The “Hidden Christ” in World Religions

LCJE International — Lake Balaton, Hungary
Wes Taber, AMF International
August 20, 2007

During the International Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism held at Hofstra University on Long Island in 1999, we enjoyed a “field trip” through “Jewish New York.” Lori and I were privileged to be seated on the bus with an “elder statesman” of the Messianic movement whose personal insights into the city’s history gave rich texture to the sights outside the window. While passing through Crown Heights in Brooklyn this dear brother expressed his opinion that we would see many Orthodox Jews in heaven – even though they never knowingly put their faith in Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) as Savior. His statement came as a surprise; I knew this gentleman had both embraced and publicly proclaimed his personal faith in Yeshua, and indeed had endured much for living out his messianic faith among his Jewish kinsmen. When I questioned him as to why he believed this to be so, he remarked with genuine compassion that he couldn’t see how a loving God could condemn sincere, devout Jews (including members of his own family) to hell.

While we who work in Jewish evangelism are most apt to deal with the question of a special provision for God’s chosen people to whom specific covenant promises were made, most thinking people at some point wrestle with the question of who gets to enjoy paradise, and how. For many followers of Jesus this is an intensely personal and emotional matter; they desire to have a ray of hope for departed loved ones who never made a profession of faith. Others out of a sense of fairness embark on a theodicy, seeking to release God from the charges of being an ogre who would condemn to eternal punishment infants, the mentally handicapped, sincere followers of other religions, and those who never heard about Jesus. Could there be a more important – or emotionally laden – issue than the eternal destiny of our fellow human beings? And isn’t it the height of chutzpah to insist that there is only one way (ours, of course) that leads to heaven?

The subject surveyed

The assigned topic “The Hidden Christ in World Religions” essentially calls for a response to those (including some in “Christendom”) who claim that “Christ is in all religions,” albeit in a hidden or mysterious way. Their view is that rather than proclaiming (our version of) the gospel, we should rather learn from an open dialogue with adherents of other faiths.

That this assignment addresses the very heart of our faith – the person and work of Yeshua Hamashiach (Jesus the Messiah) – made it a soul-refreshing study for the writer. The incredible challenge of this topic is the number of key areas which it touches beyond theology/Christology/soteriology: epistemology (1), comparative religions (including the philosophy, psychology and sociology of the same), hermeneutics, apologetics and missions. A wide array of systematic and biblical theologians as well as missiologists have weighed in on the subject, passionately presenting heart-felt convictions on the matter. All this is set against the backdrop of a pluralistic world that is increasingly intolerant of any claims of exclusivism or to absolute truth (or the existence and knowability of “truth” at all).

The current scene:

In the first century AD the Apostle Paul warned young Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). (2) For all the ensuing years of church history theologians have been concerned with preserving sound doctrine. In a paper given at the April 2005 gathering of “Toward 2010” (preparing for the centennial celebration of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh), Vinoth Ramachandra stated:

[The World Missionary Conference] continued to remind its readers of “two types of thought on the question of the relation of the Gospel to existing religions” which have existed from the earliest days of the Christian mission: namely, “the type exemplified in Tertullian and in Origen—the one dwelling most on the evils of those religions and the newness of the Gospel; and the other seeking to show that all that was noblest in the old religions was fulfilled in Christ. This duality of type goes right back to the very beginnings of Christianity, and is found in the New Testament itself. It seems quite clear that both types are necessary to the completeness of the Christian idea.”(3)

In one sense, many of the theological concerns faced today have been recycled over centuries. But in the last five decades a sea change has been occurring in the Western world. Ramachandra states, “Although Christian churches in the West have had to come to terms with the institutional forces and cultural dynamic of modernity for far longer than their counterparts in Asia, the encounter with religious pluralism has only become a pervasive feature of Western life since perhaps the 1960s.” (4) Indeed, it was in the 1960s and ‘70s that Francis Schaeffer wrote about the “post-Christian world” as he observed the decline of commitment to biblical truth in the West and forecast a grim future for a theologically anemic church.(5)

In Stan Guthrie’s Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Keys for the 21st Century, “theological drift” is identified as a significant challenge to the advance of the gospel in our generation:

The pressure to soften the exclusive claims of Christ and finality of hell is intense. ...Christians now work and live alongside Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, many of whom seem more moral than they. Compassion and a desire to tolerate differences and get along have encouraged many evangelicals to dilute troubling biblical doctrines on lostness and hell. Claims of religious truth are often not seen as universally true but as expressions of personal preference, to take or leave as one chooses.(6)

Distilling a wide range of theological views into tight categories, thus blurring nuanced distinctives, leaves one open to the charge of generalizing. For sake of brevity we must do so here, with the caveat that the necessary “broad brush stroke” serves only as a survey. Continued study and discernment are needed in the midst of a changing culture and evolving theologies. (In some cases, theologians revise their own viewpoints “after further review.”)

