Christianity is the one true religion. Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. God is merciful and just, desiring that all should be saved. God would not deny salvation to those who live good and godly lives, but who, by accident of birth, are not practicing Christians. Is it possible to reconcile these statements? Is it possible that the exclusivist claim for Christianity is true, as is the pluralist claim that salvation is not dependent upon the practice of the Christian religion? In this post I will argue that the inclusivist position as articulated by Karl Rahner fairly reconciles these positions, is most compatible with the character of the Christian God, and does not compromise the core integrity of the Christian faith. Although I will argue that Rahner’s definition of “anonymous Christians” is in need of some minor refinement, I will argue that his position meets any reasonable objection from both the exclusivists and the pluralists.
Exclusivists maintain that there can be only one true religion and that only through the true religion may salvation or liberation be attained. Christian exclusivists, of course, insist that Christianity is the one true religion and the only means of salvation. Among all religions, Christianity alone contends that it was established by God in human flesh. Christians contend that salvation is a product of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Plainly, Christianity is ill-suited to share the concept of salvation with a competing religion. For those who accept the core beliefs of Christianity, it seems difficult to escape exclusivism.
Exclusivism can nevertheless be uncomfortable to Christians who detect in it an inherent “unfairness” that is inconsistent with their conception of God. If God is loving, merciful and just, desiring that all should be saved, then how could he condemn to damnation the millions of humans who, largely due to accident of birth, are not Christians? Those who are troubled by such a question will seek a way to reconcile the inherent exclusivism of Christianity with this apparent salvation inequity.
To such a person, pluralism per se is unacceptable, given that it does not require the saving grace of Christ. Pluralists insist that salvation can be attained through the faithful practice of any religion. They do not therefore accept the Christian premise of the incarnation, or any of the exclusivist claims of Christianity and of Jesus. Thus, a Christian cannot be a pluralist.
Karl Rahner has described a solution to this dilemma, through what is known as “inclusivism.” Christian inclusivism holds on to the ideas that Christianity is the one true religion and that salvation comes through Christ alone, while at the same time arguing that the grace of Christ extends to those who faithfully practice other religions, even though while living they are unaware of the salvation they achieve. These persons are referred to by Rahner as “anonymous Christians.”
Rahner begins with the proposition that Christianity “is the religion which binds man to God.” His position, in that regard, is plainly exclusivist. Next, however, he denies that it is proper or necessary to view religions as either wholly from God, or purely human creations. Instead, he argues that “elements of a supernatural influence of grace” may be found in non-Christian religions as well. Persons practicing such religions are “anonymous Christians,” who can attain salvation through Christ, even though they are unaware of it. Rahner therefore adopts enough of the pluralist position to overcome the “unfairness” of exclusivism, without surrendering the essential claim of Christianity.
Exclusivists will object that Rahner’s position compromises the integrity of Christian belief by supposing that a person can obtain the benefit of Christ’s salvation without confessing it. Pluralists, on the other hand, object that Rahner’s inclusivism arrogantly supposes that Christian beliefs are salvifically superior to those of other religions. In a sense, both objections are valid. But the exclusivist objection is met by reference to the character of God. A loving, merciful and just God simply would not condemn righteous people who through no fault of their own are ignorant of Jesus. And futher, Christian inclusivists need not disagree with those exclusivists who insist, as Karl Barth does, that Christ alone is the locus of the one true faith.
Likewise, the pluralist objection is met by the obvious response that there must be an ultimately true state of facts about God and salvation. The truth claims of religions are mutually contradictory and merely wishing that all religions were equally valid will not make it true.
The pluralist John Hick’s objections to Rahner’s inclusivism are easily answered. First, Hick argues that if Rahner’s inclusivism is true, then there is no reason for Christians to evangelize or to “persist in their aim of gathering all humankind into the Christian Church.” But as Rahner notes, “the individual who grasps Christianity in a clearer, purer and more effective way, has, other things being equal, a still greater chance of salvation than one who is merely an anonymous Christian.” Hick’s objection simply does not destroy the importance or urgency of evangelism and it would not defeat Rahner’s argument even if it did. Of course, for Christian universalists the objection would have even less significance.
Hick also argues that pluralism is the logical conclusion to inclusivism. He contends that the doctrine of the incarnation, which he rejects, holds back Christians who would otherwise follow inclusivism to “its conclusion in the frank acceptance of pluralism.” His argument is, however, presumptive and invalid. Hick supposes that a truth claim as fundamental as the divinity of Christ—a truth claim that addresses the very nature of God—can be made secondary to the aim of pluralism. Salvation must proceed from the essential truth of a religion. We cannot work backward to create a set of religious beliefs that will be most accommodating to existing cultural beliefs, without jettisoning essential truth. Further, Hick’s rejection of the divinity of Christ is itself a truth claim upon which he builds his pluralist religion.
There is, however, a valid and compelling objection to Rahner’s argument. Rahner argues that salvation may be found in the religion of a person’s “actual realm of existence and historical condition.” By focusing his argument on “religion,” however, rather than on the practices of individuals themselves, I submit that Rahner casts his net too wide. As Clark Pinnock has correctly observed, “religion” can be evil, “dark, deceptive, and cruel.” Practitioners of such cruel and evil religions as voodoo, Satanism, the Aztec religion, or the worship of Molech, surely are not on par with reverent practitioners of Judaism, Buddhism or Islam (for example). Leaving aside the issue of “religion,” I agree with Pinnock that God’s presence in individuals can be determined by examining whether they fear God and pursue righteousness. I would argue therefore that, at a minimum, “anonymous Christians” (that is, persons who will receive salvation through Christ, although not practicing Christians) are not merely faithful followers of any non-Christian religions, but rather are those non-Christians who faithfully fear God and pursue righteousness in their lives.
Righteous, God-fearing non-Christians may therefore be beneficiaries of the salvation that comes from Christ, even though they are unaware of it. Christianity is the one true religion and salvation comes only through Christ. But God, in his mercy, extends the salvation of Christ even to the “anonymous Christians.” This construction of inclusivism maintains the integrity of the core Christian beliefs, while avoiding the seemingly harsh inequity of pure exclusivism.