Suppose that when the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul had said, “Be diligent in your present religion, whatever it is,” would this have been an adequate answer?
Luke would hardly have thought so, for the speeches and sermons which he records in Acts link salvation exclusively with the name of Jesus and faith in His Person and Lordship (2:38; 4:12; 5:31; 10:43; 13:23, 38-39; 16:31; 26:15-23; 28:23-28).
Nor could Paul have said this without inconsistency, for though in the next chapter we find him allowing that in a real if remote sense polytheists ignorantly worship the true God, he goes on to make it plain that unless they repent of their idolatry they will be in jeopardy at the judgment (Acts 17:23, 29 ff.).
Yet many today seem to think that such a reply would have sufficed. Liberal theologians have canvassed the notion that there is in all religion a common essence; that all adherents of all faiths are climbing the same mountain and will meet at the top; that ideal Christianity would include insights taken from non-Christian religions; and that the missionary task is to enrich indigenous faiths with Christian insights rather than to call those faiths in question in any fundamental way. Furthermore, current Roman Catholic thought highlights the idea that non-Christian faiths may be a way of salvation in circumstances where Christianity is not known [i].
The Biblical View of Non-Christian Religions
Liberal Protestants view non-Christian religions as being basically right, though disfigured by errors; but the New Testament, echoed by the older Protestantism and such neoorthodox divines as Barth, Brunner, and Kraemer, sees them as basically wrong, though embodying some truths.
In fact they are all idolatry – not divine but demonic -corruptions of the awareness of the Creator which general revelation gives. As such they are forms of apostasy in each case. World-religion is thus an ambiguous phenomenon. Emil Brunner‘s analysis of what Romans 1:18-23 implies in this regard merits quotation:
The God of the “other religions” is always an idol. The religious forms of the imagination always follow the law of secularization, either in the form of making finite-idolatry in the ordinary, polytheistic sense, in which the idea of God is dissolved into an abstraction. If the secularization, the blending of God with nature and man, is the first phenomenon, then the failure to give glory to God, or self-seeking, is the deepest motive of all the “other religions”. . . . The original sin of man breaks out first of all, and mainly, in his religion. The essence of original sin is man’s apostasy and his inveterate tendency to be absorbed in himself.
It was for this reason that the primary, that is to say biblical, philosophy of the first missionaries stressed the discontinuity between Christianity and other faiths. The first missionaries saw the task as being, not to supplement ethnic faiths, but to displace them.
Non-Christian Religions and Salvation
Does the Bible warrant the view that non-Christian faiths are a possible way of salvation? It seems not. The Bible says that God’s general revelation, even when correctly grasped, yields knowledge of creation, providence, and judgment only, not of grace that restores sinners to fellowship with God. And those who know “world-religion” best report that they do not in fact possess this knowledge. Stephen Neill, for instance, comments thus on Radhakrishnan’s 1959 edition of the Brahma Sutra: “Is it without significance that the index does not contain the world ‘forgiveness’?”
Paul told Agrippa that God had sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance . . .” (Acts 26:18-19). Such a statement, against the background of un-awareness of pardoning grace which the world-religions display, would seem to be decisive.
But the question is asked: What about the case of Cornelius? Peter comments: “In every nation anyone who fears (God) and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35). Does not this imply that God saves religious men the world over, whatever their faith? Not necessarily, for:
1. Peter is generalizing from the case of a “God-fearer,” that is, a Gentile who had privately embraced the Jewish religion (Acts 10:2), and the generalization does not have in view adherents of other faiths.
- Peter reported that the angel told Cornelius to send for him so that he might speak to Cornelius “a message by which you will be saved” (11:14). To Peter’s mind, therefore, Cornelius’ salvation resulted from his coming to know the Gospel, and all that preceded this was pre-evangelism. Cornelius had in fact been in a position parallel to that of the Jews who were saved on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:47): as Jews, hoping in God’s promises, they had been in the way of salvation, but were not in a state of salvation till they heard of Christ and turned to him. With Cornelius it was the same.
- Professor J. N. D. Anderson asks concerning Acts 10:35, “Does it not mean that the man who realizes something of his sin or need, and throws himself on the mercy of God with a sincerity which shows in his life (which would always, of course, be a sure sign of the prompting of God’s Spirit, and especially so in the case of one who had never heard the Gospel) would find that mercy — although without understanding it — at the cross where ‘Christ died for all’?”
Watch the Visual Bible dramatization of Acts Chapter 10:
Though, as we saw, the text is not actually speaking to this question, we need not hesitate to say yes to the suggestion itself — but then we have to add that neither the story of Cornelius nor anything else in the Bible entitles us to expect that God will bring persons ignorant of the gospel to the penitence and trust described. Romans 10:13 ff. tells us that to be saved one must call on the name of the Lord, and to do that one must have believed in Him, and to believe in Him one must have heard of Him, and that none will hear without someone to tell them — in other words, that Christians must work on the assumption that salvation is only possible through hearing the Word (the principle which the story of Cornelius actually exemplifies).
It thus appears that the case for other forms of faith beside Christianity being ways of salvation is pitiful indeed. Without Christ, we are without God and without hope. Non-Christian religions may exhibit noble beliefs and many insights it possesses are partially true, but they do not display saving grace through Jesus Christ and His atonement on the cross at Calvary. So far as the way of salvation is concerned, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” really is the last word.
[i] 1964 the second Vatican Council declared: “…But if some men do not know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet acknowledge the Creator, or seek the unknown God in shadows or images, then God himself is not far from such men . . . Those who, while guiltlessly ignorant of Christ’s gospel and of his Church, sincerely seek God and are brought by the influence of grace to perform his will as known by the dictates of conscience, can achieve eternal salvation. Nor does divine providence deny the assistance necessary to salvation to those who, without having attained, through no fault of their own, to an explicit knowledge of God, are striving, not without divine grace, to lead a good life…” (Dogmatic Constitution on The Church ii. 16, The Documents of Vatican II, ed. by Walter M. Abbott and trans, ed. by Joseph Gallagher [London, 1966], p. 35).