How to Respond to Religious Pluralism


Is Jesus the only way to God? I'm often asked this question. If the answer is, “Yes, Jesus is the only way to God,” a line is drawn where we would sometimes rather things remain fuzzy. Why would we prefer this particular claim to remain fuzzy? In many cities there are arrays of religious beliefs: Mysticism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, to name a few. The presence of so many different religions in cities leads people (Christians included) to conclude that all religious paths lead to God. Why does this happen in cities? In urban areas, we are more likely to develop relationships with people from various religions. When we realize that they are kind and sincere because of their religious beliefs, it seems arrogant to insist their beliefs are wrong. After all, their religion appears to have made them very likable, respectable people. I have met secularists and Buddhists who are more generous and sacrificial than many Christians I know. How, then, should we respond to this array of religions with the claim that Jesus offers the one, true way to God?

Answering the Question Socially

When people of other faiths rival Christian character, we face a tendency to affirm all religions as valid ways to God. We make a theological decision based on social experience. Rather than investigate the answer to one of the most important questions, we prefer to glaze the question with inch-deep reflections upon the character of people we meet. Understandable but not wise.

What if we became known for not only posing great questions but also grappling deeply and sincerely with great answers? Many Christians claim that belief in Jesus is the only way to God. Others insist there are many ways to God, a view popularly called religious pluralism (academic religious pluralism advocates inter religious dialog not that all religions lead to the same God. Here we will deal with religious pluralism in its popular form). Let’s examine the claims of religious pluralism.

Over the past five years in Austin, Texas (a case study city for Harvard’s Pluralism Project), I have had the opportunity to meet, know, and talk with both Christian and non-Christian pluralists. As I have reflected on these conversations, it seems that there are at least three reasons people embrace religious pluralism. They believe it to be more enlightened, humble, and tolerant. Let’s examine each of these reasons more closely.

Is Religious Pluralism Enlightened?

Is the belief that all religious paths lead to the same God more enlightened or educated? Comparatively, each religion teaches very different things about who God is and how humans reach the divine. In fact, there is a lot of disagreement between the religions regarding the nature of God. Buddhism, for example, doesn’t believe in God. Islam teaches an impersonal monotheism, Allah. The Koran states that God reveals His will, but not His person. Christianity teaches a personal trinitarianism, where God is three persons in relationship, Father-Son-Spirit that can be known and enjoyed. Hinduism varies on this question, ranging from polytheism to atheism. This is due to the absence of definitive revelation to clarify Hindu “theology.” Instead, Hinduism has multiple sources of revelation (Upanishads, Vedas, etc.)  Contrary to Islam, Hinduism has no presuppositions about the nature of God. In short, religious views of God differ. If so, it would seem far from “enlightened” to claim that all religions lead to the same God, when their views of God are, in fact, radically different. This claim of religious pluralism contradicts the tenants of the religions themselves.

Religions not only teach different things about who God is but also how we “reach him.” Buddhism suggests the 8-fold Noble Path, Islam the 5 Pillars (Shahadah, Prayer, Fasting, Charity, Pilgrimage) and Christianity the gospel of Jesus. Therefore, to say that all religions lead to God is not only unenlightened it is inaccurate. This is the thesis of Stephen Prothero, Boston College professor, in his book God is not One. He writes:

And it is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not one.

Prothero goes on to point out that just as God is not one, so also all religions are not one. They are distinct and make very different claims about God and how to reach him. In light of what we have observed regarding what religions teach about the nature of God and how to reach him, religious pluralism must be reconsidered. Subscribing to religious pluralism because it is more enlightened or a more “educated” view of world religions is not only unenlightened but also inaccurate.

Is Religious Pluralism More Humble?

Despite very clear differences on the nature of God and human access to the divine, religious pluralists continue to insist that there are many ways to God. Why would educated people persist in an inaccurate view of other religions? One major reason is because they believe it to be an act of humility and love. Very often I hear people say: “Who am I to judge someone else’s religion, to tell them that they are wrong?” This implies, of course, that maintaining Jesus is the only way to God is arrogant. I’ll be the first to admit there are arrogant Christians who rudely insist that Jesus is the only way to God. I’d like to apologize for those kinds of Christians. Arrogant insistence on your beliefs actually runs counter to the life and teachings of Jesus. However, just because someone is arrogant doesn’t make him or her wrong.

People are arrogantly right about all kinds of things—Math, Science, Religion. You probably work with someone like this. (Dwight Schrute?) The arrogantly right person always talk down to others with an air of arrogance because they have the right answer. It might not be nice, but it doesn’t mean they are wrong.

