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Are There Really Many Roads to God? The Question of Religious Pluralism

What Christianity Has Going For It”  will continue in the coming weeks, but I would also like to offer a  post regarding the topic of religious pluralism, the question of whether there are indeed many ways to God.  It is an important topic and extremely relevant to anyone of faith that lives in America today.  This can be seen from research conducted recently.  That information and link can be found in my previous blog “Religion in America.”  It informs us that large majorities of the major religions present in America believe their own faith is not the only way to God, and that other religions teach equally valid truth as theirs.  What I would like to do now is deal with what I believe is the fundamental issue related to this topic of religious pluralism.  We will then look at some of the most common questions asked by many relating to the topic.

Let it be noted, this is not a defense of Christianity/biblical theism.  This is simply a critique of religious pluralism.  Just because religious pluralism might be false, doesn’t mean Christianity is true.  It must also be remembered that to make a case for religious pluralism is to oppose not just the Christian faith, but every world religion with the exception of Hinduism.  Hinduism is the only major world faith that asserts at least a level of religious pluralism.  Therefore, even if religious pluralism is found to be unsubstantial, it does not necessarily mean that Christianity is right.  Any revelatory faith/worldview could be the true faith.  I think this is important to understand.  On the flip side, if religious pluralism is right, everyone is wrong.  As we will see, any revelatory worldview (religion that is based on revelation from God) is incompatible with the idea that one can get to God any number of ways.  Therefore, if one is a religious pluralist, then that individual believes not only Christianity, but Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, etc… are all wrong.  My intention here is not necessarily to make a case for Christianity, but to show the inconsistency and falsehood of religious pluralism. 

D. A. Carson, one of the most noted New Testament scholars in the world today, wrote a book about ten years ago in response to this increasingly influential idea of religious pluralism.  The title of the book was “The Gagging of God.”  Carson got it right.  When it comes right down to it, the question of whether there are many ways to God is about revelation.  The idea that God has revealed Himself.  That He has spoken.  Hence the title, “The Gagging of God,”  for religious pluralism gags God.  It does not allow God to have spoken.  Ultimately, religious pluralism ONLY WORKS if God has not spoken or revealed Himself.  Hopefully it will be clear by the end of this entry why this is the case.  Again, this is the fundamental issue at stake in the question of whether there are many ways to God. 

One must understand that nearly every religion in the world is built on the idea that God has spoken, whether through a text or through people (prophets, sages, etc…).  Christianity has the Bible.  Islam has the Quran.  Mormonism has the Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants (revelation that comes through the prophet, which continues to happen) and the Pearl of Great Price.  Judaism has the Old Testament.  New Age has spirit guides.  And so on and so forth.  Each of these faiths believe that God/gods have revealed things to man.  That what they claim has come not from men, but from god/gods themselves.  This means that they carry divine authority.  This is a final word.  And so the problem with religious pluralism arises.  If all religions are true and lead to God, how can they all have something that God actually said?  They all say completely different things.  How can God be eternal and three in person while one in nature (Christianity) but also be a man who wasn’t eternal but eventually became a God through proving himself worthy through a period of mortal probation (Mormonism)?  How can there be one God (Islam) but also 3.5 million gods (Hinduism)?  How can one go to one of two places after death (Christianity) and also be reincarnated over and over (a number of faiths, most notably Hinduism)?  How can one go to heaven to reside with God (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and also be absorbed into a sea of undifferentiated being (Buddhism), or get to become a god themselves and rule over their own creation (Mormonism)? 

It doesn’t take a great deal of common sense to see that these ideas contradict each other.  They are incompatible.  They can’t all be right.  Not if they all came from God.  Despite the efforts of many to try and show that religions are basically all the same (primarily based on morality rather than truth claims), the ideas they each teach are irreconcilable.  The religions of the world simply are grounded on teachings about God, man, salvation, and eternity that cannot fit together.  They each paint opposing views of what is happening in the world.  They cannot all have come from the same God.  Maybe there are many gods who have each revealed these things to man, but this presents problems of its own. 

