Tough Questions: Can There Be Only One True Religion?

Several years ago in their Easter Sunday edition, Parade Magazine asked six religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds to answer the question, “What is the biggest problem in the religious world today?”  The only Christian in the group was a Baptist, and he said the biggest problem was violence in the name of religion.  The other five all said the biggest problem was exclusivity.  They all said it in their own way, but they were agreeing that the biggest problem in religion today is that people believe that their religion is the only true one.  That seems to be a pretty common way to think these days.  In fact, several years ago, US News and World Report asked American Christians how many agreed with the statement, “The religion I practice is the only true religion.”  Only 19% agreed.  The rising sentiment seems to be that those five religious leaders were right.  If all the different religions would just stop arguing and admit that all religions lead to the same place, we wouldn’t have terrorism and hatred.

I certainly understand where this sentiment comes from.  First of all, there is a long, terrible tradition of religiously-inspired violence.  In the interest of being intellectually honest, let’s just talk about some of the terrible things done in the name of Christianity.  We can point to the bloody Crusades against Muslims over possession of the Holy Land, in which soldiers were told by the Pope that they would be forgiven of sins if they fought; numerous religious-inspired wars in Europe in the Middle Ages; the terrible things some Christian leaders—including Martin Luther, one of my heroes—have written and said about Jews, which led to terrible discrimination and violence against the Jewish people; terrible bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, the list goes on and on.  We may protest at those examples, since in most them the real issue was nationalism, ethnic strife, or the ambitions of a particular political leader, and religion was simply tacked on as a way to stir more people up.  We also legitimately  say, “Those people weren’t following Christ’s teachings, so you can’t blame Him for their atrocities.”  All true, yet history still shows that religious people did violence in the name of their religious beliefs.  And that’s not even counting any of the examples from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.  As Pascal famously wrote, “Men never do evil so cheerfully and completely as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Second, for most of history, people tended to live near and interact solely with people who looked and thought basically the way they themselves did on important questions, including religion.  I’m not yet fifty, but growing up, I didn’t know a single person from a faith other than Christianity.  Things changed quickly when I moved away from home; in college, I met people who were from Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish backgrounds.  When I was in seminary, Carrie worked for a man who was a devout Jew, and he was a wonderful, gracious boss, who lived with admirable integrity.  I have a cousin who married a Palestinian Muslim and converted, and they have a wonderful marriage, with three high-achieving, all-American kids.  I’m sure many other Christians have had similar experiences.  The world has become much smaller in the past fifty years.  Whereas once we could confidently speak of people of other faiths as if they were ignorant or even evil, once we get to know people with these other beliefs, we realize they aren’t so different from us.  From there, many of us take another step into thinking, “I know Amir is a Muslim, but he’s such a great guy.  I really don’t see how God could reject him just because he follows a different religion than I do.”  And so we begin to craft a view that says, essentially, “All religions lead to the same place.  As long as you are sincere in your faith and don’t harm others, God accepts you.”

There’s an old parable that talks about this.  Five blind men walk up to an elephant one day.  The first blind man feels its tail and says, “Whatever this thing is, it’s like a broom.”  Another one touches it’s side and says, “No, it’s like a wall.”  Another one feels its ear and says, “No, it’s like a fan.”  Another feels its trunk and says, “No, it’s like a hose.”  The final one feels its tusk and says, “You’re all wrong.  It’s like a spear.”  The point of the parable is that all religions are worshipping essentially the same God, but they’re so blinded by their pride that they can’t see this.  If they would just work together and learn from each other, they would together discover who God really is.

This parable is seen as being very humble and tolerant, and it certainly seems that way when you first hear it.  Two problems: First, it is anything but humble…it’s arrogant.  The person telling the parable is asserting that, whereas all the foolish religious people in the world are blind and limited, only he can see God as he really is.  Only he can see the elephant.  So the teller of the parable is guilty of the same prideful narrow-mindedness that he accuses religion of.

