John Hick

Hick is the named pluralist theologian in the OCR Religious Studies A2 course. You need to know his teachings about religion and religious experience and 'the Real'.  You must understand his use of Kant and be able to explain how he reinterprets Christianity by demythologising biblical teachings and re-evaluating the concept of the divinity of Christ.  You will need to consider to what extent his global theology presents a workable solution to the problem of the relationship between different religions in a multi-cultural world.


John Hick was born in 1922.  He studied law at Hull university and whilst there converted to evangelical Christianity after an intense religious experience that left him in 'emotional termoil'.  Following this experience he changed the direction of his life and abandoned law for philosophical studies at Edinburgh University.  The war interupted his studies and Hick, as a conscientious objector, served in tha abulance corps.  When the war ended he completed his studies at Edinburgh and then went to Oxford as a postgraduate student.  After completing his doctorate he went to Cambridge to train as a priest and in 1953 was was ordained and got married.  He initially worked as a parish priest in Northumberland but soon moved to America to work first at Cornell Univeristy and then at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Whilst there he was accused of heresy for refusing to accept the virgin birth.  His theological ideas were becoming more and more liberal and he had already abandoned the evangelical Christianity that he initially attracted him. In 1963 Hick returned to England and went to teach at Cambridge.  He spent three years there and wrote his influential book Evil and the God of Love before moving to Birmingham and taking on the post previously held by Ninian Smart (who had moved to Lancaster to found a Religious Studies faculty there).

His experiences in Birmingham were central in helping him to construct his pluralist theology.  He became involved in multi-faith groups which gave him direct experience of non-Christian faiths. In his autobiography he wrote that although religious beliefs and styles of worship differed 

' a deeper level it seemed evident to me that essentially the same thing was going on in all these different places of worship, namely men and women were coming together under the auspices of some ancient, highly developed tradition which enables them to open their minds and hearts “upwards” toward a higher divine reality which makes a claim on the living of their lives.'

Hick wrote many books during the course of his career and these reflect the gradual development of his pluralism.  Initially his belief in a loving God led him to inclusivism on the basis that such a God would not condemn non-Christians to hell.  He also began to question and reject many of the traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus.  In 1973 he published God and the Universe of Faith which explored the idea that the world religions are all different interpretations of the same divine reality. 1977 he edited a book called The Myth of God Incarnate which challenged traditional interpretations of the incarnation. 


He thinks that you cannot create sound arguments to disprove God's existence either!

One important question for religious people is the question of whether or not there is any evidence for God or any basis for religious belief. Throughout history people have tried to construct arguments for God. Arguments for God based upon reason and evidence are known as natural theology. Many philosophers - including Hick - think that it is impossible to create convincing rational arguments for God.  The evidence can be interpreted in more than one way.

Note: this means that for Hick religious belief is founded on personal faith rather than universally accepted evidence.  However, this does not mean  he thinks faith should be entirely unwarrented.  Hick expects faith to be based on personal  religious experience.  He says that we gain knowledge of God in the same way we gain other knowledge about the world, through what we experience ourselves.

If reason and general revelation cannot provide a sound basis for faith then what can?  For Hick the answer is that religious experience is what gives people the reason to believe. People are religious because they experience the divine.

However, Hick recognises that the world is ambigous.  Our everyday experiences can be interpreted in a religious way or in a non-religious way.  What one person regards as a religious experience may not be viewed in that way by others.  Furthermore, experiences can be interpreted through Christianity, but they could also be interpreted through Islam (or Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism etc).  Faith is our interpretation of events. 

Justifying religious belief on the basis of experience points Hick towards pluralism because it applies to all religions. All religions seem to be in the same position:

  • No religion is able to rationally 'prove' its claims about God.
  • All religions involve experiences of the divine.

If no religion can prove their claims and if experience is what provides the grounds for belief then all religions must be treated with respect and taken seriously.

The similarity between religions challenges traditional Christian claims because if Christianity genuinely was the 'correct' religion then it should produce better people.