Pluralism, Inclusivism, and Exclusivism Defined

Theological views on the extent and means of salvation (7) are most commonly summarized in three categories: pluralism, inclusivism (“wider hope”), and exclusivism (or, in Sander’s nomenclature, restrictivism). Pluralists hold all religions and their concepts of God or transcendent reality to be equally valid, or at least “that the common root to all religions is precisely the salvific root.” (8) [The broadest expression of pluralism would be universalism, which has all roads leading to paradise (i.e., virtually everyone gets to heaven).] Ramachandra declares:

Although religious pluralism has been recognized from the earliest days of Christian mission (whether in Asia or the Greco-Roman world), and Christian theologians in Asia have long grappled with the task of communicating Christ in thought-forms appropriate to those of other faiths, the modern situation has thrown up a new phenomenon: namely, the endorsement of religious pluralism, not merely as a social fact but as a new theological understanding of the relationship between the Christian faith and other faiths, by a significant number of Christian academics and Church leaders (9) (emphasis mine).

Hans Küng (Swiss Roman Catholic theologian who was removed from the Catholic faculty at Tübingen for being more at odds than in harmony with the Vatican, though he retains his status as priest) promotes a “wider ecumenism” that reaches beyond the varieties of Christian expression. Küng esteems Christianity as “a very special and extraordinary way to salvation,” but allows that non-Christian faiths are the “ordinary” way.

Philosophers of religion John Hick (British Presbyterian) and Paul Knitter (American Catholic) edited the oft-cited The Myth of Christian Uniqueness. (10) The contributors to their volume take a variety of approaches to advocate an ecumenism that essentially denies the divine authority of the Bible (or any revelation), discards the deity of Jesus of Nazareth, and deconstructs the Christian gospel (finding redemption and forgiveness in something other than Messiah’s substitutionary death and resurrection). Words are redefined (and sometimes so distorted that their opposite meaning is adopted), and world religions (11) are sifted and repackaged (often in ways that the followers of those religions likely would not affirm), all with the purpose of constructing parallel paths in world religions that reach the same ultimate destiny.

Pluralists call for us to join them on whatever religious road we may choose (so long as it is accepting of the paths of others) so that we may live in peace in our global village – a goal which seems ever more illusive with each news report of violence perpetrated in the name of religion. “What is needed now is a full acknowledgment of the other major religions as valid ways of salvation. We are living in one world with a plurality of cultures, religions, and ideologies. Either we acknowledge the legitimacy of this pluralism, or we threaten the possibility of living together in a peaceful world. We expect governments, corporations, and other agencies to do their part to cooperate in establishing conditions which drive toward the unity of the human world without diminishing the plurality of its forms. Why should not the religions of the world do their part?” (12)

We do well to ask the cost of entry to this global club.(13) With the theme “Unite or Perish,” the Parliament of the World’s Religions convened in Chicago in 1993. Moody Church’s Dr. Erwin Lutzer tells of visiting the Parliament, asking various non-Christian representatives if their religion offered a savior who was sufficient to completely cleanse from sin, as Yeshua does. None did – however many were willing to grant high status to Jesus of Nazareth. Lutzer asks, “Does Christ belong on the same shelf with Buddha, Krishna, Bahaullah, and Zoroaster? Like Christ such leaders and others have taught some rather lofty ethical ideas. Even if we say He stands taller than the rest have we given Him His due? Or is He to be placed on an entirely different shelf altogether?” (14)

Where pluralists allow that each religion has its own road leading to God, inclusivists do put Jesus on that “different shelf.” They acknowledge the uniqueness of Jesus as “the” (not “a”) Messiah,(15) and the necessity of His atoning work on Calvary; they then endeavor to link Yeshua’s atoning work to individuals who have not personally placed their trust in Him. “Briefly, inclusivists affirm the particularity and finality of salvation only in Christ but deny that knowledge of his work is necessary for salvation. That is to say, they hold that the work of Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation (no one would be saved without it) but not epistemologically necessary (one need not be aware of the work in order to benefit from it).” (16)

