Is the same message in all the world’s religions?

My seven “Conspiracy Theories about Christianity” posts provided an opportunity for an interesting conversation which included the question above. Are all the religions of the world essentially saying the same thing, or is there a difference among them?

I suppose to answer that question, one must first define religion. Is religion worship of a God or gods? Is religion a collection of moral guidelines? Is religion an attempt to understand the surrounding world and its history? Is religion a way of life?

If the core of religion is morality, then most of the world’s religions have almost the same message. Indeed, many secular philosophies agree on a moral code. Nearly every religion has some version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others the way you would have them do unto you”). With the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, people all over the world believe that kindness to others is essential for a moral life. This includes respecting the lives, families, property, and reputations of others. Caring for the world in general is often a religious principle. Not being obsessed with worldly things such as wealth and political power is generally recommended by religions and by philosophies. Most religions would also add reverence toward holy things, including God or the gods.

How do people explain a common moral code throughout humanity? A secular thinker might claim that this moral sense evolved to protect the survival of the human species. A religious thinker might respond that the Creator embedded these morals in all people, giving us a conscience to guide us, to condemn us when we do wrong, and to defend us when we do right and are accused of doing wrong.

Religious practices are very diverse, but they can be diverse within religions as well as between religions. The four services of an Eastern Orthodox congregation, a high-church Anglican congregation, a rural Baptist congregation, and an inner-city Pentecostal congregation might each seem foreign to visitors from the other three congregations, even as they honor the same God and proclaim the same faith in Jesus Christ while reading from the same Bible. One truth can be stated and celebrated in a variety of ways.

For Christians, however, the core truth of their religion is neither moral codes nor worship practices. The core truth is Jesus Christ, crucified to atone for sin and risen to proclaim victory over evil. The core truth is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. True, some Christian groups veer from the core truth into distractions: works righteousness, political activity (whether right-wing or left-wing), help for the poor and afflicted, or making the worship experience just right. These distractions—some from bad things and others from good things—may make people inside the Church and people outside the Church confused about the purpose of the Church. The Church does one thing that no one else in the world can do. That one thing is not to teach morality or to help the poor or to provide an inspiring and uplifting experience. The one thing that happens only among Christians is forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Other religions offer ways to become connected to God or to the gods. These ways generally include various human acts: prayers, incantations, sacrifices, self-harm, and others. Christianity teaches that reconciliation with God is accomplished by God as he enters the world as Jesus of Nazareth, keeping God’s promise of a Savior, living a sinless life in the place of every sinful life, paying a ransom on the cross—giving his own life to purchase sinners for the kingdom of God, and defeating every form of evil—including death—by his death and resurrection.

Imagine a group of people gathered from the various religions of the world. Imagine each of them being asked to list what is wrong in the world. Compare the lists. They would probably be very similar. They would include such problems as war, crimes, violence, hatred, disrespect for authority, pollution of the environment, loss of awe toward the holy, and the like. Now ask them what should be done to improve the world. One Hindu might say, “Accept it and learn from it—it’s karma.” Another Hindu might say, “But my karma is to be a good person and make the world better.” A Buddhist might say, “Do the right things—the Eight-Fold Path—without becoming attached to the things of the world.” A Daoist might say, “Just go with the flow.” A Confucianist might say, “Learn the rules and do what is right.” A Shintoist might say, “Be in harmony with all the spirits and living things that surround you.” A Jew might say, “Obey the commandments and honor the Holy One.” A Muslim might say, “Praise Allah and live according to his instruction.” But a Christian would say, “All those things are well and good, but we cannot fix the world. Evil is too big for us to fight it alone. Jesus has already come to fix what is broken. He has forgiven sinners. He has rescued victims. He will make the world new. He is waiting now for more to learn what he has done and come to faith in him before he reappears to make everything new.”

That Christian is not going to despise obedience to the moral code. That Christian is going to try his or her best to honor God, help his or her neighbors, improve the world, and fight evil. But that Christian does not count his or her works as the real answer to evil. The real answer is that the good and holy God has already defeated evil, not as a warrior, but as a victim. His love and his forgiveness are for all people. God does not want to punish any sinners; he wants the entire world to be reconciled to him.

When evil first entered the world, God promised our ancestors a rescue mission. The serpent’s head would be crushed. God would prevail over evil. This promise was for all people. C.S. Lewis has proposed that the theme of a hero who dies and returns to life, found in so many cultures all over the world, is a dim memory of that promise. I suggested last week that the same theme might come from the natural cycle of planting and harvesting, but that God placed that cycle into our world as a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Again, God does not want to judge and condemn sinners. He wants to rescue sinners. He promises that the citizens of his kingdom will come from all the nations and tribes and languages of the world. But they cannot come from all the religions of the world. All those in the new creation will be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Those who say, “There is no God” or “there are many gods” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Those who say “God has no Son” or “I am my own savior” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Jesus wants all people to know the truth. He sent his apostles to preach the Gospel to the entire world. The Church continues today to reach out to the entire world. We do not say “only Christians will be saved” because we want to close heaven to others. We say “only Christians will be saved” because we want others to come to know Jesus and to trust in him. We look forward to the beautiful harmonious diversity of the new creation, in which people from every culture gather together, united by our Savior, Jesus Christ. J.

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Who is correct about religion?

What are the origins of religion? Why are so many people so religious, while others are so hostile toward religion? Why are there so many religions in the world, and why are they so different from each other?

