Is Salvation Only Through Jesus?


Living in the contemporary pluralistic world, where ‘fairness’ has become a greater arbitrator than truth, this has become a significant question. I first encountered this question on the streets of Queens, New York while sharing gospel tracts to Hindu immigrants from Guyana during the 1980s. I must admit that I did not fully grasp the extent of the question then. Since then, reading about the direction in which Christian soteriological thinking is progressing and where we are today, I think it is beneficial to consider this question again. (In this blog, we are not comparing the concept of salvation of various religions. Our goal is to discuss the inhouse debate pluralism has spawned within Christianity and see what should be our stand in the 21st century).

            During the second half of the 20th century, Christian soteriological thinking ended up in three camps- pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. The first two positions have been forced upon us because of the pluralistic society in the post-colonial world. When theologian Karl Barth took a stand that salvation is through Jesus Christ only, someone asked him if he ever had a personal encounter with a devout Hindu? His answer was no! That is not the world in which we live today. If you live in a cosmopolitan city, it is inevitable that you come across a lot of folks from other religions. That close encounter also kills a lot of bias we may have entertained at one time. If you never had a regular close encounter with a Hindu or Muslim, it was easy to cry, “Pagans destined for hell!” Once you get to know them, you realize that these people are moral beings who live decent god-fearing lives. But they are not Christians or believe in Jesus. It creates a dilemma in your heart as a Christian, which is “will God throw these good people in hell just because they are not Christians?”

            These close encounters and subsequent self-loathing have forced many to change their theological positions on salvation. For example, John Hick, who is a major proponent of pluralism tells us about his experience this way: “This city (Birmingham, England), in the middle of England, was one of the main receivers of immigration during the 1950s and 1960s from the Caribbean islands and the Indian subcontinent.  There was thus a sizable presence of several non-Christian traditions, consisting of the Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities, as well as a small but long-established Jewish community; subsequently, there was to come several Buddhist groups….In the course of this work (as a community leader), I went frequently to Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples, and of course, a variety of churches. In these places of worship, I soon realized… that although the language, concepts, liturgical actions, and cultural ethos differ widely from one another, yet from a religious point of view basically the same thing is going on in all of them.”1 He realized that all of these communities agreed that there is only one God.

            This new experience led him to two possibilities. One is that God, as known within one particular religion, namely one’s own, is the real God and that all others are unreal. The other is that the God worshipped by different religions are manifestations of one Ultimate Reality. After carefully studying  these communities,  and living in India for a while, where he got further exposure to other religions, Hick embraced the second position and has published a number of books promoting his views; the most famous of them being God and the Universe of Faiths.2

            When we examine these books, we sadly realize that Hick was forced to give up on the uniqueness of Christianity and especially Christ to accommodate his pluralistic conclusions. It started with the statements like, “If Christians have more complete and direct access to God than anyone else and live in a closer relationship to Him, should not the fruit of the Spirit…be more evident in Christian than in non-Christian lives? ….Yet it does not seem to me that in fact, Christians are on average noticeably morally superior to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists.”3 From there he changed his theology of salvation and concluded that ‘salvation is not a juridical transaction inscribed in heaven, nor is it a hope beyond this life, but it is a spiritual, moral and political change that can begin now and whose present possibility is grounded in the structure of reality.’4 He later called salvation ‘a fundamental human transformation from self-centeredness to a recentering in the Ultimate Reality.’ Thus, to Hick, all religions are equally salvific. Then, the purpose of missions is to make a  Hindu a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, etc. so that he will give up his self-centered life and pay more attention to God. To Hick, every religion is equally salvific.

            Of course, this forced this Presbyterian minister to de-emphasize the deity of Jesus Christ, since the doctrine of salvation in the Bible is centered around the incarnation of God’s Son and his death on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice. To do this Hick completely denies the trustworthiness of the gospels and Acts of the Apostles. He concluded that “these are not pronouncements of the historical Jesus but words put into his mouth some sixty or seventy years later by a Christian write expressing the theology that had developed in his part of the expanding church.”5

            Denying the divinity of Christ is needed for pluralism to be legit.  Clark Pinnock in his response to Hick notes that a belief in the Incarnation ad Trinity would spoil everything. Therefore, the effort to get rid of the Incarnation has less to do with evidence than with the ideology.6 If Jesus is the Son of God who came into this world to die for humans (John 3:16), then he is not one of the saviors, he is the Savior. The first demarcation of Christians from Jews was expressed in terms of whether one believed that Jesus was The Christ.7 John Hick departed from this historic stand of Christianity by bringing Jesus to the level of other religious leaders and his arguments clearly show that.

            When Hick declares, “All religions are varied responses to ineffable divine reality,8  it is clear that his paradigm of thinking has changed from historical Christianity to Eastern mysticism. Hick totally abandoned Christianity, despite his attempt to show that he is still one of us.

