Perhaps you’ve heard people say that all religions lead to God. This idea is called religious pluralism. Pluralism comes in two forms. First is the fact that we live in a society that has many cultures and many religions, and we are to treat each with respect. That is true, and good. We should be tolerant, but that does not mean that we have to agree with everyone. Religious pluralism goes beyond this—it says that all religions are equally valid. What about it? Could all religions be valid paths to God?
What is a religion?
First, we have to define what a religion is. Is Taoism a religion, or just a philosophy of life? What about the branch of Buddhism that says there is no god? Is it a religion? And what about Satanism, which says there is a god, but they don’t want anything to do with him? Are all these religions leading to God whether they want to or not?
People who say that all religions lead to God often accept anything and everything as a religion. The real goal, it seems, is not to invalidate anyone. As a result, they say that everyone will end up with God no matter what religion they have, even if they don’t have a religion. So the original idea, that all religions lead to God, is not really about religions—it’s a belief that everyone will be saved (universalism) regardless of their beliefs.
But there is another problem with the original idea: Different religions have different ideas of God. Some view God in spiritual terms, others more physical, and some religions have no God. Some have many gods, some have one, some have none. Some people don’t even want to get to God, so they wouldn’t like the idea that they will get to him whether they like it or not.
Another problem is that each religion has its own idea of what salvation is. For some, it is nothingness, an elimination of personal consciousness. For others, it is an eternity with personal consciousness. It is difficult to see how both of these teachings can lead in the same direction. If someone says, “All religions lead to God,” we might ask: “How do you know? Have you tried them all and found God at the end of each one?”
Anyone who claims that all religions lead to God is actually claiming to know better than the Muslims and Hindus and everyone else. The Muslim says that only Islam leads to God, and the pluralist says: “No, you are wrong. Let me tell you, because I know more than you do. All religions may be good, but mine is better than them all.”
How does the pluralist know? What authority do pluralists have for their view? Usually only themselves. They are their own religious authorities. They have decided what is right, and they don’t want to be bothered with the facts about what any particular religion believes or does.
Different religions contradict one another. Logic says they could all be wrong, but logic says they can’t all be right. Nevertheless, the pluralist says they are all right. Contradictory ideas are right. Believing in Jesus is just as good as believing in Mohammed, even though neither Christians nor Muslims would agree to that.
Biblical responses to pluralism
Paul wrote that Gentile unbelievers are shown mercy by God in only one way—through the gospel of Jesus Christ—not by staying in their old religions. Their pagan religions are futile—ineffective (Rom. 1:20-23). God has made himself plain to all people, so that they “are without excuse” (verses 18-20).
Paul knew that many people had not yet heard of Christ. Nevertheless, he said that they could not use ignorance as an excuse. Everyone sins and can be held responsible for their sins (Rom. 2:14-15). Paul said that God leaves people in disobedience so that through Jesus Christ he will have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32). How will he do that? The Bible doesn’t give details.
God’s will is that all people come to him (1 Timothy 2:4), but that does not mean all religions are valid. There are good people in all sorts of religions, but salvation is not a matter of being good people; it is a matter of being one with Jesus Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of all things.
Most religions teach some form of works—if we do this, and that, and if we do it well enough, then we will eventually get to God. The gospel says that all such approaches don’t work. People can never work their way to God. Rules can’t save anyone, or get anyone closer to God. The gospel teaches a different path of salvation than other religions do. At the heart of the gospel is that our own works cannot save us—and that means that the gospel also says that religions can’t save us. People in other religions need grace, just like we need grace, and grace is found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One reason that pluralism is attractive is that many bad things have been done in the name of religion. Religious differences sometimes turn into religious wars. So people think that the best way to stop all this violence is for everyone to accept everyone else’s religion, and then we’ll have unity and peace.
That is a naïve view. Religions have developed so as to distinguish themselves from other religions, and wishful thinking won’t change that. Differences in religions are as much a result of human division as a cause of it. In pluralism, there is no foundation for truth—no reason for people to agree, except that the pluralist wants them to.
I am not saying that all Muslims and Hindus are lost. What happens on the Day of Judgment is God’s business, but we do know from the Bible that God encounters and saves people through Jesus Christ, not through their religions. God may save them despite their religions, but not because of them. Those whom God saves, he saves by drawing them into fellowship with Christ.
I am also not saying that all Christians are exactly where God wants them to be, either. Just because some people call themselves Christians does not mean that they trust Jesus Christ for grace and salvation. The gospel is for people who realize they need the mercy of God and who trust Christ to give it to them, turning their lives over to him as Lord and Master.
Whether a person is a Buddhist or a Christian, the only path to salvation is God’s free gift, which comes only through Jesus Christ. Hinduism says that not all Hindus will be saved; Islam says that not all Muslims will be saved, and Christianity says that not all Christians are saved. So it seems silly for a pluralist to say that all Hindus, for example, are saved, when not even the Hindus say that. The pluralist is contradicting the religions he is trying not to offend. In trying to say that they are all valid, he ends up saying that they are all in error.
Pluralists are often uncomfortable with the unique teachings of Christianity, because Christian claims about Jesus are often not acceptable to Muslims. And pluralists are often uncomfortable with claims about Mohammed, too, since those claims also cause mutual non-acceptance. So pluralism often tries to find the smallest common denominator in the religions, and to discard everything unique.
Actually, most religions aren’t worried about the salvation of people in other religions. Most religions don’t have a God who loves the whole world. The pluralist idea, that God must save people in other religions, is actually rooted in the Christian teaching that God loves the whole world.
Responding to pluralism
The best response to pluralism is to explain what we believe. In everyday language, the gospel says:
No one is perfect, and everyone has done something wrong. Right and wrong are not just a matter of opinion—they are rooted in reality, defined by an authority greater than human opinion.
The wrong things we do hurt other people, and the wrong things they do hurt us. That’s why they are wrong.
We all want to live in a world in which no one does anything wrong—that is, no one hurts other people. But the fact is, none of us is perfect, and therefore none of us is fit to be in a perfect world.
People cannot turn themselves around. Some people have pretty good ethics, but even they have flaws. It doesn’t work to let people choose their own ethics, and it doesn’t work to impose one person’s ethics on everyone else. We need an authority for ethics that is greater than humanity.
We have all fallen short and cannot save ourselves. We need to be forgiven—and we need help that is stronger than human help. We need God.
The gospel teaches that God has supplied what we need—he supplies the definition of right and wrong; he supplies the forgiveness that we need; he supplies the supernatural power to change us, and he does all this in Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion of Christ shows us how awful wrongdoing is, and it assures us that the price for it has been paid. His crucifixion gives us evidence that we have been forgiven, and his resurrection gives us evidence that he is our salvation. God has come to us and saved us because we could not save ourselves. We need this kind of salvation, and the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that God has given us what we need.
That’s the good news, and we can trust in the goodness of God, not in the flimsy goodness of human beings. We can trust God not just for our own salvation, but also for the salvation of the people in other religions who will ultimately trust in Christ. We may not know what, how or when God will draw them, but we trust that God will be gracious and good because we know that he is the Father of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world.