How things have changed in a decade! About ten years ago, theologians Clark Pinnock and John Sanders shook up evangelical theology with two books that together offered a defense of what is now widely known as "inclusivism." Christian inclusivism is the view that the work of Jesus Christ is the foundation for salvation, but that people do not have to know about it to benefit from it. Therefore, many of the unevangelized will yet be saved because they have put their trust in God, as far as they know him, and are accepted by faith on the basis of the work of Christ.

Pinnock's and Sanders's arguments have by no means swept the field; indeed, they have been widely cited as evidence of dangerous theological drift within the evangelical movement. But neither has the case for inclusivism been decisively refuted. Indeed, two recent books show just how far the discussion has advanced in a decade. Taken together, they suggest that evangelicals have only begun to explore the implications for all of theology in taking seriously the reality of the world's religions. But these two books also highlight, in their different ways, something of the challenge and the danger of such exploration.

Learning from Buddha

Gerald McDermott, a professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Virginia, seems perhaps an unlikely person to ask the provocative question, Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? (InterVarsity, 2000). He is widely respected as an expert on the thought of Jonathan Edwards, and it seems quite a distance from the theology of the 18th-century revival leader on the American frontier to contemporary theologizing about world religions. Yet McDermott has recently examined Edwards's thought about other religions, in his scholarly monograph Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods (Oxford, 2001), and that encounter forms the basis for his consideration of contemporary questions as well.

McDermott here takes up Pinnock's suggestion that evangelicals ought to move on from considering whether anyone outside the Christian religion can be saved to considering whether Christians can actually learn from people of other faiths. Yes, Christ is the center of God's revelation and salvation. But if other religions have recognized truth, goodness, and beauty in the world, they have done so as recipients of grace from the one source of all good, the Holy Spirit of God. So is it possible that we can learn from them some good things we have not already learned in the Christian tradition?

Article continues below

Christians have been doing exactly that for centuries. We learned from our Jewish forebears, of course, but also from Jewish contemporaries down through the years, from Philo of Alexandria to the great medieval scholar Maimonides to our own contemporaries Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, and Elie Wiesel. We learned from our Greek and Hellenistic heritages, from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and others. We learned from the European religions that have influenced so many of our Christian rituals—not least, Christmas and Easter. So why not learn from other religions as well?

One of the strengths of McDermott's book is that he provides extended examples of such learning, from four disparate religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam. From Buddhism, for example, Christians can learn more about their moment-by-moment dependence on God for their very existence, and about the limitations of theology in the face of God's inexpressible transcendence. Taoism reminds Christians to trust and cooperate with the mysterious workings of the wise and good God in what appear sometimes to be foolish or ugly circumstances.

To be sure, Christians must measure all that they learn against the touchstones of Christ and the Bible, with reference also to the great traditions of the church. I think McDermott would agree that we badly need a detailed epistemology that would help us to engage these religions properly. But his book is to be commended nonetheless as the first in this generation to attempt such an engagement in a way both genuinely respectful of other religions and straightforwardly evangelical in its ultimate loyalties.

Heaven and Nirvana

S. Mark Heim's The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Eerdmans, 2001) returns to the question posed by Pinnock and Sanders a decade ago. His book is focused upon precisely the question of where we are headed after death. But Heim's scheme of religious ends stretches almost everyone's categories to a novel and, perhaps, shocking conclusion.

Heim, a professor of theology at Andover-Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, declares himself to be a Trinitarian Christian of an inclusivist sort. So far, so good, from an evangelical point of view. But his proposal diverges from evangelical principles sufficiently—not just his conclusions, but by the very way he puts things—so as to provide warning for evangelicals working in this important field.

Heim's argument is carefully wrought—indeed, The Depth of the Riches completes a trilogy on this theme—and to summarize it almost necessarily involves distortion. His fundamental contention, however, can be concisely stated: God truly gives people what they want. If they want to be with him in heaven, they go there. If they want to be completely absent from him, they go to hell. But if they want some other sort of religious end—say, the nirvana of Buddhism, or the experience of union with the divine that is sought in Advaita Hinduism or Sufi Islam—then they will get that, too.

Article continues below

Heim argues that this scheme makes the most sense of a number of factors that must be coordinated in any theology of salvation: God's will that all be saved, human resistance to that will because of sin, God's gracious initiative to assist us, our freedom to settle for less than God's best, the apparent truth in other religions and their reported positive experiences, and God's refusal to punish but rather to allow people to come to their preferred end.

