Religious Pluralism as a threat to Christianity

Introduction

Eastern traditions tell of a story of three blind men touching an elephant. Each man was touching a different part of the animal. One was touching a leg, another the trunk, and the third was touching the side of the elephant. The first man concluded that the elephant must be like a great tree, for its leg resembled one. The second man concluded that the elephant was like a snake, because he was holding the trunk. The third man concluded that the elephant was like a great wall, for he felt the large side of the animal.[1] This analogy is representative of the myriad of world religions. Each religion claims to have an understanding of an ultimate reality, yet they disagree on the means by which to obtain knowledge about it. Christianity, for example, claims that the only way to obtain salvation is through relationship with Jesus Christ.[2] Religious pluralism claims that the one Lord has manifested himself by other names, therefore, Christianity’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only way for an individual to receive salvation is simply one of many options. According to the pluralistic hypothesis, Christianity is false because each religion represents a person’s connection to the Real. This paper will analyze John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis and argue that it contains shortcomings on moral, philosophical, hermeneutical and logical grounds, which render the hypothesis incorrect.

John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis

John Hick became a Christian at an early age, developing conservative theological views.[3] Later in life, Hicks moved to England to teach and began attending different religious services. While attending these services, Hick believed that each person was, “opening their minds to a higher divine Reality, known as personal and good and as demanding righteousness and love between man and man.”[4] According to Hick, each person was experiencing the same type of religious experience that a Christian does. In essence, these were “different human responses to one divine Reality.”[5] A religious pluralist cannot definitively say that Christ is the sole revelation of God.[6] If Christ were the sole revelation of God, then more followers of other world religions would be attracted to Christianity. Instead, the soteriological goal of religion, according to the pluralistic hypothesis, is to experience the Real.

The pluralistic hypothesis, as outlined by John Hick, consists of four major parts. First, Hick argues that humanity is inherently religious. Next, Hick highlights that there are significant differences in the content of the various world religions. Third, Hick argues that religion is not an illusion. Lastly, Hick recognizes that religion generally has a positive effect on the lives of those who adhere to it.[7] Ultimately, Hick believes that there is an Ultimate Reality, or “the Real”, which is the foundation of all religious experience.[8] Each religious experience is simply a way of “conceiving, experiencing and responding in life to the Ultimate Real.”[9] Thus, the pluralistic hypothesis believes that all religious experience is valid. One cannot say that one person’s experience is more valid or is the exclusive way to experience the Real. The pluralistic hypothesis argues for the existence of one divine reality, from which all religious experience is derived. The claims asserted by Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis are troubling to Christians because it “provides a framework by which one can claim that any religion which positively transforms its followers’ lives is valid.”[10] The pluralistic approach undermines the claims of Christianity of Jesus’ divinity. Instead of being ontologically true, the pluralistic hypothesis demotes Jesus’ divinity to a metaphorical or mythological status.[11]

John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis challenges Christianity by proposing that within the Bible, Jesus never claims to be God incarnate. Instead, Jesus saw himself as God’s last prophet.[12] The early church developed the concept of the divinity of Jesus after the New Testament had been completed. Hick argues that Greek philosophy, combined with Christian tradition, produced the view of Jesus as God incarnate. Other religious pluralists argue for a “theocentric Christology that posits Christ as normative for the Christian experience, but not-absolute in any way.”[13]John Hick is able to put into complex scholarly vernacular what many in the world believe to be true. How can a loving, all-powerful God reveal himself to so few? If Christianity is correct, then why does it appeal to such a small portion of the human population? The pluralistic hypothesis, as proposed by Hick, offers a plausible and well-vetted solution to these questions.

A Brief Discussion of Religious Inclusivism

Those who adhere to an inclusivism view argue that people can receive salvation without knowing the giver.[14] The idea of inclusivism is not as broad as the pluralistic hypothesis, but still stands in opposition to the exclusivist approach of the Bible. An inclusivist believes “Jesus is the only mediator and that all must come to him and through him”[15] However, an inclusivist will also affirm the belief of salvation for non-Christians. This belief again stems from the thought that those people who have not heard the gospel should not be eternally condemned. The assertion that those who do not adhere to Christianity can obtain salvation ultimately argues that non-Christian world religions have a salving value.[16] Many inclusivists will argue that the Bible does not teach that a confession of Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation.[17] One who adheres to religious inclusivism closely resembles one who affirms a universalistic approach to soteriology.

