Christians claim that Jesus spoke the truth about God. Jesus, in turn, claimed “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7 NIV). This certainly comes across as very exclusive.
Jesus, however, founded just one of many world religions. Can we take his exclusive claims seriously? Doesn’t the great plurality of world religions somehow undercut Jesus’ credibility? We will see.
Philosopher Paul Moser offers a very helpful discussion of religious exclusivism in his book The Evidence for God. In what follows, I’ll summarize his classification of various species of religious exclusivism—views that entail that certain religions exclude other religions or even other people. Some versions of exclusivism, at least, are undeniably true.
Here is a quick breakdown of the versions to be discussed:
- Logical religious exclusivism
- Redemptive religious exclusivism
- Strategic redemptive exclusivism
- Personal redemptive exclusivism
- Conditional personal exclusivism
- Actual personal exclusivism
Logical religious exclusivism
At the very least, we ought to all agree that different religions make contradictory claims. If one is true, then the other is not. Indeed, “the claims of various religions are logically inconsistent: they cannot all be true. (It is almost incredible that anyone would suggest otherwise after even a quick review of the religions in question.)”
For example, “Judaism and Hinduism in their most prominent forms… disagree on monotheism.” These two religions therefore logically exclude each other. Christianity, furthermore, claims that Jesus is divine. Judaism and Islam deny this. There can be no logical reconciliation in cases such as these. That much ought to be uncontroversial.
Put simply, all religions (including atheism) may be wrong, but they can’t all be right.
Redemptive religious exclusivism
This is “the view that some religions are redemptively exclusive, that is, exclusive regarding the redemption, or salvation, of humans by God.” Redemption (or salvation) is a major theme in religion. How shall we live in light of the human condition? Will we survive death? Religions often speak on such topics.
There are two versions of redemptive religious exclusivism: strategic and personal.
Strategic redemptive exclusivism
This version “states that some strategies or programs for religious redemption exclude some other strategies and programs.” Religions disagree as to how one should live in light of the human condition. They disagree over how to (and if one can) survive death.
For example, one might attempt to work towards or merit salvation. Do good, one might say. Good people go to heaven, etc. This, however, directly conflicts with the Christian message. Christianity regards all attempts to earn salvation from death as futile and misguided. Jesus alone offers redemption as a gift. This gift cannot be earned, only willingly received.
As such, it ought to be uncontroversial that religions disagree about how one ought to face death and the human condition. Indeed, strategic redemptive exclusivism is just a special case of logical religious exclusivism. Therefore, “Any sustainable philosophy (or history or sociology) of religion will embrace strategic redemptive exclusivism, given the conflicting programs of redemption across various religions.”
Personal redemptive exclusivism
This version of redemptive religious exclusivism holds that “given certain religions, some people are excluded from divine redemption or salvation.” This view is also subdivided into two versions: conditional personal exclusivism and actual personal exclusivism.
Conditional personal exclusivism
This view holds that “If certain religions are correct in what they state or at least imply, then some people are excluded from divine redemption.” This view “is clearly true, because it is clear that some religions deny universalism about salvation. That is, they deny that all people will be redeemed by God. This is a straightforward empirical fact about some religions, quite aside from whether all people actually will be redeemed by God.”
Note that conditional personal exclusivism doesn’t tell us about whether anyone is actually excluded from redemption. That would require a different form of exclusivism involving one religion being correct about exclusion.
Actual personal exclusivism
At length we arrive at a controversial version of exclusivism, namely that “Religion X is correct in stating or at least implying that some people are excluded from divine redemption.” Specifically, is Jesus correct in claiming to provide exclusive access to God? Are those who reject Jesus left without a valid hope for redemption?
Note that Jesus cannot be one way among many. The logical reality of strategic redemptive exclusivism precludes that possibility. The question, rather, is whether Jesus is the way or whether there are other ways instead of Jesus.
On what basis?
Actual personal exclusivism invites a “crucial question: on what basis, or in virtue of what, are some people (allegedly) excluded from divine redemption forever?” Christians disagree over the best way to answer that question.
Moser reminds us, however, that any Christian doctrine of exclusion must befit a God worthy of worship. Since a God worthy of worship is morally perfect, and will therefore do what is morally best for all people, exclusion from God is best understood as human self-exclusion.
If Jesus is indeed the only way of human redemption, then those who willingly reject his challenge of unselfish love will find themselves separated from God. How one responds to Jesus’ present day challenge to love one’s enemies (by his power) would be “important indeed relative to one’s ultimate destiny.”
It turns out that many versions of religious exclusivism are evidently true upon closer inspection. The real question is whether any one religion—or more specifically whether Jesus—is correct in its (his) exclusive claims.
If Jesus’ exclusive claims are correct, then he cannot be regarded as one way among many. The way of Jesus is either exclusive or false. Given Jesus’ character—reflective of a God worthy of worship—exclusion from Jesus’ redemption is likely best understood as self-exclusion. This deserves more discussion.
 Paul K. Moser, The Evidence for God : Religious Knowledge Reexamined (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 234.
 Ibid., 238.
 Ibid., 239.
 Ibid., 240.
 Ibid., 241.
 Ibid., 252.