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God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions?

by Gerald R. McDermott

This volume’s chief value is found in its summary and analysis of four ante-Nicene Church fathers who dealt with the issue of religious systems in competition with Christianity.

InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426, 2007, 192 pages, $18.00.

—Reviewed by Larry Poston, professor of religion, Nyack College, Nyack, New York.

This volume’s chief value is found in its summary and analysis of four ante-Nicene Church fathers who dealt with the issue of religious systems in competition with Christianity. What would presently be considered the quite novel concepts of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen are examined in detail. It is clear that many of the issues involved in discussions of the world religions today were just as debated in the early Church, and that even highly spiritual leaders came to conclusions that would be considered unorthodox by many contemporary commentators.

Also useful is the chapter on “Principalities and Powers,” which holds that demons were the originators of the world’s religions (a view with which this reviewer completely agrees). Puzzling, however, is the author’s suggestion that the “spiritual powers” of Ephesians 6 are not demons but rather an entirely separate class of evil spiritual beings. What would such beings be, and where would they fit into the revealed order of God’s creation?

The aspect of McDermott’s work that I find most problematic is his conviction that “the question of who can be saved has nothing to do with the questions of where we can find truth and where the truth came from” (p. 14). He claims that there is “knowledge of God” given by the Lord to adherents of other religions that is neither general nor special revelation (p. 33). McDermott insists that God has always been intent upon making himself known to nations outside of his covenant people (and we would wholeheartedly agree), but says that “we don’t know if these other people would be saved through this knowledge” (p. 30).

To this reviewer it would seem that to claim that God “inspired” or “revealed” certain spiritual truths to adherents of other religions, but NOT truths leading to salvation, makes God in actuality quite a cruel being. Of what use to these peoples would such “truths” be in an ultimate sense? Helping produce a better life in the here and now, perhaps; helping one to experience some measure of peace and beauty in this life. But is this all that God is interested in accomplishing in the lives of such a large number of people? It is clear from biblical teaching that ultimately all who have not bowed the knee to the Lordship of Christ will be punished in eternal hellfire. So would it not stand to reason that the God of the Great Commission, if he reveals any truth at all to “outsiders,” would reveal truth regarding how to escape the coming judgment and eternal punishment?

Also problematic is the author’s openness to the concept of post-mortem preaching of the gospel to all who did not have the opportunity to hear the message during their earthly life. Such leanings are perhaps to be expected, however, when one gives primacy to the thinking of individual human beings (such as Irenaeus and Origen) rather than pursuing a careful examination of the scriptural texts themselves that relate to such issues.

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