Christianity and World Religions
A reflection upon the numerous religions of the world leaves many people with a profound sense of confusion. Widely divergent beliefs are held by multitudes around the globe whose sincerity can scarcely be questioned. This state of discord frequently causes people to question the validity of any religion. The conclusion is not justified.
On the other hand, many, shifting to an opposite extreme, adopt an equally untenable position. They allege that perhaps all religions are right—never realizing, apparently, how such a contradictory ideology reflects upon the very nature of God.
Others suggest that one has the legitimate option of choosing whatever he considers to be “good” from any or all religious systems. They thus formulate a conglomerate “faith” of their own design.
The truth is not resident in any of these theories.
There was a time when most Christians had little need for information concerning the concepts of Eastern philosophies and religions. That day is past. In our modern era of global travel and instant, around-the-world communication, the saying that “East is East; West is West; and never the twain shall meet,” is obsolete.
Eastern mysticism, via television and the world-wide web, now can step right into our living rooms. This exposure, together with the confused state of “Christendom,” and combined with the crass materialism of the Western world, has made many vulnerable to the ideologies of the East. When people get “turned off” of traditional religion, they usually will gravitate toward some other religious outlet—regardless of how baseless it may be.
Add to all of this the fact that the so-called “sacred scriptures” of the East are now widely and inexpensively circulated in America. These include the Vedas of Hinduism, the Pali Canon of Buddhism, and the Yi-Ching of Confucianism. These writings are being read by many of the younger generation. We can no longer afford to ignore the religions of the East—or the West, for that matter (e.g., Islam). These are forces with which we must deal.
The challenge, therefore, is before us. How does one argue the case for Christianity, versus other world religions? The answer simply is this: one must be able to show the genuineness of Christianity, in contrast to the unsubstantiated bases of other religious systems. The former is supported by objective proofs—the latter are not. If the Christian system can be demonstrated to be true, then its claim of being the only valid religion must be conceded.
There is biblical precedent for the comparative approach we propose in this investigation. When the Holy Spirit wanted to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism (even though the latter was given by God), he drew a series of contrasts between the two regimes. This is reflected in the book of Hebrews. Christ, through whom Christianity came, is superior to angels (through whom the Mosaic law was conveyed—Hebrews 1:5-2:18); Jesus was greater than either Moses or Joshua (leading figures of the Hebrew system—Hebrews 3-4). Finally, the Lord’s priesthood stands above that of the Old Testament economy (Hebrews 5-7).
The question is, then: can the Christian religion be demonstrated to stand aloof from the various world religions that have proceeded strictly from human sources? We are confident it can be. As historian Phillip Schaff once observed, Christianity cannot be fully appreciated until it is contrasted with heathen systems (1916, 21). And this we propose to demonstrate.
The Matter of History
Unlike the mystical and subjective religious systems of the East, Christianity is a body of belief (and practice) that either stands or falls on the basis of its historical claims. E.F. Harrison has expressed the matter in this fashion:
Some religions, both ancient and modern, require no historical basis, for they depend upon ideas rather than events. Christianity is not one of these (1968, 11).
Did Jesus Christ really live? There is ample evidence from a variety of historical sources that he did. (See The Historicity of Jesus Christ.) Did he enter the world by means of a supernatural birth? Did he perform credible miracles to buttress his claim of being from God, and, in nature, deity himself? Is there solid evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead?
The answer to these questions is a resounding, “Yes.” (For a more detailed consideration of this matter, see Flesh and Blood Did Not Reveal It.) The facts regarding Jesus may be investigated and checked. They are as certain as history can be. No one, who is reasonably capable of analyzing historical data, can deny the unshakable foundation of the Christian religion.
On the other hand, the philosophies of the East are almost wholly unconcerned with history. In some branches of Buddhism, for instance, the very historical reality of Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha) is irrelevant. One can be a Buddhist in good standing and not even acknowledge Buddha’s existence! Hinduism has no known founder, prophet, priest, king, or doctrine. It has been said that Hinduism is “more a culture than a creed.” Confucianism has no historical credentials to establish it as a divine system. The teaching of Confucius basically was neither religious nor philosophical, but merely social. The truth is, there was very little religious impulse at all in the attitude of Confucius regarding life.