'If we take literally the traditional belief that in Christ we have an uniquely full revelation of God and an uniquely direct relationship with God...then surely this ought to produce some noticeable difference in our lives. Christians ought to be better human beings than those who lack these inestimable spiritual benefits. … So we are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. We either have to claim,against the evidence of our experience, that as members of the body of Christ Christians ingeneral are better human beings than non-Christians, or we are going to have to rethink those of our traditional doctrines that entail that.'

John Hick, 'The Next Step Beyond Dialogue' in The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration, ed. Paul Knitter 

Religious experience:

Hick believed that people have genuine experiences of spiritual things and the Real accounts for the diverse spiritual experiences of people in different faiths. He accepted that people may have very different spiritual experience (e.g. they may experience a monotheistic God, a pantheon of gods and goddesses or animistic nature spirits).  Although these experiences are very different they still (according to Hick) came from the same thing.  Hick explained that the differences in the ways that people experience 'the Real' are accounted for by the fact that people exist in different cultures and this shapes their experience.

'...given the various cultural ways of being human we can I think to some extent understand how it is that they constitute different "lenses" through which the divine Reality is differently perceived.  For we know that all human awareness involves an indispensable contribution by the perceiver.  The mind is active in perception, organising the impacts of the environment in ways made possible both by the inherent structure of consciousness and by the particular sets of concepts embeded in particular consiousneesses.  These concepts are the organizing and reconitional capacities by which we interpret and give meaning to the data which come to us from outside.  And this general epistemological pattern, according to which conscious experience arises out of the interprative activity of the mind, also applies to religious experience.'

We can explain what Hick means by use of an analogy

  • Imagine ten people who listened to the same piece of music and are then asked to describe the things that they pictured when they heard it.  They will all say different things and the things that they picture will be influenced by their own cultural background.  If they have heard that music before then it might remind them of when they last heard it.  If they have a friend who likes that type of music then it might make them picture the friend.  If they themselves enjoy the music they are likely to associate it with pleasant images. 
  • The same is true of artists.  A group of artists painting the same scene will focus on different details. 

When Hick says that cultural context is the 'lens' through which the divine is experienced he is alluding to the way a lens can bend the light or add a colour tint to the experience. Cultural differences account for the differences between the different experiences of the divine and explain why different religions teach different things about God.

  • A person who experiences the divine as animistic spirits inhabiting the landscape (as aboriginal religion does) has had their experience shaped by their context. They exist in a culture in which they are utterly dependent upon the environment for their survival.  It would be natural to equate the divine with the plants and springs that enable them to survivie and to read natural disasters as evidence of God's displeasure.
  • A person living in a patriarchal society would naturally interpret any experience of the divine as male.

Hick argues that religious experience is shaped by culture.  This means that religious belief involves an element of projection.  What people believe about God/gods/godesses/spirits is shaped by their own cultural values and needs.  However, Hick denies Feuerbach's claim that religious belief is merely projection.

'...each of these divine personae...has inevitably been influenced by human imaginative construction....there is an element of human projection...But it does not follow that the divine personae are purely human projections.'

Consider:  Are you more persuaded by Feuerbach or Hick?  Do we need to assume that there is a divine reality if we can explain religious belief in entirely naturalist terms?  Is Feuerbach too quick to dismiss the possibility of any genuine external cause of religious experience?

For Hick, human projection shapes (and sometimes distorts) the experience of the divine, but it does not cause the experience.  The cause of the experience is the divine itself.  Hick is a critical realist (as opposed to a non-realist).  He does not go as far as Cupitt who challenges not just specific doctrines about God but the very existence of God.

Hick's pluralism is sometimes called 'transcendental pluralism' because it is built on the idea that the Real is beyond our experience of it and 'transcends' theological categories and descriptions.

To understand more fully Hick's teaching about religious experience we need to consider how he uses ideas and concepts drawn from Kant.

Use of Kant:

Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century German philosopher.  Several of Hick's ideas draw from Kantian concepts. 

