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What About Other Religions?

Sometimes people think that having questions and wondering about matters of faith and God are not bad things. It means we don’t have enough faith. But they are good things. Asking questions can strengthen and mature faith and understanding.

Let’s be honest we all have questions. We all wonder about God and his ways in our lives and this world.

One of those questions is “what about other religions?” Are Christians right and everyone else wrong? Are Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and people of other faiths going to hell? Does God love those who are not worshippers of Jesus Christ?

Some people think that every culture has its own beliefs, customs, and values and we should leave them alone. Some people say that religions just divide people and cause wars and there is certainly evidence to feel that way.

Christians are often accused of being too intolerant. Christians hold that Jesus is the only way to God and some call that arrogant and judgmental.

When we were leaving our home in Idaho and moving to Salt Lake City some 18 years ago now, we were telling our neighbor where we were going.

This person, who would call herself a Christian, said she knew there were a lot of Mormons here. I said, “Well yes, do you know much about Mormon people?” She quickly snapped, “Yeah, that they are all going to hell.”

Why did her answer rub me the wrong way? I am well aware of the huge differences between biblical, historic Christianity and LDS belief. But do we have the authority and eternal wisdom to say everyone who wears the label “Christian” will end up with God, and everyone who doesn’t is doomed to hell?

Then there are those like Oprah Winfrey, probably a spiritual voice for many people, who was quoted as saying, “One of the biggest mistakes we make is to believe there is only one way. There are many diverse paths leading to God.”[1] Many people would agree with that, wouldn’t they? I don’t know how Oprah would even know this. As a worshipper of Jesus Christ, I don’t agree with her.

Today people say to consider one religion better than another is narrow-minded. I don’t want to be called narrow-minded. There are people who say that all religions basically say the same thing.

The Roman Empire was one of the most advanced, prosperous, and powerful empires in the history of the world. It celebrated freedom, prosperity, and progress. Edward Gibbons wrote a classic book called The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is what he said about faith and religion in that world power:

“Towards the end of the Roman Empire, all religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false and by the politicians as equally useful.”[2]

I think that could be used in our day.

First of all, do all religions say the same thing? Religions sometimes share many of the same values such as peace, selflessness, helping the poor. But quite frankly to call all religions the same doesn’t carry a lot of intellectual integrity. You haven’t paid attention to what various religions believe if you think they are all the same. It is a slap in the face to all religions because they don’t claim to be the same. If you put a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi, and a Hindu priest up here with me, none of us worth our salt would say we all believe the same thing.

Just take Christianity and Hinduism:

The goal of the Christian is a personal, loving relationship with a personal God. The goal of Hinduism isn’t God or a personal being at all but something called Nirvana. Nirvana is state where someone transcends feelings of suffering and desire.

Christians believe in reconciliation and peace with God. Hindus search for enlightenment which is an inward journey of self-understanding.[3]

Christians believe God demands our love and devotion. Hindus believe whatever God there is makes no demands, and you have to look inside yourself to discover this.

Those are different views.

Only three world religions claim that God has actually revealed himself: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Other religions claim to be wise human solutions to problems people face. They make no claim that God has revealed himself.[4] Buddhist don’t even have to believe there is a God.

We should always respect other religions. There are things that can be learned from other religions. But religions are different.

There have always been different religions.

In the New Testament we read when Paul, the Apostle, was in Athens. He was waiting for his companions, Silas and Timothy, to arrive. As he walks around he sees idol after idol to all kinds of gods. The Greeks believed in a wide range of gods and they were on full display in Athens.

We are told that Paul speaks to both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, meaning these Greeks were religious people. Paul gets into conversations with the people of various religions and philosophies. In fact, Paul affirms that they are very religious. He also affirms that they don’t know what they worship. Because he saw a statue with an inscription on the altar that said, “To An Unknown God.”

Paul doesn’t berate them. Instead, he uses this to present the God he knows, who is not unknown but very knowable. Paul acknowledges that they are right to be religious. But while they believe in many different gods, Paul whittles it down for them to an even more specific idea: that there is one living God who can be known.

Paul says that God is the Creator, who made the world and everything in it. This God does not need to live in things made by human hands. Greek gods were in idols and temples and were dependent on humans interaction with them.

Paul says God is the Lord of all history and involved in the workings of the world, “marking out appointed times in history and boundaries of their lands.”

He says that God wants people to seek him and reach out for him and find him. And that this God is closer to us than we think. In him we live and move and have our being.

This is quite a different God than an unknown god.

And then, Paul speaks of Jesus. He tells his listeners who are all over the map religiously that the world is accountable to Jesus because he has risen from the dead. All power belongs to him.

Paul’s message is not that all roads lead to the same place. It is not pick whatever truth with which you are comfortable. It is that God is real. He is knowable. And he wants people to turn to him.

Well, that day in Athens some who heard Paul were takers and became believers. But some thought this was crazy. Others wanted to hear more but maybe at another time.

Paul gives an example to the church. Instead of standing back from other religions or pointing fingers, we should, like Paul, have a conversation with the searching.

I have sought out and had good, healthy conversations with Muslims, Jewish, Buddhists, and other religious people over the years. And of course, we all have wonderful opportunities to have conversations with LDS people which are their own thing. These conversations have had points of agreement and disagreement, but always respectful. And I hope I have represented my Lord Jesus well.

Maybe the question isn’t “what about religions?” Maybe the question is “what about God?” What if God has shown up and told us who he is and what he is like.

It’s one thing to say, “I believe in God”. Muslims, Jews, LDS, and Christians, all say this. But what type of God you believe in is something different all together. Different faiths have different ideas about what it means when we say “God”.

