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Christianity and Other Religions: Clarifying Terms & Issues

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

I know: that’s a boring title. But an essay I wrote almost twenty years ago still seems at least occasionally useful to bring some clarity to terms in the discussion of how Christians are to understand other religions, the destiny of the unevangelized, the basis for salvation, the nature of general and special revelation, and so on–issues that, of course, are even more widely discussed now than they were then, particularly among orthodox and evangelical Christians.

The following is taken from my own computer files (so I can’t swear it’s identical to the published version) of the concluding editor’s essay in the following book: “An Agenda for an Evangelical Theology of Religions,” in No Other Gods before Me? Evangelicals Confront the World’s Religions, ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 189-201.

An Agenda for an Evangelical Theology of Religions

This volume succeeds if it prompts evangelical theologians to move ahead on a broad program of theological investigation of the phenomenon of world religions. The essays and responses in this book do not, of course, even raise every pertinent question, let alone answer them. Instead, they offer each author’s particular contribution to the conversation at this point.

As Paul Griffiths strongly argues [in this volume], however, systematic investigation of a theology of world religions will require more than idiosyncratic initiatives, however, no matter how worthy each may be. To assist in such investigation, then, it perhaps is worthwhile to consider a map of the issues that remain before us. No map is complete, of course, and every map can be improved upon. But some such map is necessary if we are to proceed with any sort of coherence. So, then, the agenda for an evangelical theology of religions that follows.

The topics begin with the fundamental gift of divine revelation to humanity, and proceed from there through the rise of the religions themselves, to the provision of salvation and the question of religious “ends,” to conclude with the practical outcome of mission.


General Revelation

Systematic theology typically divides the question of revelation into ‘general’ and ‘special’ categories. In the former of these, we need to ask several questions.

What is it? What is the nature of general revelation? Is general revelation embedded, as it were, in things themselves? Does one look at the heavens and immediately know, or perhaps properly, infer, that God exists and that he is powerful, creative, beautiful, and more? Is the revelation of God simply there, and human beings know it as we experience the world, unless we are corrupted by sin and thus are insensate?

Does the Holy Spirit, instead, so move among and within human beings such that all have access to God’s revelation—whether God’s moral law, his ordering of the cosmos, his love for human beings, and so on?

Furthermore, what is the content of that revelation? Is it simply that God exists—and what then is meant by ‘God exists’? Is it that God is mighty and the maker of heaven and earth? Is it that God is all this and also the lover of our souls?

How general is it? Does everyone on earth have access to God’s revelation? Do entire nations have less access than others, just as Gentiles have less access to special revelation than Israelites in the Old Covenant? What about individuals born with, or raised to have, important defects in their epistemic apparatus, whether mental, psychological, physical or spiritual? Consider, that is, mentally retarded persons, victims of sexual abuse, slaves, the blind, and those raised in horribly corrupt communities. How does the concept of general revelation need to be qualified, if at all, in the light of these realities?

What is the point of it? Some theologians have suggested that God gives us enough general revelation to condemn us, but not enough to save us: We see the cliff of God’s holiness, so to speak, but no rope to help us climb it. Others suggest that God’s goodness and willingness to save are announced to all through the Holy Spirit. But is that true? And if so, what are God’s intentions in working with and through that revelation?

Special Revelation

Typically, again, systematic theology has pointed especially to the Bible and to Jesus as the key events of special revelation. These are revelations not generally available, but specially available in just this document and just this person.

Special revelation, however, if it is defined simply as “revelation that is not generally available but made available on this occasion to this audience,” takes in much more.

Prophecy, whether in the Old Testament, New Testament, or Christian church to the present, counts as special revelation. God speaks directly and specifically to a particular audience in such communication.

The Roman Catholic Church sees Tradition as also a deposit of the Holy Spirit’s special revelation. If Protestants disagree with that lofty estimation, what do we make instead of the history of doctrine, of liturgy, of Christian thought and life in general? Did God offer special revelation through the Nicene Creed, or the solasof the magisterial Reformation, or the piety of eighteenth century revivals, or the rise of Pentecostalism?

