Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 12


Nemo Venit Ad Patrem Nisi Per Me

Charles Tyler

T his essay engages John Hick’s assessment of his own theory of religious pluralism. I
consider his claim that religious pluralism is merely a second-order philosophical theory. If this
claim is true, then there could be an informed individual who took Christianity to comprise a set
of true religious beliefs and who additionally took religious pluralism to be a true philosophical
theory. By contrast, this paper contends that there is no such thing as an informed Christian
pluralist. Christianity and religious pluralism are mutually exclusive belief systems. Informed
belief in one entails the denial of the other.

This essay has three sections. The first section reformulates a dialogue between Alvin
Plantinga and John Hick. I present this dialogue because at its close Hick makes the assertion
that religious pluralism is a second-order philosophical theory, and I shall reject this assertion in
the third section of this paper. The second section lays out the fundamental components of John
Hick's version of religious pluralism, which was proposed at length in Hick's book An
Interpretation of Religion, more briefly in two essays entitled "Toward a Philosophy of Religious
Pluralism" and “Religious Pluralism and Salvation,” and defended from recent objections in his
book Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion. Hereafter, I will refer to the view espoused in
those works merely as "religious pluralism." In the third section I oppose Hick's appraisal of his
view as a "second-order philosophical theory." I argue that religious pluralism, if it is to remain
consistent, must assume certain religious claims that are contrary to several essential doctrines of
the Church. Furthermore, I contend that any view that entails the denial of these doctrines is also
a set of religious beliefs. Viewing religious pluralism as a set of religious beliefs allows us to see
that it is a competitor to Christian belief, rather than a description of how Christian belief is
related to the other world religions. I conclude that it is impossible to be a Christian pluralist, and
thus Hick’s retort to Plantinga, that religious pluralism is a second-order philosophical theory, is

I. The Dialogue

In “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” Alvin Plantinga seeks to disarm several


accusations that he thinks pluralists might make about exclusivism. Among the accusations is the
charge that the religious exclusivist’s religious beliefs are arbitrary. The pluralist presumes that,
by all odds, the exclusivist would not have the particular religious beliefs that he does if he had
been born at a completely different time and place to completely different parents. Professor
Plantinga, say, would not be a Calvinist if he had been born in Sri Lanka in the year 1310 (John
Calvin, after all, was not born until 1509). So the exclusivist’s religious beliefs depend on
accidents of birth, and this makes them arbitrary. Plantinga makes several responses to this line
of reasoning, but I wish to focus one in a particular. Plantinga responds by pointing out that the

pluralist’s reasoning, if it undermines exclusivism, undermines pluralism as well. Had John Hick
been born in ancient Carthage, he would not be a religious pluralist. This response has come to
be known as Plantinga’s tu quoque (‘you, too’) response. To it, Hick replies that Plantinga is not
taking into account the fundamental difference between Calvinism (or, for that matter, any other
set of religious claims that is believed to be exclusively correct) and pluralism. While Calvinism
constitutes a set of religious beliefs, religious pluralism is merely a second-order philosophical
Hick’s reply to the tu quoque response is quite brief. He does not tell us why a second-
order philosophical theory is somehow exempt from the pluralist’s original argument. In the
absence of any such explanation, I can only speculate as to why this might be the case. A
plausible explanation is that the two sets of propositions that constitute Christianity and
pluralism are different kinds of propositions. Perhaps the fact that our beliefs are products of
where and when and to whom we were born undermines the confidence we should have in
certain beliefs, but not the confidence we should have in others. But I will not investigate this
issue. For my purposes, the truth or falsity of this suggestion will not matter, because I argue that
religious pluralism is not any different from Christianity in the way that Hick thinks is relevant.
That is, I argue that religious pluralism is not simply a second-order philosophical theory
(perhaps it is that), but rather it is, curiously, also a set of religious propositions. In the next
section I will present Hick’s theory of religious pluralism, and in the third section I will offer my
assessment of it as a first-order set of religious beliefs.