Second, this idea is incredibly disrespectful of all religion.  It’s anything but tolerant.  It’s basically saying, “Muslims, stop teaching that there is only one God.  That’s incredibly offensive to Hindus.  And Hindus, stop worshipping at your shrines.  Don’t you know how offensive that is to Muslims?  And Christians, stop saying that Jesus was God in human flesh.  Jews don’t believe that.  Stop saying He died for our sins.  Muslims don’t believe that.  In fact, all of you, stop insisting that there is a personal God who punishes evil and saves our souls, because Buddhists don’t believe that.  Can’t you just agree on a few ethical standards that you have in common?”  You’re telling people that they need to change the very most basic tenets of their faith. As a Christian, if you take away Christ’s divinity and His death for our sins, then it isn’t Christianity anymore.

If someone were to ask me that Parade Magazine question, “What is the biggest problem in religion today?” I would say it’s the desire to customize God.  Everyone, it seems, wants to make God in his or her own image, instead of the other way around.  That includes many Christians I know, as well as people who are “spiritual but not religious.”  It includes liberals and conservatives.  Everyone, it seems, thinks they get to define God in their own terms.  Let me explain the problem with that.  Imagine a young man approached a young woman and said, “I love you.  I want to marry you, have kids with you, and grow old with you.  I just need you to be blonde and about three inches shorter.  Also, your voice sort of grates on my nerves, so work on speaking in a lower register.  Then, drop about twenty pounds, take some cooking classes, go a little easier on the eyeliner, and get rid of those nutjobs you call parents.  Then you’ll be just fine.”  Only a fool (a short-lived fool) would ever treat a woman that way. Yet that’s exactly what we do to God when we want to customize what we believe about Him.  That’s what happens when, for instance, we say, “I love the sermon on the Mount, and how Jesus was so forgiving and accepting, but I don’t like what the Bible says about sexuality, or the existence of Hell.”  Or on the other end of the political spectrum, some say, “I am glad that God tells us right from wrong. It’s good to have standards that never change.  But I don’t like the parts of the Bible that talk about how we should love our enemies and put the needs of the poor ahead of our own needs.”  That would include people who say, “I believe in a God who is accepting of all religious faiths.” God says, “Take me as I am or don’t take me at all.”

So if it’s possible that there is only one true God, who is He?  The Bible claims that Jesus is God.  Colossians 1:15-20 says of Jesus, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  What did Jesus say about Himself?  In John 14:5-10, He said two things that make it very clear.  First is in v. 6, No one comes to the Father except through me.  Then in v. 9, He says Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.  Philip wanted to see God, and Jesus said, “You’re looking at Him.”  This is hardly the only place Jesus made these kinds of claims.  In John 11, just before raising Lazarus from the dead, He said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  The morning He was crucified, He predicted His own second coming.  Standing before Caiaphas, the man who would stage-manage His crucifixion, He said, In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62).  Essentially, He was saying, “This isn’t the last you’ll see of me…I’ll be the one you meet face to face on your Judgment.”  Those who knew Him were so convinced of His deity, they began to say, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we may be saved (Acts 4:12).

Of course, none of these sayings prove that Christianity is the one true religion.  We’ll talk about that next week. But they are proof that Jesus thought it was.  To paraphrase CS Lewis, Jesus was one of three things: Either He was a liar, a cult leader of the worst sort, to be counted along with Jim Jones and David Koresh; or He was a lunatic on the order of a man who claims to be from Mars; or He was exactly what He said He was.  More recently, the Catholic scholar Gary Wills has put it this way: “Either Jesus was God or He was a standing blasphemy against God.”  The one thing He could not have been is simply a good man, a wise and courageous teacher.  Good people don’t say the kinds of things about themselves that He did…unless it was true.  So yes, we as Christians believe in absolute, exclusive truth.  There are points of agreement with most other major religions, and as Americans, we celebrate their right to practice their faith.  But we believe Jesus is the only way to salvation.  To believe anything else is to call Him a liar or a lunatic.

