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Can the Great Religions be vehicles of salvation for their followers? —NO

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]

by H. Van Dyke Parunak, Ph.D.

PicThis question rests on a more fundamental issue: What is the source of our knowledge about spiritual issues? In general, there are two ways we can learn the answer to any question: personal experience, and reports from others whom we trust. In this case, we can take either route.
Here’s how to learn the answer by personal experience: pick the Great Religion whose effectiveness you want to evaluate. Devote yourself completely to it for the rest of your life. When you die, and stand before God, you’ll know whether it can bring you salvation or not.
The problem with this approach is like some free samples: there’s only one to a customer. It can tell me if a specific Great Religion can bring me salvation, but perhaps some can and some can’t, and if I choose the wrong one, I can’t go back and start over. To make that evaluation, I need to rely on the experience of others. At this point, we have to consider seriously the claim of the Lord Jesus:
John 3:13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
Really, he’s making two claims. One is that he can speak on earth, from personal experience, about what happens in heaven. The other is that he is the only source of such authoritative knowledge. He backs up this claim by dying and then rising from the dead, a credential that is not shared (so far as I know) by any other historically documented person.
If we believe his claim about access to heavenly truth, then the Lord Jesus pretty much answers the original question directly, later in John’s gospel:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. John 14:6
The exclusiveness he claims is not popular today, but it is unambiguous. If I don’t want to do the experiment myself, I have to trust some authority. If I claim to be a Christian, then it’s hard to avoid what Jesus says on the issue.
What’s really at stake here is the source of spiritual knowledge. Our generation is victim to a hubris that can be traced back to the Greeks and even further, that we can figure out the answer to any question with our own intellect. When Job was wrestling with the reason for his misery, and accusing God of abusing him wrongly, his friends were insisting that his sufferings were punishment for sins that he refused to acknowledge. Zophar challenged him, Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? Job 11:7
In fact, as the sequel to the book shows, Zophar is on the right side of this point. Job’s dilemma, like other great spiritual questions, is not accessible to human reason, and God condemns both sides in the debate when he appears and says, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Job 38:2
Paul makes the same point when he writes to the Corinthians, For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. 1Co 1:21
Knowledge of spiritual things is inaccessible to human wisdom, and that limitation is by divine design. We can only know God by his revelation, and on the question at hand, that revelation is unambiguous. The Lord Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 may be the clearest statement of the principle, but it is hardly the earliest. At Sinai, God commands Israel to forsake all other gods and worship him alone. When they disobey this command and follow after other “great religions,” God doesn’t say, “Ah well, all roads lead eventually to the top of the mountain.” Through Isaiah, he proclaims eloquently the emptiness of other deities:
Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. 7 And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them shew unto them. 8 Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any. 9 They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed.  Isa 44:6
Other gods are not alternative routes to salvation. Those who worship them will be ashamed, not delivered. The people’s ecumenical explorations were the grounds by which God banishes them from their land:
And it shall come to pass, when thou shalt shew this people all these words, and they shall say unto thee, Wherefore hath the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us? … 11 Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the LORD, and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, … 13 Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favour. Jer 16:10
And when they return from that captivity, they acknowledge the powerlessness of other gods:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. 5 They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: 6 They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: 7 They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. 8 They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. Psa 115:4
“So is every one that trusteth in them.” The unnamed Israelite who wrote this Psalm after the captivity had abundant experience with an alternative Great Religion, the elaborate polytheism of Babylon. His voice joins those of Moses and Isaiah, and anticipates the crowning statement of the Lord Jesus, that the only way to the Father is through his incarnate Son.

Dr. Parunak’s profile and books can be viewed and ordered here: https://energiondirect.com/authors/authors-n-s/h-van-dyke-parunak

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  1. I have a number of problems with this analysis, not least because among the other Great Religions is Judaism, and in order to accept the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative for Christians, we have to accept them as, well, just authoritative (albeit perhaps not complete in every respect). I do not therefore think that we can use any OT scripture to support an exclusionary claim for Christianity alone.
    Indeed, I am inclined to suggest that “repent and turn to God” is as much as can ever be required, given Ezekiel 18 (too long to quote in full).
    Yes, there are statements in the Fourth Gospel which are on the face of them exclusionary. There are also statements which can be interpreted as Universalist – a large number are collected at https://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/univ3.html, including John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”, John 12:32 “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” and John 12:47 “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it”. Note the use of “all men” and “the world”, indicating universality. I cannot conclude that even the Fourth Gospel is univocal on the subject.
    It is presumably passages like this which have given rise to the current Catholic position that indeed anyone might be saved, irrespective of their professed faith, even atheists.
    Of course, given the wording “vehicle of salvation”, it is arguable that the list may close at Judaism and Christianity, or possibly at the sum total of the Abrahamic faiths (there being at least four others, though one of those is not a “great religion” and another is at best marginal). The Eastern faiths, in particular, would not claim to be “vehicles of salvation”, more vehicles of enlightenment.
    I do not, however, rule out the possibility that “salvation” and “enlightenment” may be different ways of expressing a single root concept, and that God in his mercy and grace may accept who he wishes, and that he wishes to accept all humanity.