  1. The distinction between noumenon and phenomena.
  2. The idea that the mind is active in shaping perception.


The reason why we cannot experience things in their pure form is because we cannot independently test the reliability of our sense.  We only know how things seem to us.  (This links to Cupitt's non-realist interpretation of God).

Kant distinguished between a 'thing in itself' and a 'thing as we experience it'.  He called the former 'noumena' and the latter 'phenomena'.  We have knowledge of the world through our senses.  We experience 'phenomena' - the way things seem to us.  We do not experience noumena - things in their pure form.

As Hick pointed out, there is actually a long tradition within religions of distinguising between God's action which we can experience and can therefore have knowledge of and his essential being which is inaccessible to us and remains unknown.

This distinction is used by Hick when he distinguishes between the noumena of the divine (which is its essence, the way it really and truly is independent of our sense) and the phenomena of the world religions which is the phenoma of the divine.

Hick said that distinguishing between noumena and phenoman enables us to make sense of the idea that all religions are talking about the same reality although they may do it in different ways.

'This distinction enables us to acknowledge both the unlimited trasncendent divine Reality and also a plurality of varying human concepts, images, and experiences of and responses to that reality'.


Kant's distinction between noumena and phenomena relates to his ideas about perception. 

If we experienced things exactly as they really are then the phenomena would be identical with the noumena.  The object as it seems to us would be exactly the same as the object as it really is

The reason why this is not the case is that our minds affect how we experience things.  We do not experience the world in a neutral way but through the lens of our own experience.

'Kant distinguishes between noumenon and phenomenon, or between a Ding an sich [the thing itself] and the thing as it appears to human consciousness…. In this strand of Kant's thought—not the only strand, but the one which I am seeking to press into service in the epistemology of religion—the noumenal world exists independently of our perception of it and the phenomenal world is that same world as it appears to our human consciousness…. I want to say that the noumenal Real is experienced and thought by different human mentalities, forming and formed by different religious traditions, as the range of gods and absolutes which the phenomenology of religion reports.'

The Real and the Copernican Revolution:

As we saw when we studied Smart, theology has traditionally been done from a faith-based perspective which means that Christian theologians tend to study non-Christian religions by explicitly or implicitly comparing them to Christian beliefs and practices.  

Very often they have viewed more favourably religions which are more similar to Christianity.  Thus Judaism, being monotheistic and sharing a common history with Christianity, has often been regarded as being more true and more worthy of respect than a polytheistic religion like Hinduism.  In other words, Christianity has been the standard by which all other religions have been measured and judged.

The term 'Copernican Revolution' alludes to the realisation that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system. The old world view with the earth at the centre orbited by the planets, sun moon and stars was replaced by one in which the earth had no special status but was just one of the planets.

Even when those studying non-Christian religions have tried to avoid overt value judgements they have often subconsciously compared non-Christian beliefs and practices to Christian ones which can result in a misrepresentation of the traditions.  For example, the Hindu Trimurti might be compared to the Trinity or the Sikh amrit ceremony to a Christian baptism.

Hick argues that theology needs to get away from a Christocentric approach to theology.  We need, he says, a Copernican revolution in the study of religions. Just like the Cosmological Copernican revolution the theological one is driven by observations about the world which do not fit with the old Christocentric way of seeing things.

'Now it seems to many of us today that we need a Copernican revolution in our understanding of the religions.  The traditional dogma has been that Christianity is the centre of the universe of faiths, with all the other religions seen as revolving at various removes around the revelation in Christ and being graded according to their nearness to or distance from it.  But during the last hundred years or so we have been making new observations and have realised that there is a deep devotion to God, true sainthood, and deep spiritual life within these other religions...would it not be more realistic now to make the shift from Christianity at the centre to God at the centre?'

There are several reasons to support the claim that a Copernican revolution in theology is necessary.

