There is, currently, in our shrinking modern world, a meeting of cultures, nations, races, and religions on a scale unprecedented in history. In this jet age we are no more than 24 hours away from any spot on the earth. Television brings into our living rooms the coronation of a pope, the burning of a Buddhist monk, and a Muslim ceremony conducted by a political leader.
Almost 100,000 students from more than 150 countries of the world come to the United States every year to study in more than 2,000 colleges and universities in everyone of the 50 states. Brightly colored saris on graceful Indian women and striking turbans on erect Sikhs are not unfamiliar sights in our metropolitan areas or small college towns. In addition, there are multiplied thousands of diplomatic, business, and tourist visitors ever year.
Many of these visitors find their way into Parent-Teacher Association meetings, service clubs, and churches to speak on their cultural and religious backgrounds. They are sincere, educated, and intelligent.
As one has contact with these friends from overseas and becomes aware of their religious beliefs, the question naturally arises as to whether or not Christianity is unique among world religions. Or is it only a variation on a basic theme running through all religions? To put it another way, “Does not the sincere Muslim, Buddhist. Hindu, or Jew worship the same God as we do, but under a different name?” Or, quite bluntly, “Is Jesus Christ the only way to God?”
In answering this question, it is extremely important that we first empty it of its potentially explosive emotional content. When a Christian asserts that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and that apart from him there is no salvation, he is not suggesting that he thinks he is, or that Christians in general think they are, better than anyone else. Some people erroneously view Christians as having formed a bigoted club, like a fraternity with a racial segregation clause. If only the fraternity and the Christians were less bigoted, such people think, they would vote to change their membership rules and, in the case of the Christians, let in anyone who believes in God. “Why bring Jesus Christ into it?” we are often asked. “Why can’t we just agree on God?” And this brings us to the fundamental issue.
Christians assert that Jesus Christ is the only way to God because Scripture says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Christians believe this, not because they have made it their rule, but because Jesus Christ taught it: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). A Christian cannot be faithful to his Lord and affirm anything else. He is faced with the problem of truth. If Jesus Christ is who he claims to be, then we have the authoritative word of God himself on the subject. If he is God and there is no other Savior, then obviously he is the only way to God, Christians could not change this fact by a vote or by anything else.
There are some laws the penalty for which is socially determined. There are other laws of which this is not true. For instance, the penalty for driving through a stop light is determined by society. It is not inherent in the act itself. The penalty could be set at $25 or at $5, or it could be abolished completely.
With the law of gravity, however, the penalty for violation is not socially determined. People could vote unanimously to suspend the law of gravity for an hour, but no one in his right mind would jump off the roof to test it! No, the penalty for violating that law is inherent in the act itself, and the person who violated it would be picked up with a blotter despite the unanimous resolution!
As there are inherent physical laws, so there are inherent spiritual laws. One of them is God’s revelation of himself in Christ. Another is Christ’s death as the only means of reconciling man to God.
In proclaiming the exclusiveness of Christ, a Christian has no right to assume a superior posture. He speaks as a sinner saved by grace. As D. T. Niles, of Ceylon, so beautifully put it, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”
After defusing the emotional bomb, it is then important to move on to the important question of truth. Sincerely believing something does not make it true, as anyone will testify who has ever picked a wrong bottle out of a medicine cabinet in the dark. Faith is no more valid than the object in which it is placed, no matter how sincere or how intense the faith is. A nurse very sincerely put carbolic acid instead of silver nitrate in the eyes of a newborn baby. Her sincerity did not save the baby from blindness.
These same principles apply to things spiritual. Believing something doesn’t make it true any more than failing to believe truth makes it false. Facts are facts, regardless of people’s attitudes toward them. In religious matters, the basic question is always, is it true?
Take, for instance, the fact of the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity affirms these facts as the heart of its message. Islam, on the other hand, denies the deity, death, and resurrection of Christ. On this very crucial point, one of these mutually contradictory views is wrong. They can’t simultaneously be true, no matter how sincerely both are believed by how many people.
A great deal is said about the similarity of world religions. Many people naively assume that other religions are basically the same, making the same claims and essentially doing what Christianity does, but in slightly different terms.
