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.

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