Why Pluralism is a Threat to Christianity

John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis is troubling to modern Christians for multiple reasons. One could argue against Christianity in the following manner. If other world religion offer valid soteriology then Christianity’s claims to exclusivity is false. Other world religions offer valid soteriological claims. Therefore, Christianity’s exclusivist claims are false. This argument is developed in the form of motus ponus, and is deductively valid. Therefore, one must disprove the premises in order to render the argument false. John Hick is able to put into words a theory of religious pluralism that resonates with many college students.[18] Second, Hick is a clear and persuasive writer. Lastly, Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis is able to adequately respond to the majority of counterarguments. For example, Hick’s theory is criticized because different religions have different beliefs about what happens to an individual after death. Hick’s argues that this is not vital knowledge for one to be saved. Therefore, these different religions need to dialogue further with one another in order to reconcile their differences.[19] Further, Hick’s theory of religious pluralism argues that religions are cultural constructs aimed at explaining the Real. An individual’s religious beliefs are significantly influenced by one’s geographical circumstances.[20] Thus, if someone was born in the West, they have a higher probability of adhering to Christianity than someone born in India. In modern society, religions are no longer concentrated to various nations.[21]

A Response to Inclusivism

As previously defined, one who believes in inclusivism believes that there is a saving value to religions outside of Christianity. This view, as espoused by Clark Pinnock, has a few problems, which render the argument invalid. The idea of inclusivism is not supported by scripture, though Pinnock attempts to do so. Inclusivists also appeal to general revelation to prove their point, but general revelation is not sufficient for salvation. Romans 5:12-21 teaches that sin and death are universal, as well as life and grace.[22] Therefore, one can be aware of the existence of God, but this does not guarantee salvation. One can only obtain salvation through the grace of Christ. God’s desire is to see that all men are saved. This leads to the question about the exclusivity of Christianity. Paul says in Romans 10:9-10 that one must confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts in order to receive salvation. A person who adheres to inclusivism does not believe that this is solely true. Ronald Nash argues that Romans 10 is logically valid.[23] Nash relies on conditional statements in order to prove his argument. He argues that if all members of a group, A, are identical to the members in group B, and the statement “If A, then B” is true, then so will its reverse, “If not A, then not B” also be true. Hypothetically, all members of group A constitute those who believe that Jesus rose for the dead and confessed Christ as Lord. Members of group B are those who are saved. Thus, if members of groups A and B are the same, it is logical to argue that if someone does not confess Jesus as Lord and does not believe that he rose from the dead, then they are not saved.[24] Logically, therefore, it is completely believable that anyone who wishes to be saved must profess Jesus as Lord and believe in their hearts in order to receive salvation. Christianity, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the only way to salvation.

Combatting Religious Pluralism

John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis seeks to claim that all religious experiences are valid. Most world religions have definitive differences in what they claim to be truth. However, one of the foundational principles of logic is the law of non-contradiction. If a proposition is true, then the opposite cannot be true at the same time. For example, Appalachian State University cannot have both won and not won the 2015 Fiesta Bowl. This is a contradiction. Therefore, one can conclude that if various religions make contradictory truth claims, they cannot both be correct. Though Hick attempts to rescue his hypothesis from the grasps of contradictory truths, he cannot do so successfully.[25] The example presented at the beginning of this paper described three blind men who were touching an elephant. This example presupposed that each blind man was in fact touching an elephant. The example actually assumes what it is trying to prove.[26] Notice, too, that the men’s description of the elephant do not contradict one another, but instead differ slightly from one another. If their statements did contradict one another, one could safely assume that they were not, in fact, touching the same object. Thus, because world religions offer contradictory truth claims, they do not worship the same God.

Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis argues that all religions are simply a culturally conditioned response to the Real. Paul Copan argues “when a pluralist asks the question about cultural or religious conditioning, the same line of reasoning applies to the pluralist himself.”[27] In essence, the pluralist has been impacted by his cultural surroundings and religious convictions as much as anyone he is trying to dissuade or disprove. However, Hick is convinced that he is correct in his hypothesis of religious pluralism. Christians are constantly challenged to justify their claims of uniqueness. Hick’s theory should be subject to the same scrutiny. Hick is making an assertion, just like a Christian who believes in religious exclusivism.[28] There are no common threads that run through every world religion, and therefore one cannot formulate any positive statements about the nature of the Real. If one cannot make positive statements about the Real, why even attempt to prove its existence? Therefore, there is no good reason to believe in the existence of the Real.[29] The knowledge of the Christian God is derived from divine revelation in Scripture.

The biblical exegesis that Hick uses to support his theory of religious pluralism is inaccurate.[30] Hick argues that if Jesus’ claims to be the only way are accurate, then Christianity cannot be on the same level as other religious traditions.[31] It is also difficult for Hick to reconcile the belief that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Hick argues, “that Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning.”[32] Ultimately, Hick dismisses this biblical passage as one with no significant meaning. The problem with Hick’s biblical arguments is that they rest solely on his interpretations, which are formulated from his own presuppositions. There is an ample amount of scholarship, which argues that Jesus did, in fact, regard himself as God. Jesus claimed to be the unique Son of God, calling God his own father, thus making himself equal to God.[33] In the book of Mark, Jesus responded to Caiaphas, the high priest, that he was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One. To argue that Jesus was not the Son of God, and that these passages have no literal meaning, is to reinterpret the role of Jesus Christ in Christianity.

Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis claims that all moral codes of each major world religion are equal. Hick states, “I have not found that the people of the other world religions are, in general, on a different moral and spiritual level from Christians. They seem on average to be neither better nor worse than are Christians.”[34] The teaching of virtues, according to Hick, is equal among all world religions. Hick argues that one should think of salvation in universal terms rather than through an exclusivist lens. Salvation should be defined according to human change, which happens, according to Hick, when one adheres to the moral code espoused by any world religion. Therefore, according to Hick, there can be no religion that claims moral superiority. This is another way for Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis to level the playing field of world religions. Hick’s argument is simply not accurate. The moral code of Christianity differs significantly from other world religions. For example, when a Muslim kills someone in the name of Allah, their righteousness is upheld and their actions are justified. The Bible, on the other hand, condemns killing in the Decalogue, and teaches that Christians are to love their neighbors as themselves. The Bible upholds the sanctity of life and the principle of Imago Dei, whereas Islam justifies killing in the name of Allah. Thus, one can conclude that various world religions do not espouse the same moral codes. If all world religions do not espouse the same moral codes, then it is perfectly legitimate, and appropriate, for one religion to claim moral and salvific superiority.

Conclusion

According to the pluralistic hypothesis, Christianity is false because each religion represents a person’s connection to the Real. However, John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis contains shortcomings on moral, philosophical, hermeneutical and logical grounds, which render the hypothesis incorrect. Hick’s argument stems from a question that many have wrestled with throughout their lives: “What happens to those who never hear the Gospel?” It is the job of the Christian to go out into all the world and share the good news of Jesus Christ. Further, Hick wrestled with the question of whether or not all religions worship the same God. Hick, again attempts to makes these differing views compatible. Hick says, “And so it does not seem sufficient simply to say that the same identical God is being named and described differently. The difference between these describable divine personalities goes too deep for that to be plausible.”[35] The same principle can be applied to Hick’s theory. The differences between the various world religions are too deep to prove Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis as true.

Bibliography

[1]Keith Johnson, “John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis and the Problem of Conflicting Truth-Claims,” LeadershipU, accessed November 14, 2015, http://www.leaderu.com/theology/hick.html.

[2]The NASB translation of the Bible was used throughout this paper, unless otherwise noted.

[3]Johnson, John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis.

[4] John Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 4.

[5]Ibid., 6.

[6]Johnson, Brad. “A Three-Pronged Defense of Salvific Exclusivism in a World of Religions.” LeadershipU. Last modified March 23, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2015.http://www.leaderu.com
/theology/salvific.html.

 

[7]John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition, 2 ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 172.

[8]Johnson, John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis.

[9]John Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions: the Rainbow of Faiths (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 149.

[10]Johnson, John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis.

[11]David Nah, “Religious Pluralism: A Check-Up,” Religious Studies Review 40, no. 1 (March 2014): 1.

 

[12]John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 19.


[13]Harold A. Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (London: Regent College Publishing, 1999), 242.
[14]John Sanders, No Other Name: an Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 255.
           [15] Mark Noll, Christian Faith and Practice in the Modern World: Theology from an Evangelical Point of View, ed. Mark A. Noll and David F. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub Co, 1988), 149.

 

[16]Douglass Geivett, “’Misgivings’ and ‘Openness’: A Dialogue on Inclusivism Between R. Douglas Geivett and Clark Pinnock,” Journal of Theology 22, no. 2 (June 1998): 27.
           [17]Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: the Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 157.

[18]Johnson, John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis.

[19]Johnson, John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis.

[20]Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 2.

[21]John Hick, “Religious Pluralism and Islam,” John Hick, February, 2005, accessed November 14, 2015,http://www.johnhick.org.uk/article11.html.

[22]Johnson, A Three-Pronged Defense of Salvific Exclusivism in a World of Religions.

[23]Ronald H. Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 145.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Johnson, John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis.

[26]Ibid.

[27]Paul Copan, True for You, but Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith, Revised ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2009), 132.

 

[28]Copan, True for You, But Not for Me, 134.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Netland, Dissonant Voices, 242.

[31]John Hick, The Myth of God Incarnate (London: Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd, 1977), 172.

[32]Netland, Dissonant Voices, 244.

[33]Hank Hanegraaff, “Did Jesus Claim to Be God?,” Christian Research Journal 28, no. 4 (December 2005).

[34]Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 52

[35]John Hick, Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 153.

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