Is that really fair?  After all, it’s easy for me to say that Christianity is the only way.  But think about the person who is born in Saudi Arabia, and is taught that Islam is the way, or someone who grows up in India and is taught that Hinduism is the one true faith, or someone who lives all their life in the most Orthodox Jewish part of Jerusalem and hears that the Jews are God’s only chosen people.  If there is only one way, why wouldn’t God spread it equally all around the world?  The biblical answer is that’s exactly what He’s doing.  Jesus, just before ascending into Heaven, told His followers to make more disciples, to take His message to the ends of the earth.  Notice all other world religions are still based in the places they began. But Christianity is mobile.  It started in the Middle East, then spread throughout Europe, then took root in America.  Now, it’s growing fastest in places like China, Africa and South America.  Other religions spread through migration or military conquest, but Christianity spreads through missionary work and evangelism.  It certainly seems the Gospel isn’t restricted to a particular cultural context, as other religions are.  I believe that’s because the Gospel of Jesus is the truth.

Even if you’re an unbeliever, that should give you comfort.  If you think the problem in the world is too much religion, think about this: One of the central doctrines of Christianity is that everyone is equally sinful and in need of a Savior.  So a true Christian would not look upon a person of another faith with arrogance or superiority.  He would expect to find people of all religious backgrounds—and no religion at all—who are kind, courageous, generous and wonderful.  He would never restrict any person’s right to believe what they want to believe, because Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him…He spread His message through persuasion and love.  So if you want a peaceful world, what we need is not less Jesus, it’s more.

Tough Questions: How Do We Know God is Real?

Today, we begin a new series, addressing tough questions.  My hope is that through this series, our faith in God will increase, and we’ll be less afraid to confront the really tough questions that come up in life.  I hope also that we’ll feel more confident in talking to people who have questions and doubts about Christianity or the Bible. These questions came from people in my mid-week Bible study, our College/Career group, and from my Facebook friends.  I asked each of the three groups to give me difficult biblical or theological questions that they would like answers to.   I’ve divided them up into three categories: Answering objections to Christianity, which we’ll start today and continue through the Fall.  Answering tough questions from Scripture, in which we’ll talk about specific Bible passages that are confusing.  We’ll get to those over the Winter.  And Applying Scripture to tough questions in life, where we’ll talk about the stuff that believers tend to wonder about, like “what will Heaven be like?”  “Does prayer change anything?”  “What should we think about issues like abortion, sexuality, suicide?”  We’ll deal with those in the Spring.

Here are my disclaimers: We’re all human, so our understanding of some things is going to be limited.  I cannot promise you that I can answer all your questions beyond a shadow of a doubt.  In fact, I know I can’t do that.  Where Scripture speaks clearly, I will share without reservation.  But there are plenty of questions and issues where the Bible doesn’t give us a clear direction, and I will let you know when I am just taking an educated guess.  Also, I am a preacher, not a philosopher or scientist.  I am not the best person on earth to be covering these issues.  So I will often refer to books that I have found helpful.  I suggest you read them to see the arguments presented far better than I am able.  The three best I  have found on the question of God’s existence are: The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig, and The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel.  I believe dealing with these tough issues grows our faith.  So be in prayer for all of these studies.  And feel free to ask me any follow-up questions you have.

I want to start with an illustration I stole from Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.  Imagine I went to see a friend at his workplace.  When I pulled up to the building, I saw his car in the parking lot.  When I went into his office, his secretary told me he was in.  I also saw notes in his handwriting sitting on her desk.  I could see a light on in his office, and hear sounds that indicated he was inside (the creaking of a chair, drawers being opened and closed).  Because I showed up that day with the assumption that he would be there, all of these signs merely confirmed my assumption.  On the other hand, what if a skeptical person came into that office, someone who doubted whether my friend had actually showed up to work that day?  They would interpret the evidence very differently.  They might see the car in the parking lot and say, “There are lots of those kinds of cars on the road today.”  They might think my friend’s secretary was mistaken, that she simply assumed he had come in, when he really hadn’t.  Or maybe she was even lying to cover for him.  The notes on the desk could be easily forged, or left over from the previous day.  And as for the sounds in his office, those could be coming from another nearby office.  Do I know God is real?  Yes.  I am in a personal relationship with Him now that has changed my life forever.  Even if I weren’t, there are evidences in the world today that show us He exists.  But these clues may not be convincing to you.  It depends on your assumptions.  If you want God to be real, then you will see evidence for Him everywhere.  If, on the other hand, you are convinced that there is no God, if the existence of God would mean changing your way of thinking or living, and you don’t want that to be true, then no amount of evidence will convince you.  My question for you is, do you want to believe?  If the answer is yes, then I think God has given us more than enough evidence to know that He is real.  If the answer is no, let me just ask you to open your mind to the possibility.  As Pascal famously said, if you bet that God is real and He’s not, you’ve lost nothing.  If you bet that He’s not real and He is, then you’ve lost everything.