II. John Hick's Religious Pluralism

Religious pluralism is a hypothesis proposed by Hick as an explanation of several

propositions about the beliefs of the adherents of the world religions. Hick first observes that the

world abounds with the adherents of the world religions. Secondly, he notes the "fact of religious
pluralism," namely that "there are many different traditions of religious life and thought" 5

[emphasis added]. Thirdly, he assumes what he calls the "basic religious conviction." Hick
explains: "By the basic religious conviction I mean the conviction that the realm of religious
experience and belief is our human response to a transcendent divine reality or realities." More

negatively, the basic religious conviction is the conviction that not all of religious experience is
illusory. It is important to note that Hick not only assumes the basic religious conviction, but he
assumes it in a particular form. Some of the adherents of the world religions will assent to the
basic religious conviction with the caveat that it is only their particular religion that is a
legitimate response to the divine reality. Hick, on the other hand, assumes that the religious
experiences and the beliefs of the adherents of all of the world religions are legitimate responses
to the divine. This assumption is, of course, contestable, but I am willing to accept the version of

the basic religious conviction that Hick assumes. Religious pluralism, then, is an attempt to
explain the three phenomena above. If the adherents of all of the world religions legitimately
perceive the Divine Reality, then why are the world religions so different? We can understand
Hick’s answer to this question by first considering variances in ordinary sense perception.
Hick relies on a basic model of cognitive psychology to explain the process of
perception. This model is composed of three parts: sensation, organization, and awareness. 8
Whenever we perceive an object in our experience, we perform these three steps (although we
normally experience them as a single, almost instantaneous occurrence). For example, when an
individual sees an orange, he will first experience the sensation of the visual stimuli produced by
the orange in the form of reflected light photons. Then, the individual will compartmentalize that
information using his previous experience of spherical objects, orange-colored objects, etc., so
that he can understand the orange in terms of the objects with which he is already familiar.
Finally, he will be aware of the orange. The final stage of this process is the culmination of the
first two.
One noteworthy feature of this model is that while the stimuli sensed by two different
observers may be the same, the awareness of an object may be completely different for two
observers due to their different mental schemas. This feature is not hard to accept. Allow me to
give another example. Suppose three different observers are asked to interpret the same object, a
piece of Chinese calligraphy containing an antiquated Chinese character. One observer is an
American who cannot read any form of Chinese. Another observer is a Chinese college student
who knows how to read modern Chinese. The last observer is a Chinese lexicographer who is an
expert on archaic Chinese literature. The first observer, the American, will likely respond to the
object as if were an item in a Rorschach inkblot test, or as if looking at the clouds or the stars and
trying to find the shape of recognizable figures, as children often do. The second observer, the
Chinese student, will likely respond by recognizing the radicals found in other Chinese symbols
with which he is familiar and arriving at a vague notion of what the symbol might mean. The
third observer, the Chinese lexicographer, is likely to be the least creative of the three. He will
probably see the symbol and instantly think of its meaning. The three observers were all given
the same stimulus, but each came up with his own interpretation.
At this point, Hick's religious pluralism begins to come into focus. If human beings
interpret very simple objects differently, particularly if they are from different cultural
backgrounds, how much more might their interpretations of the Divine Reality vary? For humans
are merely finite creatures with extraordinarily limited perceptual capacities. As such, it seems
implausible to contend with any sort of confidence that the Divine Reality actually is what we
perceive the Divine Reality to be. In Hick's words, our talk of the Divine Reality must
distinguish between "God, and God as conceived and experienced by human beings." Hick 9

softens the blow to those who enjoy a “personal relationship” with their loving Savior by listing
many examples in which scholars from all of the major religious traditions have assented to this
distinction. I will not reproduce that list here, but suffice it to say that it is quite thorough. At any
rate, I will assume that Hick is right about the appropriateness of this distinction. When I refer to
the Divine Reality as it is, I will simply say "Divine Reality." When I refer to the Divine Reality
as human beings experience it, I will say "images" of the Divine Reality.
Hick attempts to make the idea of an image of the Divine Reality more clear to us by use
of an analogy. He writes:
Consider a personage, X, who lived in the past and who is therefore not directly accessible to
us, about whom certain salient facts are known but such that any concrete impression of X's
character leaves a good deal to the constructive imagination of the historian. Any such
impression or, as I shall call it, image, represents an interpretation of the available data.
Varying images of X may form in the minds of writers in different subsequent periods, with
their different cultural backgrounds; and there may be both popular, often over-simplified,
images and caricatures as well as more academic images. . . . In such cases the distinction
seems inevitable between the historical individual an sich and the images in terms of which he
or she has become known to later consciousness. 10