Varying shades of inclusivism (17) may be found among those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Lesslie Newbigin states:

Recent Roman Catholic writing affirms that the non-Christian religions are the means through which God’s saving will reaches those who have not yet been reached by the gospel. Karl Rahner argues as follows: God purposes the salvation of all men. Therefore he communicates himself by grace to all men, “and these influences can be presumed to be accepted in spite of the sinful state of men.” Since a saving religion must necessarily be social, it follows that the non-Christian religions have a positive salvific significance. ...The adherent of a non-Christian religion is thus regarded as an anonymous Christian. But a Christian who is explicitly so, “has a much greater chance of salvation than someone who is merely an anonymous Christian.” (18)

R. Todd Mangum further elucidates, “I believe that they [inclusivists] have sufficiently clarified that their contention for inclusivism is not rooted in (what they themselves deem as) the false belief that humans can obtain a variety of valid means to God [i.e., pluralism]. Rather, their contention is that the single means of atonement may be so constructed by God as to make various avenues of participation in that means available to human beings, some based on more, some based on less, accurate understandings of what is the real (ontological) means of their having been brought into favorable relationship with God.” (19)

It is no secret that sea changes are ongoing in the “wide world of Christendom.” Since Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church has moved away from its historic stance, extra ecclesium nulla salus (20) (outside the church there is no salvation). (21) Other mainline Protestant denominations have proudly joined the parade of inclusivists (though Episcopalian Paul House reminds us that some “liberal” denominations yet have “evangelical wings”). But some who identify themselves as evangelicals are taking similar positions. Clark Pinnock serves as an articulate spokesman for a position which holds a “high Christology” but allows for people in other faiths to enter heaven because of the “faith principle.” (22) Pinnock limns the issue for us:

Inclusivism (23) celebrates two central theological truths. The first is a particularity axiom that says God has revealed himself definitively and has acted redemptively on behalf of the whole human race through the Incarnation. The second is a universality axiom that says God loves sinners and wants to save them all. The challenge to theology is to do justice to both these truths and not allow one to cancel out the other.(24)

The third major view, of course, is exclusivism. Countering the “many roads lead to heaven” views of pluralism and inclusivism’s “saved by Jesus but maybe don’t know it (or Him)” premise, the exclusivist finds redemption solely through a cognizant faith in the atoning work accomplished through Yeshua’s death, burial and resurrection. W. Gary Phillips summarizes the exclusivist position as that which affirms as “absolute, universal, and unqualified” the following three points: “(1) Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. (2) Christ’s work on the cross is imputed to any and all sinners who will be saved. (3) To receive salvation one must place direct faith in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior in this life, or face eternal damnation in the next.” (25)

Exclusivists have been tagged by some as uncompassionate, arrogant Western (26) bigots who insist that they alone have a corner on the truth; everyone else can – and most certainly will (27) – go to hell. (And too often the perception is that the exclusivist will be happy to see them reach that end. Unfortunately, presentations by some exclusivists all too easily leave their audiences with that impression.) This “classic” evangelical stance is significantly undermined in our generation, with one third of students in Christian colleges and seminaries questioning the uniqueness of Christ in one study. (28) Ronald Nash estimates “...that more than half of the evangelical leaders in denominational or missions leadership and of missions professors at evangelical colleges and seminaries may believe that people can be saved by Christ without specifically turning to him for forgiveness of their sins.” (29) 

The centrality of Yeshua

The focus of this paper is on the person and work of Messiah as Savior. Since “...there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:12), one may say with heartfelt conviction that above all else it is essential that we “get it right” on this issue. For the Apostle Paul, ministry was all about preaching Yeshua:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God [1 Corinthians 1:18-24 (emphasis mine)].