Part of the problem is that we can’t find God on our own. We can only look at the world around us and take a guess. What we need is for God to reveal himself to us.

The Christian story is that the one eternal God has come in a person.

The Christian conviction is not that all religions are wrong and Christians are right. The Bible teaches that every single person is wrong and only God is right. Everyone – Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus – have messed up.

If God exists and if he is a God who loves us don’t you think he would care about the situation we are in? If we were separated from him and he is a loving God don’t you think he would do something about it? Don’t you think we would provide a solution and way out of our situation?[5]

Because he is infinite and beyond our reach our only hope is for him to reveal himself and come to us. This is Christianity’s claim: that the one God of all the universe has come and revealed himself in a particular person. That person is Jesus Christ. God came in him to show us who he is, what he is like, and how much he loves us.

Most other religions say that we can climb the ladder to heaven by doing good things or becoming enlightened. The Christian story is that God comes to us in our weakness and unworthiness.

Our knowledge of God doesn’t come from prophets, priests, visions, oracles, avatars, or spirit-persons. No we know God from Jesus Christ, who was not only sent by God but who was God.[6]

The core of the Christian story is that there was a moment when God was indeed seen, heard, and touched. He so loved everyone in the world that he came to mend the huge gap between all people and himself with his own death on the cross.[7] Which, by the way, is a very different story than any other faith.

Jesus said,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus didn’t say he was one of many ways to God. He claimed to be the way. He was either right, or he was a liar. And if he’s a liar then he needs to be dismissed, and that includes his teaching.

Christians often quote these words of Jesus to show superiority to other religions which is a wrong use of our Lord’s words. Yes, Jesus is the way to God. But we have projected a lot onto this. By that I mean, we have people “pray the prayer,” “accept Jesus as Savior,” or do this or that, and we reduce life with Jesus to a simplistic formula. In reality, what happens is we become the way when what we need to do is get out of the way. How easy it is for us to be gatekeepers to the Way.

If Jesus is the way, he can bring anyone to the Father and make them right with God that he wants to. In the Gospels we see Jesus drawing people to himself from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, and in many different ways.

He is the way, and as he also said one time, he is the door to God. The ways we think people should come to Jesus are not the door. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what we believe or do. But we just need to remember that whoever is saved will only come by way of and through him.

Jesus shows mercy and salvation certainly to those who trust him. But he can also do so to anyone he wants to. He knows every situation. All who are saved will be saved through him and also by him.

Which raises the question: what about those who have never heard about the Lord? What about those who haven’t had a chance to respond?

One, God is big. I don’t know how God is going to deal with that, but I know he is big enough to do so. And he is big enough to treat each person with absolute fairness.

God is the judge of all human hearts. Mine, yours, your neighbors, Muslims, LDS, agnostics, everyone. He knows the secrets of every heart, and why someone believes and why someone doesn’t believe. And God’s judgment in Jesus Christ is absolutely fair.

It is, quite frankly, idolatrous of me to put myself in the place of being a judge of someone else’s ultimate destiny. Our job isn’t to judge. Our job is to share and show the truth and good news of Jesus Christ so that all people may respond to his grace.[8]

Two, God cares more about the people who have never heard than we do. Christ gave his life for them on the cross. None of us care for them, and all the other people of the world, as much as God does. If God didn’t spare his own Son for their sake, don’t you think he will be fair?[9] And it’s why he has charged us to tell people the good news.

Three, C.S. Lewis had a great observation when he said the truth is that God has not told us his arrangements about people who have not heard of Christ or been able to believe in him. Which is true. Nothing in the Bible about this. We know that no one can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know him can be saved through Him. He can save someone who might not have a clue about him. God knows every heart, every circumstance, every life. And every person will be met with absolute fairness, love, and truth.

Jesus spoke about the surprise of who would be welcomed into his kingdom and who wouldn’t. Let’s beware of being too confident in our own standing and thinking we know the standing of everyone else.

At the same time, God doesn’t want people to always be fearful. He wants our hearts to be assured. Some religions are about fear and never knowing if you are really right with God. That’s why he has come with the good news that we can have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. We stand firm in that. As we sing in that great hymn, “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine.”

We live in a world with all kinds of religions, and all kinds of beliefs. Paul said God wants people to seek him, reach out for him and find him. What Jesus has asked us to do is to share his love, grace, and peace with others. We are to do this with what we say but also by example.

Just like with Paul in Athens, some may believe. Some may think we are crazy. Some may wholeheartedly disagree. All we can do is stand in the good news of Christ.

Yes, there is a God to find. People have always suspected this and searched for him in all kinds of ways. But we find him in Jesus. And he wants all to come to know and believe in him.

Prayer: Jesus, you are the Way. Help us to show people to the way and get out of the way.

Keep us respectful in our relationship with those of other faiths. And help us to hold to the truth of your love, grace, and mercy.

Keep us open to all people and beliefs, while holding a firm hold on you.

Help us to represent you well. For you love the world, the whole world.

All praise, glory, and honor to you. Amen.

[1] From James Edwards, Is Jesus The Only Savior, p. 203, quoted in Christianity Today, April 1, 2002, p. 45 [2] Taken from sermon by John Ortberg, Is Jesus the Only Way?, March 17 & 18, 2007 [3] James Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior, p.208 [4] John Burke in No Perfect People Allowed, p. 137, quoting Mortimer Adler. [5] John Burke, p. 137 [6] James Edwards, p. 229 [7] N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p.57 [8] One time Peter, the disciple, said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:34-35 [9] No Perfect People Allowed, p.143

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