In like fashion, men have experienced the Divine Reality by making use of their own concepts,
terms, and ideas. This is why Hick asserts that man is a historical animal. Hick claims that the
Divine Reality is the same object experienced by all of the adherents of the world religions, but
that it has been interpreted differently because of the different historical traditions from which
the adherents come.
The "images" which have developed of the Divine Reality within the different historical
perspectives are real in the same way that all images are real. They are real representations of
objects. One can write an account of how the Divine Reality has been revealed to him, just as
one can write a historical account of Oliver Cromwell. It is important to remember, however, that
the image is not the thing that it represents. In Hick’s terms, the phenomenal God of Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam is an image of the noumenal Divine Reality. So too, the phenomenal Tao of

Tao Te Ching is an image of the same noumenal Divine Reality. Although extraordinarily
different, they are both equally legitimate images of the same object.
I would like to make a terminological distinction at this point that I think will make
clearer the relationship of image to object. I present this distinction as something to which I think
Hick would agree, but not as something that Hick has directly stated. Let us distinguish between
a legitimate and an accurate image of the Divine Reality. A legitimate image of the Divine
Reality is one that is formed as a result of an experience of the actual Divine Reality. On Hick's
view, all of the world religions have legitimate images of the Divine Reality. A non-religious
example might make this notion of legitimate image more vivid. If a man lost in a desert senses a
mound of sand in the distance and perceives it as an oasis, he has a legitimate image of the
mound of sand in his mind. That is, while the image of the oasis completely misrepresents what
the object actually is, he nevertheless actually perceives some object. An accurate image of the
Divine Reality, on the other hand, is one that depicts the Divine Reality as it truly is. This image
does not misrepresent the object of the sensation. Having a legitimate image of an object is
therefore a precondition to having an accurate image of an object. However, an image may be
legitimate but still altogether inaccurate. Admittedly, this distinction, coupled with things already
said about the Divine Reality's imperceptibility, suggests that no image of the Divine Reality
could be completely accurate. However, this is not to say that some images cannot be radically
more accurate than others. They can, and Hick recognizes this fact. 12

This distinction, between legitimate and accurate images, can be used to describe the
epistemological difficulty, to which Hick is so attentive, involved in perceiving the Divine
Reality. We have assumed thus far that each of the major world religions is a legitimate response
to the Divine Reality. However, due to the different schemas by which different cultures interpret
information, the world religions have developed in immensely different ways. Furthermore, there
is no way in which one can "step outside" of his own mental schema, so human beings have no
way to compare their images to the Divine Reality in order to check for accuracy. To Hick’s
mind, exclusivism is based on the assumption that there is some criterion by which the world
religions can be judged that is accessible to human beings. But, as we all know, there is no such
criterion. This means that the world religions are all equally legitimate entities. The uniqueness
of any one religion is due to the role that its unique history played in the interpretation of the
Divine Reality.
Moreover, according to religious pluralism, each interpretation of the Divine Reality that
has come to be known as a world religion has had salvific effects on its adherents similar to those
of the others. All of the adherents of the world religions undergo (or partake in) a process that
essentially consists of moving away from being "self-centered" and toward being "reality-
centered." When individuals concentrate their attention on the Divine Reality they reap spiritual
rewards that free them from the bonds of the natural world. Such a phenomenon can only be
explained by the pluralist model of religion, because only this model postulates that the world
religions are equally adequate images of the Divine Reality.
The religious pluralist is committed to the idea that this picture is descriptive of
everything that happens in religious experience. Anytime a spiritual leader has a religious
experience, it is explainable in terms of the epistemological distinction between noumenal and
phenomenal reality. In the next section I will argue that if religious pluralism is advanced as a
comprehensive view of the world religions, then it entails the denial of certain tenets of Christian

II. So You Are a Christian and a Religious Pluralist?

I hesitate to say that there is anything John Hick is more aware of than the fact that
people often do not choose to which religion they will adhere. As such, I think that it is
appropriate for me, as I am probably unable to do otherwise, to address Hick's religious
pluralism from a Christian point of view. And when I say that I will address religious pluralism
from a Christian point of view, I take belief in the following three statements to be inseparable
from any Christian perspective:

(1) God has acted in history in order to effect the salvation of mankind.
(2) Jesus Christ has a divine nature.
(3) The Church is the unique (sole) instrument of salvation for mankind.