So what are these evidences for God’s existence?  There are many arguments for the existence of God.  I will mention three of them here.  I will also talk about one big objection we have to deal with.

The first argument for God’s existence is the existence of anything. In other words, how does anything exist, if no one was there to create it?  This is called the cosmological argument for God. It goes like this: Everything that exists was caused by something else.  Since the Universe exists, it must have been caused by something that has always existed.  It’s quite often thought that Darwin’s theory of evolution destroys the possibility that God created the world.  It does no such thing.  Even if you believe that all life on earth evolved over millions of years starting with one tiny amoeba, that doesn’t explain where galaxies full of stars and planets came from.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Some skeptics attempt to explain that by saying the universe has always existed. But science itself argues against that.  It’s accepted science that the universe is expanding, as if there were a point long ago when a great explosion took place, and everything in existence is still pushing out from the center.  We know this as the Big Bang.  Why would the universe be expanding if it has always existed?  So if there was a point in time when the universe (and everything in it) began, then something had to have made that happen.  The only explanation is that there was something that exists without being created, an “un-caused Cause” in the words of the philosophers, that made everything.

Second, there’s the teleological argument, or the argument from complexity: Here’s one way to understand this argument: Imagine you are walking through the woods and you find a small figure of a man made of wood.  He has eyes, a nose and mouth, arms, legs, a cigar in his mouth and a hat on his head.  You look closer and realize it doesn’t just look like a man, it looks like a specific man: Clint Eastwood.  There are two possible explanations for this object.  You might think, “Amazing.  A tree has produced a growth that looks exactly like The Man with No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, then dropped it here on the forest floor.”  Or you could think, “Another person is in these woods.  Whoever he or she is must be excellent at carving, and must be a fan of Spaghetti Westerns.”  Either one is possible, but the second option is much, much more likely.  The life on our planet is so complex, the systems that sustain that life so intricately perfect, it is far more likely that some intelligent being designed it, than that it all happened by accident.

Third is the moral argument. Where have we come up with the idea that some things are right and others are wrong?  In the animal Kingdom, the law of the jungle rules.  Imagine a scene in the African Savannah.  Hundreds of animals are grazing in the fields.  Suddenly, a lioness attacks and kills a smaller, weaker animal, and begins to eat it.  Do any of the other animals stand up and say, “Wait a minute.  That hyena had rights?”  Do they band together to punish the lioness for using her strength inappropriately?  No, they go on about their business as if nothing had happened.  Now, imagine a busy street in downtown Houston.  A man attacks a woman on a sidewalk and begins dragging her toward a waiting car.  What happens?  People scream.  They pull out cell phones and call the police.  Some even physically intervene to save the woman’s life.  If he’s caught, the eyewitnesses are eager to testify against him, because we all know that this kind of behavior has to be punished.  Where did we get the idea that someone who is stronger can’t do whatever he wants to someone who is weaker?  If we are only more highly evolved mammals, why would we value concepts like courage, self-sacrifice, and love?  Why do we think that society is supposed to protect and provide for those who are disadvantaged, when the law of the jungle would say these people deserve to die in order to avoid being a drain on humanity?  These characteristics don’t come from some evolutionary desire to protect ourselves and strengthen our species.  They come from somewhere else.  This sense of right and wrong is a clue that we are made in the image of God.