  • Empirical evidence:  Non-Christian religions produce saints, have similar ethical teachings and involve similar mystical experiences to Christianity. Christianity does not seem to produce 'better' people than non-Christian religions.  Furthermore, we might argue that similar effects must come from similar causes (i.e. if the ethics of different religions are similar then this could support the idea that they ultimately come from the same source).
  • Practical considerations:  A Christocentric approach to non-Christian religions could encourage arrogant and offensive attitudes to people of non-Christian faiths.  (This might occur even when the intentions are good, e.g. the idea of anonymous Christians might be found patronising). A Copernican revolution in our approach might promote more equality and tolerance within society.

Hick points out that many religions have distinguished between the action of God which we experience and can therefore have knowledge of God and the essence of God which is inaccessible to us.  (I.e.what God does and what God is).

  • Philosophical logic:  We can never know for certain what God is really like, therefore we cannot know which religions are most accurate.  We have no way of independently testing our beliefs and experiences. Consequently, we have no rational basis for claiming that any one religion is superior to another.  (Hick considers and rejects the idea that Jesus was God incarnate and thus Christianity has a sound basis for genuine knowledge).

Apophatic theology begins with the belief that God is essentially unknowable. We can say what God is not, but we cannot definitively say what God is.

Cataphatic theology takes as its starting point the belief that God 'accommodates' himself to our understanding through things like the incarnation.

  • Hick says that generally the religious views people hold come from the accident of their birth (i.e. if you are born in India you would be likely to be Hindu).  It seems unlikely that people born in some areas of the world have access to truth while people born in other areas do not.  He further argues that it is natural for people to assume that their own religious traditions are correct.  Hence exclusivist beliefs can be explained by reference to human nature (what we are used to seems normal and right).  

'Certainly, it is possible that one particular religious tradition is uniquely normative, and that I happen to have had the good fortune to be born into it...Yet the possibility must persistently recur to any intelligent person...that to assess the traditions of the world by the measure of one's own tradition may merely be to be behaving, predictably, in accordance with the conditioning of one's upbringing.'

Hick, 'On Grading Religions' in On Contemporary Classics in the Philosophy of Religion ed A. Loades & L.D. Rue

Hick suggests that to avoid excluding or marginalising polytheistic or non-theistic religions (i.e. Buddhism) we should avoid using the term 'God' when describing the the unknown truth that all religions orbit around.  In his 1989 book An Interpretation of Religion he suggests that we use the term 'the Real' instead.

Demythologising and the divinity of Christ:

Fundamentalist claim that the Bible contains propositional truth.  I.e. it contains propositions (factual statements) about God.  Liberal Christians are more likely to look for non-propositional truth in the Bible.  They would say that the Bible does not contain direct statements about God.  Rather, it contains spiritual truths. Hick, like other liberals, seeks out the non-propositional religious truths in the Bible.

The idea of 'demythologising' goes back to the twentieth century New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann.  He believed that the the gospels contain essential truths expressed through myths.  He said that in order to rediscover these truths for a modern audience the gospel stories need to be 'demythologised'.

Hick agreed that the gospels contain myths.  He believed that the Church can no longer expect people to take these myths literally because the myths reflect outdated world-views.  Hick thinks that describing the stories as 'myths' does NOT mean that they have no value.  Myths can contain spiritual or allegorical truth.  He says

 'In the Scriptures we speak about God in true myths, that is to say, descriptions which are not literally true but which nevertheless have the effect of evoking in us an appropriate dispositional response to the ultimate subject-matter of the myths.' 

Hint: If you use a quotation, explain it.  So in the above quotation you might elaborate on the idea of 'true myths'.

One of the Christian myths that Hick considers is the resurrection.  In an article on the resurrection (found on Hick's website here) Hick explained that the discrepancies between the gospel accounts of the resurrection make it very unlikely that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead.  Thus the resurrection is a myth.  Hick concluded the article by exploring what the resurrection might mean when demythologised. 

'So for me Easter is a joyful symbol of a central element of the gospel, God's gift of renewal, of ever new beginnings, of rebirth, of life transcending death... Easter is our Christian symbol of hope, of the ongoing fact of new life, of freedom from the grip of the past, of openness to the future, to new possibilities, ultimately openness to the Kingdom of God and an intimation of life beyond death.' 