I contend that any theory incompatible with (1), (2), or (3) is itself a set of religious
beliefs. At first, this contention may seem odd, so allow me to illustrate by example. Naturalism

is characterized by the philosophical thesis that everything that exists is part of the physical
world. Alternatively stated, nothing exists that is not physical. While this is not obviously a
religious belief, it entails one directly. That is, naturalism entails the belief that God, insofar as
He is an immaterial being, does not exist. Similarly, I posit that any statement which opposes (1),
(2) and/or (3) will either explicitly assert or entail a religious claim.
Allow me to make a qualification on my thesis that religious pluralism is not merely a
“second-order philosophical theory.” It seems like a theory (e.g., naturalism) could entail the
denial of some distinctive claim of a religion without itself having enough of the typical marks of
a religion to qualify as one. Therefore, I do not mean to suggest, by my stance that religious
pluralism entails certain religious beliefs, that I believe it is a religion. If I believed this I would
be committed to the view that naturalism is a religion as well, and that would be a claim which
naturalism’s defenders would rightly reject. All I mean to claim is that religious pluralism cannot
be written off as a harmless interpretation of the world religions. It does not merely organize,
compare, or describe the amalgamation of all the major religious beliefs of the world. Nor does it
organize, compare, or describe just the essential beliefs of the world religions at the
understandable expense of the less important beliefs. Rather, pluralism entails very specific
religious claims, the belief in which requires the rejection of some of the most fundamental
elements of Christianity. I mean to suggest that to be a Christian pluralist is not to be a Christian
at all.
Hick advances his position as a philosophy of the world religions. In Hick's words
religious pluralism is "not another religious faith or dogma alongside others, but a second-order
philosophical theory, or hypothesis, about the relationship between the world religions when
these are understood religiously as distinguished from naturalistically." Religious pluralism, to

Hick's mind at least, is a unified theory that describes the activity of all of the world religions in
terms of one basic model. If religious pluralism forces any beliefs on the religions of the world, it
can only be the belief that the exclusivist claims of each of the world religions are mistaken.
Besides this claim, nothing about the religious beliefs of any of the world religions is illusory or
unfounded, according to pluralism. If I interpret Hick correctly, this is an assessment of
pluralism with which I think he would agree. At any rate, I will argue that this assessment is
indeed correct. However, it is my contention that modifying Christian belief such that it no
longer claims exclusivity and superiority will leave it so transformed that it no longer warrants
the name Christianity.
In this section of the paper, I will oppose Hick's appraisal of religious pluralism as a
"second-order philosophical theory." I will argue that religious pluralism is itself a set of

religious beliefs because it entails the denial of (1), (2) and (3). I do not mean to suggest that this
list of Christian tenets is at all exhaustive. There are probably other elements of Christianity that
could be emphasized and that would prove to be inconsistent with religious pluralism. Moreover,
it may indeed be the case that I am wrong about one or more of these claims. Perhaps religious
pluralism is malleable enough to account for some of these claims of the Church. However, if I
am right about the inconsistency of religious pluralism with at least one of the tenets, then
religious pluralism cannot be merely a neutral “second-order philosophical theory.”

1. Christian belief entails that God has acted in history in order to effect the salvation
of mankind.

God has aims and desires for the salvation of mankind, and He is capable of acting on
those aims and desires. Furthermore, God has acted on those aims and desires by directly
communicating with Israel's prophets and by causing miraculous events to occur. And God has
done so to guide and protect His chosen people and to effect the salvation of mankind through
the saving work of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Hick discusses how religious pluralism accounts for images of the Divine Reality that act
in the history of specific cultures. The passage is worth quoting at length:
God is personal, then, in the sense that man's awareness of God as Person is a genuine
encounter with the transcendent ground of all existence, including personal existence.
Using another language, God experienced as personal is a valid transformation in human
consciousness of informational input from the transcendent divine source. . . Thus the
God of Israel is a specific personal deity with his own historical biography. His personal
life - that is, his interactions with a group of finite persons - began with his self-revelation
to Abraham and has continued in Jewish religious experience down to the present day. As
such he has a distinctive personality, developed in interaction with his chosen people: he
is a part of their history and they are part of his. And he is a recognisably different
personality from, say, the Lord Krishna, because Krishna exists in relation to a different
community, forming and formed by a different culture, and creating and created by a
different history.

