Christian apologists generally go out of their way to attempt to respond to common criticisms of their faith. In response to criticisms of the exclusivity of orthodox Christianity, a number of Christian apologists (most notably Ravi Zacharias) have claimed that all religions are equally exclusive. Whilst I would generally argue that the vast majority of claims made by such apologists are false, this claim is probably one of the very easiest to be able to refute.
That is, whilst many sub-topics relevant to religion require significant time and space to cover in enough depth to make a convincing case one way or another, this issue is indeed different. Once the facts are seen it is quite clear that there is no possibility of reasonable disagreement over this issue. Christian apologists are quite simply confusing two different things: 1) Exclusivity of absolute truth/s, and 2) Exclusivity of salvation. The two things are not completely unrelated, but they most certainly are not the same thing.
Exclusivity of truth states that two alternate theories on the same subject cannot be equally true. For example, the orthodox Christian doctrine that all beings will either spend eternity in heaven or hell dependent primarily upon whether or not they accepted Jesus as their saviour through grace accepted through faith, and the general Dharmic concept that all beings transmigrate in and out of different lives in a continuum of existence, are mutually exclusive. That is, they cannot be equally true.
Exclusivity of salvation however deals with the conditions required by a religion to receive salvation, and the consequences that the faith in question believes will fall upon those that are not saved. In this respect, the Abrahamic faiths are mostly (but not entirely) unique in their exclusivity. Orthodox Christianity states that if you don’t receive salvation through Christ you are damned[i], hence it is extremely exclusive. Hinduism by comparison states that the unenlightened soul merely travels to a heaven (or hell) after death depending on their nature, and then takes on another life where they continue on in their spiritual evolution. Hence, Hinduism does not have such drastic consequences for the unliberated soul, nor does it state that there is only one way to achieve spiritual liberation. Hence, Hinduism is not exclusive by nature; rather it is pluralistic or inclusive.
When non-Christians criticize Christianity for its exclusivity, they are clearly referring to exclusivity of salvation. Christian apologists are deliberately confusing the two issues in an attempt to diffuse this criticism. The fact that such apologists are wrong is not in itself definitive proof that orthodox Christianity and their concept of religious exclusivity are false. However, it does show that such apologists need to stop claiming that all religions are equally exclusive, and accept the fact that their religion (along with a number of others) are extremely exclusive by comparison to many other options in the world of comparative religion.
Hence, Christian apologists should focus their attention upon defending such exclusivity on its own merits, rather than making erroneous claims about comparative religion at large. Christian apologists such as Ravi Zacharias need to concede that they have been wrong, retract their previous claims about religious exclusivity being universal, and cease making such claims in the future.
One of the most common and obvious criticisms of Christianity is that it teaches that only Christians will be given eternal life in heaven after death, whilst all the unsaved will suffer eternally in hell. Christians themselves like to present Christianity in positive terms, as the “good news” (gospel) that all beings can be saved simply through faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of who we are or who we have been. To those outside the faith however, it appears that the “good news” comes along with a presupposition of very, very bad news: That without this salvation all beings are not simply merely imperfect and prone to a degree of human suffering, but rather, are destined for eternal, infinite, undying suffering.
Anyways, as a consequence, Christians reject all other forms of religion, spirituality and philosophy as being either empty human attempts to reach out in the dark, or diabolical belief systems that lead human beings into darkness and eternal death. Hence, Christians often find themselves fending off criticisms that their faith is extremely exclusive, and that this exclusivity is intrinsically offensive.
Christian apologists such as Ravi Zacharias however have come up with a way to attempt to deflect such accusations. That is, by claiming that all religions are equally exclusive[ii]. Hence, Zacharias (and others) are claiming that religious exclusivity is not merely an issue that Christianity has to deal with (along with the other Abrahamic faiths and a few other smaller, lesser known faiths and sects), but rather, a universal fact of religion as a whole. They are however doing a great disservice to those people that trust them to give them honest and informed answers on the subject of religion, and it is time that this issue was resolved once and for all.
The vast, vast majority of attempted rebuttals of the apologetics of Zacharias and co. come from atheists. Hence, almost all (if not absolutely all) responses to Christian apologetics come from those that do not have any spiritual beliefs at all. Hence, Christian apologetics that deal with other religions very rarely (if ever) get a response from anyone. Eastern religions, the New Age movement and other faiths have all been almost completely silent in regards to Christian apologetics aimed against them. This is not to say that there are not any responses that can be given to Christian apologetics, but rather, there haven’t been many people (if any) that have felt the need to do so. I on the other hand think it is time that a response was given to Christian apologetics on Eastern and New Age spirituality; hence this is one of the main topics of which I write about.