Hick The Resurrection of Jesus

Hick believes that the Bible contains nonpropositonal truth rather than propositional truth.

Hick (unlike Cupitt) was reasonably confident that some type of divine being exists and death is not the end so for him the resurrection could still contain the idea that life continues beyond death.  The resurrection story is valuable, but realist interpretations of it (i.e. interpretations that say it really happened) make Christianity seem unbelievable and even ridiculous.  How could Jesus appear in a locked room if he had been physically resurrected and had a material body? What sort of state would his body have been in if it had been in the tomb for several days?  Why didn't the disciples recognise him if his earthly body had been raised?

Consider what type of truths you might discover in the following doctrines if you demythologised them

Virgin birth




The resurrection is just one element of Jesus' story that Hick was keen to reinterpret. He believed that many of the traditional doctrines about Jesus (such as the incarnation, the doctrine of atonement, the Trinity and the virgin birth) are all mythological in character.  He believed that by removing these mythological and (in his view) inaccessible and unbelievable doctrines about Jesus it is possible to rediscover who Jesus actually was and what he taught.

Many more traditional Christians would say that Hick's views undermine Christianity because he does not believe that Jesus was Son of God.  However, Hick argued that his view of Jesus is a return to Jesus' actual message.  He believed

'The historical Jesus of Nazareth did not teach or apparently believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second Person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense.'

High Christology: A term applied to theology that emphasises the divinity of Jesus.  He is placed high up, with God.

Low Christology: refers to theology which presents Jesus as basically human as a prophet/teacher type figure.

Hick backs this up by arguing that

  • The gospel writers were not eyewitnesses and they were writing after the event.
  • The earliest gospel (Mark) begins with the story of Jesus' baptism rather than any story about his birth and usually presents him as a prophet-type figure rather than God incarnate.  John's gospel (which does present Jesus as God) was the last to be written.
  • The term 'son of God' was widely used to describe people who behaved like God in some way.  It was only when Christianity moved into the gentile (non-Jewish) world that it began to be taken literally rather than metaphorically.

'Within Judaism 'son of God' was a very familiar metaphor. The messiah was a son of God in the Jewish sense of someone specially chosen by God for a particular role. Adam was the son of God (Lk. 3: 38), the angels were sons of God, the ancient kings of Judah were enthroned as son of God, 'Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee' (Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7: 14), Israel as a whole was God's son, indeed any outstandingly pious Jew could be called a son of God. So Jesus was a son of God in the metaphorical sense that was familiar to the Jews of his time, a sense that carried no implication of divinity.'

Lecture given in 2006 in Birmingham and reproduced under the title Believable Christianity on Hick's website here.

In other words, Hick believes that there are sound historical reasons for rejecting the idea of the Incarnation and also therefore the Trinity. Furthermore, he argued that the idea that an a person could be both finite mortal human and infinite eternal God is just incoherent.  Therefore,

' say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that this circle drawn with a pencil on paper is also a square.'

Essay on Jesus and the World Religions

Just as Hick believed that demythologising the resurrection does not devalue it he also believed that demythologising the incarnation does not undermine Jesus. 

'The idea of incarnation is a powerful metaphorical idea. It means to embody some ideal or conviction in one's life. We all know what is meant when someone says that, for example, Nelson Mandela, after the triumph of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, incarnated the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. He embodied this in his life and actions. And the metaphor of divine incarnation, according to which Jesus embodied an overwhelming awareness of the goodness and love of God, is intelligible, believable, and morally challenging.' 

Hick Believable Christianity

Hick believed that an interpretation of Jesus which recognises his humanity is more 'morally challenging' than traditional views.  It is more morally challenging because if Jesus was human then we should (in theory) be able to live up to the moral standard that he presents.