A great challenge facing the Christian gospel is the attack on His attributes by erudite scholars with academic degrees and access to “Christian publishers.” Those who self-identify as Christian pluralists and strip Yeshua of any attributes of deity are left with an anemic substitute who may serve as a model man, but is impotent as a Savior. As John Hick states, “If Jesus was literally God incarnate, the second Person of the holy Trinity living a human life, so that the Christian religion was founded by God-on-earth in person, it is then very hard to escape from the traditional view that all mankind must be converted to the Christian faith.” (30)

But Hick has joined the ranks of those who have “escaped” the doctrine of Yeshua’s incarnation. The influence of his work [including “Jesus and the World Religions,” in The Myth of God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977) and A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)] is such that further elucidation of his position is warranted (though this writer could hardly disagree31 more strenuously with Hick’s position, or Carl Braaten’s concluding comment in his assessment of Hick’s views, which follows):

Professor John Hick of Birmingham, England has taken the lead among Protestants in calling for a “Copernican revolution,” which aims to overturn the Christological dogma at the bottom of all Christian exclusivism. It is not enough to broaden the way of Christian salvation by speaking with Tillich of a “latent church” or with Rahner of “anonymous Christianity”[both of whom are inclusivists] ...Hick goes deeper and lays the ax at the Christological roots of exclusivism. He says, “For understood literally, the Son of God, God the Son, God-incarnate language implies that God can be adequately known and responded to only through Jesus; and the whole religious life of mankind, beyond the stream of Judaic-Christian faith is thus by implication excluded as lying outside the sphere of salvation” [quoting Hick’s “Jesus and the World Religions,” 179]. Pluralism is compatible with the unity of all humankind if we acknowledge that the various streams of religion in the world carry the same waters of salvation leading to eternal life with God. God is at the center of the universe of faiths; Jesus is only one of the many ways–the Christian way–that leads to God. He is not the one and only Son of God, Lord of the world, and Savior of humankind. Each religion has its own, and they do the job in their own way. In this way John Hick has successfully rooted out the last vestige of exclusivism. (32)

Perhaps this pronouncement of exclusivism’s demise is a bit premature. A scan of evangelical missions and theology journals as well as books in print (33) turns up able writers willing to take on the errors of pluralism and wrestle with the challenges of inclusivism. It should also be noted that exclusivists who do stress the uniqueness of Jesus Christ (a solid commitment to which is the sine qua non of exclusivism) are yet well represented on the mission fields of the world. Some of them are contributing to the discussion from a practitioner’s vantage point.

The view of the universality of God’s general revelation (not leaving Himself without a witness) is in evidence in exclusivist writings. Further, the positive role of non-Christian religions and cultures in preparing their adherents to receive the gospel is notably seen in contextualization efforts in modern evangelical missiology. Don Richardson introduced the missions world to the concept of “redemptive analogies” in the 1974 release of Peace Child, followed by Lords of the Earth (1977) and Eternity in Their Hearts (1981). Richardson maintains that just as Old Testament events and artifacts (the bronze serpent of Numbers 21) and practices (sacrifice) prefigured their New Testament fulfillment (John 3:14 – “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”; John 1:29 – “Behold, the Lamb of God”), so elements in every culture/religion point to Jesus.

Redemptive analogies may be general (seen in many cultures over time), such as agricultural (farmer/crop) or specific to a particular people. In Peace Child Richardson tells how the exchange of sons between warring tribes to bring peace opened the door of understanding the meaning of God sending His only Son. The Chinese character for “righteous” includes two symbols: “I” under “lamb.” Such analogies may be vestiges of earlier known truth; they become bridges for communicating biblical doctrine (34) – similar to John’s use of the Greek concept of “logos” or Paul’s allusion to “the unknown God” in the Athenian Areopagus (Acts 17).

How did we get here?

It may prove helpful to note here that, as with the authority one recognizes (e.g., the Scriptures as God’s infallible revelation), so one’s presuppositions and beginning point largely influence both direction and destination. For example, one may begin with the Scriptures which tell of the God who so loves the world (John 3:16) that, not wishing for anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), He sent His Son to die as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). In this paradigm, most of humanity ought to end up in heaven. But what if one begins with a God who is holy (Leviticus 19:2), jealous (Exodus 20:3-5), and who judges iniquity – destroying Sodom for lack of finding 10 righteous persons (Genesis 18 & 19) or sparing only eight souls on the whole earth in Noah’s flood when the world was corrupt and violent, for example? Then one is left with the sense that indeed it is only of the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22). Indeed, that perspective is reinforced by Yeshua’s teaching that “the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction and many enter through it” (Matthew 7:13). Peter affirms “the righteous one is scarcely saved” (1 Peter 4:18). Yet John describes “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” (Revelation 7:9). We may conclude that God’s redemptive plan encompasses many, but just as Yeshua promised His followers a place in heaven, so also He preached hell as an undeniable reality for the nonbeliever (e.g., John 3:17).

