As we wheeled John back to his room, he uttered those familiar words, "You know, I don't see how you can say my Jewish friends or anyone else who doesn't believe in Jesus won't go to heaven. Who are we to be so presumptuous?" Kind words from a gentle, soft-spoken 95-year-old man. Before I could challenge his thinking, we were at his room and he was ready to end a long day.
It was one isolated conversation, but it represents a thought pattern that permeates our society and our churches. Beneath the question is a system of belief called pluralism. It is counter to Christianity and, therefore, vital to understand. As Christians we are called to contend for the faith (Jude 3), to defend the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).
To better understand religious pluralism, several terms need to be distinguished.
Religious pluralism is the belief that every religion is true. One may be better than the others, but all are adequate.
Relativism claims that there are no criteria by which one can tell which religion is true or best. There is no objective truth in religion, and each religion is true to the one holding it.
Inclusivism claims that one religion is explicitly true, while all others are implicitly true. In other words, everyone will be saved.
Exclusivism is the belief that only one religion is true, and the others opposed to it are false.
At the heart of the pluralist belief, however, is a self-defeating claim. For in claiming that pluralism is true, it thereby affirms that all forms of non-pluralism (including exclusivism) are false. In short, pluralism is making an exclusive claim.
The pluralist view often degenerates to the position that whatever is sincerely believed is true. This means that it matters not whether one is a passionate Nazi, Satanist, or member of the Flat Earth Society. Any view would be truth. Sincerity is clearly not a test of truth. Many people have been sincerely wrong about many things.
There is the implication that all truth claims are a matter of "both/and," rather than "either/or." By this reasoning there could be square circles, wise fools, and educated illiterates. Mutually exclusive propositions cannot both be true. Opposing truth claims of various religions cannot both be true. For example, Islam denies and Christianity proclaims Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection from the dead three days later. One or the other must be wrong. Hinduism claims God is all, but Christianity denies this. Both claims cannot be true.
Exclusivists are charged with being intolerant. This is directed at their view that one religious view is true and those opposed to it are false. This, to the pluralists, seems like a bit of bigotry. Why should only one view have a franchise on the truth? The pluralist who denies that any particular religion is any more true than others is making a particular truth claim. By this reasoning, pluralists are also "intolerant." They claim their views are true, to the exclusion of opposing views (including exclusivism).
The tolerance issue is closely related to a favorite allegation of pluralists that nonpluralists are narrow-minded. They claim that their view is true, and everyone else is in error. This seems presumptuous. The response is that pluralists (P) and exclusivists (E) make an equal claim to truth and error. Both claim that their view is true and whatever opposes it is false. For example, if E is true, then all non-E is false. Likewise, if P is true then all non-P is false. Both views are "narrow." All truth is narrow. After all, 2 plus 3 has only one true answer -- 5. That is the way truth is.
Another objection is a presumption that truth should be more democratic. But truth is not decided by majority vote. Truth is what corresponds to reality, whether the majority believe it or not. Do pluralists really believe that all views are equally true and good and should be settled on by majority rule? Is fascism or Marxism as good as democracy? Was Nazism as good as any other government?
Beneath the pluralists' assertion that all major religions have equal claim to the truth is a relativistic view of truth. But the denial of absolute truth is self-defeating. It claims that relativism is true for everyone, everywhere, and always. But what is true for everyone, everywhere, and always is an absolute truth. Therefore, the relativist claims that relativism is absolutely true.
Christianity makes exclusive claims. Jesus said (Jn. 14:6; 10:1-9); his disciples added (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5); and Christianity provides unique evidence to support these claims: 1) No other great religious leader ever fulfilled dozens of predictions made hundreds of years in advance (cf. Gen. 3:15; 12:1-3; 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:1f; Isa. 7:14; Isa. 53; Dan. 9:25f); 2) No other great religious leader lived a sinless miraculous life (cf. Jn. 3:2; Heb. 2:3-4); 3) No world religious leader ever predicted and accomplished his death and resurrection (Mt. 12:40-42). In fact, there were over 500 witnesses of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-7).
Dr. Norman Geisler is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (ses.edu) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has spoken or debated in all 50 states and in 25 countries, and is author or coauthor of some 60 books and hundreds of journal articles. This article appeared originally in the September 2003 issue of AFA Journal.