As Christians, we believe Jesus is the One through whom all things were made and who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). We believe He is the Savior of all humanity and even the cosmos (1 Timothy 4: 10 and Colossians 1: 15,20). We believe that people come to understand who God truly is through Jesus (Hebrews 1:3).
So that brings the question of the other religions of the world. Does God use them in any way? Are they evil? Are they somewhat good? Do they have some truth in them, and what does that mean for their value?
That’s a large can of worms to open, and way too much for a short treatment in a blog post. But we can say a few things to get started on the subject.
1) C.S. Lewis once remarked that to say the Christian religion is right does not mean we must say everything in the other world religions is wrong. That is, there are things that other religions say that we agree with. It is not a bad thing, nor betrayal to Jesus, to say “We believe that too. Here’s why….”
2) God can act in a prevenient way through other religions, as seen in the Apostle Paul’s remark in Athens (Acts chapter 17). Paul affirms some truths about God that the Athenians have grasped, and then shares with them a fuller understanding that Christ brings. In many cases the world religions have led to better outcomes for people than what they replaced. We can appreciate values like justice, compassion and respect that are present in other religions. Even as we disagree with some significant aspects of another religion, we can recognize the presence of things that are important to God which are present in other religions. Wesleyans call this prevenient grace – ways God is acting in our lives even before we know Jesus. In the Old Testament God has also indicated His involvement in other peoples’ lives who do not yet know Him. One example would be Amos 9:7.
3) Obviously, we can point to times in history when the world religions have done some really terrible things – or really terrible things have been done in their name. This is true of all the religions, including Christianity. Perhaps we should exercise a bit of humility when talking about this issue, because down through the centuries Christians have perpetrated some pretty horrible human rights abuses in the name of Jesus, and of all people, Christians should have known better.
4) Most Christian theology does not consider the other religions to be “salvific.” By this we mean we would not consider the other religions “a road to heaven.” However, much Christian theology does keep the door open to the idea that God will nevertheless act salvificly in the lives of people who never heard of Christ. This would not mean their religion saved them, but that God applied the atonement of Jesus, and judged them “according to the light they had.”
5) We can also recognize that other religions have great diversity within them, and a great range of health and un-health in the ways they are practiced. For example, there are Muslims who practice Islam in ways that prioritize goodness, compassion, kindness to humanity, and a close relationship with God. There are other Muslims who practice a version of Islam that prioritizes violence, revenge, domination and conquest. Since I doubt that a billion Muslims will convert to Christianity next week, I prefer a world where a healthy Islam is practiced, rather than a violent one. Christianity also experiences this range, right? Many people practice a kind of Christianity that you or I might say “That’s not even Christian. It’s astray of the very tenets of our faith.”
6) Many missiologists believe that the most effective, Christlike approach to the other religions is to build bridges of commonality and friendship as we attempt to share what we know of Jesus with them. Pauls’ approach in Athens is often pointed to in this regard. Missionary Don Richardson has compiled an entire book featuring indigenous religions throughout the world that had beliefs – even prophecies about the Creator’s Son! – that prepared them for the Christian message. The book is called Eternity in Their Hearts. Sadly, we are also aware that this is not always an option, in places of great aggression, persecution or violence.
If you are interested in this, two other posts I’ve written related to this are: “Then Why Send Missionaries?” (in the section “Theology, Scripture, Theologians” ), and “John Wesley re: the Muslims” (in the section “Other Religions”).