According to the Christian Scriptures, God is an eternal, living, Spirit Being (John 4:24), who is the Creator and Sustainer of his universe (Acts 17:24; Colossians 1:16-17). Yet, he is separate from the material creation—transcendent to it. In terms of character, he is a loving and merciful Deity, who has knowledge of, and a concern for, his creation (1 John 4:8; Ephesians 2:4). At the same time, he is a just Being (Psalm 89:14). He will deal severely with those who wantonly rebel against him (Romans 2:5; 11:22). On the other hand, God is interested in humanity’s enlightenment and salvation, and has made ample provision for man, both providentally and redemptively (cf. Acts 17:30-31).
In glaring contrast, the gods of Eastern mysticism are no gods at all (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:5). Buddhism denies the existence of a personal God altogether (because of the seeming inequities of human suffering upon the earth). This religious system has been described as a non-theistic, ethical discipline; a man-centered, self-training program with no faith or formal worship (though many revere the images of Buddha and other “holy men” of that system). The so-called Buddha (not a name, but a title, meaning “The Enlightened One”) himself is shrouded in mythological mist. The oldest Buddhist writings were not even composed until some four hundred years after his death.
Hinduism, the principal religion of East India, contains no consistent theological concept. It is a sort of pick-what-you-will philosophy. Generally, Hindus are polytheistic (worshipping many gods). It is said that the Hindu pantheon contains some three hundred thirty million “gods,” which mainly are personifications of the forces of nature (cf. Romans 1:18-23). One may be a Hindu and revere a few gods, one god, or no god!
As a matter of fact, Hinduism is quite pantheistic. In India there is a sacred saying of three words: “Thou are That,” which is to say, the individual soul (Atman) is to be identified with the all-pervading “God” (Brahman). Hinduism sees the universe as “one” with God, who is totally impersonal. Such ideologies are not only God-dishonoring, they are utterly impotent to elevate humanity. Ultimately, like atheism, they make man his own god.
Confucianism, taking its name from Kong-fu-tse (“the prince of wisdom”), who lived five centuries before Jesus, is another form of idolatry. Basically it is grounded in the notion of reverence for parents and superiors. It involves, therefore, the worship of ancestors. Parents are to be respected (Ephesians 6:1ff), but they are not gods. Confucianism’s moral base is wholly materialistic, having no foundation grounded in the character of the true God.
Standard of Truth
According to the Christian Scriptures, truth is objective, i.e., it originates outside of man. It comes from God as a source, and has its roots in the eternal nature of the Creator himself. The divine body of truth was progressively revealed across the centuries of history by inspired prophets who made known the will of God to man (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10ff; Hebrews 1:1ff). Along the way, this sacred revelation was manifested in written form, culminating ultimately in the supernatural writings which constitute the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The central theme of the Scriptures is Jesus Christ, who was foretold by the prophets, and who was manifested as a human being during the administration of Augustus Caesar (1 Timothy 3:16; Luke 2:1). Christ is the living embodiment of truth, and the “good news” (gospel) regarding his mission is the “word of truth” (2 Corinthians 6:7). According to the New Testament, there is no access to God other than through Christ (Luke 10:16; John 14:6).
Eastern religion stands in bold relief to this view of truth. To the Eastern mind, the concept of a logical, systematic, consistent body of truth is a complete stranger. From the standpoint of biblical revelation, truth is objective and propositional. It can be analyzed and known. It is consistent because God is a Being of truth (John 17:17), and not one of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). Biblical truth is logical and exclusive. For example, it is a proposition of truth that God is. Anything that contradicts that must be viewed as false.
On the other hand, to the Eastern mind “truth” need be neither logical nor consistent. To the Buddhist, for instance, the notion that “God is,” or, that he “is not,” is an equally valid belief. There is no ultimate “truth” by which this statement is to be measured. For the Eastern mystic, the propositions that “God is” and “God is not” are simply parts of the one universe as a whole. This sounds totally foolish—and it is; but to one who is conditioned to think in terms of non-logical processes, it is not a bothersome thing at all.
If it is the case though, that “truth” is merely subjective and relative, why would a Buddhist or Hindu ever work to convert others to those systems? Such makes no sense whatever. It is entirely inconsistent. But then “inconsistency,” we are told, is a portion of all that is within the universe, and thus is truth itself! It hardly goes without saying that countries who have adopted this mode of thinking generally are some of the most disadvantaged in the world.
