A few years ago a senior Chicago Pastor, Erwin Lutzer, wrote a book entitled Christ Among Other gods. I have relied heavily on his book in preparing this article. Another excellent book on the subject is Thinking Clearly about the Uniqueness of Jesus by Chris Wright. I recommend both if you wish to think through this crucial subject.
In light of recent events religion is getting a lot of attention. Whether it deserves this attention is questionable. Are the atrocities in Paris the work of religious zealots? Or do they just want us to think that it is? Is the church increasingly irrelevant, and dying? Should we not get rid of all religions? Haven’t they already caused more trouble than they are worth? I have heard serious commentators put forward this argument. But would an absence of religious faith bring peace, a better world?
In the name of which religion were bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Which priest or Ayatollah was responsible for Pearl Harbour? In the name of which religion is military tension being ramped up on the Korean Peninsular? What faith is suppressing free speech in China right now? How is secular Europe addressing the migrant crisis? Certainly there are continuing battles between ideologies today, but religion?
In parts of the world where religions have been brutally oppressed they have famously thrived. The more you try to stamp them out the more they flourish.
Foundations for Unity
Perhaps we can’t do without religion. We apparently can’t get rid of them. Perhaps the solution is to harmonise the religions of the world. After all they all have very positive contributions to make from their various philosophies. For instance, they all seem to express in one form or another the Golden Rule. If only we could agree on a set of sound basics for harmonious living we might have something.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all agree on some basic principles and commit to an outlook that is inclusive? Consider the possible benefits if we all agreed:
– An end to war
- An end to hunger through redistribution of resources and population control
- Conservation that works
- Genuine equality among races and religions
- A global ethic
- A new age of achievement and growth
Of course there would have to be compromise. It would mean that we would have to stop being so precious about the doctrine that so divides us. We would need to recognise the ‘truth’ in all religions. We would have to stop claiming superiority for our particular faith and recognise the relative worth of all religions.
We can still be a Christian, or a Muslim but must seek to move beyond these labels to a deeper truth that we can recognise as running through all religions. We would have to stop evangelising because this presupposes that our way is better than anyone else’s way.
What about Christ?
But what are we to do with Jesus? Historically we have held him to be unique, the only begotten Son of God, the Lord, the Saviour. How would he fit into this new world? Here are three possible ways to relate Jesus to other faiths.
- Pluralism – We must treat all religions as equal. Christ is a prophet, one amongst many, one option in a variety.
- Inclusivism – Christ is unique but we must be open to other truths. God expresses Himself through other religions and we must respect that.
- Exclusivism – God is revealed only in Christ. All other religions, therefore, are false and misleading.
Which do you think would be most popular in this day and age where it is common enough to hear people say things like;
“You’re into Christ, I’m into Buddha”
I believe in Jesus but he is not the only way to God”
“The New Testament contains a lot of myth. It’s simply a matter of interpretation”
“All the religions are essentially the same. Why argue about secondary issues?”
There is still room for Jesus in this modern world. People are often very interested in Jesus. The trouble is that, as interest in Jesus is growing, he is being redefined to fit in with the new agenda of co-operation and harmony. We have moved from the view that everyone has the right to his own opinion to the idea that every opinion is equally right.
Christ is right for you and Buddha is right for me. The biblical Christ disappears behind the babe in the manger, the wise sage delivering his Sermon on the Mount, the man who went about doing good. These are the acceptable images of Jesus. Through them He is being redefined and repackaged to look like all the other sages and soothsayers that come and go.
In this atmosphere Christ is just another guru, Christianity just one expression of the truth, the Bible another self-help book, God a servant of man as man seeks to reach his full potential. We see this even in the church which, too often, preaches self-realisation more than self-denial, the adjusting of our theology to meet our expectations, than the adjusting of our lives to the demands of a holy and righteous God.
Prayer today is often debased as we continually look to God to fix things for us: bigger congregations and bigger buildings in which to house them. We are eager to show the world the trappings of success that accompany true followers of Jesus. Sin is no longer the problem, sadness is. We seek health, success and happiness not humility, service and holiness. We want God to bless us when we should be seeking to serve him. This is, in my view, one of the reasons the world finds Jesus acceptable, because we have made him acceptable, made him in the shape of the world’s neuroses. It has been said that when the world loves Him it is because they have made Him into something He is not.
Can this scenario work out in reality? Can all the religions of the world be harmonised into one homogeneous philosophy and world-view?
Most Buddhists believe there is no God.
Islam believes there is one God.
Christians believe in one God in three person.
Hindus believe in many gods
Hindus and Buddhists believe that we are trapped in a cycle of rebirths until we reach Nirvana.
Christians believe that salvation comes through faith in Jesus alone.
Muslims believe salvation comes through observing the five pillars. Even then their god might reject them on no more than a whim.
Winkle the universal truths out of that lot and you will have achieved what even God himself could not do – reconcile complete contradictions. Before we harmonise truths we really should define truth.
Truth is universal
What was the biggest island in the world before Greenland was discovered? Greenland! When Greenland was discovered it did not change the facts, the nature of the world. The truth exists objectively outside ourselves, and outside our experiences. Just because men didn’t know about Greenland didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
One friend insisted that we all stand at the bottom of a mountain and when we look up to the summit we see whatever we believe. “You see Christ, I see Zeus,” he said (he really said that). I asked him if it worked like in Peter Pan: whenever someone said they don’t believe in fairies then a fairy dies, when someone expressed belief in fairies a fairy lived. “Yes,” he replied (he really did)
But truth exists outside our personal convictions. When someone tells you “Christ is true for you but Buddha is true for me” you may lovingly point out that “you are entitled to your own personal opinion but you are not entitled to your own personal truth”.
