Christianity and Tolerance

  The Evangelicals have always maintained that God has revealed himself definitely through the Incarnation in Jesus Christ. They have always embraced the biblical stand that salvation is available only in the person and work of Jesus Christ. They maintain that if the claims of other religions contradict the teachings of the Bible, they must be rejected by a Christian as false. But today there is increasing opposition to this stand. The opposition is not on theological or philosophical grounds. Many think there is something morally blameworthy about Christian exclusivism.1

            The modern mindset is that people have different religious preferences, and instead of proselytizing, we should be tolerant of their faiths and accept them as such. All the main writers who promote pluralism and interreligious dialogue have expressed their intolerance towards continuing the exclusivist arguments in our generation. Wilfred Cantwell Smith thinks ‘exclusivism strikes more and more Christians as immoral. If the head proves it true, while the heart sees it as wicked, un-Christian, then should Christians not follow the heart?’2  Paul Knitter says that ‘the conservative Evangelical declaration that there can be authentic, the reliable revelation only in Christ simply does not hold up in the light of the faith, dedication, love, and peace that Christians find in the teachings and especially in the followers of other religion.’3 The historian Arnold Toynbee was of the opinion that ‘the only way to purge Christianity of the sinful state of mind of exclusive-mindedness and its accompanying spirit of intolerance is to shed the traditional belief that Christianity is unique.’4

            Is Christian exclusivism intolerant of other faiths? Is it a sign of narrow-mindedness and bigotry? Does it stand in the way of peaceful co-existence between various religious faiths?

           Harold Netland thinks the misunderstanding is due to the confusion over the meaning of tolerance.5 History is filled with intolerant atrocities done in the name of religion. Muslims always highlight the Crusades where Christians killed thousands of Muslims. Yet as Islam was marching across the world, it is a given that they spread their religion by the tip of their swords and massacred many hundreds of thousands. The genocide of Armenian Christians in Turkey is still not covered in the media to the full extent. China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims is all over the news. One is surprised to read about bloody internal feuds among Buddhists, as they project the image of a religion of peace. One is also disturbed by the hideous actions by extremist Hindu factions in North India against nuns and humble village Christians knowing that Hindus are generally decent peace-loving people. Therefore, any notion that Christian exclusivism is the source of religious intolerance in the world is far from the truth.

            No thinking person will define tolerance as acceptance of anything and everything. We all have a limit in our minds of things we will accept, irrespective of how tolerant we are. To never disagree with anyone, even when the statements of others are known to be false, is not a mark of tolerance but an indication of intellectual suicide.6

            Netland also shows that we can consider tolerance in three different contexts (quoting from John Stott). First is the legal context. In Western democracies, a kind of legal tolerance is often explicitly written into the constitution of the country, guaranteeing legal protection of basic rights for all persons regardless of sex or religious affiliation.7 Explicit guarantee of religious freedom is part of this. That is why the number of temples and mosques is increasing in the West as Hindu and Muslim immigration to these nations continue.

It is only fair to demand reciprocity for this tolerance in the West. Millions of Christians from many nations across Asia and Africa work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia now. Don’t they have a right to have churches in Saudi Arabia where they can peacefully worship Jesus, just like Muslims have a right to have mosques in America? Christianity has exploded across North India in the last thirty years, with millions of tribals (who are not technically Hindus) embracing Christianity. Often they worship in simple huts. How can the educated Hindus of India justify threatening them, oppressing them, and many times even attacking them, denying them the freedom of worship, while enjoying the freedom of worship freely accorded them in the Christian West?

Legal tolerance of religious pluralism is essentially a formal recognition of the basic human right of each individual to choose which religious tradition to become a part of (if any at all) and to participate freely in the practices of that tradition.8

Second is the social context of tolerance. This religious tolerance is important in modern multicultural societies. In metropolitan cities of the world, people of different religious traditions live as neighbors on the same street. Therefore it is important to learn to respect each other irrespective of our religious affiliations.

At the same time, it becomes apparent that religious tolerance does not mean embracing the content of the other person’s religion. As Jay Newman puts it, “Tolerating a religious belief, then, does not involve a half-hearted acceptance or endurance of someone’s holding that belief, that is, of a certain case of believing.”9

The third is the intellectual context of tolerance. Today there is a mistaken notion that being genuinely tolerant of another religion means that one will not say anything negative about its basic beliefs. The Roman Catholic theologian Raimundo Panikkar held that if one is truly tolerant of others, he or she will not judge or critically evaluate other religions.10 This makes a Christian who tries to show the Hindu or Buddhist beliefs are false grossly intolerant. Actually, what is done here is shutting the door on open, free analysis of faith systems, beyond the common moral values of all religions.

Today we are asked to accept things in the name of tolerance for which we hold a negative estimation, whether it is social issues or religious pluralism. Maurice Cranston is right when he defines tolerance as “a policy of patient forbearance in the presence of something which is disliked and disapproved of.”11

Real tolerance is when we can disagree with someone and still treat that person with dignity as a fellow human being. Being tolerant of other religious traditions does not entail accepting their basic beliefs as true, or refusing to make any judgment about the content of their basic beliefs. Intellectual honesty demands us to point this out.

Some, like the Hindus of North India, hold that the Christian emphasis on evangelism and conversion is a sign of intolerance. Even some Christian writers have portrayed a missionary as an ‘intolerant proselytizer.’ Anyone who tries to make Christians out of Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims must be intolerant. Historically, the Christian insensitivity and disrespect to other religions have not helped this situation.

The right way to address this will be by showing the difference between evangelism and proselytism. Evangelism is simply the proclamation of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Of course, the objective of evangelism is that the recipient of the message will respond in faith and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. But proselytism is a morally unacceptable method of evangelism. Any means of evangelism which are coercive, dishonest, manipulative, or otherwise infringe upon the dignity of the target audience must be rejected by Christians as morally unacceptable.

Christians, more than any other religion, proclaim that all men and women are created in the image of God, who created us with the free will to choose our ultimate commitments. Therefore, one who comes in the name of Jesus and shares the good news of salvation in his name to a Hindu, or Buddhist, or Muslim should do so with great humility, sensitivity, and graciousness. The Christian conviction is that all persons are in need of God’s gracious forgiveness and that this is only available through Jesus Christ. A Christian is commanded by his Savior and Lord Jesus Christ to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to all who have never heard. This proclamation is not intolerant. It is done out of genuine concern for the eternal destination of fellow human beings.


1 Netland, Harold A. Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth. Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing (1991). p.302

2 Smith, William C. in Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism (edited by G. H. Anderson and T. F. Stransky). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. (1981) p202

3 Knitter, Paul. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis (1985) p93

4 Toynbee, Arnold. Christianity Among the Religions of the World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (1957) p95

5 Dissonant Voices. p.304

6 ibid. p305

7 ibid

8 ibid

9 Newman, Jay. Foundations of Religious Tolerance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1982) p8

10 Panikkar, Raimundo. The Intrareligious Dialogue. New York: Paulist Press (1978) p.xviii

11 Cranston, Maurice. Toleration. in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.8. (edited by Paul Edwards). New York: Macmillan (1967) p143