If God’s grace is real then it must be available to everyone, regardless of their religion or social background,’ he said, ‘What if the good residents of Kent had been raised instead in Kurdistan, or those born in Bournemouth had found themselves starting life in Baghdad instead?’ he asked. ‘Are not many of us who are Western Christians, Christians only because we are Western? Surely, if the most devout Christians had been raised in an Islamic context they would be, very likely, devout Muslims? Or to put another way, is salvation little more than a geographical lottery?’ You can listen to him here.
It is a popular idea and, for those who don’t know their Bible, it seems a reasonable question. Indeed, there is nothing new here since it has long been the work of the Interfaith Movement to achieve syncretism between faith communities in recognition of this perceived problem and the value in the diversity of the world’s religions.
We want to address this in the hope it will help Christians think through the issues raised by Steve Chalke in this, and other, video talks. In notes drawn partly from an article originally published in 2012 we look at the Interfaith Movement, it’s aims, and potential threat to those Christians and churches that believe in the exclusive claims of Jesus. We urge Christians to search the Scriptures, interrogate the Bible, and see the answers already provided by God.
Interfaith, What is it?
“The Inter Faith Network for the UK was founded in 1987 to promote good relations between people of different faiths in this country. Its member organisations include representative bodies from the Baha’i; Buddhist; Christian; Hindu; Jain; Jewish; Muslim; Sikh; and Zoroastrian communities; national and local inter faith bodies; and academic institutions and educational bodies concerned with inter faith issues.”
Despite this desire to promote ‘good relations’ I believe that Interfaith is one of the major threats to the Evangelical Christian church today. Like an intruder, it is interloping into the affairs of the Evangelical Christian Church, and seeking to change the very foundations on which such a church is built.
But how is it possible to say such a thing? Don’t these comments go against the spirit of the law against religious hatred? How can the desire to be united in a bond of friendship and understanding produce such a problem and a threat? The answer to these, and indeed other questions you might have, is found in what exactly Interfaith means to many people today; but before we go further we want to make a few clear statements:
It is good to understand each other and know what different people believe.
It is wrong to promote any kind of hatred on the grounds of belief or indeed any other basis.
No one person is ‘better than another’ simply because of their religion.
Talking to and being involved in the community with those of other religions is to be welcomed and encouraged.
There will be times when we should stand together on moral grounds and we will agree on certain courses of action.
The following appeared originally on the Interfaith.org website and was quoted in the earlier Reachout article. It has since been removed from the original site, but makes a very familiar enough appeal that is popular today.
“Many areas of Britain are now very religiously diverse – particularly its major cities. People of most of the world’s great faith traditions live in the UK. In the 2001 census, 76.8% of people identified themselves as having a religious faith: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish as well as Baha’i, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and other traditions. This is a situation of great richness, with remarkable opportunities for mutual understanding and for creating a society rooted in common values, while acknowledging variety of belief and practice. Followers of different faiths are able to coexist with mutual respect and understanding. They have much to offer, drawing on their own particular spiritual heritages, to help create a society rooted in values which are held in common between the distinct historic faiths… There is still much to be done and inter religious understanding should never be taken for granted. It has to be worked for in each… generation.”
However, these areas of understanding, community and social relationships are not simply what Interfaith is about; the heart and goal is in the “spiritual heritage”; in other words, who and why we worship; do we all really worship the one God? This is where the problems start, and to achieve such unity inevitably entails compromise.
Everyone is entitled to hold the belief of their choosing but do all these different beliefs acknowledge the same God? Everyone is entitled to worship as they want but none of us should be expected to compromise our understanding. By all means there should be dialogue and a clear presentation of the differences, but these differences are not insignificant and once compromise is encouraged we have crossed the line of love and peace, the very things we seek to achieve.
Religion is an outward set of rules and regulations, a series of beliefs that we adhere to; but true Evangelical Christianity, as the New Testament shows so well, is not initially an outward agreement on a set of rules and practices – it is an inward life. All religions may seem, in essence, the same (consider the familiar example of the golden rule) but all relationships with the Living God are not. If, then, as we would assert, the issue here is not religion but relationship, we need to answer the question we asked earlier, “Do we all really worship or even believe in the same God?” Let’s check some definitions.
Who is God?
