that the nature of God is the same in all religions. Islam is a strict monotheism where Allah reveals his will, but not his person. The Christian God is a trinity desiring a personal relationship with each believer by the Spirit in Christ the Lord. One religion will go to war with the others over their radically different convictions on God’s nature! Ultimate reality in Hinduism is an impersonal entity manifesting itself in countless gods. Buddhism is non-theistic and centered on the human self. The human predicament is significantly different for the Hindu or Buddhist compared to the Christian (ignorance, desire, and rebellion), so their life’s goal (liberation, enlightenment and heaven) and prescribed means for salvation (good works, meditation, faith in God’s grace). Although religions superficially appear the same, each are indeed fundamentally different.
The Fellowship of the Spirit, and “Arrogant” Christians?!
Pluralists have a serious problem with Christianity. They don’t consider Jesus as the only Way and mediator of God’s salvation nor see the necessity and universal scope of his atonement. They work hard to prevent Christianity’s tendency to influence or take over less powerful cultures, that they eradicate any differences, to their own benefit. They end up disrespecting, judging or condemning Jesus’ truth claims and the Church’s mission to those without Christ.
Christian exclusivism is far from arrogant in “agreeing to disagree” about another truth claim yet do so without devaluing the person or defaming another faith. If we carefully and lovingly critique the different perspectives, Vitale explains how this can actually be a valuable gift:
Disagreeing with someone about their core beliefs is seen as a compliment and act of service. It is a way of saying that the other person’s ideas are promising enough to take seriously, so much so that you are willing to invest time and effort into them yourself… the more extensive the critique, the greater the gift.
Pluralists continue to strongly propose that the “universal” Holy Spirit, the third person in the trinity, has been poured out on “all flesh”. So, not just the church but people of other religious traditions can be saved without “confessing Christ” while maintaining their religious traditions.
Yong, an Asian-American Pentecostal theologian, champions this view. For him, “While the religions may or may not be mediators of salvation, the key is not the religious tradition as such but if the individual responds to God… according to the light that the individual has received (cf. Rom. 2:12-16).” Here, a person can be saved (ontologically) and secured by the Spirit without needing to hear or heed the Gospel (epistemologically). This includes the heathen who have no access to it, infants who die, and severely disabled who can’t grasp Christ’s truth claims. Such a cultural approach with emotive appeal is rather speculative and syncretic. It soon weakens then removes the onus of the missionary mandate off the Church. Salvation doesn’t depend on her proclaiming the Gospel or one’s lack of opportunity or inability to cognitively respond to it.
Pluralism perilously assumes God’s Spirit is present and active in all religions mediating saving grace apart from what the Father has revealed or the Son has done. The Spirit’s work is stressed to the extent that Christ’s work is taken out of focus. Strong appeal is made to God’s permissive will and the wideness of his mercies. One must ask: “Will the Spirit restore the imago Dei in a religious person apart from saving faith that comes from hearing the Word of God or without reference or pointing to God’s perfect Image – Jesus? Communicating Christ and seeing him formed in believers is the goal of the Spirit’s work and Church’s mission! (Rom. 9:26; 10:9-17).
Believers belong to God by virtue of possessing “the Spirit of Christ”. Jesus taught his disciples “the Spirit of truth will lead them into all truth” primarily by testifying about him and making them his witnesses (Jn. 14:16-18; 15:26; 1Jn. 5:7-12). When Paul encountered the risen Jesus on the Damascus road, he realized Christ and his Church are inseparably one. He did not assume the Spirit will automatically save sincerely religious people. He made it his life’s ambition “not to be ashamed of the Gospel” but travel to the earth’s end to preach Christ to the unreached (Acts 9:1-16). The Spirit doesn’t make bad people good, but dead people alive “in Christ”!
Pluralists don’t deal with the logical extension of their assumption – the slippery slope and trap called universalism! This increasingly popular yet damnable doctrine even among evangelicals teaches that all people from all religions will eventually be saved! Though beyond the scope of this article, it suggests there is no hell or eternal conscious punishment for non-Christians since in the final analysis, God’s compassionate nature will not allow this to happen. All people, even after death will either be somehow reconciled to God or annihilated. If this is pluralism’s end game, why must one be personally obligated to missions with a sense of urgency? So, what was God’s redemptive mission in Christ saving the world for, or Christ sending us “as the Father sent him”? (Jn. 20:21) There is value for God’s glory in the cross, no point in the Church’s Gospel of grace, the Great Commission, the salvation of our souls or hope for people of the other faiths!
CONCLUSION: Truth that Sets Free; Love that Knows No Fear!
Pluralists often resort to the story from India of blindmen feeling different parts of an elephant, each to form a limited description of it. They presume to be the wise king who sees the whole reality and Christian exclusivism to be ignorantly blind and arrogant. It makes itself the fullest and only accurate view on religious diversity and undermines any system that disagrees with it denouncing any plurality, apart from its own! It is wrong to assume all religions seek the same divine reality [an elephant] and judge Christianity as “blind” with a differing socio-cultural or philosophical bias. We must ask: What if it was another animal? We have shown how the other gods are not the same as the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus”. There are no criteria for the king to judge Christ’s followers as blind, since God has revealed himself in absolute terms – the one true God with none besides, who sent his unique Son to be the only Way back to him. If the king cared to openly or humbly examine Christ’s truth claims, he may find he has been blinded.
When I became a Christian, Satish my barber asked: “What difference does it make which god we follow and by what name? It’s like climbing a mountain taking different paths, as long as we are sincere and able to reach the top where god is”! I told him it’s true that no matter which path we take we will reach God… as our Judge! But if we want to meet our Maker as our “Father” having our sins forgiven, then God’s only Way is through his Son, Jesus Christ. Biblical theology shows pluralists climbing another mountain of self-righteous works. Three essential truths are evident and must be affirmed if “Christian” mission is to be effective in pluralistic societies: 1) revelation – what the Father has said in his Word, 2) redemption – what the Son has accomplished for us on the Cross and 3) regeneration – what the Spirit does when we trust God’s grace in Christ.
The Gospel itself is inclusive – God’s power to save all who believe but God’s way of salvation is exclusive as Jesus categorically affirmed: “no one come to the Father “but by me”. These last three words is a “scandal” for inclusivists and pluralists. The Gospel is a decisive truth about Jesus (1Cor. 15:1-4) that demands a response. Christ mandated his followers to take it to all who do not know him. Today Christian mission in pluralistic societies is more in a predicament. It is in a dangerously precarious state. The rich young ruler came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus loved him so he told him the truth. Christians must “speak the truth in love” concerning God’s salvation in Christ alone. It is the truth that sets all people free since it offers God’s perfect love that knows no fears! God has given us no other name but Jesus by which we must be saved. God has no other plan but Christian mission to reach the lost, at his cost!
Dr. Christopher Gnanakan is Professor of Theology & Global/Mission Studies at Liberty University, USA and Director of Leadership Development at Christar.
He is a former Executive Director of Outreach To Asia Nationals, (OTAN); and Curriculum writer/trainer with Dynamic Church Planting International (DCPI). He obtained his D.D. Mission Theology and Church Leadership from Trinity Baptist College, Jacksonville, Florida; Ph.D. Theology and Religious Studies from University of Leeds, UK, and D.Min Pastoral Theology and Missiology from South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore, India.