'So what is left of the Jesus of the New Testament? That's the wrong question. It's not a matter of what is left, but of what is revealed when we remove the barriers of later church doctrines. What is revealed is the heart of Jesus' life and teaching: the challenging moral teaching summarised in the sermon on the mount, preaching an indiscriminate love for all, his unforgettable parables of the love of God, his powerful criticisms of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and his identifying with the poor and marginalized, those despised by the establishment, and his treatment of women, welcoming them as disciples, and his healing ministry. And although, as I pointed out a moment ago, he did not himself have a social gospel, because he believed that God was soon to intervene to establish the divine kingdom on earth, there is a social gospel implicit in his life. The Jesus of history then, I suggest, minus the impressive but today unbelievable theological structure that the church has built round him, is rightly our lord, guru, role model.'

Hick Believable Christianity

'In Jesus presence, we should have felt that we are in the presence of God - not in the sense that the man Jesus literally is God, but in the sense that he was so totally conscious of God that we could catch something of the spiritual consciousness by spiritual contagion.'

Hick 'Jesus and the World Religions' in The Myth of God Incarnate ed Hick 1997

Consider for yourself whether belief in the literal incarnation is a necessary condition of being Christian!  A critic of Hick (and of pluralism generally) Harold Netland though it was not.  He said that in Hick's theology Jesus becomes 'Simply one of many great religious leaders who have been used by God to provide salvation for humankind.'  He has lost his uniqueness.  Hick would presumably agree with this assessment but would think that challenging Jesus' unique status is a positive - rather than negative - step.

Global Theology:

Hick's ideas can be described as an attempt to create a 'global theology' because he tries to provide a method of approaching theology which accounts for all religion and which enables creative inter-religious dialogue.  Global theology can be contrasted with traditional 'Christian theology' which viewed non-Christian religions from a Christocentric view point.  In his 1973 book God and the Universe of Faiths Hick gives guidelines for how Global Theology may progress.

'What is such a programme likely to involve?  Clearly it must be the work of a mutlititude of minds and of several generattions.  THere woudl seem to be two main tasks to be performed:  first the critical sifting of the several accumulated religious traditions to reveal more clearly the forms of religious experience living within them; and secondly the construction off tehologies (in the plural) based upon the full range of man's religious awareness.  Ideally, no doubte, the first of tehses taskes would be completed before the second is begun.  But in fact they must both go on as best they can, some people working at one, some at the other.'

The reference to 'critical sifting' makes it clear that Hick does not believe that all elements of all religion come from the divine.  He considers religion to have developed through 'a complex interaction between religious and non-religious factors' and he says that 'sinful distortion' plays a part in our images of the divine alongside human imagination.  He is not saying that all religions are all true.  Therefore a global theology needs to provide a way of sorting out what is true and valuable in religion from what is not.  When he wrote God and the Universe of Faiths he said that within Christianity the process of sifting is already quite advanced as Christian theology has already tried to 'distinguish between the central message of the gospel and its expression in the now obsolete thought forms of earlier ages' whereas other religions (he gives Islam as an example) have not yet really begun to reevaluate their own traditions and beliefs.

To what extent it is possible to create a workable 'global theology' is something that you need to consider for yourself.  It is clear from the above quotation that Hick expects the process to take a long time ('many generations').  It is not an easy task.  However, Hick thinks that it is possible.  He says

  •  God is 'greater and more many-sided' than one religion can do justice to.  Thus even apparently contradictory beliefs about God may actually be different ways of experiencing the same thing (he compares this to the apparent paradox of light which behaves like both a particle and a wave).
  • Global theology will not abolish the diversity of religion that exists because different religions exist as they suit different people with different needs.

'What we are picturing here as a future possibility is not a single world religion, but a situation in which the different traditions no longer see themselves as each other as rival ideological communities.  A single world religion is, I think, never likely, and not a consummation to be desired.  For so long as there is a variety of human types there will be a variety of kinds of worship and a variety of theological emphases and approaches.'

Hick, God has many names, 1980

Hick believes a global theology is necessary because it is essential that religious people respect each other.

'Why does all this matter? We only have to look at the state of the world to see why. The Catholic theologian Hans Kung has said that there will never be peace between the nations until there is peace between the religions. And I would add that there will never be genuine peace between the religions until each comes to recognise the equal validity of the others. Let us all do in our time what we can to bring this about.'