What about the Holy Spirit’s work of personal conviction of sin and offer of salvation through Christ? Is this special revelation? It certainly amounts to such for the individual involved. Some theologians might demur, pointing out that there is no new content being delivered here that hasn’t been delivered already through the Bible. But does this response overemphasize propositional revelation? And does it then offer a helpful alternative category for what seems to be indeed a new work of revelation by which God shows an individual spiritual truth he or she did not apprehend before?

What about ongoing personal guidance of Christians? Evangelicals particularly are inclined to celebrate God’s direction in their lives, and to testify to many occasions in which God moved them this way or that—whether as individuals or as groups. Does this count as special revelation? If it does, then perhaps we now recognize a quite broad category of special revelation by which the Holy Spirit reveals quite a lot of things to quite a lot of people, rather than restricting his activity to illuminating the Bible about the gospel of Jesus Christ—as some evangelical construals would have it. If this does not count as special revelation, however, then what is it?

Finally, what do we suppose is happening when a particular religion or philosophy emerges? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the discoveries and resultant teachings of the Buddha, or Socrates, or Confucius? Early Christian apologists credited the Holy Spirit with inspiring the Socratic philosophers: Only the Holy Spirit could have enabled them to arrive at so many correct conclusions about God and the world, in the view of Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and their colleagues. So what about other religious and philosophical geniuses? And what about those who are not geniuses, but who nonetheless have made their own smaller discoveries of truth, beauty, and goodness and offered them to others?

Ingredients of Religions

God’s activity in religions can be assumed at least insofar as any religion has any truth, goodness, or beauty in it. There is nothing virtuous in the universe that does not come as a gift of God, the fount of every blessing. How much more, however, is God involved in any particular religion?

An alternative to hypothesizing divine activity is, of course, to posit demonic distortion instead. Yes, a religion might include some good bits, but the religion itself might well be the construct of evil spiritual powers, intent on mischief rather than blessing. An evangelical theology of religions thus must wrestle with the question of just what Satan and company actually can do in this regard, and might have done in the emergence of this or that religion.

God and the devil are not, to be sure, the only agents involved. Human beings appropriate the work of higher or lower spiritual powers and put our distinctive stamp upon it, for better and for worse. What, then, are the discernible human contributions to the career of Buddhism, or Baha’i, or Shinto? We Christians also should recognize, especially in this conversation, that our own religion bears the marks of all three types of agents: divine, devilish, and human. From this perspective we can more humbly and carefully examine other religions as well.

Furthermore, all students of religions recognize that religions evolve over time. Recognizing this fact gives rise to two more questions.

First, the question of origins: Where do the religions come from? What really happened to Gotama Buddha under the bo tree, or to Muhammad in that cave, or to Joseph Smith when he claimed he was visited by the angel Moroni, or to Jesus’ body after his crucifixion? Can we investigate these matters historically? Does it matter if we do?

I have been struck by how scholars of religious studies tend to tiptoe around these matters, placing silent and invisible quotation marks around all such claims to supernatural origins as if to say, “Well, that’s what the believers claim, and I’m not going to dispute that here.” Surely, however, any thorough characterization of the very nature of Islam or Mormonism or Christianity (to name three religions that claim straightforward historicity for the supernatural careers of their founders) would require serious investigation of these narratives. Perhaps for Theravada Buddhism it doesn’t matter whether Gotama Buddha actually received enlightenment under that tree or not: The point is the noble path he set out for his followers. To worry about the bo tree is to commit the genetic fallacy. Buddhism is true whether or not the story of its origin is true or not. But it obviously does matter to these other religions whether Muhammad was delusional, or Joseph Smith a charlatan, or Jesus just another failed “messiah.”

Second, in considering the nature of religions, we need constantly to ask, “Which religion do you mean?” Religions change and divide and diversify over time. Theologies of religion must be informed by the historic complexity of actual religious traditions, not the convenient oversimplifications of stereotypes (such as “all eastern thought is monistic” or “Christianity alone offers a religion of grace”).