It is not alone one’s presuppositions that inform the direction of the discussion; the questions asked will also exert substantial influence. The Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” is answered for us in Scripture: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). On the other hand, “What about those who have never heard of Jesus?” is not a question directly asked (or answered) in the biblical text. The thought of a loving God preparing a place of eternal torment for those who never had a chance to believe is so unpalatable that various solutions to “get God off the hook” have been propounded by inclusivists. (35) Supporting passages are adduced by proponents of each theological position.

We do well to ask what impact the inclusivist view may be having on the gospel enterprise. If people may be saved apart from the Pauline formula (“that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” – Romans 10:9-10), what is the impulse for missions? Calling on the name of the Lord results in salvation (10:13), but calling occurs only when one believes, which requires hearing the message, which happens with proclamation, which results from a preacher being sent (10:14-15). Inclusivists say this not the only way one may believe; exclusivists say this is the normative way. Jesus commanded His followers to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Peter preached and thousands were saved in Jerusalem (Acts 2 ff); Philip expounded Isaiah 53 and the Ethiopian eunuch was saved (Acts 8:26 ff); Peter presented the good news to the Roman centurion Cornelius who, though described as a devout, generous God-fearing man, still needed to hear the gospel before he was saved (Acts 10). We may theorize about other possible means of the gospel being spread (and anecdotal evidence abounds about dreams, visions36 and special encounters with Jesus people around the world are having). Does any of that release us from the Savior’s command to go and make disciples?

To be sure, inclusivists are to be numbered among those who yet encourage gospel proclamation. Inclusivist (and Reform theologian) R. Todd Mangum maintains that, since there is great benefit for a believer to knowingly be saved (and have full assurance of the same), the missions enterprise should continue. “Nonetheless,” writes Mangum, “I will also contend that Scripture does not preclude our speculation nor completely discourage our hope for the salvation of some who have never been confronted with the explicit claims of the gospel. God may, through extraordinary means, albeit fully on the basis of the atoning cross-work of Christ, gain the salvation of some who are denied full assurance (epistemologically) of their salvation. (37)

A further caution is in order. Part of the impulse to find a via media (in this case, represented by inclusivism) may be to avoid the hard sayings that turn off seekers. John Sanders illustrates this in his anecdote about addressing a university student who professed atheism. When the student described “the God he didn’t believe in” as the one who sends those who haven’t heard about Jesus to hell, Sanders won a hearing by saying he didn’t believe in that God either. From a purely marketing point of view, it is advantageous to have a product everyone desires. Pluralists decidedly have the edge here. But the “scandal of particularity” wasn’t invented by exclusivists. Yeshua Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6; also, “the door” in Jn. 10:9; cf. 1 Timothy 2:5).

The rich young ruler went away when he heard a difficult teaching (Mark 10:17-22). After many of His disciples turned away from following Him (after another hard saying, “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father”), Yeshua asked His disciples, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” (John 6:65-67). And what shall we conclude when the Prince of Peace indicates His followers will be universally hated, and will suffer the worst kind of conflicts and divisions even among the closest of family for the sake of His name (Matthew 10:16-20)? If conflict avoidance is a high value, we are in the wrong business! It is not so difficult to say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” when standing on the platform of a Bible-believing congregation. Do we say it with the same force when out in a culture in which that very same gospel is seen as an object of amusement at best or genuine threat to world peace at worst?

Faith that Saves

Who among us in Jewish evangelism goes a month without quoting Romans 1:16? Paul equates the gospel of Messiah with the power of God for salvation. If sin is the disease that causes death, the gospel is the divinely provided antidote. In this analogy, pluralists can be accused of so diluting the life-giving prescription (in some cases, so that it will meet the “global standards” of all religions) that its potency is dissipated. Recipients are more likely to be innoculated against biblical faith than saved by the watered down “gospel” of pluralism. [I believe in most cases their message would fit the category of “another gospel” that Paul anathematizes (Galatians 1:6-8).]

