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Christianity FAQ



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What does the religion teach about people who follow other faiths?

by Kendra Hotz

Christians affirm that people of other faiths are the beloved creatures of God, made in the image of God. Christian theology, moreover, affirms that God is revealed to all people through nature and reason. This universal human knowledge of God is known as general revelation, and it accounts for why people worldwide practice religion and pray to God or to gods.

Nature points toward its creator, though human beings may misunderstand or misinterpret it and find themselves worshiping idols and false gods rather than the true God. In spite of this propensity to misinterpret nature and to use our reason imperfectly, all people may come to know that God exists and is good. Beyond this general knowledge of God’s existence and goodness, Christians also affirm that God is known by all to be just. God has implanted within all people a sense of morality, a “natural law” that guides them in right behavior and forms the foundation of a universal human ethic. For this reason, even those who have no knowledge of the Christian faith know, for example, that murder is wrong, that parents should care for their children, and that the powerful should protect the defenseless.

General revelation ensures that God is known as creator and that the justice God requires is known to all. But Christians believe that general revelation does not provide knowledge sufficient for salvation. From nature and the use of reason one could not know that Jesus Christ is God incarnate who lived, died, and rose for human salvation. This knowledge comes through what is known as special revelation, the way in which God is revealed for salvation especially through the history of Israel, in the life of Christ, and in scripture as it witnesses to these events. Because these truths must be learned from the witness of scripture or from Christian believers, Christians place a high value on evangelism and missionary activity to spread word of the gospel with the hope that members of other religious traditions will hear and believe the good news of salvation.

Christians regard the Jewish faith differently from other faith traditions. Christianity regards itself as the natural continuation of the faith of the children of Israel. The God of the Old Testament is the only true God. The promises God made to the children of Israel are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christians regard their faith as having superceded Judaism. This supercessionism can lead Christians to adopt an arrogant attitude toward Jews, whom they regard as stubbornly refusing to recognize that Christianity is the true meaning of the Jewish faith.

Other Christians, however, have acknowledged that God’s faithfulness to all generations means that God will keep all of the promises made to the Jewish people regardless of whether they come to faith in Christ. Especially after the holocaust, many Christians have called into question the supercessionist view of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Christians also acknowledge a special relationship with Islam because Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians, but differ with both Jews and Muslims in their interpretation of who Jesus is.

Christians believe that salvation comes only through Christ. Yet some Christians also affirm that God may redeem people of other faiths even if they do not convert to Christianity. There are at least three different ways in which Christians have thought about the salvation of non-Christians.

The first position, known as exclusivism, is probably best known and most widely believed. The exclusivist position holds that salvation is exclusively for those who explicitly confess Jesus Christ as savior. The Gospel of John says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). According to the exclusivist position, this means that people of other faiths cannot be redeemed unless they come to believe in Christ and convert to Christianity.

Exclusivists do not necessarily believe that all non-Christians are consigned to everlasting suffering in hell; there is an alternate way of thinking about what it means to “perish.” Some have articulated a view known as annihilationism, the view that God simply unmakes those who are not redeemed. They understand hell to mean life apart from God, and since life is only possible in God, those who do not come to God through Christ are annihilated; they cease to exist and, therefore, experience neither the joy of everlasting life in God nor suffering of any kind.

Karl Rahner, a 20th century Roman Catholic theologian, articulated a second way of thinking about the salvation of non-Christians. His position has been described as inclusivism. Rahner argued that salvation comes only through Christ, but that those of other faith traditions may be redeemed in Christ without being aware that Christ is the agent of their redemption. Christ may work redemptively in other religions so that people who practice those religions faithfully may objectively encounter Christ without being subjectively aware of it. He called the redeemed of other faith traditions “anonymous Christians.”

Nevertheless, Rahner insisted that anyone who has an “existentially real” encounter with the Christian faith cannot be redeemed outside of it. In other words, once a person becomes subjectively aware of Christ as the agent of redemption, no religion other than Christianity can convey saving grace. In this way Rahner made room for the possibility that God redeems those who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel.

Universalism constitutes a third way in which Christians have thought about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians. Universalism means simply that God redeems all people. Universalists point to passages of scripture such as I Corinthians 15:21-22, which says that “since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Some universalists would insist that God is ultimately sovereign over all creation, and that the nature of God is loving and gracious so that ultimately no aspect of creation will escape God’s sovereign grace. Others would leave open the possibility that everyone is redeemed, without positively affirming it, because they wish to respect God’s freedom to act in whatever way God sees fit and to redeem whomever God pleases. Finally, many Christians simply leave the question of the salvation of non-Christians to the mystery of the divine will, trusting that God will always be both merciful and just.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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