6 Questions About Other World Faiths

INTRODUCTION

My goal in this blog post is to present what I take to be a Christian stance toward the world’s religions which emphasizes the necessity and centrality of the person of Jesus Christ and but maintains a healthy approach to others with different beliefs. I do not claim to be an expert on other religions, nor do I wish to describe them all in comprehensive detail. You can probably find a good book and do the research for yourself.[1]

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A religion is a system of beliefs and practices through which people make sense of life and the world around them.

To formulate a Christian stance on this topic, I will answer six questions that every believing student should ask about world faiths: (1) What is religion? (2) Are all religions basically saying the same thing? (3) Is there divine revelation in other religions? (4) How do people obtain salvation? (5) Could someone who has never heard of Jesus be saved? (6) Will people of other faiths go to hell?

1. WHAT IS A RELIGION?

A religion is a system of beliefs and practices through which people make sense of life and the world around them. These systems exist in order to connect their adherents to a higher power or a deeper source which is the basis of all of existence and gives meaning and coherence to human experience.

A religion can be studied on multiple levels of description. It can be described naturally as an historical, social and psychological phenomenon; it can also be understood theologically as a human attempt to interpret and make sense of divine revelation. These levels of description need not be mutually exclusive.

2. ARE ALL RELIGIONS BASICALLY SAYING THE SAME THING?

No. There are similarities, but there are also huge differences. They make radically different claims about the nature of the Divine, the basic human predicament, and the way of salvation. They all make unique truth claims about the nature of reality, so they can’t all be right.

hindu_trimurti
In traditional Hinduism, the one true God – Brahman – manifests as the Trimurti which consists of three gods: Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). All of reality, including the millions of gods in the Hindu pantheon, is identical to Brahman.

For example, the eastern monistic religions say that All-is-One. In pantheistic Hinduism, God is identical to everything and everything is identical to God; so the basic human problem is the illusion of our own individuality or separateness from God. Because All-is-One, any difference between me and others, self and God, or good and evil must ultimately break down in the end. Salvation, then, is liberation from this illusion.

By contrast, traditional monotheistic religions claim that God created everything but is distinct from us. We are created to relate to God but our basic problem is that we rebel against this. The path to salvation is found through forgiveness and reconciliation to God.

buddhaReligions also have different understandings of compassion. Outward acts of compassion may look similar across religions, but their meanings differ radically. Consider Zen Buddhism. The initial goal of compassion in Zen is to undo the ego by orienting oneself toward others; but its ultimate purpose is to transcend the other, to realize that the other is an illusion. There is no other to show compassion to: there is only One.

Unlike Zen, Christianity views compassion (or its cognate, agape love) as an irreducible relation between distinct individuals. Love is the ultimate reality because it exists (eternally) between the triune persons of the Godhead and it serves as the impetus for human acts of love. Its chief purpose is to uplift and honor the distinctiveness of others – not to transcend them.

3. IS THERE DIVINE REVELATION IN OTHER RELIGIONS?

Christianity affirms that all people have some knowledge of God (however vague it might be) through the natural world, the voice of human conscience, profound beauty, etc. Theologians call this universally accessible knowledge general revelation.

As I see it, most religions come into being as a result of people’s responses to the revelation that is available to them. But their responses are not always accurate or even helpful. For various reasons, humans are prone to accept certain aspects of that revelation but suppress other aspects of it. As a result, world religions disagree on major questions in spite of the common ground they share.

Christians claim that in addition to the general revelation made available to other religions, God has uniquely and decisively revealed his plan of salvation through the story of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, Christians hold that their religion is closer to divinely revealed truth than any other worldview.[2]

4. HOW DO PEOPLE OBTAIN SALVATION?

According to Christianity, our rebellion against God can only be resolved through the forgiveness and reconciliation that God himself provides – not through our good deeds. We are to perform grateful acts of service for the purpose of sanctification, but these are never enough to resolve our moral guilt before God. We are only made right with God on the basis of what Jesus Christ did; so our only recourse is to place our faith in what he accomplished.

The Christian understanding of salvation is in stark contrast to what Muslims believe. Islam rightly emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion toward his creatures, but it also requires good deeds to merit salvation. While the Qur’an does teach that Jesus was a prophet, it denies that Jesus was crucified (Surah 4:157) and therefore denies that his death played a necessary role in God’s salvation of humankind. These claims are incompatible with Christianity.

The Ka'aba is a cubic structure at the center of Islam's most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe that doing good deeds is necessary to secure forgiveness and mercy from Allah (God).
The Ka’aba is a cubic structure at the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe that doing good deeds is necessary to secure forgiveness and mercy from Allah (God).

5. COULD SOMEONE WHO HAS NEVER HEARD OF JESUS BE SAVED?

The bible gives us two reasons to be optimistic about this possibility. First, people were saved in the Old Testament without knowing about Jesus. Abraham and Melchizedek are examples of persons who had saving faith, but had very limited revelation of God.[3] In these cases, the work of Christ is applied to people who respond in faith to the revelation God has provided them. They are not saved by their works, but by God’s mercy in response to the faith they have. By extension, people living in other times and cultures who have never heard about Jesus have the opportunity to be saved, if they respond in faith to what God makes known to them.

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The cross on which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified has become Christianity’s defining symbol. It represents the self-sacrificial love of God in providing forgiveness for the human race.

Second, the intended scope the Christ’s atoning work is universal. Jesus died for the salvation of everyone, not just for Christians, so it would be rather bizarre if God provided for the salvation of the unevangelized but never gave them an opportunity to receive it. Therefore, given that Old Testament believers were saved and that Jesus died for everyone without exception, there is reason to be optimistic.

6. WILL PEOPLE OF OTHER FAITHS GO TO HELL?

I do not speak of all Christians on this matter and it is not for me to judge. But I believe that if hell is real, it is only for those who finally and persistently reject God’s overtures of love. Hell is not a torture chamber. It is self-imposed suffering and isolation from God. It may be hard to imagine how anyone could be finally lost in this way, but the biblical corpus says that this tragic situation will be a reality for some people, though by no means all. Some persons will have hardened themselves to such an extent that they are unwilling to accept God’s offer of forgiveness for the damage they have done in this life. They have sealed their own fate.[4]


[1] For a helpful introduction to the study of world religions, see Robert S. Ellwood & Barbara A. McGraw, Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions. 6th Ed. Prentice Hall: NJ, 1999.

[2] For case studies of divine revelation in non-Christian religions, see Terrance L. Tiessen, Who Can be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions Intervarsity: Downers Grove, 2004. Tiessen argues convincingly that God can (and often does) reveals himself to people of other faiths, but in a way that should not be characterized as either general revelation or universally normative special revelation.

[3] Abram had never heard of Jesus but he believed that God would bless the world through is offspring. His faith was credited as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Another example is Melchizedek, the mysterious figure who blessed Abram in Genesis 14. The text says that he served as a priest to most high God in spite of being outside the special covenants that God had made with Abram and Israel.

[4] For a helpful engagement of opposing viewpoints on the Christian doctrine of hell, consult Four Views on Hell. Ed. William Crockett Zondervan 1996. For a philosophical analysis of different models of heaven and hell, see Michael J. Murray’s chapter entitled “Heaven and Hell” in Reason for the Hope Within Eardmans: Grand Rapids, 1999, chapter 12. I remain agnostic about whether hell should be conceived as annihilation after a finite time, or as everlasting.

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