Inclusivists have the right antidote: the blood of the Lamb of God. Their distinctive is in the “delivery systems” God uses to disseminate it. Where exclusivists essentially say that one must know one is infected with the disease of sin and voluntarily sign up to receive the cure, inclusivists say God will somehow deliver the antidote to some who aren’t even aware they are ill, much less that they are getting treated. Is that theoretically possible? As delightful as that prospect might be, would I want to stake someone’s life on it? (Put in another context, if I were the first-born son of Hebrew slaves living in Goshen when instruction was given by Moses regarding application of blood on the doorposts and lintels of my home, how seriously would I entertain the thought that perhaps my life would be spared apart from following God’s explicit revelation?)

At the end of the day, we should be grateful the eternal destiny of souls does not lie with a panel of theologians and philosophers, but with Messiah Jesus who will judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1) and who knows those who are His (2 Timothy 2:19). We may have confidence that the answer to Abraham’s question, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25) is a resounding “Yes!”38 Paul warns against questioning the sovereign choices and acts of the Almighty (Romans 9:19-21). His apt analogy of the “clay pot” railing against the wisdom of the potter reflects the reality that God’s thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9); the Creator’s judgments are unsearchable by the creature (Romans 11:33-34). Though God has not chosen to tell us everything (Deuteronomy 29:29), what He has revealed is reliable across generations. In the great day of reckoning, we will know even as we are known. Seeing the horror of sin for what it is in the light of the Holy One of Israel, and understanding the depths of human depravity and rebellion, no one will rail against God for being unfair in meting out judgment. Every mouth will be stopped (Romans 3:19).

Implications for the Messianic movement

For some, “theologizing” is an endless exercise of no profit [think of dancing angels and pinheads (by neither term are we referring to theologians here)]. Considering the fact that seasoned philosophers and young theologues have argued for centuries over the scope and means of redemption, why should more ink be spilled? We are reminded that the topic at hand is of eternal import – and our soteriological views will, consciously or not, inform both our zeal for evangelism and the focus of our evangelistic efforts. Doctrine matters – and as we are seeing, the ongoing debates in the modern Messianic movement are a microcosm of what is taking place in the global Church.

When an awareness of the lostness of those without Messiah dims, evangelistic zeal may also fade. Each of us could illustrate many times over the marvel of a transformed life. I began this paper by relating a conversation about Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. I will close with the testimony an Israeli believer shared with Lori and me in March of this year. As an active practitioner of Orthodox Judaism, “Al” was in the inner circle of a leading rabbi ordained by a haredi yeshiva. In conversation one day about the hereafter, this famed rabbi said, “I know where I’m going when I die. I’m going to hell.”

Shocked to the core, Al asked how he could think such a thing. Replied the rabbi, “I know the bad things that I’ve done. For sure I’m going to gey hinnom.” That admission was part of what spurred Al to seek for assurance of his own salvation, which culminated in his coming to faith in Yeshua.

When considering “the Hidden Christ in world religions” we must make application to the spiritual needs of the Jewish people – including those devout practitioners of a Yeshua-less Judaism. Will we be lulled to complacency by a hoped-for salvation apart from faith in God’s revealed provision for redemption? Or will we heed the clear teaching of the Word that even those most zealous for the Torah need to find righteousness through faith in Messiah Jesus?

May God help us to be faithful to His Word and obedient to His command in our generation. May our lives reflect the reality of the inward transformation God is working in us by His Spirit so that our message will ring with integrity. May the Holy One of Israel be glorified as we speak graciously, humbly, compassionately, and fervently to a dying world of the life freely offered through faith in the completed atoning work of the only sufficient Savior, Yeshua, before whom one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess His Lordship.

_____________________________________

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” – Yeshua (John 17:3)

“If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”

– Yochanan (1 John 5:9-12)

 

ENDNOTES 

[1]. See Paul Hiebert=s helpful Taxonomy of Epistemological Positions in Appendix 1. 

[2]. All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[3]. Vinoth Ramachandra, AThe Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions@: The Edinburgh 1910 Commission IV Report and Beyond [www.towards2010.org.uk/ downloads/t2010paper04ramachandra.pdf], April 2005, 4.

[4]. Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), viii.

[5]. See e.g., Francis A. Schaeffer=s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1970).

[6]. Stan Guthrie, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century (Bucks, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000), 45.