In their attempts to respond to criticisms of Christian exclusivity, apologists such as Zacharias immediately turn to the question of the exclusivity of absolute truth, a move that I consider misdirection (whether conscious or not). Zacharias (and co.) are indeed correct when they state that absolute truth is by very nature exclusive. Answers to basic mathematical equations can only be true or false; that is, there is generally only one correct answer, and there is an infinite array of false possibilities. Likewise, many scientific questions have only very specific correct answers, and it has commonly been the case that they have had to compete with a myriad of false ideas about how the natural world operates before gaining widespread acceptance.
However, it is also true that there are questions in life in which there are no truly objective right or wrong answers. Personal taste in music, food and fashion are all relative and subjective. One cannot simply state that their taste in music is better than that of someone else. In the realms of science, theoretical physicists seek for a way to view the entire universe that resolves apparent contradictions in many different fields, which in their own areas appear to operate as if they give a correct representation of reality. For example, physicists have been trying to find a way to harmonize General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics for some time. A number of theoretical physicists have presented attempts at a Grand Unified Theory to put all other fields into perspective, and one popular contender for the title is String Theory. Therefore, scientists have to accept that some things that they hold true (such as General Relativity) may not be absolutely true (and are hence only relatively true), but that there is a greater truth that envelops it.
There are many examples in life whereby two seemingly mutually exclusive concepts are both either equally true, or both have their place. For example, we know that matter is made up primarily of empty space and fields of energy, and yet we experience it as if it is solid (except of course in the case of liquids, gases and plasmas). Hence, two contradictory statements (matter is empty – matter is solid) are both true (though perhaps not equally so). Likewise, in the field of politics there are many issues whereby we need to balance out two conflicting interests. Sensible political policy attempt to recognize these interests, and attempt to direct policy in a way that achieves a balance between the two poles.
Anyways, my point here is that you cannot simply assume that all discussions of a religious nature need to be limited strictly to black and white, absolute conceptions of truth. It is up for discussion (elsewhere) as to how one applies concepts of absolute and/or relative truth to various issues relevant to religion, spirituality and philosophy. This is important to note because Christian apologists are trying to conflate two different forms of exclusivity, by implying that they are necessarily the same thing. I am not contesting the fact that an absolute truth is by very definition exclusive. However, I am pointing out that you cannot simply assume that religious exclusivity (exclusivity of salvation-liberation) must be black and white. That is, one cannot simply presuppose the view that you are either saved or damned. Rather, that is something that Christians need to argue on its own merits.
Moving on to the main point of this article, the fact is that exclusivity of truth is not necessarily the same thing as exclusivity of salvation/liberation. Exclusivity of truth deals with the fact that two mutually exclusive doctrines cannot both be equally true. As stated in the summary at the beginning, the orthodox Christian model of salvation and the Hindu model of reincarnation and eventual spiritual liberation cannot both be equally true. Likewise, multiple different competing Christian models of where the saved live in eternity (earth, a heavenly Jerusalem, a non-physical, spiritual heaven or a physical – but yet spiritual – heaven) could not be equally true (that is, assuming that some form of Christianity was true). The orthodox Christian view that resurrection occurs in a restored, eternal physical body is mutually exclusive with the view of some early Gnostic sects that that Christians were raised in spirit only.
Likewise, the view of Advaita Vedanta that the absolute reality is the impersonal Brahman[iii] is mutually exclusive with the view of the ISKON sect (known as the Hare Krishna’s – effectively a Hindu Vaishnava offshoot) that the absolute reality is Krishna (in their conception, God as a distinct person). One could go on. Multiple, specific, competing doctrines simply cannot be equally true. On this at least, Christian apologists are correct.
However, this does not mean that we should assume that in the grand scheme of infinity that each one of us is either saved or damned for eternity. To simply assume that would be to presuppose Christianity before even considering it[iv]. Rather, if we are to objectively consider the questions of comparative religion, we can consider other ideas about the state of humanity and the pathway of eternity.
Advaita Vedanta philosophy[v] states that the vast cosmos (of which the physical universe is part) and all the beings within it are ultimately dreams within the cosmic mind of God – Brahman. We appear to come into this world, take on form and personality in forgetfulness of our true nature (Maya – the cosmic sleep or illusion), pass through a continuum of earthly and astral lives (more on that shortly) in which we undergo psychological and spiritual evolution, until we eventually become liberated and merge back with Brahman. This view does not state that anybody is damned, nor can they ever be, for all existence is actually divine, only that we are all asleep.
