Christianity and the other religions

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”).

More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

Back just before Rob Bell’s Love Wins came out, people were freaking out. I don’t know why, because the book hadn’t even hit the shelves yet. But somehow enough had leaked out that the firestorm was in full swing. I was suspicious that what had everybody going was that Rob was going to talk about other views of  ‘the fate of the wicked’ than simply “they burn forever and ever”. Since views of hell that were over instantaneously, or only temporary and remedial in nature were much more numerous in historic Christianity than most North Americans realized, I wrote the following summary of the short-terms hells for our church’s website. This post will get us around to a post I will write soon “Then Why Send Missionaries?”

Various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).

The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’  (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” “the saints” and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)

Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it).  The idea  has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true,  by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law,  Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer.  The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.

Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:

  • the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
    •  modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehennaSheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
    • the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
    • Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
  • 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
  • It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment  is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)  and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .)   Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
  • ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.

C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash – a false-god – all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).

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–          Some Christians ask “If someone can eventually get right with God after death, why send missionaries?” I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.