    1. Chris Eyre, what about John 3:16 do you not believe? Jesus said “WHOSOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM.” Then read the next verse. Jesus died for ALL, but only those who believe in HIM can be saved. Universalism is an ear-tickling doctrine.

    2. If you believe in the sovereignty of God, the possibility of universal salvation is always there. My concern, as indicated by Chris, is the meaning of salvation. Salvation from what, for what? The ancient notions of a literal hell and heaven as what we are saved from and for, requiring a blood sacrifice to accomplish, no longer works for me or many moderns. It apparently didn’t work for Luke and, perhaps, Mark, either, so there are many ways to look at the question of “salvation.”

      1. Steve, I am shocked that you don’t believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell! I believe what the Bible says about both, but also there are many testimonies from people about their visits to both places when they died and came back to life! Haven’t you heard any of these testimonies? The book and movie, “Heaven is for Real” is only one example among many. I am reading a book right now filled with peoples’ stories of crossing over and seeing Jesus and relatives who had died and awesome things they can’t describe when they return to earth. I know a man in Memphis who told me his story personally. And what about Catherine Marshall’s story? Yes, being SAVED means saved FROM HELL! It is rich in meaning and means a lot of other things, but if you don’t get the death question settled in your heart, how can you live in peace and be fruitful for the Lord? I have no idea why you think Luke and Mark didn’t believe in a literal hell and heaven. As for John, his Revelation on the isle of Patmos certainly proves he saw a lot of HEAVENLY SCENES!

        1. Nancy, if by literal, you mean actual eternal fire in hell and streets paved with gold in heaven, then I don’t take these literally. I don’t understand heaven to be “up there” as in the biblical cosmology, or hell “down below.” These concepts need to be seen for what they are–metaphors to attempt to describe the indescribable. If you think C. S. Lewis and William Barclay are reliable guides, they cast heaven and hell in very different terms from literal. In fact, Barclay said that if there is a hell, its purpose is redemptive, not punitive.
          As far as “believing in Jesus for salvation” is concerned, Matthew 25 paints a very different picture from yours. There we find people whom Jesus congratulated and invited into his presence who didn’t even realize they were his followers. “Faith in Jesus” is apparently equated with “doing with Jesus”, even when we may not know who he is.
          May I suggest that your Jesus is too small? He is crammed into a very wooden, cramped space defined in literal terms that were never meant to be read that way. When you allow a little air into the room, you will find that life is less about “us versus them,” (the saved vs the damned) and more about how we all are struggling to find our way.

      2. I’m understanding what you’re saying about the meaning of “salvation” just as in the Muslim faith “resurrection” has a totally different meaning. They believe in the one God (no trinity) and the resurrection includes only believers who are righteous and serve God while in the world. These Muslims are “resurrected” and taken to heaven and it has nothing to do with belief in Jesus Christ, the “Resurrected One”.

  2. Dear Dr. Parunak,
    WHAT A BREATH OF FRESH AIR YOU ARE! You nailed it! And you quoted my favorite verse, the words spoken from the pulpit when I left the choir loft, walked to the altar, knelt, and committed my life totally to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except by Me.” John 14:6.
    Thank you from my heart for an excellent post!
    Nancy Petrey

  3. For those of you following this issue, two posts are forthcoming on the question, “Do atonement theories continue to speak to the human dilemma?” (In some way Jesus needed to be sacrificed to redeem humanity.) A date for publication has not been set, but soon will be.

  4. Apart from God, there is no vehicle of salvation. No one else can pay the price (Psalm 49): A sibling’s ransom can no one of you ransom, nor give to God the cover-price. You can capitalize, quote, and scream all you like. The servant of God does not raise its voice in the streets (even if the streets are empty) nor does such a servant break a bruised reed. A servant does not put itself forth as having all truth. It must be possible to do better than this recital of doctrine and randomly chosen verses. You can have your Zophar – he gets corrected in the end. Only Job is commended for his stubbornness.

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