Hick Believable Christianity


Challenges from Christians

Hick said that he has been “attacked from different quarters as anti-Christian, as too narrowly Christian, as an atheist, a polytheist, a postmodernist, and as not postmodernist enough!” 


More traditionally-minded Christians would challenge Hick's interpretation of Christianity.  They might argue that he undermines the essence of the religion and reduces the Bible to a set of fictional stories with some nice morals.  Many Christians regard believing in the incarnation to be a central tenant of Christianity (it is, afterall, affirmed in the creed 'we believe in one God, father almighty and in his Son, Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit...' etc.).   Theologians like Barth who emphasised the centrality of Jesus as God's self-revelation would almost certainly consider Hick's depiction of a fully human Jesus as damaging to Christianity.  Christians wanting to defend the traditional doctrines about Jesus might argue that;

  • There is evidence to suggest that Jesus did believe himself to be more than just a prophet.  Even in the earliest gospel (Mark) he is described as Son of God at the outset ('The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God' (Mark 1:1).  Even if this were a later addition (and some manuscripts do not have the phrase 'Son of God' here), the bulk of the Gospel presents Jesus as a miracle worker who forgives sins (something only God could do) and charged with blasphemy at his trial.  
  • Hick could be right that the term 'son of God' may have been a widely used metaphor at the time, but this does mean that it could not also have been used literally of Jesus.
  • The early Christians who wrote the Bible would not have claimed that Jesus was God unless they had some reason to do so.  It is plausible to think that they got the idea of the incarnation from Jesus himself.
  • If Jesus did claim to be the Son of God then according to C.S. Lewis he was either mad (i.e. delusional), bad (i.e. lying) or Lord (i.e. he was telling the truth).  Lewis suggested that the Jesus of the gospels does not appear either mad or bad - which leaves only one option.

Many Christians who believe in the incarnation also argue for realist interpretations of other Biblical ideas like the resurrection and the incarnation.

  • The book 'The Case for Christ' by Lee Strobel argues that the gospels are eyewitness documents, historically reliable and provide reasonable grounds to believe in the resurrection.  (A summary and analysis of some of Strobel's arguments can be found here).
  • Henrick Kraemar argues for a realist interpretation of the Bible.
  • Most Christians would accept that stories such as the resurrection defy common sense.  They would argue that this is why you need faith.  They might also point out that early Christians also found the stories incredible (e.g. doubting Thomas) but were ultimately convinced by their own powerful experiences.

Does Hick make the correct assumptions?

A different approach to evaluating Hick's theology is to question some of his initial assumptions.  Does Christianity need demythologising?  According to Hick it does because realist interpretations of the Bible put people off Christianity and make Christianity incompatible with other religions.  However we could challenge this.

  • Decline in church attendance in Britain may not be down to a decline in belief in the supernatural (many people believe in ghosts  for example).  It might be down to the fact that church is not fun enough, or Christian sexual morals alienate people, or they worship God in other ways.
  • Inclusivism might provide an equally valid (but less radical) way of viewing non-Christian religions in a positive light.  Rahner accepts that non-Christians can be saved through non-Christian religions.  D'Costa suggest that the Trinity offers several valid routes to God.  Christians know God through Jesus, non-Christians know God through the Holy Spirit. 

Perhaps he is not radical enough:

From the opposite end of the spectrum one could accuse Hick of not being liberal enough.  Given that he accepts that our beliefs about God involve an element of projection and given that we have no independent knowledge of what 'the Real' is like perhaps we should reject belief in any type of divine reality.  

  • Feuerbach would say that religious belief and religious experience can be entirely explained anthropologically.  There is no need to complicate matters and assume that there is actually something behind it all.  
  • Cupitt also makes the noumenon/pheonomena distinction and concludes that we cannot be sure that anything exists in itself.  All that is relevant is how it appears to us.

Similar points could be made regarding the Bible.  If the Bible contains errors, inconsitencies and morally dubious teachings then why not abandon it rather than 'demythologise' it?  Arguably there is little to distinguish the Bible from any fictional allegories and thus no reason to continue to give it any authority.  Richard Dawins (every theologians favourite athiest!) says

  • 'To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.'