All of these arguments prove that it’s much more likely that a god exists than that one doesn’t.  But some say that if a personal, loving God existed (like the God of the Bible), He would prove Himself to us.  They say, “Why does God have to play this game of hide and seek with us?  If I were God and wanted people to know me, I would appear to them personally.  I would go out of my way to convince them.  Why doesn’t God go on national TV and address the entire world?”  The short answer from Scripture is that we cannot see God and live.  Our own sin has separated us from Him and ruptured the intimate relationship He wants to have with us.  Only once we are fully redeemed will we be able to see Him face to face.

“Okay,” you may say, “But the Bible talks about God appearing to people in various ways.  Why doesn’t He still do that?”  How do you or I know He doesn’t?  The Bible says that God has appeared visibly or audibly to a small number of people at key moments in His plan, but it was never for the purpose of convincing people who were skeptical.  Look at the life of Jesus.  He had plenty of opportunities to work miracles when it would’ve persuaded skeptics.  The Pharisees demanded a confirming sign.  Herod, on the day of Christ’s death, wanted to see a miracle, but even though it might have saved His life, Jesus refused.  Even after the resurrection, Jesus didn’t appear to anyone who didn’t already know Him.  Why did He not go before the Sanhedrin in His resurrected form and say, “Do you see now what a mistake you made?”   God’s goal is not to make us believe in His existence.  He wants for us to know Him, to love Him, and to experience a true relationship with Him.  Coming audibly or visibly won’t make that happen, so God doesn’t do it.  Besides, aren’t all important relationships based on faith?  A child trusts that his parents have his best interests in mind.  I trust that my wife Carrie really does love me, and isn’t secretly scouting for someone taller, richer and better looking (although there are plenty of candidates).  I see plenty of evidence that she loves me.  If I were to say, “I need for you to prove that you love me,” it wouldn’t be the basis of a very good relationship, would it?

Romans 1:19-20 says this of unbelievers, For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  In other words, just looking at the world around us, we can see proof of God’s existence, power, and righteousness, if we want to see it.  But God went much further than giving us evidence of His existence.  He has gone to great lengths to let us know that He loves us.  He did speak to us—not on TV, but in three better, more compelling ways.  First, and most importantly, He sent us Jesus.  More than any other single thing, the life and teachings of Jesus—and His atoning death and resurrection from the dead–convince me that there is a God. He also gave us His Word, the Bible, the most amazing book ever written.  When I study the Bible, I am convinced that it is not a human document.  Later in this series, we’ll talk about both these things; how we know Jesus is who He says He is, and why we can trust the Bible as more than a human book.  Finally, He reveals to us the transforming power of faith in Him.  I have seen too many people radically changed by Christ for it all to be a fairy tale.  And I have seen transformation in myself that is not explainable in any other way. 

That brings me to my final point. I said at the beginning that I would tell you how to know for sure that God is real.  The answer is to seek Him.  It is one thing to look at this as an intellectual exercise, to study the evidence for and against the existence of God.  That’s a fine pursuit, and if that’s what you’re doing, I wish you well.  But Jeremiah 29:13 says You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  Proverbs 8:17 says Those who seek me, find me.  Think back to that analogy from William Lane Craig about going to visit a friend at his office.  You can see it as an intellectual exercise. You can sit out in the lobby or the parking lot playing amateur Sherlock Holmes, piecing together the evidence and trying to guess whether he’s really in the office or not.  Or you can do the most logical thing: You can walk into his office and see for yourself.  I don’t need evidences of God’s existence.  I know Him personally.  And you can too.  If you are not sure whether God is there, or if you are a believer who is caught in doubts, the best advice I can give you is to seek Him.  Since He is an invisible, all-righteous deity, it’s not as simple as opening a door, but it’s also not complicated.  My suggestion: Start reading the gospel of Matthew and keep on going until you finish the New Testament.  Pray every day and say something like this, “Lord, I want to know you and experience a relationship with you.  Show me how to seek you. Teach me who you are and how you want me to live.”  Hang out with some people who really seem to know Jesus—not just religious people, but men and women who walk with Christ.  See the activity of God in their lives.  He has promised us that when seeking Him becomes the highest goal of our hearts, we will find Him.  And we won’t need evidence anymore.