The religious pluralist must then assert that the only way there can be many roads to God is if God has not spoken anywhere through any faith.  If God has revealed Himself somewhere (wherever that is), then that makes everything else false and means that there can only be one way.  Every sacred text, every divine revelation through any man, are therefore simply man’s attempts to get to God, but carry no authority from God, for they aren’t from Him.  They are simply man’s best attempts to understand the world and get to God.  God has left us to fend for ourselves.  If religion is then man’s attempt to get to God, and none of us really know in the first place, because God hasn’t told us, then God is justified in accepting people from different faiths.  But if God has spoken somewhere and made Himself known, then we are not left in ignorance, and are not justified in simply doing our best.  We have to do as He tells us.  He wants to be known, for He has spoken.  He intends to be understood, for this would betray the very purpose of communication if He did not.  And, we are accountable to it, for there is no reason to say it if we aren’t expected to be held accountable to it. 

Remember also that the religious pluralist is not an atheist.  They do not believe there is no God, for they claim that man will be with God ultimately.  They must therefore put their trust in a god who has distanced himself from mankind and not spoken to him.  Who has left us to fend for ourselves.  The religious pluralist would claim they believe in a god who is compassionate and loving, for he accepts people from all faiths.  And yet, the reality of a god who has implanted in us such a longing for the divine as human beings, and yet left us to wander through life in ignorance, seems more cruel to me than kind and compassionate.  I believe, deep down, humanity lays their heads down at night and wants answers.  They may not like them or want to live by them, but they long to know.  They long for something from God Himself.  This idea, even if God has truly only revealed Himself in one way through one faith, permeates humanity.  For our religions, even our false attempts to get to God, claim revelation from God Himself.  The religious pluralist, thus opposes pretty much every religion in the world.  It opposes a God who has revealed Himself to man.  It opposes divine involvement or interaction with mankind.  This to me is a hard sell, and would seem a hard sell to more than 90% of the people on the planet, not simply Christians.  For they too believe God reveals Himself, somehow, in some way. 

This is of course a simple introduction to the discussion on religious pluralism.  There is much more to say.  This however, is the foundational issue, I believe, that must be addressed if we are to draw any conclusions at all regarding whether there are many roads to God.  One simply cannot claim that many roads lead to God and believe that God actually comes to us through them, as they each assert themselves.  Religious pluralism only works if all of them are wrong and none of them have anything that ever came from God Himself.  They are all just man’s best attempts, assembled for whatever purpose their authors or spokespersons intended them, selfish or well-meaning.  Revelation is the key.  I believe there is good reason to believe that God has revealed Himself, even if it is not through the Christian Scriptures (though that is where I believe He has revealed Himself).  This would make religious pluralism impossible and wrong. 

Now for some frequently asked questions. 

First:  What if someone is sincere in their belief?  Would God really send them to hell?  Let me answer this question on several levels.  It is a question that sounds good on the surface, but really betrays common sense when we see it for what it is.  If this is the case, was Hitler justified in murdering 5 million Jews if he really sincerely believed it was the right thing to do?  I think all of us would say of course not.  We used to believe the earth was flat.  But now we know it is round.  If someone truly, sincerely believed it was flat, did that make it flat?  No, of course not.  One final illustration.  If a student gets a question wrong on a test, but goes up to the teacher and tells them that they got the question wrong, but they really believed it was right, so they think the teacher should give them credit for it, is the teacher going to give them credit for it?  Of course not.  Being sincerely wrong doesn’t count anywhere else in life.  It sounds great to some when it comes to religion, but it really doesn’t make any sense.   I think this idea is also fed by an understanding of religion as being about living good lives that have the appearance of goodness, and thus, if one appears to live a good moral life, then why wouldn’t God accept them, regardless of what they call themselves?  This approach obviously puts little value on propositions (truth claims themselves), but also sees morality as the key to acceptance before God.  The Bible, however, makes it clear that goodness is never good enough, and has no basis for justifying us before God.  Only what Jesus did for us on the cross can do that.  Being moral will never be good enough.  And neither will sincerity apart from truth. 