Though there are some similarities, the differences far outweigh, and are much greater than, the similarities.
One of the similarities is the essence of the Golden Rule, which is contained in almost every religion. From Confucius’ time we have the statement, in various forms, that one should do unto others as he would have others do unto him. Many wrongly assume that this is the essence of Christianity. But if all Jesus Christ did was to give us the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule, he actually increased our frustration. As we have already seen, man has had the Golden Rule since Confucius’ time. Man’s problem has never been not knowing what he should do. His problem, rather, has been that he lacks power to do what he knows he should.
Christ raised the ethical level and thereby made the requirements higher. This by itself raises our frustration level. But that is not all Christ did, and this is a major difference between Christianity and other religions. Christ offers us his power to live as we should. He gives forgiveness, cleansing, and his own righteousness, all as a free gift. He reconciles us to God. He does something for us we cannot do for ourselves.
Every other religious system, however, is essentially a do-it-yourself proposition. Follow this way of life, they say, and you will gain favor with God and eventually achieve salvation. In a sense, other religious systems are sets of swimming instructions for a drowning man. Christianity is a life-preserver.
D. T. Niles has also observed that in other religions good works are an “in order to.” In Christianity, they are a “therefore.” In other religions, good works are the means by which one hopes to earn salvation. In Christianity, salvation is received as a free gift through the finished work of Christ; the “therefore” of good works becomes an imperative love of God. Or, as another has put it, other religions are “do”; Christianity is “done.”
Christianity is what God has done for man in seeking him and reaching down to help him. Other religions are a matter of man seeking and struggling toward God.
Because of this profound difference, Christianity alone offers assurance of salvation. Because our salvation depends on what God has done for and given us, we can say with the same wonderful certainty of the Apostle Paul, “We are…willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, KJV).
In every “works” religion, however, it is impossible ever to have assurance. When do you know that you have done enough good works? You never know, and never can know. Fear persists because there is no assurance of salvation.
What salvation is, and what we are pointing toward, is quite different in the world’s religions from what it is in Christianity.
In Buddhism, for instance, the ultimate goal is nirvana, or the extinction of desire. According to Buddha’s teaching, all pain and suffering come from desire. If this desire can be overcome by following the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, one can achieve nirvana, which is total nothingness. It is likened to the snuffing out of a candle. This is what is supposed to happen to life and consciousness when nirvana has been achieved.
In Hinduism the ultimate goal is also nirvana, but the term here has a different meaning. Nirvana is ultimate reunion with Brahm, the all-pervading force of the universe which is the Hindu’s god. This experience is likened to the return of a drop of water to the ocean. Individuality is lost in the reunion with “God,” but without the total self-annihilation of Buddhism. Nirvana, in Hinduism, is achieved through a continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. As soon as any animal, insect, or human being dies, it or he is immediately reborn in another form. Whether one moves up or down the scale of life depends on the quality of moral life one has lived. If it has been a good life, one moves up the scale with more comfort and less suffering. If one has lived a bad life, he moves down the scale into suffering and poverty. If he has been bad enough he is not reborn as a human being at all, but as an animal or insect. This law of reaping in the next life, the harvest of one’s present life, is called the law of Karma. It explains why Hindus will not kill even an insect, not to mention a sacred cow, though these inhibitions pose grave sanitation and public health problems. What seems strange, curious, and even ludricrous to us of the western world has a very clear rationale to the Hindu, and to us once we understand his thinking.
In Islam, heaven is a paradise of wine, women, and song. It is achieved by living a life in which, ironically, one abstains from the things he will be rewarded with in paradise. In addition to this abstention, one must follow the Five Pillars of Islam: repeating the creed, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, giving alms to the poor, praying five times daily, and keeping the fast of the month of Ramadan.
Again, there is no possibility of assurance. I have often asked Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists whether they would achieve nirvana or go to paradise when they died. I have not yet had one reply in the affirmative. Rather, they referred to the imperfection of their lives as being a barrier to this realization. There is no assurance in their religious systems because salvation depends on the individual’s gaining enough merit.