So the Israelite experience of a personal sovereign was a legitimate experience. That is, the
Israelites were actually sensing the Divine Reality, and that sensation was translated into an
experience of Yahweh. Religious pluralism, then, tells a story about what happened at the self-
revelation of God to Abraham, and it tells a story about what happened to Moses at the burning
bush. Both events were legitimate experiences of the Divine Reality but neither were necessarily
(and probably both were not) accurate experiences of the Divine Reality. It is important to
realize, however, that this is not at all the same story that the Jews tell. The Jews say the Divine
Reality was not only experienced by Abraham and Moses on those days, but that he wanted to be
experienced in the way that he was on those days. Furthermore, God took purposive action to
ensure that He was experienced in a different way than He had ever been previously.
Admittedly, religious pluralism probably survives as a "second-order philosophical
theory" if one restricts oneself to examples of the kind listed above. Religious pluralism can
explain the experience of God's desire to be revealed just as easily as it can explain the
experience of God's self-revelation. If the story we wish to explain involves an experience of an
“image” of the Divine Reality then Hick can continue to invoke the distinction between the
Divine Reality and its respective “images” which have been formed by finite creatures. But these
are not the only events that the Israelites cherish in their history. Let us consider a different kind
of story that religious pluralism does fail to explain, a kind of story where God’s people were not
experiencing an “image” of Him but rather indirectly experiencing Him by means of witnessing
his actions in the phenomenal world.
Consider the case of a miraculous event (e.g., the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red
Sea, the burning of the altars at Mount Carmel, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ). Christians
claim that God was protecting His people, the Israelites, or that He was fulfilling His promises to
Elijah, or that He was effecting the salvation of mankind, or they offer other such explanations
that explain why God has chosen to act in history. Religious pluralism, on the other hand, cannot
explain these events because the experience of the Divine Reality has moved beyond the
epistemological difficulty of experiencing something infinite. In the case of miraculous events,
individuals are no longer witnessing the Divine Reality but are witnessing the consequences of
the Divine Reality’s actions in the phenomenal world. Perhaps it is the case that I cannot
comprehend the true nature of God, but that fact certainly would not entail that I do not know
when fire is raining from the sky. For the life of me, I am unable to imagine how a story about
the "historical memories" of the Jews would ever arrive at an explanation of the perception that
the waters of the Red Sea had just been parted.
Hick does not offer an explanation of miraculous events within the framework of
religious pluralism, and there is a very good reason for this. If religious pluralism began to
explain the occurrence of miraculous events, it would be challenged by the following difficulty.
If God is indeed acting in the history of a particular people, then there seems to be a reason why
one would favor a particular interpretation of the Divine Reality over another. If an individual
were ever in the impossible scenario of choosing to which of the world religions he should
adhere, without being encumbered by his own cultural and personal presentiments, the fact that
the Divine Reality acts uniquely in the development of one religion and not in the development
of the others would seem a powerful reason to favor that religion. On Hick's view, all of the
world religions are legitimate experiences of the one Divine Reality. Since all of the world
religions are legitimate experiences, and since we have no criterion by which to judge which of
the world religions is more accurate than the others, we have no reason to favor one of the world
religions. However, if the Divine Reality appears to be favoring one of the world religions by
performing miraculous events in the history of a particular people, does not that give us some
reason to favor that interpretation of the Divine Reality over the others? 17

Hick will, thus, have to deny that God has purposively acted in the history of the
Israelites. And this leads to my conclusion. Religious pluralism, if it is to remain consistent, must
reject (1). Namely, religious pluralism must deny that God has acted on Israel's behalf and thus
must make a religious claim about the truth or falsity of Christianity. Hick's appraisal of religious
pluralism as a "second-order philosophical theory" is therefore altogether too benign.