Purpose of Religions

Counterfeit/alternative to true religion? Do other religions have what goodness, truth, and beauty they possess only as an enticement away from God’s true way, whether the covenant with Israel or the new covenant in Christ? Are other religions allowed by God’s providence the way in which other evils are allowed: to let our free will run its course, to demonstrate what we can get up to on our own (and especially with demonic encouragement), to provide alternatives to the true path so that no one can claim to be coerced into it by default?

Restraint of evil and offering of (some) good? Do other religions exist the way institutions exist (as per Romans 13), as divinely-ordained structures that restrain evil and offer thereby at least some mitigated good? Are they mercies from God, at least the better ones, to supplant the even worse alternatives available through human and demonic rebellion and deceit?

It may be that other goods reside in other religions as well. Perhaps by their very (over)emphasis upon this or that truth, they can remind Christians, as well as teach others, of truths that might be underplayed or even ignored in this or that tradition. Furthermore, it may be that God has actually revealed some things in other religious contexts that are not revealed in the Jewish and Christian traditions. (Perhaps he has done so in a way similar to his revelation of truth through science, history, and other fields beyond Christian religious resources.) Evangelical Christians thus can learn from other religions, as Gerald McDermott has argued, and not merely seek to teach them.

Propaedeutic of the gospel? Do other religions offer “good dreams” of what actually came true in the life of Christ, as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien wondered? Previous generations of missionaries have theorized that God provides other religions as foundations for the proclamation of the gospel. Does God thus establish both points of contact and hunger for the truth among all people through both the blessings and inadequacies of their religions?

Along with this spectrum of options arises the question of how mutually exclusive these categories actually are. It might well be that a particular religion might serve two or even all three of these purposes under God’s mysterious and beneficent providence.

It also remains to consider the purpose of all religions, in this case including Christianity rather than isolating it from the rest. The essays in this collection by Miriam Adeney and Stan Grenz raise this point centrally, as Adeney points to discipleship and Grenz to community-building—not merely “getting souls to heaven”—as key purposes of authentic religion. Thus the theology of religions must interact with our theologies of conversion, sanctification, the church, and other key elements of the Christian religion.

Basis of Salvation

God’s Work and Human Response

Perhaps salvation needs to be seen as God’s work alone. Human beings are helpless to contribute to their own rescue, so God must save through his own love and power. Predestinarian orthodoxy, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox (although not as frequently or clearly articulated in the latter two traditions) claims just this dynamic. God is glorified in his doing all that needs to be done in saving an otherwise doomed humanity.

Ironically, however, a strong predestinarianism also constitutes the ground for universalism, the belief that all will be saved and hell will be empty. For God is all-good, God is all-powerful, and nothing successfully resists his will.

Much more common among Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and, yes, evangelical Christians is the conviction that God’s work is indeed foundational, but human beings have a role to play as well. God’s grace comes first, brings the sinner to the moment of conversion, and sustains the Christian on the path to the New Jerusalem. Human beings, however, do have the dignity and responsibility of deciding whether to cooperate with God or not, and without that cooperation, God allows his love for us to be frustrated.

Unorthodox theologies also find a home here. Process theology, for example, takes this dynamic for granted. And universalism can suggest that eventually all will find God so winsome that all will be saved, without exception.

What Is ‘God’s Work’ and What Is ‘Human Response’?

The definition and role of Christ Here in particular we can locate the question of who Christ is and what he has done. Since Christian faith rests upon Christ, and not “God in general,” all Christian theology worthy of the name rests foundationally on the person and work of Christ. A theology of religions, therefore, must set this out both thoroughly (so as not to claim too little for Christ, as in “moral example,” “spiritual guide” and so on) and carefully (so as not to claim too much, as in “God’s only revelation of himself,” “the only teacher of truth”). Theologies that claim too little for Christ will then find it easier to see other religions as adequate alternatives to Christianity. Theologies that claim too much will find it difficult to appreciate and account for the virtues evident in those other faiths, let alone understand how they can serve the divine plan in any way.