Now, one can certainly debate various aspects of Hindu doctrine, and I certainly disagree with the way that Christian apologists present these things. However, this is not what we are discussing today. The question relevant here is whether or not Hinduism is as exclusive as Christianity. The answer is simply no. If Christianity is true, Hindus are in deep trouble. If Hinduism is true, Christians are fine. If Christianity is true, Hindus will be subject to eternal torment. If Hinduism is true, Christians will go to heaven for a while, then take on another life somewhere in some form and continue their journey.
Hinduism has a long history of pluralism, accepting many different spiritual paths as leading towards the same ultimate goal. For example:
“Truth is One; though the sages know it variously.”[vi]
“As people approach me, so I receive them. All paths lead to me”.[vii]
Anyways, the point is that Hinduism does not condemn people of other faiths to an eternity of suffering. It considers all religious followers to be seeking the same ultimate goal (though, as I have repeatedly stated throughout my various writings, this does not necessarily mean that all religions are equal or identical).
Personally, I consider Perennial Philosophy to be a progressive philosophy, which is largely derived from Advaita Vedanta, but with a view to the highest common denominators in comparative religion, along with legitimate insights that have come from many modern fields. As such, I am somewhat cautious about acceptance of the strict traditional conception of karma (that being, that suffering experienced in this life is due to mistakes made in past lives), and I obviously view references in Vedic texts to heavenly sojourns in between earthly lives in light of the information gathering from Near Death experiences and other fields.
One could hardly claim the Perennial Philosophy that I espouse to be equally exclusive with Christianity. I believe that Christianity is a mixed bag, and bears mixed fruit. Most conservative Christians I know are really good people that do lots of really good things, though some of them also hold some horrid views. This doesn’t however make them bad people (they may be far better people than me in many ways), nor does it invalidate their lives. I believe that after death they will naturally leave their body behind (at the surprise of some) and move in their astral bodies to the astral heavens where they are greeted by beings of light, are given a review of their life and then spend a period of time in a suitable astral heaven, after which they eventually take on another life.
In this view it doesn’t even matter if one is religious at all, except in the way that ones beliefs managed to affect ones behaviour and attitudes, the degree to which one showed love, compassion, grace etc. to others, and the degree to which they lived their own life to the full. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Daoists, Platonists, agnostics, atheists etc. all generally find their way to the astral realms regardless of whether or not they ascribed to a particular creed. The true measure of ones psychological or spiritual makeup is not defined by whether one was a true believer in any particular god, or a devout follower of a particular sect.
If for whatever reason a soul becomes earthbound or trapped in the lower astral (affectively a mind-created hell, simply an extended nightmare), higher beings seek to elevate such a soul from their state and effectively rescue them. There are references to astral prisons for wicked souls that are found in some Eastern and Western metaphysical literature; I however cannot really express anything more than a speculation on that topic. From the Perennial perspective, even the worst, most wicked soul is ultimately still God on the inside, and will eventually make amends and find grace, peace and bliss.
I should note that Christians might seek to respond that I am espousing salvation through works, and that the salvation through grace that they espouse is superior. I am however not espousing damnation to those that seek to achieve perfection in this particular life. Hence, the argument is mute. Furthermore, there is actually much room for grace within Perennialism (and within traditional Hinduism for that matter as well). Spontaneous spiritual experiences do happen, instant and irreversible shifts have occurred to many people, and a number of spiritual practices and beliefs are centred around instant grace (such as the self-inquiry of modern Vedanta teachers such as Papaji or Mooji).
Now, I have only really discussed orthodox Christianity, Advaita Vedanta and my own Perennialism (which is largely derived from Vedanta) here. There are of course many other religions and sects that could be mentioned. Islam is certainly equally exclusive as Christianity, and my own criticisms of Christianity apply equally to it. Judaism is a little more complicated, as there is such a variety of views, none of which are clearly expounded in the Hebrew Bible. From what I have read it seems that many Jewish philosophers believe in a concept similar to the Catholic purgatory, in which unclean souls experience a temporary purging, after which they enjoy eternal life.
There are many other world religions that are somewhat pluralistic or inclusive, such as the Sikh faith and the Baha’i Faith. Furthermore, many world religions don’t even have much to say about those outside their ranks, but only speak to the soul of their followers. I have read of a number of modern Chinese sects that teach that they are the only means through which one can attain spiritual salvation. However, the question still stands as to whether or not they teach absolute damnation for those outside their sect. If they do not, then their exclusivity is of a much softer nature than that of orthodox Christianity.
There are of course more liberal Christian views about other faiths and eternity than what I have discussed above. Some of these have ancient foundations (in the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origin – also of Alexandria.), whilst others have come about through progressive liberalization in Christian denominations such as the Uniting Church. Some Christians believe that all beings are saved through Jesus Christ, regardless of whether or not they consciously acknowledge it. Likewise, other modern liberal Christians see the Bible as mere allegory, taking from Christianity what they find useful, and simply ignoring and/or rejecting the rest. Many people consider themselves Christians and still acknowledge truth in other places, and reject any belief in hell and damnation.