If something is objectively true, it is true for everyone. If Christ is true for me He is true for everyone. If He is not true for everyone He is not true for anyone. The question is whether we have committed ourselves to a faith that reflects the way the world really is.
Truth is consistent
Even God is incapable of self-contradiction. He cannot deny and affirm the same thing in the same way at the same time. He cannot exist for Christians and not exist for Atheists. He cannot be the only true God and one god amongst a pantheon of gods. Someone might say “I am into TM and it works for me”. It isn’t a question of whether it works but whether it is true.
A lie, someone said, is an abomination to the Lord but a very present help in times of trouble. This is how many people regard truth, convenient, malleable, something you suit to the occasion. Error can work in our favour for a time but only truth endures for both time and eternity.
Truth brings freedom
Truth informs us. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is the purpose of our existence? Truth is liberating. Only the truth equips us to make informed decisions. The truth brings us knowledge of who and what we really are. It explains our present sinful state and brings us freedom from the tyranny of sin.
Truth should be prized
The church was not persecuted for being Christian. It was persecuted for being exclusively Christian. Had Christians been prepared to acknowledge that Caesar was Lord then their God could have sat among the pantheon of gods Rome was only to happy to accommodate. But one god among many has to make room for all the other gods. That is the price of multi-faith. The Bible declares “For the Lord is a great God, And a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:3). This God declares “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
Christ is not just another guru or prophet. The Bible declares “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). If this is the truth then we must prize it above everything, even if it means being outside the city walls with Him.
The Nature of the Problem
We have said that it is important for our faith to reflect the world as it really is. Does the Bible describe the human condition as it really is? Does it identify the true nature of the need that so many religions claim to be able to meet, but fail to even identify?
When we are young and setting out in the world we are full of confidence. We are going to change the world. As we get older we modify our plans and realise that we can’t change the whole world but we can certainly change our bit of the world. As we get older still we realise that it is a struggle to change just ourselves – and that is what needs changing the most.
As we consider the horrors of recent events and the prospect of further conflict people are asking a simple question: Why?
James declares “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3)
The problem is surely that fundamental. Is that the truth? Then the Bible describes reality. Someone once declared “I have discovered the enemy and it is ourselves.” The apostle Paul put it like this:
“What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Ro. 7:14-25)
Here is something we can get a firm grip on. This is not some philosophical theory, some esoteric insight. If this is reality we should be able to compare it with our own experience. Someone once said that honesty is best defined by what you are like by yourself at 3.00am in the dark. We perform in front of others but we cannot hide from ourselves, and it is with ourselves that we fight our fiercest battles. We know that Paul is describing each one of us. This, at last, is a universal truth, the experience of the common man – this is what we are really like.
Who can rescue us?
The Bible teaches and our experience confirms that we are sinners, separated from God by our own sinfulness. The Bible declares that we are “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Eph.2:1). This is where the Christian faith stands apart from all others.
Buddha would have you follow the eight-fold path to enlightenment. But how can a corpse rise and walk, let alone follow any path?
Muhammad would have you obey the five pillars, or disciplines of Islam. But how might a dead man understand, let alone obey any law?
Mormonism sums up neatly the problems of all other religions in helping us deal with sin. In a famous statement the late Mormon prophet, Gordon B Hinckley, said that Mormonism aims to “make bad men good and good men better”. Such an attractive idea, but it contains within it the seeds of our own failure because there are no good men, and bad men are dead in our sins. We don’t need to make bad men good and good men better – we need to make dead men live. All the self-help in the world cannot change that fundamental truth. We need a Saviour. The question is who qualifies?
Qualifications of a Saviour
A Saviour must be willing to save you. If you are drowning it is not enough for someone to stand and shout directions from the shore. You don’t need direction and you don’t need swimming lessons. You don’t need encouragement to try better. Your best efforts are useless. Your Saviour must be willing to take the initiative and do for you what you cannot do for yourself.
He must be able to save you. A drowning man cannot save a drowning man. Your Saviour cannot share your predicament, otherwise you will both be flailing about in the water and will drag each other down.
He must be in control of the situation. Your Saviour must be above these circumstances and able to control the forces which control you. When you kick about in the water your struggles only make things worse. When he kicks in the water the same waters that drag you down buoy him up. He makes the water do what He wants it to do.
So, how does the Christian God stack up in meeting the needs of sinful man?
The Bible says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)
God himself initiates our salvation. Jesus is willing to save us.
Jesus asked, “Which of you convicts me of sin? If I speak the truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8:46)
Peter said of him, “He committed no sin. Nor was any deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22)
The writer to the Hebrews declared, he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Heb.4:15)
Jesus is able to save us because he is not drowning, as we are, but can swim. He shares our environment – tempted as we are – but is not subject to it – is without sin.
“One day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.’ So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’
He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm…
In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.’” (Luke 8:22-25)
Jesus said of himself, “I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep…The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18)
Jesus is in control. He calms the storm that threatens us and has power over life and death, both physical and spiritual.
The Way, the Truth and the Life
When Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, asked the way to God, Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
As we claim exclusivity for our Christian faith we claim only what Jesus claimed. Jesus didn’t come just to show the way. He is the way and there is no other because no man comes to the Father except through him.
He also said he was “The truth.” Jesus didn’t simply tell us the truth, he is the truth. His very life personified the truth and his truth, found in Scripture, reflects the world as it really is.
And “The life.” A Saviour cannot impart what he does not have. John said, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men”. People who are dead in sin need to have life imparted to them. Jesus has life in himself and came that we might enjoy that life to the full.
Christ does not stand among other faiths he stands above them. People may dismiss him, disparage him, demote him or deny him, but he is our, and their, only Saviour. Finally every knee will bow and every tongue will confess this universal truth.