If faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, what about those who never heard the Gospel message through no fault of their own? Are they doomed to everlasting perdition in Hell simply for that reason? Or does God save even non-believers, provided they live morally upright lives? And if God does so, how does that square with the traditional Christian message that Jesus was unique? Can Christianity still claim to be unique and uniquely true in a pluralistic world?
These are the questions addressed in "Four views on salvation in a pluralistic world". Essentially, the anthology is a written debate between a number of theologians taking different opinions on the matter: John Hick, Clark Pinnock, Alister McGrath, Douglas Geivett and Gary Phillips.
Of these, Geivett and Phillips take the traditional approach, which could be called Particularism or Exclusivism. Since salvation is by faith in Christ alone, people outside the fold will indeed be lost, including those who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. This is compatible with the loving grace of God, Geivett and Phillips argues, because God somehow knows that people in areas where the Gospel haven't been preached would have rejected it, even if it had been preached there. Who hears and who doesn't hear the Gospel is therefore under the providential guidance of God. Unless I'm mistaken, this argument was originally proposed by a Jesuit!
John Hick takes the most radically innovative approach, called Normative Pluralism by the editors. He believes that all or most religions contain both truths and falsehoods, and that the truths of all religions reflect the same morality, the same yearning for salvation, and therefore the same Ultimate Reality. In that sense, all religions are "true" and salvation can be attained through all of them. Hick also writes about his own spiritual journey, which took him from atheism to Christian fundamentalism, and then further to a Pluralist position. This is the most interesting part of the anthology. Hick is obviously a very liberal theologian, something of a cat among the ermines in this conservative anthology. His pluralist form of Christianity sounds similar to the Hindu philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. He also denies that Jesus ever called himself God, and thus has a very "low" Christology.
Clark Pinnock defends the Inclusivist position. Pinnock is apparently something of a "heretic" in evangelical circles. In another Counterpoints volume, he defends purgatory and annihilationism! By Inclusivism, Pinnock means a position similar to that of C.S. Lewis or Vatican II. Salvation is by Jesus Christ alone, but God uses the non-Christian religions to draw people closer to Christ. Although the other religions are strictly speaking false, their followers could nevertheless be saved. God indirectly mediates his saving grace even through heathen religions. In a sense, this means that a Buddhist or Muslim might be an unconscious Christian. Pinnock believes that many uncoverted heathens were saved during Biblical history: the Queen of Sheba, Melchizedek, the Ninevites, Job, Cornelius and others. He even claims that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were saved (based on a statement of Jesus that the fate of unbelieving Israel would be worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgement).
Alister McGrath's position is the most difficult to fathom. For starters, McGrath uses postmodernism as a club against the enlightenment tradition, while nevertheless suggesting that Christianity is absolutely true (!?). Nor is it clear whether he believes that non-Christians can be saved or not. Indeed, the editors introduce him as someone having an agnostic position on the subject. He also spends a large part of his contribution making veiled personal attacks against John Hick, and fulminating against how modernity spawned Stalin, Hitler and Pluralism (!!). A cold shower might do this guy good, I think. Still, McGrath also raises more serious points against Hick's posititon. Since Pluralism must amputate what makes Christianity distinctive, e.g. the notion that Jesus was divine, in what sense is Pluralism really "pluralist"? Isn't it really a covertly intolerant position? McGrath also points out that concepts such as "religion" and "morality" are very different in different cultures. Nor does "salvation" mean the same thing in, say, Christianity or Hinduism. For that reason, it's impossible to harmonize "all religions". In what meaningful sense can "all religions" really be said to reflect the same truth? Here, McGrath is obviously on to something.
Personally, I'm not a Christian, and one of many reasons is that I suspect Geivett and Phillips to be right on the issue of Bible interpretation. In other words, I think Ur-Christianity, although it had other sympathetic features, was indeed exclusivist in its view of salvation. That, of course, is an intolerant position, put mildly! There are Biblical passages that could be given an Inclusivist spin (Pinnock knows them by heart), but this doesn't seem to fit the general context of the New Testament as a whole. Christianity didn't transcend the usual in-group/out-group dichotomy. For this reason, I obviously consider the Inclusivist and Pluralist positions to be positive developments, not because they are "true" (they are not), but because they are better from a moral and political perspective. Out of the darkness, into the light?
I found the book interesting, but I agree with some of the other reviewers that it's a mere introduction to the subject. There is little theological meat in this debate, since the contributions are relatively short. Hick and McGrath obviously dislike each other, and there are a lot of digressions and soap-boxing about other issues in the various articles. Still, to somebody completely new to the theological conflicts concerning salvation in a pluralistic world, this anthology might nevertheless be helpful.