So, the fact remains that out of the vast religious landscape of the world, the orthodox forms of Christianity and Islam are mostly in their own category in terms of religious exclusivity. That is, there are many, many religious, spiritual and philosophical worldviews that are inclusive and/or pluralistic, and do not propose dire consequences for those outside their sect, or for those that fail to achieve the aim of their philosophy.
So, ultimately, it is quite clear that Ravi Zacharias and other Christian apologists that claim that all religions are equally exclusive are quite simply wrong. Whilst there are many things that are up for debate in the world of ideas, and there are many grey areas whereby we can accept reasonable disagreement, this is not one of them. Zacharias and co. have been making erroneous claims, and need to stop and acknowledge this, retract their previous statements and refrain from making the same erroneous claims in the future.
Now, I would like to think that Zacharias and others like him are capable of admitting when they are wrong and changing their beliefs to accommodate new information. Given that they may never have had this pointed out to them before (unlike other issues whereby their critics have attempted to tackle them head on), they may not have had the chance to engage with the above arguments before.
Before finishing up, I would quickly like to mention in passing something that could be relevant if an apologist were to attempt to hold their ground and refuse to acknowledge the above logic. I have frequently heard Christians claim that the Dharmic faiths do not have any concept of heaven or hell, but rather only unconscious reabsorption into an impersonal universe. Hence, they could attempt to present Dharmic liberation as no real liberation at all, but more akin to death and non-existence. To respond I will stick mostly to the territory I am most closely familiar with, that being of Hinduism.
There are actually many references to heavens and hells in Hindu texts, and anyone actually directly familiar with them will know this. The Bhagavad-Gita speaks of the Vedic rituals as being aimed merely at achieving the temporary pleasures of heaven rather than attaining enlightenment[viii], and likewise explains that yogis that fail to achieve liberation in one lifetime spend time in heaven after death, before returning to earth to continue their practice[ix]. Likewise, the Isa Upanishad refers to the land of the demons where wicked souls go temporarily[x], and the whole of the Katha Upanishad deals with a person named Nachiketas who seeks to know the greatest secret of total liberation, and cannot be tempted by offers to simply attain temporary heavenly pleasures. Not to mention that there are other forms Hinduism that believe in a personal form of God as the absolute reality (devotional Vaishnava sects for example) and a personal, heavenly eternity. Furthermore, this is not to mention the vast variety of views about the afterlife that have been found in virtually every corner of the globe across recorded history. Pretty much every nation and culture has held some belief in life beyond the veil of death.
Furthermore, attempts to deride impersonal conceptions of God and spiritual liberation are vastly deceptive. Mystics that speak of such concepts do not describe their experiences as being less than normal personality. They do not speak of anything missing in a true sense. They certainly do describe them as being empty by comparison to common, earthly things. However, they equally describe their experiences as being full of infinity. In losing their personality, they gain God; they lose a drop of water and gain the ocean. These conceptions are not merely abstract, theoretical metaphysical speculations, but are rather based on a direct experience that all of us can have. Many people give up every earthly thing in order to immerse themselves fully into this unspeakable love that is found in the spiritual heart, where normal conceptions of personality fall apart and there is only one Great Being, one infinite reality.
Obviously Christian apologists have many, many arguments that they employ to attempt to deride other faiths. They could seek to respond that they believe that every other religion is false anyways, for such and such reason. I could again respond to such arguments, and I have done so in my upcoming book. This article is however not about which religion or what religious worldview is correct. This article however is simply about whether or not any all religions are equally exclusive, and I believe I have made my point.
[i] Though Christians have their own defences of this, arguing that non-Christians choose to be apart from God – that is another kettle of fish though…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5qJPZySo7A – See 6:30.
[iii] A concept which has been significantly misrepresented amongst apologists.
[iv] There are indeed Christian apologists that attempt to do so, a field named “Presuppositional apologetics”. Such apologists claim that Christianity is the only worldview that can sustain a logical, reasonable and ordered universe, and that all people presuppose Christianity when seeking to apply logic and reason. Of course, those of us that aren’t Christians think this is absurd.
[v] Which I will refer to here simply as Hinduism for ease of use, knowing full well that Hinduism is a blanket term for a vast multitude of different – but related – religious sects and views.
[vi] Rig Veda 164:46.
[vii] Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 23.
[viii] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verses 20-21.
[ix] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verses 37-42.
[x] Isa Upanishad, Verse 3.d