Second:  Isn’t it arrogant for one group to claim that they have the right answer?  This question is obviously fed by the idea that we probably can’t know truth at all, even though that’s ridiculous when we look around us at the world.  Why learn anything if we can’t really know anything for sure anyways?  If knowing something to be true makes one arrogant then we’ve lost any sense of reality whatsoever.  Nevertheless, there is a greater flaw in this question than even the issue of relativity and truth.  What one forgets is that for the religious pluralist to be right, pretty much everyone else has to be wrong.  The religious pluralist claims that no one has the right to claim access to God or the right to claim exclusive truth.  Thus, they claim everyone who doesn’t agree with them to be absolutely wrong as well.  This is no less arrogant.  They may look like they are being tolerant, but they are not because almost everyone in the world believes in exclusive truth, that only their faith is right.  The religious pluralist is essentially telling all of them they are wrong by asserting what they believe.  So they are really being even less tolerant than one who believes in exclusive truth. 

Third:  Is there anything right in other religions?  Yes, there are things present in other faiths that may be truthful.  But this does not necessarily mean that it came from special revelation from God.  God endowed all men with a moral compass, consciousness, and His image (whatever that entails.  There are many opinions).  This gives us much in common as humans and will undoubtedly flesh itself out in our religious belief, even if our faiths are different and not necessarily from a special revelation from God.  Thus, there will be commonalities and some truthfulness to certain things that can be found in some different faiths.  But this does not necessarily mean what they teach about God and salvation are the same or equally true.  In reality, religions have far more differences than similarities. 

Fourth:  Aren’t all religions basically the same?  We’ve already touched on this some, and some of the answer to the last question will apply here as well, but just to clarify, the world’s religions claim contradictory things about the fundamental questions we ask, questions about God, man, salvation, and eternity.  Our commonalities are mostly pragmatic ones, things that deal with moral issues, but most of our ideas or propositions are radically different.  In addition, few of the world’s religions and their followers believe that other religions believe as they do, many of them killing each other over their differences.  The idea that we’re all basically the same is pretty much an American idea, but is not shared by most of the rest of the world. 

Fifth:  If only one religion is right, why are there so many religions?  Because man rejects the truth and develops religions and beliefs of their own making, both in their ignorance and in their rebelliousness.  We find new ways to do this because we find new ways to selfishly control people for our own purposes and achieve our own ends, and because we find new ways to be sinful and rebellious.  We make new idols to worship.  Plus, one right answer automatically makes every other answer wrong, leaving many possibilities for getting something wrong.  There can be lots of wrong answers to a question, but only one right one.  This should make sense to us.  Why doesn’t it make sense to us as it applies to religion? 

Sixth:  What about all of the people who never did or never will hear about Jesus?  This is a great question, and a challenging one.  Nevertheless, there is a clear biblical answer.  The Bible does several things.  First, in Romans 1 it tells us that that God has made Himself sufficiently known that all men have seen enough to make them accountable to God for knowing who He is.  And yet they have rebelled against that knowledge and rejected it.  Thus there is sufficient reason for them to be fairly condemned.  Secondly the Bible commands Christians to go and take the message of the truth into all the world with urgency.  This is irreconcilable with the idea that those left in ignorance will be all right.  We must go, and must go urgently so that many might hear and believe.  Whether one is comfortable with the answer or not, this is what the Bible declares. 

These are a few of the most frequently asked questions related to the subject.  Hopefully the answers are helpful and clear.  The religious diversity around us, and the move towards a very experiential form of spirituality that finds little value in truth claims has left us thinking that we can get to God in a variety of ways.  With all of this diversity, how can only one group be right?  If people in all religions experience God, and feel God, and live good lives, how can they not go to heaven as well?  These types of questions have brought us to where we are today in our culture.  Hopefully, however, we can see more clearly that there are a number of reasons to see these ideas as weak and unlikely.  There are, as it appears to me, far more reasons to reject such an idea than accept it.

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