Hindus believe both in one God and many thousands of gods expressing this one Deity. The Trimurti (three gods in one image) consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer.
The Hindu religion is flexible and provides many ways to develop one’s spiritual ideas in order to suit individual needs. “Unity in the diverse plan of nature” is recognized in the Hindu faith. Just as people tailor clothes to fit their needs, Hindus have different gods and goddesses, for their religious needs.
Many gods, image representations, not monotheism, faith tailored to the individual, are these the beliefs of Evangelical Christianity? Do these statements describe the same God as found in the Bible of the Evangelical Christian? The answer is obviously no; this is a different god and indeed a different relationship with that god.
“The Sikh religion is regarded by many scholars as a syncretic religious system which borrows heavily from Hinduism and Sufi mysticism. Other scholars treat it as a branch of Hinduism’s bhakti mystical devotion, as an attempt to reform Hinduism or as an attempt to harmonize Hinduism and Islam which ended up becoming its own religious tradition.
‘Sikhs believe in one creator inseparable from creation. Part and participle of one another, the creator exists within creation pervading and permeating every aspect of all that is. The creator watches over and cares for creation. The way to experience God is through creation and by meditating inwardly on the divine characteristic of the manifest self which is in tune with the unmanifest and illimitable, creative infinity known to Sikhs as Ik Onkar.’ Website
A syncretic religious system, trying to harmonise two distinct religions, one God part of nature, a pantheistic religion – are these the beliefs of Evangelical Christianity? Do these statements describe the same God as found in the Bible of the Evangelical Christian? The answer is obviously no; this is a different god and indeed a different relationship with that god.
“A single god Ahura Mazda who is supreme. Communication between Himself and humans is by… Immortals… sometimes described as concepts…
“One school of thought promotes a cosmic dualism between: An all powerful God Ahura Mazda who is the only deity worthy of being worshipped, and an evil spirit of violence and death, Angra Mainyu, who opposes Ahura Mazda.
“The resulting cosmic conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity who is required to choose which to follow…
“Another school of thought perceives the battle between Good and Evil as an ethical dualism, set within the human consciousness.” –Website
Communication through ‘Attributes’, cosmic dualism, set within the human consciousness, are these the beliefs of Evangelical Christianity? Do these statements describe the same God as found in the Bible of the Evangelical Christian? The answer is obviously no; this is a different god and indeed a different relationship with that god.
Here then we have the heart of the problem of Interfaith for Evangelical Christianity; three different definitions of God and three clearly different relationships with that God. These different beliefs are clearly, by very definition, not talking about the same God and therefore to state that each religion has a different god is not in anyway stirring up hatred, it is a matter of fact.
How Many Gods?
Some religions, as we have seen, allow for the worship of more than one god, but the God of the Scriptures as seen by Evangelical Christians does not. This becomes clear in many places of the Old Testament when God speaks against the idolatry of His people and is summarised in what we call the ’10 Commandments’.
“Then God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them…” – Exodus 20:1-6
Once we embrace a different God we are turning our back on the God Whom we love and serve, and have moved into idolatry, which has been a major problem through the history of Christianity. There is an exclusiveness inherent in the biblical message that we cannot, dare not compromise. For Christians to seek to become one in worship and faith with other religions is to go against one of the major teachings of the God they claim to serve. The moment I start embracing a different definition of God, and seek to incorporate that in my belief system, I am turning away from the One that I claim to worship.