Even the fundamental concept of God, on which there is a plea that we should agree, reveals wide divergences. To say that all who believe in God can unite, regardless of what this God is called, fails to recognize that the term God means nothing apart from the definition given it.
Buddha, contrary to popular belief, never claimed to be deity. In fact, he was agnostic about the whole question of whether God even existed. If God existed, the Buddha taught emphatically, he could not help an individual achieve enlightenment. Each person must work this out for himself.
Hindus are pantheistic. Pan means ‘call” and theistic means “God.” Hindus believe that God and the universe are identical. The concept of “maya” is central to their thinking. Maya means that the material world is an illusion and that reality is spiritual and invisible. Brahm is the impersonal, all-pervading force of the universe, and the ultimate goal is for man to be reunited with this “God” in nirvana. Buddhism also teaches that the material world is an illusion. It is readily apparent why modern science came to birth through Christians, who believed in a personal God and an orderly universe, rather than in the context of Oriental philosophy. It is clear why most scientific progress has come from the West rather than the East. Why would one investigate what he believes is an illusion?
In Islam and Judaism we have a God much closer to the Christian concept. Here God is personal and transcendant, or separate from his creation. Surely, we are urged, we may get together with those who believe in God in personal terms.
But as we examine the Muslim concept of God – “Allah,” as he is called in the Koran — we find he is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, but rather, as in all other instances, a God of man’s own imagination. Our knowledge of Allah comes from the Koran, which came through Mohammed. Mohammed, like Buddha and unlike Jesus Christ, did not claim deity. He taught that he was only the prophet of Allah. The picture of God which comes through to us in the pages of the Koran is of one who is totally removed from men, one who is capricious in all of his acts, responsible for evil as well as for good, and certainly not the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). It is this totally distant concept of God that makes the idea of his becoming man utterly inconceivable to the Muslim. How could their god, so majestic and beyond reach, have contact with mortal man in sin and misery? The death of God .the Son on the cross is likewise inconceivable to a Muslim, since this would mean God was defeated by his creatures — an impossibility to the Muslim.
The Jewish concept of God is closest of all to the Christian. Isn’t the God whom they worship the God of the Old Testament, which the Christian accepts? Surely they can get together on this!
Again, however, closer examination shows that the Jews would not admit their God was the Father of Jesus Christ. In fact, it was this very issue that precipitated such bitter controversy in Jesus’ time. We accept God, they said to Christ, but we do not accept you because as a man you make yourself God, which is blasphemy.
In a conversation with the Jews, Christ discussed this question. “God is our Father,” they said. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God….He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:42, 47). In even stronger words he says, “You are of your father the devil” (v.44).
Christian missionary history has numerous examples of those who have been following other gods or an unknown god but who have responded when presented with the truth about Jesus Christ. They have immediately realized that he is the true God, whom they have been seeking.
Scripture is clear throughout the Old and New Testaments that worship of gods other than the true God originates with the devil. “They sacrificed to demons which were no gods” (Deuteronomy 32:17), and “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20) .
In contrast to the great religious leaders of the world, Christ alone claims deity. It really doesn’t matter what one thinks of Mohammed, Buddha, or Confucius as individuals. Their followers emphasize their teachings. Not so with Christ. He made himself the focal point of his teaching. The central question he put to his listeners was, “Whom do you say that I am?” When asked what doing the works of God involved, Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).
On the question of who and what God is, the nature of salvation and how it is obtained, it is clear that Christianity differs radically from other world religions. We live in an age in which tolerance is a key word. Tolerance, however, must be clearly understood. (Truth, by its very nature, is intolerant of error.) If two plus two is four, the total cannot at the same time be 23. But one is not regarded as intolerant because he disagrees with this answer and maintains that the only correct answer is four.
The same principle applies in religious matters. One must be tolerant of other points of view and respect their right to be held and heard. He cannot, however, be forced in the name of tolerance to agree that all points of view, including those that are mutually contradictory, are equally valid. Such a position is nonsense.
It is not true that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it.” Hitler’s slaughter of five million Jews was based on a sincere view of race supremacy, but he was desperately wrong. What we believe must be true in order to be real. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). There are many ways to Christ, but if we are to know the truth and living God in personal experience, it must be through Jesus Christ, the only way to God.