[7]. AIf we are told there is salvation in the other religions, there is no a priori reason to deny it. It depends on what is meant by salvation. ...If salvation is striving for humanization, for development, for wholeness, for justice, for peace, for freedom, for the whole earth, for what not, there is salvation in the other religions, in the quasi-religions, and in the secular ideologies.@ Carl E. Braaten (Professor of Systematic Theology, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago), AThe Uniqueness and Universality of Jesus Christ@ in Mission Trends No. 5: Faith Meets Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 82-83. [NOTE: For our purposes in this paper, we are chiefly concerned with the salvation that results in an individual=s restoration of fellowship with a holy God through forgiveness of sin, and the promise of life everlasting.]

[8]. Peter Cotterell, APluralism@ in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, A Scott Moreau, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 761.

[9]. Ramachandra, Recovery, ix.

[10]. John Hick and Paul Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987). In the preface the editors write, A>...the uniqueness of Christianity=... has taken on a larger mythological meaning. It has come to signify the unique definitiveness, absoluteness, normativeness, superiority of Christianity in comparison with other religions of the world. It is this mythological sense of the phrase, with all that goes with it, that we are criticizing in this book.@

[11]. God gave explicit instructions to Israel regarding foreign gods (1F,I9 !B-J%F* B Joshua 24:20,23, e.g.) and idols/images (Deuteronomy 27:15, e.g.), and made clear their connection with demons (Deuteronomy 32:16-18, e.g.). Ramachandra (Recovery, ix) provides an example of how false religions keep their adherents blinded to the truth of the gospel: Peter Cotterell, himself a missionary in Ethiopia for many years, has complained that Ain the contemporary debates about the world=s religions the religions are hopelessly idealized.... The horrors of Canaanite religions are still with us, the shaman still claims the power to manipulate his gods, witchcraft still flourishes, the credulous are exploited, human achievement is exalted, the rich are filled with yet more good things, and it is the poor who are sent empty away. The fact is that religions do not prepare their adherents for the revelation of Christ.@

[12]. Braaten, 71.

[13]. Joseph M. Stowell illustrates the scandal of standing for Yeshua in our generation B and gives biblical encouragement for doing so B in The Trouble with Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 2003).

[14]. Erwin W. Lutzer, Christ Among Other Gods (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 13.

[15]. We must distinguish between Asubstitute@ Messiahs (what the Apostle John would term Aanti-Christs@) such as Athe Mahdi@ in Islam (Shia Atwelvers@ hold Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali to be Muhammad al-Mahd§, the 12th imam and ultimate savior of mankind),AChrist figures@ (such as the Acosmic Christ@ or other supposed incarnations of Athe Christ@) and distortions or incomplete portrayals of the biblical Messiah.

[16]. John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992), 215.

[17]. R. Douglas Geivett describes the challenge of defining terms thus: AWhereas inclusivists seem to agree that there are varieties of inclusivism, self-described inclusivists do not agree do not agree about what counts as a variety of inclusivism. Thus, from the point of view of one self-described inclusivist, another self-described inclusivist may not be an inclusivist at all.@ [AMisgivings@ and AOpenness@ in Who Will Be Saved: Defending the Biblical Understanding of God, Salvation, and Evangelism, Paul R. House and Gregory A. Thornbury, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 111.

[18]. Lesslie Newbigin, AThe Gospel Among the Religions@ in Mission Trends No. 5: Faith Meets Faith, Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., eds. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 8.

[19]. R. Todd Mangum, AIs There a Reformed Way to Get the Benefits of the Atonement to >Those Who Have Never Heard?=@ JETS 47/1 (March 2004) 121-36.

[20]. Millard Erickson [How Shall They Be Saved: The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) 33] reminds us that Athe Catholic Church has not always been monolithic in its view on this issue@ and that even those using the term may mean different things.

[21]. In his first papal encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II makes reference to each man as Aincluded in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery@ (Par. 13), and Abecause manBevery man without any exception whateverBhas been redeemed by Christ, and because with manBwith each man without any exception whateverBChrist is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it: >Christ, who died and was raised up for all, provides man=Beach man and every manB>with the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme calling=@ (Par. 14) [http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp‑ii_enc_ 04031979_redemptor‑hominis_en.html].

 

[22]. Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God=s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992); see chapter five, AHope for the Unevangelized.@

[23]. Geivett (Who Will Be Saved, 112-113) distinguishes between Pinnock=s AStrong Inclusivist Condition@ (which holds that Anon-Christian religions have some sort of saving value@) and Sander=s AWeak Inclusivism@ (which does not).