2. Christian belief entails that Jesus Christ has a divine nature.

The discussion in this section will be rather brief, for John Hick willingly admits that the
divinity of Christ is inconsistent with religious pluralism. Hick writes:
The pluralistic hypothesis inevitably reflects back into the religious traditions, and those
who accept a view of this kind will want to de-emphasize and eventually filter out that
aspect of their own tradition which implies its unique superiority over all others. In the
case of Christianity, this is the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was God (that is, the second
person of a divine Trinity) incarnate. For it follows from this that Christianity alone,
among the religions of the world, was founded by God in person and is thus God's own
religion in a way in which no other can be. [Emphasis added] 18

The quotation speaks for itself. Ask the Christian exclusivist or the religious pluralist and they
will both tell you that the following conditional statement is true: If Jesus Christ alone was God
incarnate, then the Church’s interpretation of the Divine Reality is superior to those of the other
world religions because the Church alone was founded by God Himself.
As one would expect, Hick argues that rejecting the divinity of Christ does not involve
rejecting anything essential to Christianity. His criticisms are found in the “Implications for
Christian Theology” section of the introduction to Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion.
Hick’s criticisms of the divinity of Christ take the following form. Hick argues that some of the
Biblical verses that strongly suggest Christ’s assertion of his own divinity (John 10:13, John
13:9) were fabricated 60 or 70 years after His death, giving theology that asserted Christ’s
divinity time to percolate. Hick then cites other, presumably more historically supported Biblical
passages that suggest that Christ was not divine (Mark 10:18). He goes so far as to say, “Jesus
probably thought of himself as the final prophet, proclaiming the imminent coming of God’s
kingdom on earth, and would have regarded as blasphemous the idea that he was himself God in
either a unitarian or trinitarian sense.” Rather, Hick lays out a theological account of how

Christians can view their salvation without holding that Christ had a divine nature. This account
tells us that “whenever there is genuine penitence for sin there is genuine and free divine
forgiveness, without any need for an atoning death.” 20

While I think there certainly is historical evidence that supports the historicity of Christ’s
claim to be God, I want to bring the discussion of Christ’s divinity back to the point at hand in
this paper. Would demonstrating that Christ was not successfully show that the Church is not
privileged by the fact that Christ was its founder? I think not. Hick has failed to realize that there
is still much more about the New Testament record of Christ that contradicts religious pluralism.
The virgin birth of Christ, the miracles that He performed in the later part of His life, and his
resurrection all demonstrate God’s divine intervention. I argued at length earlier in this paper for
the obvious conclusion that if God has supernaturally intervened in a particular religious
tradition and has not intervened in the others, this is a strong reason to believe that that particular
religious tradition is the most accurate. It would be interesting to see just how much of the
Gospels’ text would remain if Hick wished to delete all of the relevant passages about Christ’s
life that suggest God’s favor of the Church.
Religious pluralism therefore entails the denial of (2) and consequently entails certain
religious beliefs. Lurking in the background of religious pluralism is the rejection of some of the
Church's most central theological and metaphysical beliefs, and therefore pluralism is not merely
a "second-order philosophical theory."

3. Christian belief entails that the Church is the unique (sole) instrument of salvation
for mankind.

This final doctrine is a consequence of the first two. Human beings can be saved from
their sins (not only their personal sins but also the original sin of their ancestors) because of the
perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was God incarnate. While the first two
aspects of Christian belief that I highlighted are inconsistent with religious pluralism, it is this
third aspect that is really at the heart of the matter. For, in the words of Hick, this claim of the
Church is "about the eternal fate of the entire human race." That is to say, it is the belief in the

uniqueness of the Church as the instrument of salvation for mankind that is the most grave of the
three because it involves the fate of the souls of all of humanity.
Here again, showing that religious pluralism is inconsistent with Christianity is not very
difficult. For one, Hick defines salvation differently from the way the Church does. The Church
identifies salvation with union with God (for which forgiveness of sins is necessary), whereas
Hick identifies it with attaining a state of "Reality-centeredness." Hick will probably want to
dismiss this as a trivial difference, though. He will argue that the Church's notion of salvation is
exactly the same as the notions of salvation found in all of the other world religions in the very
way that he has identified. Namely, all of the world religions view salvation as, most

fundamentally, a movement from self-centeredness toward Reality-centeredness. But the point

that the Christian notion of salvation is inconsistent with religious pluralism is still true, even if
not for the definitional reason.
The inconsistency of the two notions of salvation is the reason for much of the debate
between Hick and Peter van Inwagen found in Hick's recent book Dialogues in the Philosophy of
Religion. Professor van Inwagen posits that Christian belief requires that salvation be open to