It is in this context that the term ‘exclusivism’ perhaps is best deployed to denote the conviction that there is one and only one basis upon which human beings come to their highest good. In Christian terms, exclusivism would denote the belief that the work of Christ is the one and only means by which salvation comes to humanity. ‘Pluralism,’ by this account, would say that Christ’s work does matter (more or less), but it provides merely one basis among others upon which we can enjoy fulfillment.

The definition and role of faith Christian commitment can be characterized along generic religious lines. It involves three broad elements: the affective (what and who one loves and hates, esteems and despises), the cognitive (what one believes), and the practical (what one does). What, then, does “saving faith” comprise? What does “mature faith” comprise?

Here is one location in which to consider the hard cases of infants, mentally retarded or deranged, and emotionally or otherwise psychologically crippled. What is needful in their cases when it comes to faith? Can others have faith on their behalf (as in catholic baptismal services)? Does God use “middle knowledge” to know what they would have done had they not been disadvantaged? Does God create such people for his own mysterious purposes and thus treat them differently from those created with normal opportunity to exercise faith?

Clearly, these questions matter also when considering people in other religions and cultures and what their standing is before God, what their needs are to which Christians properly can minister, and what gifts, if any, they might bring to us in exchange.

Revelation and Salvation: ‘Means’

‘Epistemological’ versus ‘Ontological’

A traditional Christian understanding of salvation says that all who are saved are saved only on the basis of their understanding and accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Critics of this position sometimes respond with a distinction between a human being’s epistemological condition and her ontological condition vis-à-vis Christ.

She might, that is, not know the factual content of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. But she has responded to God with proper faith—that is, faith proper to her circumstances, benighted as they are without knowledge of the gospel—and thus is ontologically saved by Christ’s work. Thus she is epistemologically not a ‘Christian,’ but she is ontologically a ‘believer,’ and thus saved by God’s work in Christ just as anyone else is.

This distinction might be clear as far as it goes. But it may not go far enough, as proponents of the distinction themselves often recognize. For this ‘believer’ still needs to be believing somethingabout someone(who is God) in order for the fundamental direction of her faith to be properly oriented and fruitful. An epistemologically (or ‘cognitively’) empty faith is inconceivable. Those who wish to defend this distinction, therefore, have an agenda item before them: What is the necessary content of saving faith?

In the light of this point, perhaps the so-called hard cases of infants and the mentally or psychologically incapacitated simply don’t apply to this question because such people are in fact incapable of faith. If so, they thus must fall under some other dimension of God’s economy, and it is better for a theology of religions (and of salvation, of course) to bracket them out rather than try to find some way to fit them in.

Four Options

Evangelism/’Restrictivism’ This view asserts that only by the explicit preaching and reception of the gospel can someone come to saving faith. Whatever else God might do for the unevangelized is mysterious at best and ominous at worst. What is clear is that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

This position breaks out into at least three versions distinguished by the chronological question of just when someone might hear the gospel and thus have the opportunity to respond in faith. Most widespread of these versions is that of evangelism before death: The gospel is preached by Christians to their neighbors and only those neighbors who respond to this proclamation have the opportunity to repent and be saved.

A second version of this emphasis upon evangelism suggests that those who do not have the opportunity to hear the gospel in the normal course of their lives will have it declared to them directly by the Holy Spirit at death. No one will be left bereft of the gospel message, that is, as he or she faces judgment in the world to come.

A third version also ensures that no one can accuse God of withholding the gospel from him or her. It affirms that after deatheach person receives the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel that was not available in life.

This group is sometimes termed ‘exclusivists’ because of their emphasis both upon the unique and necessary work of Christ and upon the necessity of preaching and responding to the gospel message, thus excluding all other options—at least as far as we know. (Again, God might have mercies to bestow on others outside this economy of salvation, but we have few clues as to what these mercies might be.) But ‘exclusivism’ is best reserved for belief in just one basis for salvation. ‘Restrictivists’ would then be those who believe that salvation is restricted to those who hear and respond in faith to the gospel message.