What is being sought and described here is called syncretism, “the reconciling of different beliefs so that all are acceptable at the same time”. Steve Chalke is merely extending this syncretism to include the realms of eternity. But Evangelical Christianity can never embrace such synrectism. We do not believe in the same God and there is a real question as to whether we all have the same levels of morality too. For instance, the belief in reincarnation means that certain levels of ‘worship’ are offered to some animals, even to the detriment of human beings. Some would also look at the teachings that are clearly expounded today and say that it is quite obvious we have a different morality:
“Multiculturism is based on the lie that all cultures are morally equal… But all cultures are not equal in respecting representative government, guaranteed liberties, and the rule of law… In America, as in Britain, multiculturism has become the fashion in large swaths of our society …
“Multiculturist intellectuals do not think our kind of society is worth defending… Obviously, Nazism created a culture in Germany of which most Germans are now ashamed and that they would like to forget. Yet after more than sixty years, Hitler’s Mein Kamp is still a bestseller in Muslim countries… The Palestinian Peace Prize for Culture was awarded to Abu Daoud for his book telling how he planned and carries out the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Imagine a self-confessed mass murderer in the West, instead of being imprisoned or executed for his crime, boasting of it in a bestselling book, for which he is honored with a special prize!” – Dave Hunt, Judgment Day! – Islam, Israel and the Nations, The Berean Call, Bend, Oregon
Some strong words, and understand the purpose here is not to create, or encourage hatred towards Muslims or anyone else. It is, rather, to underline the fact that the teaching we know goes on, because we have seen and heard so much about it, is clearly not compatible with the beliefs, teachings and indeed the moral code of Evangelical Christians. Therefore, although we can understand, dialogue, and respect, we cannot share in worship and compromise our beliefs.
This all has consequences for our eternal destiny. Steve Chalke sounds reasonable when he insists damnation cannot, surely, be a consequence of a geographical lottery, but then neither is salvation. I am not a Christian because I was ‘lucky enough’ to have been born in a nominally Christian country, as Steve Chalke insists. I am a Christian because I believed the clear tenets of the Christian faith and trusted in the finished work of Christ. I believed because the gospel was preached to me (Ro.10:14-15) and now it looks as if I am making Chalke’s point for him, but wait.
Jesus made very clear, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.’ (Jn.6:44) The gospel might have been preached to me every day for my whole life, but my response to it is enabled by the drawing of God, who gives the desire and inclination to believe. The very faith with which we believe is a gift (Eph.4:8-9)
The question remains unanswered however; how is someone raised to accept and embrace an overwhelmingly Muslim faith and culture to have any chance of becoming a Christian?
‘When they had come to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them…and a vision appeared to Paul in the night; a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him, and saying, Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel there.’ (Acts 16: 6-10)
Do we doubt for a moment that, when God decides to draw a person or people, he is incapable of having the gospel preached to them? I suggest Steve Chalke’s God is too small! When that gospel is preached and received gladly, as in Macedonia, do we believe he simply doesn’t care whether those now called into his great love go on to compromise their new faith in the name of interfaith harmony?
See what Ephesians 4:1-13 teaches us.
1. We are to walk in a manner appropriate to our calling (v1) to worship and serve the one true God. Worshipping other Gods, and being disobedient to the one we serve, would definitely mean that we would fail that instruction.
2. We are to preserve the unity of the Spirit (v2) showing it must be there in the first place. Amongst all true Christians there is the unity of the Spirit. There were Jew and Gentile in the Ephesian church, coming from different backgrounds and a different initial understanding of salvation and God, but because of the Holy Spirit, they now had unity.
The Greek word for unity here only appears twice in the Scriptures and both in this passage. It seems to imply that on the central issues of God, Christ and His church there was oneness because they all had received of the same Holy Spirit and He was leading them all in the same way. We are to take great care and diligence that this unity is clearly preserved and not broken. This is a unity that is not created by our human councils and workshops; because such resolutions are often broken, but a unity that already divinely exists, and that through our obedience to Him, is maintained.
3. Does that mean we Christians agree on every little detail? No, because, as we see when the word is used for the second time, there will come a point when we have a perfect unity of faith (v13) but it will only come because, on the essentials of God and Christ, we maintain the inward unity of the spirit until we come to the outward unity of the faith. You will never get the second without the first.
Salvation is not a geographical lottery. To suggest it is is to say God isn’t in control of his own world. As Abraham observed, and, ironically, Chalke quotes, ‘Surely the God of all the earth will do what is right.’ (Gen.18:25) All people like Steve Chalke are owning up to is that they can’t see how it is possible for the God of all the earth to do what is right given the traditional understanding of this issue in the present circumstances. They also insist on their own definition of what is right. This is a dangerous game and perhaps they should spend more time in the word:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8).
Salvation is also more than simply rescuing people. There is a purpose in the saving, a purpose concerning the vindication of God’s name, the fulfilling of his purposes, the establishing of his kingdom. That kingdom is first established in the hearts and lives of the saved and it seems a strange thing indeed for the people of that kingdom to be able to confidently walk it’s streets while failing to recognise whose kingdom it is.