mankind only because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Hick deplores van Inwagen’s
defense of the Christian definition of salvation, calling it an “evasion” of the problem rather than
a defense of the Church’s answer to the problem. What is the problem though? Hick states it in
the form of a question: “Can one suppose that the Heavenly Father, who loves all human beings
with an equal and unlimited love, has ordained that only those that have the good fortune to be
born in certain parts of the world shall have the opportunity of salvation?” The problem seems

to be something like this: An all-loving God would not allow most of humanity to be damned
simply because they happened to be born in a certain place in the world. Van Inwagen responds,
in effect, by saying, “No, He would not.” Rather, God has a plan of salvation both for those that
have heard the Church’s message and accepted it (the visible Church) and for those who have
never heard the Church’s message or who have only heard it in an unfavorable or otherwise
distorted version (the invisible Church).
Perhaps a residual curiosity arises from this answer. Inquisitive minds want to know:
What is God’s plan of salvation for the invisible Church? Van Inwagen replies that he does not
know what God’s plan is, but that he does know that, whatever the plan is, it will be consistent
with God’s love and mercy. To this, Hick replies that if van Inwagen does not know what God’s
plan is for the invisible Church, then he cannot know that God’s plan is not to effect salvation
through the other religious traditions of the world. We should pause at this point to reflect on this
charge. It is, of course, true, but how relevant is it? Throughout Hick’s entire discussion of
religious pluralism, knowledge has never been an issue. That is, Hick concedes that no one can
know any of the assumptions of religious pluralism, including the basic religious conviction that
the Divine Reality exists at all. It is not fair, then, to require more of Christian belief than is
required for religious pluralism. The question should be framed this way: If you, Peter, do not
know what God’s plan of salvation for the invisible Church is, then why do you believe that His
plan is not to effect salvation through the different world religions? To this question, van
Inwagen provides an answer. He writes:
I believe it because it is part of my religion, one of the articles of Christian faith. And not
of my religion alone: it is a part of the religion of Paul and the Primitive Church and the
Apostolic Fathers and the Fathers and the scholastics and Luther and Calvin and Cranmer
and Trent and Wesley and Newman: it is ‘mere Christianity.’ 25

Hick’s notion of salvation is inconsistent with Christianity because it requires Christians to

believe that Christ’s sacrificial death was completely unnecessary for our salvation (that it was
not sacrificial at all?). To my mind, Christianity is fundamentally centered on the belief that
Christ died as atonement for the sins of humanity. Since the pluralist must reject this premise, he
is committed to the denial of (3). Therefore, he is committed to a very specific religious
proposition and thus is not endorsing an entirely non-religious view.
Since religious pluralism denies (1), (2) and (3), it is not just a second-order philosophical
theory. As such, John Hick is not entitled to his attempted evasion of Plantinga’s tu quoque
response. But of course, the susceptibility of pluralism to the tu quoque response does not really
undermine pluralism. The whole purpose of the tu quoque response is to illuminate the obvious:
that the religious pluralist’s implication, that the exclusivist is not entitled to his beliefs, is
unfounded. The tu quoque response is really meant to lead us to the conclusion that both the
Christian exclusivist and the religious pluralist are epistemologically justified in their beliefs,
despite the fact that they believe in two different sets of propositions that are incompatible with
one another. And I suppose this an attractive result for the Christian exclusivist, since he thinks
that Christianity is the one true religion despite the fact that there are multitudes of equally
intelligent, equally informed, and equally devout people who think that Christianity is just
another one of the false religions.


