If a loose summary for John Hick’s essay Jesus and the World Religions could be given, it might read like this: “all’s well that ends well.” Essentially, Hick moves from the observance of Christianity in modern culture as being surrounded by a multitude of other religions, to the conclusion that Christianity cannot be exclusively right. His reasons are simply that the historical evidences about Jesus of Nazareth are fragmentary, and that people’s imaginings of Christ are varied enough to support other messianic figures.
"For New Testament scholarship has shown how fragmentary and ambiguous are the data available to us as we try to look back across nineteen and a half centuries, and at the same time how large and how variable is the contribution of the imagination to our ‘pictures’ of Jesus... a number of different beings, describable in partly similar and partly different ways, have been worshipped under the name of Jesus or under the title of Christ" (p. 167).
However, where Hick’s essay may serve to aid those who wish to view Christianity through Gnostic syncretism, it is wholly untenable for the orthodox believer. Further, Hick’s position on the identity of the historical Jesus is not original, but merely a restatement of two alternative positions, liberalism and universalism. As such, Hick’s essay simply recreates another image of Jesus, rather than discovering who the historical Jesus was. He creates nothing that has not been said before, that is, that Jesus is just another manifestation among many that reveal God. The orthodox believer would do well then in noting several arguments that weigh against Hick’s position.
ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE
To start, Hick notes that people project certain ideals on the figure of Christ; that he is “a divine psychologist probing and healing,” or that he is “a figure of inexhaustible gracious tenderness” (p. 167), and other such descriptions. In doing so, people elevate Christ to a position of being able to be “many things to many [people]” (p. 168). In short, because people project these ideals onto Christ, he becomes the answer to “the spiritual needs of his devotees” (p. 168).
Here Hick’s reasoning fails to be convincing. The notion that Christ is all things to all people because people have made him out to be, is circular. For Christ to be all sorts of wonderful things to people he must have first exhibited those characteristics, and for Christ to exhibit those characteristics he had first to be all sorts of wonderful things. In order for Hick to be able to question who the historical Jesus was then, he must first account for whether we attribute characteristics to Jesus for our own needs; or in fact, whether Christ reflected such descriptions as he has been come to be known by, and thus we have “mental images of him” (p. 168).
THE DEIFICATION OF A HUMAN TEACHER
For Hick, Jesus of Nazareth was a human being deified. To illustrate this, he draws on similarities between Christ and “the founder of Buddhism, Guatama” (p. 168).
"It may be helpful to observe the exaltation of a human teacher into a divine figure of universal power in another religious tradition which we can survey from the outside" (p. 168).
Guatama, Hick maintains, gave up an affluent lifestyle to pursue spiritual truth. In doing so, he attained enlightenment, became an itinerant teacher, and finally established a “community of disciples, monks and nuns” (p. 168). To this day, Guatama’s teachings continue to influence the Asian community, a large section of humankind.
Hick’s point behind all this comparison of Christ to Guatama is simply that like Guatama, Christ is considered divine because people are severely appreciative of his teachings, and awareness of God. In short, Christ is a man deified by our veneration of his deep spiritual teachings. A couple of arguments run counter to Hick’s position, however.
First, if all greatly spiritual teachers naturally move into a deified position in the eyes of their devotees, why is it that others like St. Paul, Isaiah, or Alistar Crowely are not deified? One answer in favour of Christ’s status as divine, is that others like St. Paul, Isaiah, and Alistar Crowely were not resurrected. In saying this then, we must admit that the records of Christ’s resurrection imply something unique about him which make him more than a deeply spiritual man. The natural implication from that last statement is that if Christ were more than deeply spiritual, resulting in his resurrection, he must go beyond the finite limitations of human beings. If he is beyond human beings’ natural capacity, he must be supernatural, which is what we usually equate with divine.
Second, Jesus’ ministry is full of his own implicit recognition of divinity, and other’s explicit confession of his divine status. In fact, it is the reason why the Jews crucified him, because of his talk of being divine. After Christ’s resurrection, he gave the commission to baptise in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). If we take Hick’s position ~ that Christ was simply a human deified ~ and combine it with Christ’s commission, we end up with a guy named Jesus who already assumed enough of himself that he would rank himself among the divine. Or to put it differently, Christ was an egomaniac who used his awareness of being spiritual as leverage over the people of his time in an effort to gain a place in divine reality.
If this is true, then Christ was not necessarily spiritual, but severely self-doting. His whole ministry was a scam and the world has been deceived for two thousand years. Here, however, the weight of history, other intelligent theologians and philosophers, the integrity of logical thought, and some five thousand extant manuscripts which agree practically synonymously about the identity of Jesus as God*, come crashing down against Hick. The identity of Jesus as divine and human, rather than merely a deified man, remains strongly convincing to the rational orthodox believer.
THE SUBJUGATION OF LIBERALISM
To further his argument about Christ being only a deified man, Hick turns to the considerations of “modern New Testament scholarship” (p. 171). This is an obvious euphemism for “liberal theology” which, as stated earlier, is the position Hick takes alongside universalism. Here Hick suggests that the synoptic gospels convey a sense that Jesus was a real person with a real message; that this message can be gleaned properly when one looks beyond the confusing terms like ‘God the Son Incarnate,’ or ‘the only begotten son of God’ (p. 171-172). The synoptic gospels, as it were, are narratives of Jesus meeting the fancies of the people of his time.
"These documents give us three sets of communal ‘memories’ of Jesus, variously influenced by the needs, interests and circumstances of the Christian circles within which they were produced" (p. 172).
If this much is true, then the gospel writers point to Jesus as the one who they see most fits their needs, and interpret accordingly. Surely, if Christ was not afterall divine, he must have had needs like the gospel writers and the rest of us. The question which naturally arises from this admission is, who modelled or fulfilled Christ’s needs? To say ‘another person,’ perhaps someone pre-dating Christ, submits that Christ heeded examples of those who were less aware spiritually than he was. Afterall, the reason why God might keep manifesting himself through other deified people was to bring spiritual awareness to a deeper level ~ a progression to some sort of eschatological revelation of “Absolute Reality” (p. 169).
Surely, however, Christ could not fulfil his needs by finding exemplars with less spiritual insight, or greater deficit of knowledge of the divine than himself. If we say Christ’s needs were fulfilled by God, then we end up in two logical hang-ups, given Hick’s liberal context. It is important to note here that the issue at hand does not question whether God can fulfil needs, but rather how Christ received God’s fulfilment of his needs.
First, Hick’s position suggests that Jesus, Guatama, and other deified figures, all ‘attained’ spiritual fulfilment (p. 168). In other words, they apprehended the divine. Remembering that Christ, to Hick, is simply a man whom other’s deified, how is it that this mere mortal ever arrived at infinite insight? How can the finite ever apprehend the infinite.
This then, is the first hang-up of Hick’s liberal theology: he offers a lot of context about Christ’s apperception of the divine, but suggests no content of how Christ knew what he did, or how Christ ‘attained’ spiritual insight. For the orthodox believer reading Hick’s essay then, a lot of speculation is given, but no solid evidence is offered to verify his conclusions.
Closely related to the first point, another logical hang-up occurs when observing Hick’s liberalism. If Christ was simply a man, then he was finite. The finite is by definition, limited; and the infinite, unlimited. How then can the human figure of Jesus transcend his finitude to become aware of the infinite God without being divine too? The problem with Hick’s liberalism then, is that it allows for the finite to somehow grasp the infinite. As this concerns Hick’s view of Christ as only a man, it would have been impossible for Christ to have gained the spiritual knowledge he had unless he was also divine. As it were, Christ had to have been God as well as human to effect such a tremendous impact on history, and humanity.
SOME PARTICULARS ABOUT HICK’S UNIVERSALISM
The natural outgrowth of Hick’s liberal theology of Christ being only a man whom people deified out of a deep and abiding respect for him, is universalism. That is, all people, no matter what their religion, will be saved because God is the God of all religions. The great people who testify to God, all testify to the same God but under different names.
"We must thus be willing to see God at work within the total religious life of [humankind]... and we must come to see Christianity within this pluralistic setting... The different religions have their different names for God acting savingly towards [humankind]... But what we cannot say is that all who are saved are saved by Jesus of Nazareth" (p. 180-181).
Hick quite obviously views God then, as the God of all religions. In fact, Hick goes so far as to remove the title of God at one point and use instead the proper noun form “Ultimate Reality” (p. 181). Simply stated, Ultimate Reality is the common denominator of all conceptions and manifestations of God which underlie the witness of highly spiritual people. It is the universalising of all reality into one big ‘cosmic weave,’ so to speak. Two problems rise out of this position, however, and again further the strength of orthodoxy.
First, if, as Hick implies, God is the God of all religions, then he is a very poor God indeed. The Gods of other religions are described and understood in contrary fashions. For example, the Hindu’s Atman is ever changing, whereas the Christian triune God in never changing. Hence not all religions agree on one picture of God. If this is true, then the revelations of God as revealed by people like Jesus, Mohammed, Guatama, or Krishna should also contradict each other. The logical question here is, how could God contradict himself and still be God? If we note contradiction as a flaw in reasoning, then for God to contradict himself is a flaw of cosmic proportions. God becomes nothing more than a very confused, perhaps even inept logician, deserving no more attention than a sarcastic question like ‘does your mind hate you?’
Second, the universalism offered through Hick’s idea of Jesus, and God is exclusive, oddly enough. When dealing with Christianity universalism must be accepted on the grounds of giving up Christian belief. Quite simply, Christianity professes one God, and one only (Deut. 6:4). To be a universalist means that all other gods are just as valid and equally part of the one ultimate reality. A combination of these two views, which would create a contradiction, necessitates the rejection of Christianity’s one God, to the inclusion of the world’s many others. Clearly then, the orthodox believer is better off viewing Hick’s position as legitimate grounds for academic exercise, rather than a believable statement.
Although John Hick can be commended for his clear presentation of ideas, straightforward writing style, and creative speculation, his ideas run into serious logical inconsistencies. These inconsistencies provide the orthodox believer with ample arguments to dismiss his premises as true. As it were, Hick has created a glass house and invited orthodox theologians to throw rocks at it.
Some of Hick’s general contentions about the identity of the historical Jesus, and how he relates to God and other religions have been examined throughout this essay. Those ideas of Hick’s shown have been found to be erroneous. Where Hick seeks to discover the identity of Jesus in relation to other religions, he does nothing but reinstate Gnostic syncretism. When the evidence of logic and history are considered in opposition to Hick, the orthodox believer can rest assured that Hick’s assumed knowledge of the historical figure of Christ does not preclude his divinity, or remove his special status as over above all other religious figures.
© Christopher J. Freeman
* Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics Baker Book House, 1976, p. 307