Exclusivism Overview

The DCT paper for the OCR religious studies course requires that you consider the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions.  This is a particularly pressing issue for Christians living today as society has become increasingly multi-cultural.  This means that Christians are more likely to encounter non-Christians in their day to day life and must therefore face the question of whether or not non-Christian religions have truth and whether non-Christians go to heaven or hell.  (Historically many societies were more homogenous and a person's religion was very much tied up with their national identity.)  Many people regard a multi-cutural society as a good thing; people can learn from each other, they can celebrate diversity and they can have a choice about what religion to follow.  However, exclusivist are much less likely to view this as a positive thing.  Christian exclusivists believe that Christianity is true and you must be a Christian to be saved.  Consequently non-Christian religions are likely to be viewed as a threat or a danger.

What is the basis for exclusivism?

 Exclusivism is based on the ideas that

  1. No one can reach God or deserve salvation by their own efforts
  2. Jesus was God thus Christianity is superior 
  3. Religions say different things, they cannot all be right

These ideas are explored in more detail below.

Human beings are fallen and cannot know God or earn salvation:

The idea of humans as fallen was one explored in the human nature section.  If peope are born with original sin then this means that no one deserves to go to heaven.  Salvation must be an unmerrited gift from God. 

Consequently, it is not true to say that good people should be rewarded with heaven regardless of what they believe.  An exclusivist would be likely to say that a person can never be sinless and therefore all people deserve hell.  Exclusivist believe that it is only by accepting Jesus' atoning sacrifice that you can get into heaven.

Exclusivists use the Bible to support the idea that no one deserves salvation.

'For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.'

Romans 3:23

The doctrine of justification by faith (that we are made righteous through faith rather than by any good works that we do) is one that is particularly associated with Protestant theologians like Martin Luther.  He drew on Paul's teaching in Romans along with other Biblical passages like this one from Titus.

'he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy'

Titus 3:5

Consider:  When Rahner describes non-Christians as anonymous Christians is he saying that they are good by their own efforts?  Is it fair to accuse him of preaching that people can earn their way into heaven?

Exclusivists might argue that the idea that good non-Christians are saved because they don't deserve to go to hell undermines the idea of justification by faith alone.  It implies that people can be good enough to deserve heaven.  This would make the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus pointless.  If people can earn heaven then why did Jesus have to die?

God intervenes in the world:

Exclusivists believe in an immanent God who intervenes in the world at particular times and places through theophanies (visions of God) and through miracles.  This means that although God is omnipresent he is present in a more knowable way at some points and times than at others.  God intervenes in the world to make himself known because he desires that people come to know him.

Exclusivists place a high value on the idea of special revelation as the source of knowledge about God.  General revelation is not usually rejected outright but it is viewed as limited and as insufficient for salvation.  This means that non-Christian religions can contain some truth resulting from the natural knowledge of God as creator but their knowledge is minimal and Christians cannot learn anything useful from non-Christian religions.

This is because Christianity is believed to be founded upon the supreme example of God's intervention in the world - the incarnation.

Jesus was God incarnate:

The first thing that we need to consider then when evaluating is whether it is reasonable to believe in the incarnation. 

Jesus is supposed to have performed miracles; healings, nature miracles and even raised  people like Lazarus from the dead.  During his life he forgiven sins and showed God's love for others. He himself was supposedly born of a virgin, had foreknowledge of his death and was finally resurrected.

Evaluate: was Jesus God incarnate?

Fundamental to the exclusivist view is the idea that Jesus was God incarnate.  They argue that this makes Christianity superior to non-Christian religions which are based on prophets rather than on God himself. 

If Jesus were God then this means

  • that he is in a position to mediate true knowledge about God
  • that he has the authority to tell people how to behave
  • he is sinless and can die as an atoning sacrifice for sin.  This enables God's grace to enter the world and people can then recieve this grace through faith.

The solus Christus (only in Christ) principle describes the idea that only through Christ is salvation possible.

For exclusivists, Jesus is the mediator between humans and God. Without him, God would be inaccessible and salvation would be impossible.

There are various Biblical teachings which they would use to support their claim that people are only saved through Jesus. One of the most famous is this teaching from John.

'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me'.

John 14:6

Inclusivists like Rahner agree that salvation is only possible through Jesus and they agree that Jesus should be viewed as God incarnate.  However, they would point out that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world.  Rahner argued that if God genuinely wants all people to be saved then salvation must be attainable by those who have no opportunity to be Christian.  Therefore, whilst Rahner thinks that Jesus brought God's grace into the world he says that it can then be mediated (shared out) by non-Christian religions.  An inclusivist might argue that the quotation from John only says that salvation is dependent on Jesus.  It does not say that Jesus must himself be known.

However, exclusivists would be likely to respond by pointing to Biblical texts which mention explicit belief or faith as a precondition to salvation.

'For  God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.'

John 3:16 

The Bible is the word of God

Exclusivists are not necessarily fundamentalists.  It is perfectly possible to believe that Jesus was God incarnate and think that you must believe in him to be saved without also believing that the Bible is inerrant.  However, they generally do have a high regard for the Bible and consider it to be from God.

The Bible is important largely because of what it says about Jesus.  Exclusivists tend to believe that the Old Testament contains prophecies about Jesus and points forward towards him whilst the New Testament contains an accurate account of what Jesus said and did.

Exclusivists often use the evidence of Jesus' ministry from the Bible to justify their claims about God, Jesus, the necessity of faith and Church.  They would argue that exclusivism is true to the Biblical teachings about Christianity.

You must be a member of the Church to be saved.