            The second position is inclusivism and Clark Pinnock is the most famous proponent of this view. The arguments for inclusivism seem to be more thought-provoking. While Hick’s pluralism tried to prove that there was nothing special about Christianity and that we Christians should be satisfied with the notion that it is one of the ways to God, equal in value to many other roads leading to God, Pinnock’s inclusivism holds that all roads lead to Jesus as the final venue to salvation. Pinnock says, “Inclusivism is one of these models, which explores the possibility of that the Spirit is operative in the sphere of human religion to prepare people for the gospel of Christ. It believes that God, who is gracious and omnipresent, is redemptively at work in the religious dimension of human culture, just as he is in all the other spheres of creation.9            

            Pinnock also is keenly aware of the dilemmas caused by a pluralistic world. He is appreciative of Vatican II and the concerns of Pope John XXII. When he mentions the ‘abhorrent notion of a secret election to salvation of a specific number of sinners,’ It is a repudiation of the Calvinist position on salvation. He rejects the ‘inherited traditions’ and talks about the need to develop a better model for handling the doctrine of salvation as it pertains to the multitude who have lived their lives outside the church (the inherited tradition being the historical teaching on salvation). He thinks Christians should leave the equivocation of God’s salvific will behind and focus on God’s boundless mercy as a primary truth. This is a view Pinnock has expounded at length in his book, A Wideness of God’s Mercy.10 In that book he talks about the ministry of Jonah to the Assyrians as an example of God’s universal salvific will. Prophecies concerning nations (Isaiah 19:25, 25:6-8) and Jesus’ own words concerning nations (Mat.10:15, 11:22, 12:41-42) are used as further examples of this. Pinnock also shows that the early church fathers had a much broader view on salvation than the reformers. This, he justifies his inclusivist stand as one not against the teachings of the Bible.

            Pinnock says, “Inclusivism believes that, because God is present in the whole world, God’s grace is also at work in some way among the people. It entertains the possibility that religion may play a role in the salvation of the human race, a role preparatory to the gospel of Christ, in whom alone fullness of salvation is found.”11  At the same time, he realizes that inclusivism runs a risk of suspicion in suggesting that non-Christian religions maybe not only be the means of a natural knowledge of God but also the locale of God’s grace given to the world because of Christ. Therefore he calls his view “cautious inclusivism.”       

            There are some issues that prevent me from embracing inclusivism. I had come to a conclusion regarding a number of characters in the Bible that they are ‘pre-Christians’ long before I ever read Pinnock. Cornelius and the Syro-Phoenician woman were classic examples in the New Testament. So I accept the examples given from the Old and New Testament that shows how God’s salvific will is universal. The explanation by Pinnock that Cornelius was a believer and not hell-bound and that he needed to become a Christian to receive messianic salvation and the Holy Spirit12 is not totally correct. I agree with Robert Gundry’s explanation about this. “Luke and Peter are not talking about heathen people deficient of special revelation, but about God-fearers…. God sent Peter to preach the Gospel to these people. They do not support the possibility of salvation for the unevangelized.”13

Some accommodations made by Pinnock to justify inclusivism are noteworthy.

(1)       Pinnock expounds a salvation based on “the faith principle”14 based on Hebrews 11:6. It essentially makes salvation Theocentric instead of Christocentric. This position is contrary to Acts 4:12, which makes salvation Christocentric.

(2)       Pinnock’s idea of postmortem evangelism,14  where God’s love continues to pursue people who showed some response to the knowledge of God they possessed in their earthly life but did not hear about Jesus. During the conscious existence of their souls after death, God will share the news about Jesus to them somehow.  But this is contrary to Hebrews 9:27, where the Bible tells us that only a judgment awaits us after our death. (This argument is a testament to Pinnock's indebtedness to Vatican II for his ideas. In fact, he freely admits it throughout his book).

Pinnock’s own treatment of the subject makes it clear that there is no room for inclusivism without some accommodations. Therefore, I cannot embrace inclusivism as a correct view about salvation, even though I am equally concerned about the billions of non-Christians in the world.

            The third view is the traditional view of salvation. Today it is called by many names like exclusivism and restrictivism. This position is looked down upon by many modern theologians. John Hick called it a contemptuous position. Clark Pinnock said it restricts people from enjoying salvation. The ecumenical efforts from the beginning of the 20th century have many noble elements to them. Pinnock's inclusivism played a key role in Christian ecumenism in India. It shows the concerns Christians have about the eternity of billions of people. M. M. Thomas gives a good account of this.16

What bothers me, despite applauding these noble efforts, is the hurriedness of Christian thinkers and writers to dilute the historical teachings of the Bible to accommodate others and create inter-religious peace. The real and only question should be what does the Bible teach about salvation? (In a pluralistic world what we need to do is acknowledge that different religions have different concepts about salvation, instead of sheepishly saying we are all saying the same thing). Does the Bible explicitly teach that one’s salvation depends on his/her response to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus?

When we look at the verses in the New Testament that explicitly address this question, like Acts 4:12, John 3:16, John 3:18, and Romans 10:9-15, it is clear that all of them unambiguously demand faith in the finished work of Jesus as the means to obtain salvation. In the Bible, other religions are viewed as non-redemptive and devoid of salvific truth and reality.17 The Bible teaches that there is only one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6).

The Samaritans (John 4:9,24), the devout Jews from every nation (Acts 2:5,38), the zealous Jews (Rom.10:1-3), and the God-fearing gentiles (Acts 9:2,10:33) all had to believe further redemptive truth in order to be saved. Much of what these groups already believed was true, but what they knew was not enough for their salvation. So the first century Christians pointed them to Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross. Times have changed. But we will not be true unless we do the same. 

 1Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips editors. (1995). Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World.  Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 38-39.

2 John Hick (1993). God and the Universe of Faiths. Chatham, NY: One World Publications.

3 Four Views. 41

4 ibid. 43

5 ibid. 53

6 ibid. 63

7 Thomas Robinson and Hillary Rodriguez  (2014). World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics. 98.

8 John Hick (1989).  An Interpretation of Religion: Human Response to the Transcendent. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT. 1-15

9 Four Views. 96

10 Clark Pinnock (1992). A Wideness in God’s Mercy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing

11 Four Views. 98

12 Wideness. 66

13 Quoted by John Sanders (1992)  in No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Grand Rapids, MI: William Edermans. 266

14 Wideness. 158-59

15 ibid. 168-72

16 M. M. Thomas (1987). Risking Christ for Christ’s Sake. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications.

17 Four Views. 238