Inclusivism This term then applies to those who believe there is one basis upon which human beings reach religious fulfillment, but there are several means available by which people may access the benefits of that one basis.

In orthodox Christian terms, inclusivists share with restrictivists the exclusivistic belief in the central and necessary place of Christ’s work on behalf of humanity. Orthodox inclusivists, then, are those who believe that God applies the salvific benefits of the work of Christ to those who have not heard the gospel, but who nonetheless are granted the gift of saving faith as they respond to what light of the Holy Spirit they have been granted. (Thus the question of revelation resurfaces here quite significantly.)

It is worth noting in passing, however, that there are at least two unorthodox versions of Christian inclusivism available as well. The first is the pattern set out by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Hick, and other ostensible “pluralists.” These theorists suggest that there are multiple paths to human fulfilment, many of them having nothing to do with Jesus Christ, explicitly or implicitly. In Hick’s formulation, one can be rightly oriented toward the Ultimately Real with or without the assistance of Jesus. Such a view, however, rests (as orthodoxy does) on the fundamental conviction that there is only one basis upon which people can reach their summum bonum. What Smith, Hick and their ilk say is that this basis is notthe person and work of Jesus Christ, but they suggest instead that it is the revelation of God abroad in the world, the correct response to which is “other-mindedness,” charity, and moral rectitude. There are not really multiple paths, but multiple versions of the same path to the same end.

So, too, does mysticism offer multiple versions of the same path to the same end: union with the divine. Whether the Christian mysticism of Meister Eckhart or the Society of Friends, or the non-Christian mysticism of Sufi Muslims or bhakti Hindus, mysticism around the world has the same basic ethos and trajectory, which are expressed in multiple forms.

Pluralism This view is actually quite rare: the idea that there really are distinctly different and independent religious paths. This view doesn’t shut one up to endorsing any and every religious option. Perhaps some are truly shams, or inadequate in some respect, or simply evil. It is hard, however, to suggest what pluralism really means in detail. It’s not even clear that this is a coherent concept. What sort of universe would it be in which Buddhists, Jains, Hegelians, Daoists, and Maoris all pursued such different paths, each of them real and valid on its own terms? What sort of God or Ultimate Principle would be behind all of these in order for them to be efficacious? Yet this is what espousal of true pluralism of religious “means” would entail.

Results, Destinies, ‘Ends’

In the Christian range of options, there seem to be only three general scenarios.

Heaven and hell First, there is the traditional pair of heaven (or, as many would suggest is a more accurate view, the New Jerusalem) and hell. Roman Catholicism adds to this view by positing purgatory as a way station for Christians on their journey to heaven, but this is merely a modification of the basic Christian scheme.

Orthodox Christians of all sorts do debate, however, the nature of hell. Is it a condition or even place of eternal, conscious torment of the damned? Christian tradition weighs in heavily on this side.

Does it denote instead a termination of the rebellious human life as God honors the human decision to resist him forever, and thus to take leave of the very basis of one’s own existence? (This latter view is sometimes referred to as ‘annihilationism,’ an unhappy term that suggests that God destroys an otherwise existing person, rather than recognizing the Biblical teaching that nothing exists at all, moment by moment, without God’s express will and power. Thus no one is annihilated: Some, instead, choose to be utterly without God, and therefore utterly without the basis of their own being.)

Some have wondered, within orthodox bounds, whether hell is shut once forever, or if human beings are there only by choice, in a place of shadows, from which some might emerge by God’s grace as repentant. This would make hell an eternal punishment for some, and a purgatory for others. (Few theologians, however, have advocated any such construal of the afterlife.)

Multiple ends Only in this generation have orthodox theologians suggested that perhaps, in God’s mysterious and gracious providence, the world’s great religions (and perhaps some of the minor ones) really do deliver what they promise. That is, perhaps faithful Christians do go to heaven, but faithful Muslims find themselves in an Islamic paradise, faithful Vaisnava Hindus dwell in company with Krishna, devoted Buddhists enjoy nirvana, native Americans go to a happy hunting or fishing ground, and so on. These alternative religious ends are not, from the Christian point of view, nearly as blessed as the Christian beatitude of fellowship with the triune God and Christ’s Church in the New Jerusalem. But they are granted by God as intermediate ends, which people have chosen and properly pursued, and from which some, perhaps, will yet move onward to the Celestial City.