Pursuing another religion, therefore, might well be an intermediate stage in which one encounters something of the revelation of God as a path toward embracing the full revelation of God in Christ. But then again it might instead lead to an end in itself—an end, to be sure, that is deficient when compared to the Christian goal of communion with the Trinity, but an end that enjoys some limited contact with the aspects of God truly glimpsed in that religion. Thus as such people apprehend and respond positively to some, but not all, of God's revelation in this lifetime, they receive some, but not all, of God's goodness in their religious end.

Most evangelicals, I daresay, will scratch their heads at this scheme. (Do remember, though, that this sketch radically simplifies Heim's complex argument.) Some will wonder whether it does full justice to sin's grip on us. Heim generously treats those of other faiths as sincere seekers after goodness and God, and that's a refreshing change from traditional Christian demonizing of non-Christians. But if some people want only "some" of God's blessing, rather than submitting entirely to him, and hence prefer another religion to Christianity, doesn't that attitude amount fundamentally to rebellion, rather than to a positive response to partial revelation?

Heim characterizes these intermediate religious ends as "hells" in the sense that they fall well short of the glory of communion with the triune God. But how "hellish" are they, really? Are such states consistent with the Bible's teaching regarding the just deserts of those who do not submit entirely to God? And many will wonder about Heim's grounds for suggesting what he does. Heim argues an awfully long time from Dante's Divine Comedy and works of contemporary theology as suggestive, and a relatively little time from what he freely allows is the paucity of relevant Scripture.

Article continues below

Heim's freedom to explore well beyond the range of biblical revelation to conclusions that seem difficult to reconcile with both Scripture and tradition exemplifies a danger facing evangelical theologians as well. We must beware not to keep cantilevering speculation upon speculation over the gorge of mystery. Most of the notable heresies in history have offered the virtues of coherence, clarity, and apparent common sense—that's why so many people believed them.

Evangelical theology of religions, therefore, must continue to champion a radical fidelity to the Bible that opens doors for the reexamination of inherited doctrines—for none of our formulations can be exempt from correction in the light of the Spirit's fresh teaching from the Bible. If Pinnock, Sanders, McDermott, or Heim can show us biblical grounds to review our understanding of other faiths, let us follow in their train and explore these insights together. But evangelical fidelity to Scripture must tether us as we move into new spaces of discovery. It must keep us from veering off into the sort of speculation that makes sense to us in our finitude and sin, but is nonsense in the eyes of the Bible's Author, who chides us for our presumptuous ambition.

In short, evangelical theology of religions needs to change some more, and it will be the better for having considered these constructive provocations. But it had best not change too much.

John Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, and editor of No Other Gods Before Me? Evangelicals Encounter World Religions (Baker, 2001).

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today articles on inclusivism include:
Books & Culture Corner: Who in Hell? | Theologian John Sanders considers the eternal fate of non-Christians (April 10, 2000)

The Only Way | Answering the argument that all religions are more or less true. (Jan. 12, 1998)

The Perennial Debate | Christians have never agreed on the salvation for those who have never heard of Christ (May 4, 1990) offers Gerald McDermott's Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? and S. Mark Heim's The Depth of the Riches.

Article continues below

A biographical sketch of McDermott is available at the Roanoke College site.

A bio page on S. Mark Heim is available at Andover-Newton Theological School's site.

McDermott's Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods is available from Oxford Univeristy Press.

In Christianity Today, McDermott found that Jonathan Edwards has a lot to teach about politics.

Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture dissected the works of Jonathan Edwards, the "white whale of American religious history."

Another Christianity Today sister publication, Christian History, examined Dante's Divine Comedy with its spring 2001 issue.

No Other Gods before Me?: Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions and Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil by John G. Stackhouse Jr. can be ordered through

Past Christianity Today articles by John G. Stackhouse Jr. include:

Mind Over Skepticism | Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has defeated two of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith. (June 20, 2001)

The Seven Deadly Signs | Ministries that think they can do no financial wrong deceive themselves. (Feb. 14, 2000)

An Elder Statesman's Plea | John Stott's 'little statement on evangelical faith' reveals the strengths and limitations of the movement he helped create. (Feb. 14, 2000)

The Battle for the Inclusive Bible | Conflicts over "gender-neutral" versions are not really about translation issues. (Nov. 5, 1999)

Finding a Home for Eve | We are right to criticize radical feminist scholars—and wrong to ignore them. (Mar. 1, 1999)

The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (Dec. 7, 1998)

The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)

Bad Things Still Happen | A concise, clear argument for how God can be both good and omnipotent. (July 13, 1998)

Fighting the Good Fight | A plea for healthy disagreements. (Oct. 6, 1997)

Confronting Canada's Secular Slide | Why Canadian evangelicals thrive in a culture often indifferent to religious faith. (July 18, 1994)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.