Traditional practitioners of religion generally believe that their religion is the true religion and that all other religions are distortions of the truth. Take the two largest religions: traditional Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Christians believe that the first people to live in the world knew Jesus and that Moses and the prophets foretold the birth and mission of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying that Moses and the prophets wrote about him. Traditional Muslims believe that Allah is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Muslims believe that the first people to live in the world knew Allah and that Moses and the prophets (including Jesus) all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, the message that is written as the Quran. Traditional Muslims say firmly that Jews and Christians follow distorted messages from the prophets of Allah but that the Quran is the true and timeless message from Allah.

When I went to college, I learned about a different approach to the history of religion. This could be called the evolutionary approach. According to this approach, primitive humans did not understand the world and were in awe of its workings, from the violence of thunderstorms to the regular growing of crops. What they did not understand they attributed to spirits, and they came to believe that powerful but invisible spirits filled the world. Over time, they began to worship some of these spirits as gods. Heroes from earlier times were also remembered and worshiped as gods. Each culture had its own gods, although they often would borrow gods from one another. Over time, different cultures began to think that their god was better than all the other gods. They would consider success—in warfare, in agriculture, in business, or in any other sphere—as proof that they were honoring the strongest of the gods. After many generations, some cultures began to develop monotheism—the belief in one god. Monotheism appeared briefly in Egypt but was rejected. It appeared in Israel as monotheistic Judaism, and it appeared in Persia as monotheistic Zoroastrianism. Christianity and Islam then developed from these two monotheistic religions, gaining the power to share their beliefs with other civilizations and convert them. Finally, during the Baroque period of European history, thinkers in what they called the Enlightenment developed deism. Deists believe that a god created the world and established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living. However the god of the deists is not presently active in the world. This god has been compared to a watchmaker who assembles the watch, winds the spring, and leaves it to run on its own. Deists do not believe in miracles. They do not believe that worship or prayer have any value. Their focus is largely on learning and following the moral teachings established by god at the beginning of time. Today many atheists and agnostics consider themselves the heirs of deism, the final step in the evolution of religion which began with primitive people who do not understand the world but ends with scientific people who both understand and control their world.

Both views of religion are internally consistent, so which one is more likely to be true? Has religion evolved from primitive times to the present, or has religion de-evolved from a shared set of beliefs to many different forms of religion? Which position is best supported by the evidence that is available?

Many of the indigenous religions of Africa and the South Pacific islands have a core of monotheism with a twist: practitioners of these religions believe that a single powerful god made the world and all that exists. They also believe that this god is no longer involved in the world. Whether this god lost interest in the world or whether this god is angry that people have broken the moral laws, the god is no longer available to people of this world. Many other spiritual beings have arisen, though, to watch over people. They exist to hear and answer the prayers of people, to grant good things to people who worship them and who live moral lives but to bring trouble to those who do not worship the lesser gods and do not live by the moral code. Early Chinese texts also indicate that monotheism was believed by the earliest Chinese writers. The multitude of gods in Chinese thought developed largely from the belief that ancestors remained spiritually present after death to watch over the families, rewarding them for holding to the old ways and punishing them for developing new ways. Monotheism changed to polytheism as these glorified ancestors took the place of gods. Advantage: de-evolution.

The moral code of the world’s religions is remarkably similar wherever it appears. The basic rules about honoring the divine and being kind to other people are found in every religion. The Golden Rule—to treat others as you want to be treated—is expressed in every religion. Traditional believers see this as proof that the one true God put his Law in the hearts of people everywhere. Those who favor the evolution of religion search for details to prove diversity rather than a common set of teachings. They point to details—some religions permit and encourage the abandonment of unwanted babies and of the elderly while others condemn those acts as murder—but the former group views the death of the weak as a kindness to them and not as cruelty. Those who abandon their parents in such cultures hope that their own children will abandon them when they can no longer take care of themselves. The pursuit of kindness remains their motivation. Advantage: de-evolution.

Ever since the start of the so-called Enlightenment, self-labeled progressives have prepared the world for the end of religion. Science and education will end our silly superstitions, they say, and humanity will fulfill its destiny by forsaking primitive beliefs for modern and enlightened thoughts. Their announcement of the death of religion has been badly premature. Even in the atheist state of the Soviet Union, Christianity remained alive but largely hidden for seventy years. When the Soviet Union ended, the churches reopened. Humanity has not outgrown its need for a god; science and technology have brought world wars and polluted environments and the possibility of destruction of life on this planet, but religion brings hope that God remains in control of the world he made. The failure of religion to disappear—its continued importance in the lives of most humans—indicates that people are not evolving away from primitive superstitions that led to religion. Some may drift away, and their drifting may take them different directions, but religion continues to be meaningful and significant in the twenty-first century. Advantage: de-evolution.

Those who announce the evolution of religion and its eventual demise search through the holy books of religion—especially the Bible—seeking evidence that religion has developed over time. They point to scattered verses, taken out of context, to try to prove that ancient Israel changed from polytheism to henotheism (“My god is better than your god”) to monotheism. With their bits of evidence, they tell themselves that they have won the debate, just as other people are convinced they can prove that Paul McCartney died in 1965 or that Elvis Presley is still alive. This debate will not end in the foreseeable future, because both sides have a deeply held conviction—one might say, a religious faith—that they are right and the other side is wrong. Only in time will the final verdict be known. J.