More Than One Way? Shouldn’t Evangelicals get with the program and participate in the Parliament of the World‘s Religions? Is Jesus really the only way to God?
In December 8,000 religious leaders are expected to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. This is only the fifth time for such a gathering. The first was held in Chicago in 1893, the second a century later in the same city, with Cape Town (1998) and Barcelona (2005) hosting the most recent gatherings. I missed the first one (a bit before my time) and the last one but hope to get “down under” to monitor the latest trends in interreligious dialogue.
Who are we to think we have the whole truth?
I know from past experience there will be lots of Christians at the event but not many of the evangelical variety. This is not surprising since Evangelicals tend to (a) dislike ecumenical programs and (b) disagree with a pluralistic view of religions.
A year ago, Rick Hiemstra of the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism (an initiative of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada) noted high commitment to evangelism among Canadian Evangelicals across three national surveys (1996, 2003 and 2007). He also showed how this evangelistic emphasis is at growing variance with trends in the larger Canadian society toward pluralism.
Some pundits think all Evangelicals, Canadian and otherwise, should drop their narrow-minded ways and hit the road to Melbourne. How can there be only one way?
Who are we to think we have the whole truth? Can’t we learn from faithful people in other religions? What about those who have never heard the Gospel? What about decent Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus who lead lives of goodness and live up to the light they have? What about the honest atheist who lives by high moral standards yet is unable to believe in God? Let me suggest four things by way of response.
1) Note that the first three questions are actually rhetorical ploys. If there were only one cure for cancer, would we ignore it? Claiming Christ as “the Truth” is not saying “we” Evangelicals have the whole truth about everything.
Who would ever say that? Likewise, Evangelicals do not claim to have the total market on wisdom, goodness and serenity. Sometimes we would rather have a Buddhist for a neighbour than a Bible-thumper.
2) All Christian thinking on these matters must start and end with the proclamation of Christ as sole Lord and Saviour. If Evangelicals abandon Jesus as “the Way,” we have given up the Gospel. The only hope for sinful humanity lies in the Cross (as we read in John 3:16, Galatians 6:14 and Colossians 1:20). Every knee will bow to Jesus (see Philippians 2:10), Christian and otherwise. Only Jesus opens the scroll and its seals (see Revelation 5:5). “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
3) To fully obey Christ we also need to watch our judgmental tone. Beware how quickly we assign people to hell. Beware how much we relish being “right” and “orthodox” and “true.” Beware how we often lack the grace of Christ as we contemplate theological issues. Thankfully, Canada is home to evangelical scholars who write on the topic of other faiths with Christlike grace. I think, for example, of Clark Pinnock, emeritus professor at McMaster University, and his work A Wideness in God’s Mercy (Zondervan, 1992).
You will find a similar spirit, though a different theological perspective, in Terry Tiessen, emeritus professor at Providence College and Seminary and author of Who Can Be Saved? (InterVarsity, 2004).
4) Sometimes troubling questions have to be left to God. It is better to trust than to pontificate. Forty years ago, in my teen years, I was disturbed about the issue of unevangelized people. Oswald J. Smith visited Moncton, New Brunswick, at the time. I wrote him a letter and asked him about the fate of those who had never heard the gospel. This great missionary statesman, founder of The Peoples Church in Toronto, wrote me back. I thought he would provide all the details. Instead he said he did not know the answer but was content to live by Genesis 18:25. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
James A. Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. He is at work on a new book in Christian apologetics.
Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2009.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.