Many exclusivists believe that in addition to having explicit faith in Christ you also need to be a member of the institution of the Church to be saved.  This doctrine is the doctrine of extra ecclesium nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church). 

What exactly 'the Church' means varies according to the denominations that exclusivists belong to.  For Roman Catholic exclusivists 'the Church' is the Roman Catholic Church with the Pope at the head and a priesthood whose authority can be traced back to Jesus via apostolic succession.  

Traditionally the Catholic Church taught that anyone who was excommunicated was cut of from the sacraments, cut off from God's grace and thus deprived of salvation. 

The institution of the Church mediates God's grace via the sacraments.  For example, in the Eucharist the blessed bread and wine undergo transubstantiation and become the body and blood of Jesus.  The believer who then takes communion receives the grace of God into their body.  At confession the priest acts as mediator between God and man and pronounces God's forgiveness through absolution. Sacraments as 'outward and visible signs of inward invisible grace' are a way of attaining salvation and the Church has a mystical function in God's saving activity.

During the Reformation many of the Reformers were excommunicated. According to the traditional way way of thinking they had been cast out of the Church and would therefore be deprived of salvation.  Early protestants therefore distinguished between the 'visible' institution of the Church and the invisible Church known to God alone.  They still believed that you had to be part of the Church to be saved, but they reinterpreted what 'the Church' meant.

Protestant exclusivists would not equate 'the Church' with the Roman Catholic institution but many would still consider it necessary to be part of a visible group of confessing Christians.  They would say that you need to be baptised into the Chruch in order to become a full Christian.

The idea that you need to be baptised to be saved is also found in the Bible.  It can also be related back to the (largely Catholic) doctrine of Original Sin.  Unles you are baptised you are still tainted with inherited sin and therefore cannot enter heaven.

'He that believes and is baptised is saved.  But he that does not believe is damned.'

Mark 16:16

Non-Christians go to hell - so missionary work is essential.

The ethical problems with preaching that non-Christians go to hell was one that the early Christians are aware of.  They, like many more recent exclusivists, came to the conclusion that this is why missionary activity (proselytising) was essential part of being a Christian.

Paul discussed the problem in his letter to the Romans.

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

Romans 10:13-15

For exclusivists, missionary activity is essential because;

  • It is a part of the commandment to love your neighbour (what more loving thing could you do than save them from eternal damnation?)
  • God wants everyone to be saved - but to be saved they must be Christian.  By being a missionary you can enable God's universal salvific will to be done.
  • Jesus specifically tells his disciples to 'go make disciples of all nations' and to baptise people as Christians.  They are explicitly told to spread the good news.  This is called the Great Commission and takes place at the end of Matthew's gospel.

Exclusivist attitudes in Christian history:

Exclusivist thinkers:

Karl Barth could conceivably be an exclusivist, but this is debatable and you need to look at the notes on Barth to decide for yourself where you would put him.


Christian exclusivism is, it can be argued, internally coherent (i.e. all the parts fit logically together).  If Jesus is God incarnate then it would make sense to claim that Christianity has the truth about God.  However, this is based on a rather large assumption - that Jesus genuinely was the Son of God.  However, there is reason to doubt this.

  • John Hick argues that Jesus never claimed to be son of God and the title was used in an honourific sense to make the point that Jesus acted in a God-like way.
  • The gospel which makes Jesus' divinity most clear is John's gospel.  Most biblical scholars would say that John's Gospel is one of the most recent. Mark's gospel is probably earliest and it does not make the case for Jesus' divinity so strongly.
  • Arguably, the concept of the incarnation (Jesus = fully God and fully man) is incoherent.  We could also say that the idea of sinners being made righteous by the death of an innocent man is morally dubious!
  • David Hume argued that miracles can never be good evidence for God because how ever unlikely the event appears a rational explanation will always be more plausible than the idea that a miracle actually happened.  By the same token, however much evidence there appears to be for Jesus' divinity it will always be more likely that there is a rational explanation for things like the virgin birth and the resurrection.

There are other theological problems with exclusivism.

  • If God is truly onmnibenevolent and wants the salvation of the whole world why would he create a criteria of salvation which is only open to some?  It seems particularly cruel of God to send to hell pious, morally upright people who lived before Jesus.
  • If God is truly infinite and eternal then surely no one can understand him and no one religion can claim complete access to the truth.
  • D'Costa makes the point that exclusivism ignores the idea of the Trinity.  To say that God can only be known through Jesus is binatarian because it ignores the role of the Trinity.

In addition to the theological problems with exclusivism there are some biblical challenges.  Exclusivists do have passages that could support their claims but elsewhere we can find things that imply something different.

  • The parable of the Sheep and the Goats implies that judgement is done on the basis of works not of faith.  People will be sent to hell if they have not helped those in need.
  • The account in Acts 17 of Paul preaching to the men of Athens at the Areopagus is used by Rahner to support the inclusivism.

Finally, there are practical problems with exclusivism.  In a modern multi-cultural world it does not seem a very positive way to engage with non-Christian religions.

  • It seems to promote imperialistic attitudes and intolerance.
  • It makes constructive Christian/non-Christian religious dialogue impossible.

That said, one could argue that exclusivism is the only approach to non-Christian religions which truly retains the distinctiveness of Christianity and the centrality of the incarnation.  Inclusivism might be said to undermine Bible, Church and Priesthood whilst Pluralism makes Christianity just one religion among many.  

You need to decide for yourself whether Exclusivism, Inclusivism or Pluralism makes most sense.  Which is most true to Christian principles and which is most useful in today's world.

Further Reading: