Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some ‘big questions’ that trouble people, whether Christian or non-Christian. We’ve asked how my life can really be important, given the size of the universe and the length of time it’s been around; we’ve asked ‘Aren’t right and wrong just a matter of opinion?’ and last week we considered the question ‘Why is there something, rather than nothing?’ This week I want to go on to one of the most common questions asked in the western world today, by both Christians and non-Christians: ‘Aren’t all religions equally true?’
In Acts chapter 18 there’s an interesting story about a man called Apollos. Apparently he had been baptized by John the Baptist and had been ‘instructed in the Way of the Lord’, Luke tells us, but he hadn’t actually joined the Christian movement. We’re not told why; perhaps he had only been in Judea temporarily and had left before Jesus’ ministry actually got going. So he only knew Christianity ‘from a distance’, so to speak. However, he was enthusiastic about it and he came to Ephesus and began to talk about it to the people there. A Christian couple called Aquila and Priscilla heard him speak, and they took him aside and had a conversation with him. And here’s where we notice that Aquila and Priscilla were not twenty-first century postmodernists; they didn’t say ‘Well that’s an interesting perspective you have there, Apollos; let’s get some inter-faith dialogue going’. No, Luke says that they ‘took him aside and explained the Word of God to him more accurately’ (Luke 18:26). He accepted their correction, and presumably was baptized and joined the Christian community, and he quickly became a powerful evangelist for the Christian faith.
You see, the New Testament takes it for granted that it is possible to get a wrong answer when it comes to questions about God and faith. Jesus certainly assumed this. He didn’t think that the Pharisees just ‘had a different perspective’ when it came to faith in God; he thought they were wrong, and he warned people not to follow them. Wherever he went, Jesus called Jewish people, who already believed in the God of Israel, to change their ideas about their God and accept the way that he, Jesus, was radically re-interpreting the Jewish scriptures; he called people to put their faith in him, and become his followers. And all the gospels agree that at the end of his ministry he called his disciples together and sent them out to spread his message, not just in Israel but around the world as well. And so the earliest Christians went all over the Mediterranean world, to people who already had their own religions and their own ideas about God or the gods, and called them to turn away from their previous religious traditions and put their faith in the one true God and in his son Jesus Christ, who God has made the Lord and King of all.
Because those missionaries spread the message of Jesus, we are here today. Many of us trace our ancestry back to western Europe. Before the Christian message came to our ancestors, they were worshipping Thor and Odin, or Jupiter and Juno; some of them were painting themselves blue with woad and worshipping at oak trees and sacred groves and so on. And we, their descendants, would never have heard the Christian message if the early missionaries had said to themselves, ‘Well, all religions are equally good and valid, so we should just stay in Jerusalem and let the people in western Europe worship God – or the gods – in whatever way seems right to them’. No: you and I are only Christians today because those early missionaries didn’t think that all religions are equally good and true: they thought that Jesus is God’s anointed king and that God wants all people to give their allegiance to him.
But that is the very attitude that many modern people find so arrogant and offensive. In Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God, he quotes a statement by a young New Yorker which could equally as well have been made by sophisticated young Edmontonians. Here it is:
“How could there be just one true faith?” asked Blair, a twenty-four year old woman living in Manhattan. “It’s arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it. Surely all the religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers”.
Many people would agree; they would say that we’re basically all climbing the same mountain, with every religion being simply a different path to the top. Let me just briefly mention some of the variations on this viewpoint, and at the same time raise some issues with them (I’m following Tim Keller a lot here).
First, some say ‘All the major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing’. Like most pastors, I’ve been told many times that the doctrinal differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hunduism are basically superficial and unimportant, and that they all believe in the same god. But when I then ask, ‘So what can you tell me about the god they believe in?’ the reply is usually along the lines of ‘Well, he’s an all-loving spirit in the universe who wants us all to get along with each other’.
The problem with this reply is that it assumes a doctrinal belief about God that many religious people in the world wouldn’t recognize. Buddhism doesn’t believe in a personal god at all, and some Hindus believe in hundreds of thousands of gods, one of whom, Kali, is not a mild-mannered pacifist but a savage warrior. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach that God holds people accountable for their actions, and so, while love is a part of his essential nature, he is also holy and just. And these three religions are in disagreement about what happens when we fail to meet God’s moral standards. Islam, if I understand it correctly, teaches that it all boils down to whether your list of good deeds is longer than your list of bad deeds when you die – if it is, you go to heaven, but if it isn’t, you go to hell. Christianity on the other hand teaches that we are all sinners and we all fall short of God’s standards, but God offers forgiveness to sinners because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Furthermore, Christianity teaches that God has come to live among us in Jesus and revealed himself to us through his life and teaching; that Jesus is not just a human being but the Son of God and even in some sense God himself. To Judaism and Islam that is a blasphemous statement.
In fact, even though many people claim to believe that different doctrines about God don’t really matter, they themselves hold strongly to a particular doctrine of God – that God is an all-loving spirit who wants us all to get along with each other - which is incompatible with the beliefs of many religious people in the world. They hold that this belief of theirs is superior to other beliefs, and that the world would be a better place if we all adopted it. In other words, they themselves are doing the very thing that they want others to stop doing!
Some would say: ‘Each religion sees part of the spiritual truth, but none of them can see the whole truth’. This point is often illustrated by the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant. Several blind men were walking along and came across an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. The first blind man found the elephant’s trunk: “This creature is long and flexible like a snake”, he said. The second blind man held the elephant’s leg: “No it isn’t”, he replied, “It’s thick and round like a tree trunk”. “You’re both wrong”, said the third blind man as he leaned against the elephant’s side: “It’s large and flat”. And so it went on; each of the blind men could feel only part of the elephant, but none of them could envision the whole creature. And so it is that each of the religions of the world has a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole truth – at least, so the parable claims.
This parable sounds so good and true and humble that we often miss the breathtaking arrogance of the one who is telling it. Have you noticed that the one who is telling the story always assumes that he is the one who is not blind? How could you know that no religion can see the whole truth, unless you yourself have the superior and comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality that you claim none of the world’s religions have? But isn’t that, in itself, a rather arrogant assumption?
Some would say, ‘it is arrogant to insist that your religion is right and to try to convert others to it’. But once again there’s an inherent contradiction in this view. Most people around the world today don’t believe that all religions are equally valid, and many of those people are every bit as good and intelligent as us. If we try to impose our own mild-mannered and tolerant religion on them, aren’t we still trying to convert them to our religious views? And isn’t that every bit as arrogant?
By now it should be clear what the fatal flaw is in this approach to religion. Those who hold that all religions are equally good and valid believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality can’t be true. But this statement is itself a religious belief. It assumes that God is unknowable, or that God is loving and not wrathful, or that God is an impersonal force rather than a person who speaks to us in a holy book. No one can prove any of these things; they are faith statements, every bit as much as the competing faith statements of the major religions. And those who believe them believe that these faith statements are better than the more primitive religious beliefs of others and that the world would be a better place if everyone adopted them, so they do what they can to try to persuade others that their approach to God and religion is the best. How is this different from a Christian evangelist trying to persuade someone else to become a follower of Jesus?
No, I don’t think we get anywhere by pretending that all religions are basically the same. I think that we need to be honest and admit that there are major differences between them, and so we have a responsibility as human beings to think carefully about what they teach, to evaluate them, to pray for God’s guidance, and to make a choice about what we think is true.
Obviously, as a Christian, I take the view that Jesus is not just a human being but that in him God has come to live among us in a unique way. John tells us that Jesus is ‘the word of God’: in other words, in him the message of God has come to us in the purest and highest possible form. And I think that if we Christians claim to be followers of Jesus and are trying to be obedient to his teaching, then that will include obedience to his commands to spread his message and call other people to become his followers.
But let me say that there are some things this doesn’t mean.
First, this doesn’t mean that we don’t expect to find any truth in anything that other religions teach. C.S. Lewis once wrote something like this: ‘Before I became a Christian I thought that being a Christian would mean I had to believe that all other religions of the world are wrong. But now I am a Christian I realize that it’s a little more subtle than that. Being a Christian doesn’t require me to believe that all other religions are wrong in everything they teach; in fact, I can accept many good and useful things from them. But it does require me to believe that when they contradict Jesus, Jesus is right’.
Second, believing that Jesus is God’s highest revelation to humanity does not give us license to persecute others or try to impose our beliefs on others by force. Jesus never did this; he challenged people to become his followers, but he always told them the truth about what it would cost and gave them the freedom to accept or reject him. The early Christians went around the Mediterranean world for the first three centuries as powerless and defenceless evangelists, using argument and discussion to try to persuade people, but they never used threats or force. Sadly, in later years the Church didn’t follow this good example; we have a lot to repent of here.
Thirdly, I think we have to be very, very wary about making pronouncements about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. It is clear in the New Testament that if you decide to reject God’s call, then there are consequences to that rejection, but Jesus also teaches us in the gospels that there are going to be a lot of surprises on the last day and that there will be people who assume they are in who will find to their surprise that they are out, and vice versa. Yes, Jesus calls me to share his message with all people and invite them to become his followers. But the eternal destiny of other people is not up to me; it’s up to God.
Let me close with these words from the end of Luke’s Gospel:
‘Then (Jesus) opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to the, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”’ (Luke 24:46-47).
That’s the command of Jesus. Call him arrogant if you like, but that’s what he said. Evaluating his claims is part of the process we go through when we decide whether or not we want to follow him. But once that decision has been made, we’re called to be obedient to him as our Lord. That includes spreading his message to others and inviting them to turn away from their previous allegiances and become his followers.