Four Views on Salvation: John Hick
I’ve been reading a few books lately, The Case for a Creator, Theology of Word and Spirit (still), The Bourne Supremacy, Harry Potter, and Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Counterpoints). I’m a bit ADD, so it helps if I can switch books if I get antsy about the subject matter. I’ve been deep into physics and cosmology and philosophy with Case, so I decided to change up and take on the next quarter of Four Views.
The first chapter was John Hick’s position of pluralism: all “ethical” religions lead to God (air-quotes mine). He begins by recounting a spiritual journey much like Marcus Borg’s. The main difference is that he came to Christ during law school. He then went on to study philosophy where he began asking the Big Questions, and, as with many in the wide world of Liberal Christianity, assumed that since people weren’t answering those questions, they couldn’t be answered.
An example of these questions is about the sun standing still in Joshua. “In light of our modern knowledge of astronomy, we would have to say that the earth, which rotates at a speed of about a thousand miles an hour, suddenly ceased to rotate; but taken seriously, this is mind-boggling.” Is this idea more mind-boggling than a man being raised from the dead after a couple of days? More mind-boggling than God taking the form of a human to live among us? For me the answer is this simple: if God wanted to stop the earth from rotating, He could. And if He wanted to keep us (and everything else) from hurtling into space at indeterminable speeds, He could.
One of his other questions is the ever-present, “is it loving to send (insert descriptive phrase here…he chose “the majority of”) the human race to eternal torment in hell?” I find it interesting that it’s apparently ok to ask this question, but not ok to ask, “is it just to allow any human to enter heaven?”
Hick’s position of “pluralism” is problematic in its justification because it centers around a severely altered definition of salvation, and moral equivalence. For most Christians, salvation means being set free from sin and spared from Hell by the sacrifice of Jesus. For other people and in other situations, it generally refers to being rescued from some form of peril. But Hick decides to swing for the fences on this one.
He spends quite a bit of time establishing many things, some true (Paul’s first letter is dated about 50 A.D., Gospel of Mark about 70), and some quite speculative (the early followers didn’t believe Jesus was divine). He also talks about the son of God “metaphor”, saying that it was several centuries before Jesus was considered by the church to be the “literal God the Son.” Of course, he just said the Gospels were written within 7o years of Jesus death, and they all attest to his being of one being with the Father (“who can forgive sins but God alone”). How did 40 years become 400?
Anyway, his focus, leading up to his new definition of salvation is to establish the moral equality of the world religions. He wants to show that all of the major religions are doing an equally good job of causing people to think less about themselves and more about others. It’s not hard to do with narrow terms and a priori assumptions, like that human goodness “reflects a right relationship to God.”
He shows that all religions teach a variation of the Golden Rule, and follow it with about the same success rate. He argues that “if Christians have a more complete and direct access to God than anyone else and live in a closer relationship to him, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit”, there would be evidence that we have more of that “human goodness”.
Now that he has established this equality, he turns to salvation, which he considers to be a change from natural self-focus to others-focus. Now that he’s established a new definition for the term, relegating it to a personal change, he can make his move on the uniqueness of Christ.
He argues that because there is moral parity in the great world religions, all must have the same level of access to “the Real”. But his argument fails in that it requires you to accept his highly…”stylized” definition of salvation.
What he’s actually talking about is described in the Bible. It’s called sanctification. Most of us have heard the word before, but may not quite know what it means. Well, in a nutshell (a very small one) it coincides with Hick’s (misguided) definition of salvation.
He also presents the speculation that Jesus didn’t say the things attributed to him in the New Testament as fact. He cites a lot of people who agree with him, then establishes the point: “That Jesus himself did not claim to be God cuts the ground from under the feet of the old apologetic.” The only problem is that this is not established fact. It will never be, unless we find writings from an eyewitness who wrote as things were happening. The two problems with that are a) it’ll never happen, and b) even if it does, the question will still be clouded with doubt.
You can choose to believe he didn’t say those things, but that poses more problems. What did he say? How do you know he said that and not the other things? How can you trust any part of the Bible? How do you know which parts are trustworthy and which aren’t?
Hick never addresses these questions, except to say that the writings of the New Testament were still “documents of faith”. But according to his argument, they were essentially hallucinations of faith.
I think Hick uses the weakest theological and philosophical reason of the three authors I’ve read. Though his arguments have reached their peak of efficiency and fulfilled their potential, that potential is alarmingly low. Logic was not on his side.