Even if we do try to demythologise the Bible and treat certain teachings as authoritative then we have given ourselves a difficult task.  What criteria should we use?  Who should do it?  What is left at the end of it?  How do we know whether or not we have preserved the essential message and aren't we in danger of allowing our own preferences to guide us so that we reject what we don't like and keep what we already believe?

Practical problems:

The task of creating a global theology faces similar problem so that whilst it might be a nice idea in theory we could question whether or not it is workable.

  • How do we 'critically sift' - the problem of criteria, methods and personal bias applies again.
  • What do we do about people (exclusivists/inclusivists) who are unwilling to let go of their claims to absolute or at least superior revelation?
  • Harold Netland (Dissonant Voices, 1991) says that Hick's theory requires many religions to radically reinterpret their key claims so that Hick's account of religions is not compatible with how the religions see themselves.
  • Are the claims of the different religions too different to be interpreted as different facets of the same thing?

To be fair to Hick he does recognise that the task will not be easy and his own books and concepts (such as the Copernican Revolution) are presented as possible steps in the right direction which could be superceeded if someone else created a better theological framework.  However, we could still argue that he underestimates the difficulties.

Philosophical and theological challenges:

Finally, there are philosophical challenges to Hick.

  • S. Mark Heim says that Hick is not a true pluralist.  He says that he is an inclusivist in disguise because Hick considers the major world religions to be authentic responses to the Real whilst things like Satanism are not.  This is because the world religions lead away from selfishness and anger towards love and altruism.  This means that Hick thinks that only certain types of ethical behaviour lead to salvation.  True pluralism would not make such judgements.  (Heim, Salvation: Truth and Difference in Religion, 1995)
  • Keith Ward argued that Hick's 'hard pluralism' is incoherent.  He said that if we cannot know what the Real is like then we cannot know that the world's religions are valid interpretations of it.
  • Alistair McGrath said that Hick's view of the Real implies that we can say nothing meaningful about it at all.  If we cannot know it in itself then we cannot know which of our perceptions about it are meaningful.
  • A Muslim critic Adnan Aslan challenges Hick's view of revelation.  If 'the Real' is unknowable, then it cannot deliberately reveal itself to humanity. Thus revelation is in the mind of the human who receives it rather than being initiated by God.  (i.e. it will always be an aspect of General Revelation and can never be Special Revelation).  This undermines the traditional Islamic view of the Qur'an as the Word of God (and fundamentalist Christian views of the Bible).  Aslam provides a specific example of how and why Hick's pluralism would be unacceptable to many people of non-Christian faiths.

Unfair criticisms:

It is also worth sketching out criticisms of Hick which have been levelled at him but which are based on misunderstandings of his views.

  • You can't create one religion with everyone believing the same thing! True, and Hick is not saying that you should.  'Global Theology' refers to creating a framework which makes sense of all religions and helps people enter into positive inter-religious dialogue.  It is NOT a global religion and he thinks different religions will continue to exist because people need different ways to experience the divine (just like different genres of literature appeal to different people because of their cultural difference, different stages in life and different personal preference.
  • Different religions cannot all be all true - they say different thing.  Hick is not saying they are all true and that every claim is true.  He is saying that they all contain some truth.  They also contain human projection and error. Some might actually be more true than others, but we cannot know which ideas are most right so we should treat all valid religions equally.
  • All religions are not all valid e.g. Satanism should not be considered as valid as Christianity and Hinduism.  Hick agrees, it shouldn't be.  It is not true that every single belief system is a reflection of the divine.  Hick considers religions to be genuine reflections of the divine if they lead to an ethically minded way of life and lead people away from selfishness.  The main world religions do this as do many minor religions but not every belief system does.

Further Reading:

Hick's official website can be found here.   Many of the articles listed are about religious pluralism.

Internet encyclopedia page about Hick's ideas is found here.

Very detailed but accessible explanation and evaluation of Hick here.