For all the Christians who are arrogant about Jesus’ exclusive claims, there are many more who have ardently searched religions, compared their claims, and humbly come the conclusion that Jesus was telling the truth, that personal faith in the Messiah is the only way to God. This doesn’t make them arrogant; it makes them authentic. They are willing to stand by what they discovered to be true. Insisting on what is true doesn’t automatically make you arrogant. There are both humble and arrogant ways to insist on Jesus’ claim that he is the only way to God. After all, it is Jesus who said it, and Jesus was quintessentially humble, especially if he is who he said he was. By contrast, religious pluralism exclusively insists that its view—all ways lead to God—is true while all other religions are false in their exclusive teachings.

When religious pluralism claims that there are many ways to God, it is not humble. It actually carries an air of arrogance about it. How? Religious pluralism insists that its view—all ways lead to God—is true while all other religions are false in their exclusive teachings. Religious pluralism dogmatically insists on its exclusive claim, namely that all roads lead to God. The problem, as we have seen, is that this claim directly contradicts many religions like Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity. The claim of the religious pluralist is arrogant because it enforces its own belief on others. It says to other religions: “You must believe what I believe, not what you believe. Your way isn’t right, in fact all of your ways are wrong and my way is right. There isn’t just one way to God (insert your religion); there are many ways. You are wrong and I am right.” This can be incredibly arrogant, particularly if the person saying this hasn’t studied all the world religions in depth and makes a blind assertion. Upon what basis can the religious pluralist make this exclusive claim? Where is the proof that this is true? To what ancient Scriptures, traditions, and careful reasoning can they point? The lack of historical and rational support for religious pluralism makes it a highly untenable view of the world and its religions.

Is Religious Pluralism Truly Tolerant?

Very often people hold to religious pluralism because they think it is more tolerant than Christianity. I’ll be the first to say that we need tolerance, but what does it mean to be tolerant? To be tolerant is to accommodate differences, which can be very noble. I believe that Christians should be some of the most accommodating kinds of people, giving everyone the dignity to believe whatever they want and not enforcing their beliefs on others. We should winsomely tolerate different beliefs. Interestingly, religious pluralism doesn’t really allow for this kind of tolerance. Instead of accommodating spiritual differences, religious pluralism blunts them. Let me explain.

The claim that all paths lead to the same God actually minimizes other religions by asserting a new religious claim. When someone says all paths lead to the same God, they blunt the distinctions between religions, throwing them all in one pot, saying: “See, they all get us to God so the differences don’t really matter.” This isn’t tolerance; it’s a power play. When asserting all religions lead to God, the distinctive and very different views of God and how to reach the divine in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam are brushed aside in one powerful swoop. The Eightfold Noble Path, the 5 Pillars of Islam, and the Gospel of Christ are not tolerated but told they must submit to a new religious claim–religious pluralism–despite the fact that this isn’t what those religions teach. When it does this, religious pluralism places itself on top of all other religions.

The Religion of Religious Pluralism

People spend years studying and practicing their religious distinctions. To say they don’t really matter is highly intolerant! The very notion of religious tolerance assumes there are differences to tolerate, but pluralism is intolerant of those very differences! In this sense, religious pluralism is a religion of its own. It has its own religious absolute—all paths lead to the same God—and requires people of other faiths to embrace this absolute, without any religious backing at all. This is highly evangelistic. Religious pluralism  is preachy but under the guise of tolerance. In the end, it is a step of faith to say there are many paths to God. Says who? The idea that all paths lead to the same God is not a self-evident fact; it is a leap of faith. It isn’t even an educated leap, nor is it as humble and tolerant as it might appear.

Here is Stephen Prothero’s response to this tenant of religious pluralism:

Faith in the unity of religions is just that—faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.

As it turns out, each of the reasons for subscribing to religious pluralism—enlightenment, humility, and tolerance—all backfire. They don’t carry through. Religious pluralism isn’t enlightened, it’s inaccurate; it isn’t humble, it’s fiercely dogmatic; and it isn’t really all that tolerant because it intolerantly blunts religious distinctions. In the end, religious pluralism is a religion, a leap of faith, based on contradiction and is highly untenable. Christianity, on the other hand, respects and honors the various distinctions of other religions, comparing them, and honoring their differing principles–Karma (Hinduism), Enlightenment (Buddhism), Submission (Islam), and Grace (Christianity). As we conclude, let’s explore Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life as well as the charge that his teachings in Christianity are arrogant, unenlightened, and intolerant. In particular, we will examine the unique principle of grace.