This radical suggestion is still too new to have received sustained attention by the theological community, and it remains the one true ‘pluralism’ of religious ends on offer.

Heaven for all/Universalism The belief that all roads ultimately lead to the one end of universal beatitude actually can be located in all of the options under “means.” In restrictivist terms, that is, perhaps everyone will hear the gospel, whether during life, at the point of death, or after death, and each will respond in faith. Perhaps, instead, the work of Christ will be applied to everyone, regardless of his or her current religious outlook, as everyone eventually is brought under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, thirdly, God is pleased to accept the religious strivings of all humankind and welcome everyone home at the end of the cosmic day.


What, then, is the Christian mission in regard to religions? Looking inward, first, requires the Christian theologian to recognize afresh what a “mixed field” is the Church itself and its religion. Part of the Christian mission to religions, therefore, is the purification and strengthening of the Christian religion. Furthermore, if there are resources beyond the Church in other religions that can help in this project—as some in this volume have suggested there are—then Christians will do well to discern and appropriate them, with thanksgiving.

Looking outward, second, requires the Christian theologian to appreciate that differing answers to the questions posed in the previous categories will make a significant difference in certain aspects of Christian mission. If other religions are simply demonic counterfeits, for example, then one engages in dialogue with their devotees only to find avenues for Christian proclamation and persuasion. But taking seriously the natures of other religions can prompt the Christian to think hard about just why those people would possibly believe and practice that. It may be that people are Buddhists or Hindus or Jews because, among other things, they really prefer that construal of the cosmos to the Christian one. It may be that they really don’t want what Christians offer. And sensitive Christian mission will take that possibility more carefully into account beyond the reflexive writing-off of all resistance as just rebellion against God. Perhaps, that is, there is something interesting and worthwhile to consider in other religions’ diffidence toward the Christian message and way—a diffidence, again, that might not always simply have to do with resistance to Jesus, but just resistance to usand our religion.

One should not, however, exaggerate the differences between this or that theology of religions and this or that missionary outlook. Any evangelical—indeed, any orthodox Christian—theology or mission that does not name Jesus as Lord is unworthy of the name ‘Christian.’ Any theology or mission that does not “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is offering a truncated, and therefore heretical, gospel. Upon these two convictions hang all theology and mission.

To return, then, to the theoretical issue once more to raise just one more practical point: To what extent does the Christian faith come as replacement, as fulfilment, as corrective, or as complement to another religion? Answering that question requires not only a general theology of religions, but also adequate knowledge of the particular religion in question. And that sort of knowledge is in especially short supply among evangelicals, who (to put it gently) have not encouraged their bright young people to devote themselves to the serious study of another faith.

For the evangelical theology of religions to advance, therefore, will require not only attention to the actual definition and phenomenon of ‘religion,’ as Paul Griffiths points out. It will require sustained engagement with actual religions in an academic, as well as missionary, mode. Short of that, our theologizing will remain at best abstract and at worst simply mistaken.

Not a Conclusion

There may well be refinements, even wholesale changes, that need to be applied to this attempt to map the way forward for an evangelical theology of religions. What is quite clear, however, is that evangelical theology cannot remain stuck on the very particular question of ‘the destiny of the unevangelized’ when so much else is at stake in the theology of religions.

Indeed, a thoroughgoing program of investigation will entail opening up most of the rest of the theological curriculum: Trinity, Christology, revelation, salvation, providence, anthropology, ecclesiology, mission, theological method—in fact, it is hard to name a branch of systematic theology not affected by such consideration.

Evangelicals have confronted the world’s religions for centuries as missionaries, with some difficulties and even disasters, yes, but also with great gain for the Kingdom. Perhaps it is time now for evangelical theologians—not just individuals, here and there, but the community of theologians—to take our turn.

[See also the previous post on evangelical inclusivism.]


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