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In religious discourse, Inclusivism designates a particular theological position regarding the relationship between religions. This position is characterized by the belief that while one set of beliefs is absolutely true, other sets of beliefs are at least partially true. It stands in contrast to exclusivism, which asserts that only one way is true and all others are in error, and religious pluralism, which asserts that all beliefs are equally valid within a believer's particular context.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of Inclusivist thought:

  • Traditional Inclusivism, which asserts that the believer's own views are absolutely true, and believers of other religions are correct insofar as they agree with that believer
  • Relativistic Inclusivism, which asserts that an unknown set of assertions are Absolutely True, that no human being currently living has yet ascertained Absolute Truth, but that all human beings have partially ascertained Absolute Truth

Strands of both types of Inclusivist thought run through most religions.

Underlying rationale

All religions provide a sense of community to their followers, in which brotherhood and universal values are preached to help in the quest for personal and collective salvation (and/or liberation). However, paradoxically, a religious group may achieve collective identity at the expense of outsiders. Those belonging to a particular religion may define themselves against those who do not accept their own views. In this framework, the question of how such outsiders are connected to the possibility of salvation arises. Are outsiders included within a religion's purview of salvation or excluded to be damned? Different religions provide divergent answers to this perplexing question, some saying that non-members are going to hell, while others say that non-members are "included" in a larger picture of God's grace or salvation history.

The religions of Indian and Chinese origin have traditionally been quite accommodating when it comes to the issue of inter-religious relations. Traditionally, the Chinese could follow more than one religions path without fear of official reprisal or excommunication. Correspondingly, in predominately Hindu India, ethical notions of universal dharma and metaphysical Brahman provided Inclusivistic frameworks for understanding other faith perspectives. Jainism and Buddhism, too, emphasized non-violence towards all, including in the realm of religious beliefs. Despite the general tenor of Inclusivism (or Pluralism) found in these non-Abrahamic religions, however, there were still some exceptions to the rule.

Thus, sometimes a religion's position on the question of how outsiders fit into its understanding of salvation may change over time. The Roman Catholic Church provides an excellent case study to illustrate this phenomenon. At one time, the Vatican taught that "outside the Church there is no salvation," embracing a position of theological Exclusivism; however, ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Inclusivism has been the official position of the Roman Catholicism.

The Roman Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner accepted the notion that without Christ it was impossible to achieve salvation, but he could not accept the notion that people who have never heard of Jesus Christ would be condemned.[1]

Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity—Let us say, a Buddhist monk—who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.[2]

According to Rahner, a person could explicitly deny Christianity, but in reality "existentially is committed to those values which for the Christian are concretized in God." Anonymous Christian is the controversial notion introduced by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) which declares that people who have never heard the Christian Gospel, or even rejected, it might be saved through Christ. Non-Christians could have "in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision," Rahner wrote, "accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation."[3]

Traditionally, Christians engaged in interreligious dialogue with the concern that open dialogue was a betrayal of Christian principles. The notion of inclusivism, for which Rahner's Anonymous Christian is the principal Christian model, is "the most popular of interreligious postures."[4]

Anonymous Christianity has been regarded as the one theological idea that most shaped the Second Vatican Council.[5] The long ranging impact of this notion influenced the "ecumenism" of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Karl Rahner's concept of Anonymous Christian was one of the most influential theological ideals to affect the Second Vatican Council.

In Lumen Gentium, the council fathers stated: "Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience."[6] They went on to write, in Gaudium et Spes, "Since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation."

Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this role, he issued, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, a document called Dominus Iesus. This document asserts the supremacy of the Catholic Church, while reiterating the Catholic Church's acceptance of "anonymous Christianity."[7]

Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, "does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors'." Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain (I, 8).

Theology today, in its reflection on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God's salvific plan, is invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation. In this undertaking, theological research has a vast field of work under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council, in fact, has stated that: "The unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source" (III, 14).

Examples in religious scriptures

Bahá'í Faith

  • The Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, Shoghi Effendi, states:

The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society (The Faith of Bahá'u'lláh" in World Order, Vol. 7, No. 2: 1972-73).