[24]. Dennis L. Ockholm and Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 141.

[25]. W. Gary Phillips, AEvangelical Pluralism: A Singular Problem@ in Bibliothecra Sacra 151:602 (Apr 94) p. 144.

[26]. The gospel is not a Western invention. The authors of the biblical texts which exclusivists use to argue their points were Levantine Jews, Luke excepted. Though the apostles lived under Roman rule, they were scarcely Hellenists. Further, some of today=s chief apologists for a knowing faith in Christ alone are Asians: Ravi Zacharias (India); Ajith Fernando and Vinoth Ramachandra (Sri Lanka). Their faith in the Lord Jesus was forged in Buddhist and Hindu contexts.

[27]. As with pluralism and inclusivism, distinctions may be drawn within exclusivism. For example, Brad Johnson (AA Three-Pronged Defense of Salvific Exclusivism in a World of Religions,@ 1998 at http://www.leaderu.com/theology/salvific.html#text8) differentiates between exclusivist views such as: 1) God only uses human instruments for sharing the gospel; 2) Apessimistic agnostics@ who say special revelation is necessary, but make no further conclusions than what Scripture explicitly teaches about how the gospel is communicated to the lost; and 3) Aoptimistic agnostics@ who allow for the possibility that God may have other means of getting the gospel to the lost that He has not revealed in Scripture.

[28]. Paul Borthwick quoting a study by James Davison Hunter in Six Dangerous Questions to Transform Your View of the World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 39.

[29]. Guthrie, 45 (quoting Nash=s Is Jesus the Only Way, 1994).

[30]. John Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 19.

[31]. For a detailed critique of Hick=s philosophy, see Ramachandra=s Recovery, especially pages 120-125. Here is a brief sample (from page 125): AThis [intellectual] imperialism is also prominent in Hick=s attempts to rewrite the reports of individual traditions in such a way that they can be accommodated within a Neo-Kantian worldview. Among the candidates suggested for mythological reinterpretation are the following: within Buddhism, the doctrine of rebirth...; within Judaism, the notion of Israel as a chosen people of Yahweh...; within the Christian tradition, Jesus= virgin birth, bodily resurrection and ascension, the divine incarnation.... The finished product, in each case, is unrecognizable to most adherents of the respective traditions. The price for resolving the problem of conflicting truth-claims in this manner is considerable.@

[32]. Braaten, 71-72.

[33]. Two books this writer would commend for their thoughtful, biblical treatment of the issues at hand in a highly readable format are Ajith Fernando=s The Christian=s Attitude Toward World Religions (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1987) and Ida Glaser=s The Bible and Other Faiths: Christian Responsibility in a World of Religions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

[34]. As an important clarification on Aredemptive analogies,@ Don Richardson writes, AFor these reasons I propose that these particular facets of Mbaka lore be described as >redemptive.= (Note: >redemptive,= not >redeeming=! >Redeeming= would mean that Mbaka people could find relationship with God through their own lore, apart from the gospel. >Redemptive= in this context means >contributing to the redemption of a people, but not culminating in it.=) >Redemptive lore= contributes to the redemption of a people solely by facilitating their understanding of what redemption means.@ Eternity in their Hearts (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1981, 4th printing 1983), 61.

[35]. W. Gary Phillips lists the following options which inclusivists have postulated: 1. Eschatological B either Alater light@ (salvation is preached to those who have never heard after they die, based on 1 Peter 3:18-22), or annihilation (rather than everlasting judgment, a merciful God at some point causes the souls of the nonbelievers to cease to exist). 2. Election B an omniscient God knows all contingencies, and thus knows who would have believed had they only heard the gospel. Based on that Amiddle knowledge@ of a hypothetical world, God elects unto salvation those who would have believed. 3. Exception B just as Achronologically premessianic believers@ (e.g., Old Testament saints) were Agrandfathered@ (my word) into the later cross-work of Yeshua, so that same grace is effectively granted to those Ainformationally premessianic believers@ who (albeit post-Calvary in time) have not heard B as indeed it is to those incapable of believing had they heard (Phillips, 147).

[36]. Interestingly, the angelic messenger didn=t give the gospel to Cornelius, but instructed him to send for Peter in Joppa (10:3-6) to hear his message (10:22).

[37]. Mangum, 125.

[38]. Cf.1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 16:7; 19:2