Defending the indefensible: The uniqueness of Christ in a pluralistic world
How do we begin to persuade atheists, agnostics and pluralists of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? In the face of overwhelming criticism, there remain some responses which do us little good. The first could be called timid acquiescence. While we believe the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, we either downplay it or we affirm it with embarrassment. The second could be called bold arrogance. We simply trot out verses like Acts 4:12 and John 14:6 with little explanation or apologetic defence (because we don’t have one). We use a machete to bludgeon when what is needed is a scalpel to subvert.
An approach more in keeping with the New Testament, is one that defends and proclaims Christian exclusivity with a bold humility that seeks to understand the world through a biblical worldview before applying unique and satisfying gospel truth to the pseudo-gospels which promise much but never deliver.
Here are three things we might consider:
- a) Develop and deploy a biblically rich ‘theology of religions’
A biblical ‘theology of religions’ is not only interested in questions of salvation, but questions of truth and gospel communication. We need to be integrating sound exegesis, systematics, biblical theology and missiology. If other religions are not paths to salvation then what are they? Do they contain any truth or revelation? Are they demonically inspired or human constructions? How far can we go in tolerating others without compromising our own beliefs? How do we affirm the good in other religions? Can people from other religious traditions do ‘good’?
Evangelicals must think about such issues based upon biblical foundations concerning the nature of God and His revelation, and the nature of mankind and his reaction to revelation. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the quest for god in other faiths and the knowledge of God ‘in the face of Jesus Christ’. Non-Christian religion always bears the dual impress of God’s gracious revelation of Himself to all mankind in creation and mankind’s universal exchange of the truth of God for a lie. These twin biblical perspectives must be maintained in our evaluation of other religions, as Paul did at Athens (Acts 17). Despite the universality of God’s providential care and presence (vv.24-28), the Athenians’ religiosity suppressed the knowledge of the true God. Their abundant images and idols attested their ignorance of Him (vv.16, 22-23, 29-30), and even their awareness of that ignorance (v.23). Because idols are distortions and perversions of truth one might cautiously say that Christianity is the ‘subversive fulfillment’ of the human religious quest.
- b) Discern and denounce the arrogance and intolerance of pluralism
Here we need to go on the offensive. Consider how our society reacts to terms like ‘exclusivism’ (cold, harsh, unfeeling, divisive), as opposed to terms like ‘inclusivism’ and ‘pluralism’ (warm, open, tolerant, peaceful). As the grammar of theology of religions has evolved, some have noticed a bias in the way exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism have been described and portrayed. How could anyone be a ‘horrible exclusivist’? Shouldn’t we all be ‘tolerant pluralists’?
However, the pluralism prized by many is as ‘exclusive’ as so-called ‘exclusivism’, in fact far more so. Consider the infamous example of the blind men who all touch various parts of an elephant – and all come to a different understanding of the same reality. It is often given as an illustration against exclusivism, but listen to missiologist Lesslie Newbigin:
The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get a hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralise the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn more humility and recognise that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after.
We need to gently argue that what looks like an inclusive view is, in reality, a very exclusive view; what looks humble is very arrogant; and what looks tolerant is in fact intolerant. Many pluralists are blind to this criticism and we need to expose the soft underbelly of their thinking.
- You say ‘no-one has the right to have the whole truth, but your view assumes you have the whole truth, an absolute vantage point to look down on and interpret all religions. Tell me, where did you get this insight from?
- You say ‘no-one should try and convert them to their religion’, but you want me to convert to your story with its own particular understanding of god and reality. On what basis?
- You say that ‘Christian belief is too culturally conditioned to be “truth” and that if you were born in Morocco you would be a Muslim, but the same is true for you. If you were born in Morocco you wouldn’t be a religious pluralist. It’s just not fair to say ‘All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making just now.’
When we make these points we will discover the blind ‘leaps of faith’ that pluralists and others have to make to substantiate their positions: houses built on sinking sand rather than on the solid rock of God’s revelation.
Critics of Christian chauvinism [exclusivism] are fond of tossing around the charge of intellectual arrogance. But… I am guilty of intellectual arrogance if… I insist that I am right, and you are wrong, but I refuse to offer a rational defence… On the one hand I assume an air of intellectual superiority while, at the same time, withdrawing into a shell of unreasoning obstinacy when my vaunted beliefs come under fire. But the Christian faith has always had a strong apologetic component. We make a reasoned case for what we believe.
- c) Demonstrate and display in both word and deed the unique power of the gospel to change lives and communities
Finally, we need to ask which exclusive set of beliefs actually delivers the goods: lasting peace, tolerance, loving relationships and peaceful behaviour? And the answer is the unique good news of historic, orthodox Christianity. Here Tim Keller is at his subversive best. Concentrating on 1 John 4:1-12, Keller argues that it is precisely the unique aspects of the Christian gospel which will provide the lasting reconciliation which people long for and chase after in their unbelief – and all these focus on Jesus Christ:
- The origin of Jesus’ salvation: unlike the human founders of many of the world religions, Jesus Christ has come ‘from God,’ (v.2). Jesus is God incarnate.
- The purpose of Jesus’ salvation: Unlike many other religions which seek liberation or escape from creation and the physical world, Jesus has ‘come in the flesh’ (v.2). Christianity says that salvation is not about escaping creation but redeeming and transforming ‘this world’.
- The method of grace: Unlike other religions in which you have to perform in certain ways to be saved – the gospel says the opposite: ‘This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (v.10). Jesus is not mainly a teacher, but a wonderful Saviour.
Why are these unique distinctives so important? Keller argues they are the foundation for truly loving behaviour. Without them, a concept like ‘love’ loses its meaning and quickly becomes self-righteousness and intolerance. How so? Keller argues that in the method of grace, Christians know they are to be humble not self-righteous; in the purpose of Jesus’ salvation, Christians know they are to serve others in their communities, because the resurrection shows us that ‘this world’ matters; in the purpose of Jesus’ salvation, Christians know that a self-sacrificing God leads to self-sacrificing followers. So-called ‘exclusive’ Christianity produces the most ‘inclusive’, ‘loving’ and ‘peaceful’ followers.
It is crucial that as evangelicals we continue to proclaim faithfully the unique and exclusive claims of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. While we will understand the reaction of many to such claims, we must be neither embarrassed nor insensitive in our defence, but prayerfully and with gentleness and respect, subvert, persuade and proclaim our unique good news knowing that in our exclusive message we are giving a reason for hope in a hope-less world (1 Pet. 3:15).
Dan Strange is lecturer in Culture, Religion and Public Theology at Oak Hill Theological College, London.
An expanded version of this article can be found in the Affinity publication, TableTalk.
 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp.9-10.
 The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga makes this point forcefully in his defence of exclusivism.
 Steve Hays, I’m glad you asked n.p. [cited 16 January 2009]. Online: http://www.thirdmill.org/newfiles/ste_hays/PT.Hays.Why.Believe.apologetics.2.html
 See his audio talk, How can there be just one religion? available at http://www.bethinking.org/truth-tolerance/intermediate/exclusivity-how-can-there-be-just-one-true-religion.htm