  • Jesus said, "He who is not against me is for me" (Gospel of Mark 9:40).
  • Jesus said, "Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven" (Luke 12:10).
  • The Apostle Peter wrote of God: "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV).
  • Some Evangelical scholars believe that God judges all people based on their response to the Holy Spirit, and that just as Romans 2:14-15 shows that God is righteous by condemning people who violate natural law as they understand it, it also shows His mercy in forgiving those who have lived up to all the light they have had. Thus, it is possible for people to be saved through Christ, even if they have not been instructed by Christian missionaries.
  • Supporters of inclusivism include John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Clark Pinnock, John E. Sanders, Terrance L. Tiessen (Reformed) and Robert Brush. Billy Graham agrees with what many call inclusivism, but he does not like to refer to it by the term, because he is concerned that many people mean universalism when they say inclusivism.
  • It could be asked then, why do Christians use missionaries if they adopt Inclusivism? The answer is that a loving and lovable, truthful Christian witness increases the number who will become saved. The Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches this type of inclusivism and it has one of the most widespread mission outreaches in the world.


The Noahide Laws (Hebrew: שבע מצוות בני נח, Sheva mitzvot b'nei Noach), also called the Brit Noah ("Covenant of Noah") refer to seven religious laws that were given by God to Adam and Noah, which are considered to be morally binding on non-Jews. These laws of Judaism extend the scope of salvation beyond the Jews themselves to include non-Jews who live up to basic levels of morality. This point is significant because Rabbinical authorities recognized and acknowledged that there were good people found in other religions entitled to salvation, and such "good gentiles" were measured by whether they followed the seven Noahide Laws. Thus, the Noahide Laws offers an example of a Jewish doctrine that promotes religious tolerance and acceptance. According to Jewish tradition, the Noahide Laws are listed in the Talmud and elucidated by post-Talmudic authorities. Opinions differ on the reach of these commandments and the laws derived from them, but all contemporary Jewish authorities agree that there are seven commandments. These commandments and laws are based on oral traditions as well as scriptural exegesis of Genesis 2:16 and Genesis 9:4-6

  • The Talmud states: "The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World-To-Come" (Tos. to Sanhedrin 13:2, Sifra to Leviticus 19:18), and affirms that the great majority of non-Jewish humanity will be saved, due to God's overwhelming mercy (BT Sanhedrin 105a).
  • The Torah mentions a number of righteous gentiles, including Melchizedek who presided at offerings to God that Abraham made (Gen. 14:18), Job, a pagan Arab of the land of Uz who had a whole book of the Hebrew Bible devoted to him as a paragon of righteousness beloved of God (Book of Job), and the Ninevites, the people given to cruelty and idolatry could be accepted by God when they repented (Book of Jonah).
  • Rabbinic tradition asserts that the basic standard of righteousness was established in a covenant with Noah: Anyone who keeps the seven commandments of this covenant is assured of salvation, no matter what their religion. This has been the standard Jewish teaching for the past two thousand years.


  • The Qur'an, revealed through Muhammad, states, "Those with Faith, those who are Jews, and the Christians and Sabaeans, all who have Faith in Allah and the Last Day and act rightly, will have their reward with their Lord. They will feel no fear and will know no sorrow" (Qur'an, Surat al-Baqara; 2:62).
  • "Say, 'People of the Book! come to a proposition which is the same for us and you—that we should worship none but Allah and not associate any partners with Him and not take one another as lords besides Allah.' If they turn away, say, 'Bear witness that we are Muslims'" (Surah Al 'Imran; 3:64).
  • "Today all good things have been made halal for you. And the food of those given the Book is also halal for you and your food is halal for them. So are chaste women from among the muminun and chaste women of those given the Book before you, once you have given them their dowries in marriage, not in fornication or taking them as lovers. But as for anyone who rejects iman, his actions will come to nothing and in the akhira he will be among the losers" (Surat al-Ma'ida: 5:5).
  • "Among the people of the Book there are some who have iman in Allah and in what has been sent down to you and what was sent down to them, and who are humble before Allah. They do not sell Allah's Signs for a paltry price. Such people will have their reward with their Lord. And Allah is swift at reckoning (Surah Al 'Imran; 3:199)"
  • "Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair admonition, and argue with them in the kindest way. Your Lord knows best who is misguided from His way. And He knows best who are guided" (Surat an-Nahl; 16:125).
  • "…You will find the people most affectionate to those who have iman are those who say, 'We are Christians.' That is because some of them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant" (Surat al-Ma'ida; 5:82).
  • "Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way - except in the case of those of them who do wrong—saying, 'We have iman in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him'" (Surat al-'Ankabut; 29:46).
  • "…There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite Allah's Signs throughout the night, and they prostrate. They have iman in Allah and the Last Day, and enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and compete in doing good. They are among the salihun. You will not be denied the reward for any good thing you do. Allah knows those who have taqwa" (Surah Al 'Imran: 3:113-115).