Sin and Savior
All responsible human beings do that which is wrong (Romans 3:10,23; 1 John 1:8,10). According to the biblical record, this is because there is a divine law from God, and the breaking of that law is an act of spiritual criminality. Violation of the Creator’s will is called “sin.”
Sin is demonstrated in a variety of ways. It may be reflected in a determined refusal to hear the Lord’s instruction (Jeremiah 11:10; Acts 7:57), or in a disbelief of the reasonable evidence he has provided (John 16:9). Sin may be an overt transgression of divine law (1 John 3:4), or merely a neglect of it (James 4:17). It may be committed presumptuously (Psalm 19:13), or through ignorance (Hebrews 9:7; cf. ASV fn). In the final analysis, though, all sin leads to spiritual death (James 1:15).
Man is totally without the ability to provide a remedy for his sin. He is, therefore, desperately in need of a Savior. The gospel message is that God sent his Son into the world to offer salvation to the ruined human family (Luke 19:10; John 3:16; 1 Timothy 1:15). That Son, Jesus Christ, committed no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15). He was, therefore, perfectly qualified to serve as a sacrifice for sin (cf. Romans 3:24-26). In the holy plan of God, he died to pay the price of redemption on behalf of all who submit to the conditions of his will (Hebrews 5:9; Acts 2:38).
In contradistinction, Eastern thought does not see man as one who has departed from his Maker. Hinduism, for example, insists that the soul has always existed and will continue to exist until, through a process of numerous re-births (reincarnation), it is merged with the Soul of Souls. All of man’s present circumstances—joy and sadness, wealth and prosperity, health and affliction, etc.—are Karma, i.e., the consequence of what he has done in some previous phase of his existence. Karma is thus viewed as neither good nor bad. It simply is. As one writer observes: “In the Eastern way of thinking there is ultimately no difference between good and evil; they are purely relative” (Chapman 1981, 150). So, man works his own way out of the human predicament. Such a notion is the very antithesis of Christian doctrine (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-7).
In Buddhism (and Buddhism is the offspring of Hinduism), one finally escapes Karma by the elimination of desire, and, as David Bentley-Taylor notes: “It is an evolutionary process to be achieved by one’s own effort” (Anderson 1950, 1126).
Anyone who is able to assess the evidence, and draw reasonable inferences, must conclude that the religious systems of the East are wholly impotent. They deny man’s true status as a creature who needs to be reconciled to his God. And so, as a consequence, they see no need for a Savior; and even if they did, their systems provide none. They have no way of obtaining release from the real and universal emotion—the guilt of doing wrong. Would that they might open their eyes to the Savior whose gospel is for every creature (Mark 16:15-16).
For those who die in harmony with the will of God, the Holy Scriptures promise an eternal state of fellowship with Deity (John 14:3; Revelation 21:3). But man does not become God in the final order of things. The eternal abode is called “heaven.” It is a place of great reward (Matthew 5:12), where spiritual treasures are laid up (Matthew 6:20). It is a state in which saints will exist in new, glorified bodies (though not physical ones; Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:42ff). There, the redeemed will serve the Creator—forever in a state of bliss. In a word, it will be the beginning of what human existence was meant to be.
The philosophy of the East can be summed up in one word: escape. It is a dismal desire for release from Karma. The Buddhist, for instance, longs for Nirvana, which may be described as something between annihilation and continued existence. Does that sound contradictory? Of course it does. But one must remember that even “contradiction” is “truth” in the oriental method of thinking.
The Buddha did not like to talk about existence after death. Perhaps his most elaborate comment on the subject was this:
There is, disciples, a condition, where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light, neither limitless space, nor limitless time, neither any kind of being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor that world. There is neither arising nor passing-away, nor dying, neither cause nor effect, neither change nor standing still (Sacred Books of the Buddhists 2:154).
One must kindly say that such a statement is utterly nonsensical.
The Christian system stands alone. It has no legitimate competitors. It represents the only hope for a world immersed in evil. The sincerity and dedication of many of the devotees of the Eastern religions (that admittedly sometimes puts some “Christians” to shame) can never be a substitute for humble obedience to God through the acceptance of his Son.
- Anderson, J. N. D. 1950. The World’s Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Chapman, Colin. 1981. The Case for Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Harrison, E. F. 1968. A Short Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Schaff, Phillip. 1916. Theological Propaedeutic—A General Introduction to the Study of Theology. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.