Christ Teaches Us Humility

First, Jesus is the Way. What does this mean? Does it mean that Jesus is our trailblazer, clearing the other religious options aside so we can hike our way to heaven through spiritual or moral improvement. If I keep the Ten Commandments, if I serve the poor and love my neighbor, if I pray and read the Bible enough, then God will accept me. No. As the way, Jesus doesn’t create a path for us to hike. We can never make it—do enough spiritual, moral, or social good to impress God. Much less love him with all our soul, mind, and strength. We can’t make it up the path. We all fail to love and serve the infinitely admirable and lovable God. In fact, we love other things more, that’s a crime of infinite proportions. It’s against an infinite God. The sentence for our crime must be carried out.

When Jesus takes the arduous hike for us he goes down into the valley where the criminals die. He hikes down into our sin, our rebellion, our failures and he heaps them all on his back and climbs on a cross, where he is punished for our crime, a bloody gruesome death. The innocent punished for the guilty. If he doesn’t take our punishment, then we must endure it—forever separation from God. If you reject Jesus, then you will pay the infinite consequences. However, if you embrace Jesus in his sin-absorbing death you get forgiveness, and Jesus hikes not only through the valley but up the mountain to carry your forgiveness to God, where he pleads our innocence (Hebrews 10). This is what it means for Jesus to be the way. He hikes into the valley of our just punishment and up the mountain for our forgiveness. He is the redemptive way. He takes our place. This understanding of Jesus as the way should make us incredibly humble not arrogant. We realize how undeserving we are and how much mercy we have been shown.

Christ Enlightens Us

Jesus is also the Truth. What does that mean? In John chapter 1, we are told that God became flesh and was full of grace and truth in Jesus. The truth is that God is Jesus. Christianity is the only religion where God is born as a man, becomes fully human. This is the height of enlightenment. All other religions teach that humans must work their way toward divinity. The truth is Jesus. The truth is a person who dies in our place, for our crimes, and in turn gives us his life. The truth is that God works his way down to humanity and dies for us. That’s grace. See, the truth isn’t a special prayer or code word we say at the pearly gates. In Christianity, the truth is essentially revealed in a Person, Jesus, full of grace and humility. All other religions God is impersonal, but in Christianity we meet God in Jesus. The truth is a Person who dies for us. Wonderfully enlightened, moving.

Christ Guides Us to Persuasive Tolerance

Finally, Jesus is the Life. As if it wasn’t enough to be our way, incredibly humbling, and the truth, truly enlightening, Jesus caps it off by offering us not just his death but his life. What life? Later on in John, Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believes in him, though he die yet he will live (11:25). He goes down into the valley to take our death, and rises up from the dead to up the other side of the valley where he prepares a new place for us to enjoy life with him forever. The hope of Christ’s life should break into the lives of Christians today, making us persuasively tolerant. We tolerantly extend people the dignity of their own beliefs. We don’t minimize the differences between religions. We honor them. The life of Christ produces in us true humility. But it also produces in us true enlightenment. We’ve come to grasp grace, that God works his way down to us, dies for our moral and religious failures, and offers us life. If this is true, we must lovingly, humbly try to persuade others to believe in Jesus—who alone offers the wonderful promise of the way to God, the truth of God, and life of God.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how nice or moral a person is because there is not enough niceness or morality to pay for our rejection of God. Either we must be rejected or we turn to Jesus who was rejected for us. This is the heart of the gospel. Jesus lays down his own life for those who reject him, for his enemies, for those who don’t believe in him, and offers them forgiveness. Why would we reject such a man?—such a God? Jesus’ claims are better than the claims of religious pluralism. Christianity delivers where pluralism cannot. Instead of being unenlightened, Jesus is truly enlightening. He is God—full of grace and truth. Instead of being arrogant, Jesus should make us incredibly humble. He created the way to God for us at the expense of his own death. Finally, instead of being intolerant, Jesus should make us persuasively tolerant, granting people the dignity of unbelief but pleading with them to accept true life!

We all have a choice—where to place our faith. Will we place it in unenlightened, dogmatic, and intolerant pluralism? Or will we place it in Jesus, who is the incredibly humbling way, the enlightening truth, and the persuasively tolerant life? Both require faith. In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigin wrote: “Doubt is not autonomous.” We can’t rely on doubt alone. We can’t doubt one thing without placing our faith in another. We can doubt Jesus and trust pluralism, or we can trust Jesus and doubt pluralism. We cannot say, “I believe Jesus is the only way,” and also say, “I believe all religions lead to God.” Ask yourself, will you place faith in Jesus who is the way, truth, and life? Or, will you place your faith in religious pluralism?

Jonathan Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of Austin City Life church and directional leader for PlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. Jonathan is also the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Crossway, 2012). He blogs at jonathandodson.org, enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus. You can find him on Twitter @Jonathan_Dodson.