  • A well-known Rig Vedic hymn stemming from Hinduism claims that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously," thus proclaiming a pluralistic view of religion.
  • Krishna, incarnation or avatar of Vishnu, the supreme God in Hinduism, said in the Bhagavad Gita: "In whatever way men identify with Me, in the same way do I carry out their desires; men pursue My path, O Arjuna, in all ways" (Gita:4:11).
  • Krishna said: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me" (Gita: 7:21-22).
  • Another quote in the Gita states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe" (Bhagavad Gita: 9:23).


The concept of Inclusivism has been highly criticized, especially among Conservative and Evangelical Christians who see the notion of Inclusivism as explicitly contradicting the teachings of the Bible. For example, they frequently point to Acts 4:12 as alleged support for their position. This biblical passage reads: "There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." Essentially, the position of these groups is "Christian exclusivism—the view that biblical Christianity is true, and that other religious systems are false."[8]

Some Catholic groups, such as the Society of St. Pius X have separated themselves from the post Vatican II Catholic Church in part because of the Vatican's move towards Inclusivism. They view Inclusivism as "a very grave doctrinal error because it declares personal justification as being already realized for every man without any participation of his will or free choice and, so, without any need of his conversion, faith, baptism or works. Redemption is guaranteed to all, as if sanctifying grace were ontologically present in each man just because he is man."[9]

Conversely, some liberal Christians reject Inclusivism because it is allegedly patronizing. As Hans Küng put it, "It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he is an 'anonymous Christian' as presumptuous." John Hick states that this notion is paternalistic because it is "honorary status granted unilaterally to people who have not expressed any desire for it."[10] Hick further rejects the notion because the majority of people are born into non-Christian families.[11] Anonymous Christianity, per this group, denigrates the beliefs of others by supposing that they are really Christians without realizing it.[12]

Karl Rahner did not intend for the term to become derogatory, but rather to explain a mechanism by which non-Christians, both present and those who preceded Jesus Christ, might be saved.


  1. Stephen Clinton, Peter, Paul, and the Anonymous Christian: A Response to The Mission Theology of Rahner and Vatican II.
  2. Todd Wilkin, What is the Catholic Teaching of "Anonymous Christianity?" Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  3. Stephen Clinton, Peter, Paul, and the Anonymous Christian: A Response to The Mission Theology of Rahner and Vatican II. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  4. Jerry Robbins, A Reader’s Guide to Interreligious Dialogue. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  5. Robert McCarthy, A Critical Examination of the Theology of Karl Rahner, S.J. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  6. John Moffitt, Interreligious Encounter and the Problem of Salvation. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  7. Todd Wilkin, What is the Catholic Teaching of "Anonymous Christianity?" Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  8. Rick Rood, The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  9. Society of St. Pius X, Australian District, Errors of Vatican II. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  10. St. John in the Wilderness, Karl Rahner's Arguments for Inclusivism. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  11. Ian Markham, The Dialogue Industry. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  12. George Weigel, The Century after Rahner. Retrieved April 28, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Conway, Eamonn. The Anonymous Christian: A Relativised Christianity: An Evaluation of Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Criticisms. Peter Lang Publishing, 1993. ISBN 978-3631462096
  • Kiblinger, Kristin Beise. Buddhist Inclusivism: Attitudes Towards Religious Others (Ashgate World Philosophies Series) (Ashgate World Philosophies Series) (Ashgate World Philosophies Series). Ashgate Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-0754651338
  • Knitter, Paul F. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions. Orbis Books, 1985. ISBN 978-0883443477
  • Phan, Peter C. Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue. Orbis Books, 2004. ISBN 978-1570755651
  • Vass, George. Pattern of Doctrines: The Atonement And Mankind's Salvation (Understanding Karl Rahner). Sheed & Ward, 1998. ISBN 978-0722093535


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