Of course, it is possible to say that each of two mutually exclusive claims is true. People make
these sorts of claims all the time. For example, most non-philosophers would probably say that
all four of the following propositions are true if they were asked about each on separate
occasions: (1) the mind is an immaterial thing, (2) the body is a material thing, (3) the mind and
the body interact, (4) material things and immaterial things do not interact. However, these
beliefs are incompatible. For my purposes, I will call consistent belief, belief in a proposition in
conjunction with belief in the denials of any propositions that contradict that proposition. For the
rest of this essay, when I say “belief,” I refer to consistent belief, and when I speak of believers, I
speak of consistent believers.
Alvin Plantinga, “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,” The Rationality of Belief and the
Pluralist of Faith (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995).
In general, Plantinga’s view is that this sort of counterfactual analysis should not force us to be
any less confident in many of our beliefs, and among the beliefs we should remain confident in
are our religious beliefs. Most of the people that will read this paper will likely think that racism
is morally wrong. While they probably would not hold this view had they been born to plantation
owning parents in South Carolina in the year 1803, I am convinced that they will continue to
think that racism is morally wrong even after considering that counterfactual situation.
There is some difficulty in defining a “world religion.” Peter van Inwagen describes what has
commonly been attributed to the world religions by stating: “The world religions are important
topics of historical inquiry in their own right. Each of them, in fact, has a history of its own; the
majority of them have founders and can be said to have begun at fairly definite dates. The list of
the world religions must include at least the following: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism,
Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. But other religions are plausible candidates for inclusion
in the list, and some might want to split some of the items in the list into two or more religions.”
It should be noted that professor van Inwagen rejects the assertion that ‘Christianity’ is a thing at
all. This is found in his explanation of the view that he will eventually reject. This is,
nevertheless, a definition that is consistent with the claims of religious pluralism.
“Non Est Hick,” The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith (Ithaca and London: Cornell
University Press, 1995) Pg. 216.
John Hick, “Towards a Philosophy of Religious Pluralism,” Neue Zeitschrift fur Systematische
Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, 22, 1980, Pg. 131.
Ibid, Pg. 131.
Although in some contexts Hick uses the terms “Divine Reality” and “God” interchangeably, I
will reserve the former for the divine entity as allegedly known to all of the world’s religions and
the latter for the divine entity as allegedly specially revealed in the Old and New Testaments.
The terms sensation, organization, and awareness are my own terms, not Hick’s. The important
point is that there are three elements to perception, a stimulus this is the same for all observers, a
means of processing that stimulus that will be at least slightly different for each observer, and an
interpretation of the stimulus that will vary from individual to individual due to the role of their
personal means of processing information.
Ibid, Pg. 133.
Ibid, Pg. 136.
Regretfully, Hick uses labels taken from the Kantian distinction between noumenal and
phenomenal reality. By his admission, however, he does not use these terms in a way that is
consistent with Kantian metaphysics. The reader may substitute the words “Divine Reality” for
noumenal and the word “images” for phenomenal whenever they appear in this essay.
“Let me now end by pointing forward to the next major question that arises if one opts for
some such hypothesis as this. I have just referred to the different world religions, with their
different images of God. Our question concerns the relative adequacy or value of these different
images, both theistic and non-theistic. For it is clearly possible that they are not all equally
adequate, but that some mediate God to mankind better than others.”
John Hick, “Towards a Philosophy of Religious Pluralism,” Pg. 149.
I would not be surprised if an even stronger claim were true; n. Namely, that any view which
entails the denial of any religious belief is itself a religious belief. But this contention goes
beyond the scope of this paper.
John Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, (New York: Palgrave Publishers, Ltd.,
2001) Pg. 57.
It has been suggested to me that it could possibly be the case that religious pluralism is both a
first-order set of religious beliefs and a second-order philosophical theory. Perhaps. But recall
that Hick’s evasion of Plantinga’s tu quoque response to pluralism rests on the contention that
religious pluralism is not a first-order religious belief at all.
Hick, “Towards a Philosophy of Religious Pluralism,” Pg. 145.
One objection to this suggestion has been brought to my attention. What if the Divine Reality
performed miracles among some people only because those people were unusually deaf to it?
Maybe the adherents of the other world religions were getting along fine without the Divine
Reality guiding them every step of the way. Maybe this is a reason to favor one of those
religions. I confess I do not know of a response to this objection. Notice, however, that the
argument suggests that some religion, other than Christianity, ought to be favored by our
culturally unfettered individual. In either case, then, there is a reason to think that the world
religions are not all on par.
Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, Pg. 17.
Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, Pg. 17.
Ibid, Pg. 19.
Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, Pg. 31.
“Salvation” is a word that Hick borrows from the Christian tradition. He uses it in “Religious
Pluralism and Salvation” to refer to both Christian salvation and its “functional analogues” found
in other traditions. I will follow the same convention when I am explaining Hick’s view.
Ibid, Pgs. 57-61.
Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, Pg. 31-32.
Peter van Inwagen, ed. John Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, Pg. 59.