Depending on how we define them, there are thought to be about 20 different major religions in the world today, along with thousands of variations. About 33% of the world’s population claim to belong to one of the Christian denominations.
Numerically it might seem unfair that Christianity can be the one true religion. And John Hick’s claim that all the major world religions lead to God may seem more attractive.
Is it arrogant to claim that Jesus is the only way?
Christians can be arrogant in the way they express themselves, and this is regrettable. But anyone who claims that something is true risks being perceived as arrogant.
Was it arrogant of Columbus to claim that the earth was round when ancient philosophers had thought it was flat? If we believe something is true then we must also consider some rival ideas to be false.
All religions have disagreements over their differences. Buddhism contradicts the prevailing Hindu view of caste. Islam contradicts the Christian claim that Christ died on the cross. Some religions teach that there is no God (Zen Buddhism), whereas others teach that there are many gods.
Jesus Christ made the claim to be the ‘way and the truth and the life’, adding, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6). His death and resurrection provided the unique means through which our rebellious hearts could be forgiven and our nature changed.
Religions offer moral codes for self-improvement; Christ provided the unique gift of forgiveness and transforming grace. Therefore, it would have been natural for his first followers to boldly declare, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12).
Will people from other religions be saved?
People from any and every religion can be saved through Christ. The first followers were Jewish. There are Christian believers today from all religious backgrounds. But faith requires a personal response. God forces no one. We have the option of rejecting Christ and choosing a path of our own. John Hick held to the universalist hope that everyone will be saved. Such a hope is attractive but ignores the awesome responsibility of our human decision to accept or reject the gospel.
If only Jesus can provide forgiveness and a restored relationship with God, does it follow that every person who dies without coming to faith in him is eternally lost? We need to be very careful with this sensitive and profound question. Our answer should not dilute the gospel, but nor should we make claims beyond our limited understanding.
We know that many who lived before the time of Christ were saved through what they did know of God. Despite his sufferings, Job faithfully declared, ‘I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.’ (Job 19:25). Of Abraham, Jesus said he ‘rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad’ (John 8:56). Christ died for Abraham and Job and they were saved through their trust in the redeemer even though they could not have known his name.
What about those dying in infancy or those with severe learning disabilities? Christians have commonly been optimistic that they will be safe with Jesus. Even King David, on the death of his child with Bathsheba, hints at this optimism, ‘I will go to him, but he will not return to me’ (2 Samuel 12:23). Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon taught that all children dying in infancy were saved. This was not because such children were sinless but because God was able to apply the work of Christ to them even without their capacity to articulate faith. Could this be possible for others who die in ignorance of his name? Perhaps there will be those who in ignorance will, like Job, cry out to the creator God for mercy and receive salvation. All we can do is trust, with Abraham, that ‘the Judge of all the earth’ will ‘do right’ (Genesis 18:25).
Does God work in all religions?
The ancient world knew of many religions, just as we do. The Old Testament was clear that God wanted to set his people apart from those practices with confused images of him. Only Yahweh was the true God, the gods of the nations were deceptive idols. God originally created us in his image, but we have preferred to create gods in our image. That is what the Bible calls idolatry.
UNIVERSALISM IS ATTRACTIVE BUT IGNORES THE AWESOME RESPONSIBILITY OF OUR HUMAN DECISION TO ACCEPT OR REJECT THE GOSPEL
It does not follow from this that a Christian cannot find much to respect in other religions. God is at work in all people, and all cultures. He has revealed himself in historical events and in the order of creation. Made in the image of God, there remains some understanding of God in each one of us.
Paul appeals to this general revelation of God to the pagans of Lystra (Acts 14:17) and the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:27-28). He can even quote true insights about God from their own poets. General revelation provides points of contact for our explanation of the Christian faith. We can admire the Islamic reverence for Allah and the discipline of Islam as a way of life. We can learn from the Buddhist virtue of non-attachment to material possessions. Though salvation is through Christ alone, we can still learn much from our non-Christians friends.
Rather than being afraid of other religions, a Christian can be encouraged that God has never been without a witness. There is always some inkling of the divine reality in everyone. However, it would be misleading for a Christian to give the impression that someone can be saved through being religious. All religions, Christian traditions included, are a mixture of the good and the bad. Jesus Christ is the source of salvation. The most important question that God will ask of us is not ‘Which religion did you belong to?’ but ‘What does Jesus mean to you?’
Those who think all religions are the same look at the wrappings instead of the content.
Gene Edward Veith
Every religion at its core is exclusive.
Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly.
Aslan to the Calormene warrior in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle
Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder.
Chris Sinkinson's new book Backchat: Answering Christianity’s Critics (Christian Focus) is out now