by Ben Edwards

Recent decades have provided Christians with an increasing evaluation of and interaction with various world religions. The growth of immigration from non-Christian nations combined with a greater global awareness through travel and communication have confronted Christians with the reality of diversity in faith and practice. Protestant Christians have responded in different ways to this reality. Often, these responses are grouped in three broad categories. However, with the rise of postmodernism a fourth category has appeared. I will endeavor to explain and evaluate these four approaches below, concluding with the approach I believe best adheres with biblical Christianity.

Universalism

The first approach to world religions may be classified as universalism. Universalism proposes that all religions are more or less equal, with no one religion able to claim supremacy. Two common illustrations are used when explaining this approach, but provide slightly different nuances. The first is to picture salvation or truth as a mountain top and various religions as paths up the mountain. At points along the way these paths may appear different, but when followed to the end they lead to the same place. Thus, all religions ultimately teach the same thing. If adherents merely took the time to interact with one another they would discover how much they actually agreed. This perspective would eschew proselytizing, opting instead for simple dialogue.

Another picture is of a group of blind men approaching an elephant, with each man grabbing a different part of the animal and concluding partially true statements about it. However, none of them fully understands the elephant. In this illustration, no one religion has a claim to all truth. Instead, one must recognize that all religions have part of the truth, so the best approach is to incorporate beliefs from different religions.

Though this approach is popular among more liberal Protestants, attempts to defend it biblically are scarce. This scarcity is not surprising since there is little to no biblical support for universalism. Throughout the Old Testament, the God of the Jews is set in opposition to the gods of the surrounding peoples. The first commandment in the Decalogue places Yahweh as the supreme God. The nation is called to abandon other gods for the true God. In the New Testament, Jesus points to himself as “the way,” claiming that “no one comes to the Father except by [him].” Paul refers to the worship of idols as the worship of demons and applauds the Thessalonians for turning from idols to serve the true and living God. Nor are believers called to look to other religions to gain a better understanding of God. Jesus claimed that those who knew him knew God and that those who rejected him rejected God.

Universalism also creates logical difficulties. A thorough study of the different religions reveals that they do not all teach the same thing but often proclaim explicitly contradictory truths. Some religions are monotheistic, while others are polytheistic or pantheistic. Some believe that life is cyclical, while others hold to a linear view of history. Clearly all religions are not teaching the same thing. Arguing that all religions only have part of the truth does not ultimately solve this dilemma, for the only way to know that each religion has part of the truth is to have access to all of the truth. Those who hold universalism may have a laudable goal of reducing conflict by emphasizing unity, but they do injustice to the Bible and to other religions.

Relativism

With the rise of postmodernism a modification of universalism has emerged that could be classified as relativism. Whereas universalism claims that all religions lead to the truth or contain part of the truth, relativism says that all religions have their own truths. In essence, a relativist would say that religions are not different paths up one mountain but different mountains altogether. This approach recognizes the clear differences between religions, but states that these different truths are not ultimately contradictory because they are true in themselves. There is no universal truth by which to judge the truths of the various religions. Again, the relativist sees no need for proselytizing, since no religion could be judged as better than another.