The Doctrine of Hell: Religious Exclusivity

This is the third in a five-part series on the doctrine of hell. Click here for part one and part two.

Closely related to the doctrine of hell is the idea of religious exclusivity: as Christians, we believe that the only way to be saved is through conscious faith in Jesus. This is, of course, a terribly unpopular position, and one I hear objections to almost daily. Here are my attempts to answer some of those objections.

1. “Religion is a matter of personal preference.”

Immanuel Kant, the father of modern philosophy, said that religions are subjectively helpful but not objectively true. Many people today see things this way. Our religious decisions are just preferences, and can’t be judged ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ It’s like, Pepsi or Coke? Waffle House or IHOP?

The problem with this is that Christianity is based on the historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Whether or not that actually happened makes all the difference in the world. If Jesus rose from the dead, religion is no longer about personal preference, about which beliefs make you feel warm and fuzzy at night. Either a real power brought Jesus out of the grave or it did not.

If Jesus rose from the dead, then he lays out the runway for salvation. So the question is, “Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?” If so, are you willing to let Him make the rules about salvation?

2. “This doesn’t sound very tolerant.”

There was a time when “tolerance” was a useful term. It meant that I was free to believe firmly in something, you were free to believe in something contrary, and we could voice our differences without threat of violence. It was understood that you could only be tolerant of someone when you admitted from the outset that you disagreed.

The situation has changed now. Today tolerance is used to prevent anyone from making absolute claims of any kind. Instead of merely acknowledging the existence of differing viewpoints, contemporary tolerance attempts to say that every viewpoint is inherently valuable and that none is better than the other. The irony in this, as many have pointed out, is that this view of tolerance is inherently intolerant, much more restricting than if we simply stated our beliefs plainly and acknowledged the differences between them.

In light of this, I prefer the term liberty to tolerance. By liberty, I mean that I believe in people’s right to disagree with me—the more traditional use of the word “tolerance.” I would give my life to preserve that right, and I never want to see people coerced into “believing” what I believe. But we want liberty for all, and that includes the liberty to communicate the message we believe is given by God.

You’ve probably heard the analogy comparing religions to an elephant. Several blind men come upon an elephant, and they try to describe what they encounter. The one touching the trunk says, “It is like a snake.” The one touching the ears says, “It is like a large fan.” The one touching the leg says, “It is like a tree.” The point is that religion is like this, too: none of us sees the whole picture, so when we hear a differing opinion, we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that it is wrong. Everyone just sees part of the picture.

There’s a huge problem with this analogy, though: who sees the whole elephant? The person telling the story! That’s how he knows we’re all wrong. In fact, he’s doing the very thing he won’t let us do! He’s standing above us with a complete view of truth while telling us we aren’t allowed to make claims about truth.

Christians acknowledge that they couldn’t figure out the truth for themselves. In a sense, we are all like the blind men trying to understand the elephant. But Christians claim that the one who sees the whole picture came down and revealed it to us. It’s as if the elephant spoke! All we could do is believe it. How do you boast about something that was revealed to you because you weren’t smart enough to figure it out?

Some Christians might be jerks about it, and they shouldn’t be. But believing that Jesus is who he said he was isn’t arrogant. It’s actually quite humble, since we’re laying aside our preferences for a revealed truth.

3. “This sounds like hateful fundamentalism.”

There are a lot of people who wear the name “Christian” that are hateful and arrogant. But no one who truly understands salvation would act this way, because those who have been saved from hell would have such a deep sense of gratitude for what God has saved them from. Lives touched by the gospel are characterized by humility. They make Christ known not through angry sermons but by loving and serving others, showing the love and generosity of the cross.

At the same time, Jesus talked more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. He talked about it because he loved us, because it was a reality that he wanted to save us from. I know the idea of hell is terrible to think about—but if hell is real, and we know a way of escaping it, how cruel would it be to not say anything?

4. “What about those who have never heard?”

Perhaps the most troubling issue regarding hell and the exclusivity of Christ has to do with those who have never heard the gospel. This is such a major issue that I am setting aside an entire other post to deal specifically with this point. Stay tuned.

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  1. NatanElias   •  

    The creator sets the rules. The created must live with them, no matter how he perceives them. “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Lk 20:18 It is those who think lightly of sin who are upset with the concept of hell.

    There is only one path to forgiveness and salvation: Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that one must fully understand the gospel to be saved. 1) OT believers did not understand it, not even the prophets (1 Peter 1:10-11); 2) Paul clearly taught that it is obedience to one’s understanding of right and wrong (or conscience) that determines to whom God gifts salvation (Rom 2:6-15) 3) Who can say even today just how complete one’s understanding must be? Can you be saved without defining ‘substitutionary atonement’? Or knowing that Christ was born of a virgin and had no sin nature? What if you aren’t told that he arose — would your repentance and faith be in vain?

    So then, salvation is not dependant upon knowledge as much as it is on a humble and obedient heart. Therefore even those who never have heard of Christ can be forgiven and given salvation. And those who said a prayer after learning all the facts may be lost (“to those who by PATIENCE in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” Rom 2:7) (This is not to say you can earn salvation; you can only put yourself in position where God grants it.)

  2. Peter Warner   •  

    J.D. Greear revealed: ‘There’s a huge problem with this analogy, though: who sees the whole elephant? The person telling the story! That’s how he knows we’re all wrong. In fact, he’s doing the very thing he won’t let us do! He’s standing above us with a complete view of truth while telling us we aren’t allowed to make claims about truth.’

    Wow, that’s powerful, and exhilarating. That analogy was elevated to Gospel-like levels in a group I once was devoted to, and in five sentences is totally deflated.

    Thank you, and blessings. In Christ, Peter Warner.

  3. Selena Parker   •  


  4. DANIEL HENNEH   •  

    Thank you, Greear. Hell is real! I pray the church will come back to these teachings again. We have opened our gates for false teachers and teachings to enter.

  5. Jim Allen   •  

    Perhaps an even more narrow question would be: do I choose a church based on my whims or do I attempt to discover the Church? As a Protestant, this is a question I have been researching for years. Yes, I understand Universal Church, etc., but is there a church that is linked closely to apostolic teaching? No answers, just questions.

  6. Pingback: J. D. Greear – The Doctrine of Hell: Religious Exclusivity » Christian Apologetics & Intelligence Ministry

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