The historic response of Christian theology to other religions is far more nuanced and careful than the popular expressions of many evangelicals who continue to pronounce final judgment on anyone and everyone who is not a confirmed and practicing Christian believer. This issue is clearly one that should prompt us to stop throwing bombs on one another while we seek to understand the mind of the whole church in dealing with a complicated and difficult question.

vaticanii Vatican II dealt with this question rather carefully. In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, all religions are treated in terms of the ethical dimension of faith and practice. We read the following in Nostra Aetate:

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of history. . . . This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.  . . . Thus in Hinduism men . . . seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.

Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites (No. 2).

Vatican II was equally complimentary toward Islam and Judaism. It accords to the latter the highest status since it has a unique relationship to Christianity and our faith in Jesus. What is important here is the recognition that all religions have in them an ethical dimension. This is respected and not trashed, as is often done by evangelical zealots.

But, and this is important, while Vatican II recognized this truth and affirmed some commonality between various religious faiths it still holds to the fundamental truth we observed in the post of yesterday, namely that Jesus is unique and the way to the Father. The one true God is revealed first in the Old Testament and then in God’s Son, in the New Testament. The church proclaims, and is exhorted therein, to always proclaim the uniqueness of Christ and to reject relativism in both ethics and faith. In Christ we find the true revelation where “God has reconciled all things to himself” in Christ. The one true God is revealed to us and he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Christianity includes ethical principles but it cannot be reduced to them alone. Those who follow Jesus, as I wrote several days ago, are called to lived godly lives and to practice their faith in Christ-centered works of love and service. Following Christ is not merely an issue of having a positive outlook on life in general. It is not even a matter of “loving our neighbors” though this is at the heart of what happens to those who become true Christ followers.

So other religions offer something good and something incomplete and inadequate. Completeness is found in Jesus Christ alone. With him the Father is well pleased.

Our message to people of other faiths ought not to be an all-out attack on them as the teachers of a false religion and the followers of the doctrines of demons. If you read the New Testament the Lord Jesus himself had some rather unkind things to say about faith and religion but it was almost universally pointed at those who practiced a conservative form of Judaism who believed in the supernatural but lived as if their version of the faith was the beginning and end of all truth and practice. We can present Jesus as the “way, the truth and the life” without attacking others and their faith. We can see the “ethical” elements in other religions and have dialog for common cause in society. In the process we had best be very careful we never surrender the finality of God’s revelation in Jesus, who leads us to the Father. But we can, and should, do all of this while we also embrace the mystery of some things that we do not fully understand.

God will be the judge. I do not tell specific people that they are going to hell. Why? For starters, I do not know that for certain. Second, they could still believe on Christ in the future and become Christian believers. Third, I do not finally know how God will treat different people and different faiths in his final, just judgment. What I do know is that God’s judgment is very real and I must warn people of the reality of this just judgment. This message is all but absent in our day. One reason is that we’ve grown weary of the way so many have used the idea of judgment to threaten and frighten people. God required his prophet Ezekiel to warn his people of judgment and told him he would be guilty of the blood of men and women in his time if he failed to give that warning. Let us do the same but let us stop telling people everywhere who is and is not going to hell.

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  1. Ed Holm March 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Thank you once again John for your reasoned and reasonable discussion of these issues.I think if one warning in scripture is clear it is to not be too prideful of one’s own self and personal opinions about the lower status of others in God’s eyes. I look at the work of Thomas Merton in finding value in the thinking of the East and yet remaining committed to his fatih. My own faith journey took me for a time many years ago far afield theologically and yet the quiet voice of Jesus continually calling me back to him. I am endebted to the wisdom available in other faiths that revealed the God of Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus in clearer, more initimate ways. The rejection of those glimpses because they are different from what we hear proffered in the little white church on the corner rejects not only the adherents of those various faiths but of the insights and truth that God uses within them to reveal himself to us.

  2. Phil Miglioratti March 11, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Your concluding paragraph expresses well my sense of how the Lord wants us to think about this and to share with others – powerful reminder!

  3. Joe Heschmeyer March 11, 2011 at 9:06 am

    I only with there were more Catholics with as thorough an understanding of what Vatican II was saying (and not saying) is these statements. Well done, as always.

  4. Emmanuel Viray March 11, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    i have been thinking of this negative attitude towards other religions and wrote about it in my blog.

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