(This is part 3 of a 3 part series delivered at Beacon Communities on September 14, 21, and 28, 2014. The series was titled, “Q4D: Questions 4 Doubters”.)
This is the third of three sermons in our series, Questions for Doubters. And today’s question–trying to give a voice to another serious objection to Christianity–is this: Don’t all religions lead to God in their own way? Aren’t all religious truth-claims equal?
I think one reason this is a popular idea is that religious claims about truth and certainty invite a knee-jerk reaction: For many people, Christianity just seems arrogant, claiming Jesus is the only way to God, only the Bible is right about God, all other religions are wrong, only Christians go to Heaven, and so on. Nice people who respect other people don’t like arrogance. While atheists are only about 2% of the world’s population, and non-religious people are only about 16%, 88% of the people on Earth hold some kind of religious belief system–mostly in the big four: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. So how can one religion claim to have a better handle on truth, a better path to God?
Movies like Eat, Pray, Love reflect this popular, tolerant idea: Gandhi said “My position is that all the great religions are fundamentally equal.” Rama Krishna said “Truth is one; sages call it by various names.” The belief that “all religions lead to god; they are basically the same and no religion can be wrong” is called “religious pluralism”. It seems nice and tolerant, but if you think about it, it is the opposite. The problem is that if a devout, educated Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Buddhist walk into a bar (sounds like a joke, right?) and have a conversation, they will all hold core beliefs that contradict each other. If you try to harmonize those religions by stripping away the incompatible parts, what remains would no longer be recognizable to their own adherents as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism. Attempts to harmonize religions are not tolerance, they are censorship—those attempts do violence to the sincere beliefs of most people on Earth. R.C. Sproul said, “We must note the difference between equal toleration under the law and equal validity according to truth.” Religions with contradictory truth claims can’t all be right. If there is such a thing as truth, then either, a) all religions are wrong, or b) one of them is right. We can, and should, be tolerant of the rights of all people to hold to their beliefs. But this doesn’t mean accepting them all as true. For to accept them all as true is to deny the truth of all religious convictions.
Moreover, our question, “Do all religions lead to the same God?” is exactly what Ghandi and Rama Krishna were saying. The idea itself actually is Hindu–on the surface, it appears to give respect to all religions, but in actuality, it elevates Hindu religion above all others. So, is Hinduism superior therefore to all other religions? And what about Islam and Buddhism, the other global religious heavy-weights? How should we evaluate religions? I agree with the former Hindu, Dr. Steve Kumar and scientist, Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, who point out, “There are three basic criteria we commonly employ to determine the validity and truthfulness of a worldview. These criteria affirm that in order for a religion to be true it must be: 1) Logically Consistent, 2) Factually Verifiable, 3) Existentially Liveable.”
What about Hinduism?
Is Hinduism “Logically Consistent”? The “mother of Eastern religions,” Hinduism is very old, dating to about the time Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Old Testament, but it isn’t really a single system of belief as much as a collection of theologies and practices: one Hindu scholar says, “… indeed Hinduism is a great storehouse of all kinds of religious experiments.” Hinduism acknowledges over 300 million gods with room for more! One Hindu leader converted to Islam, then to Christianity for several days, and remained a Hindu: all that matters is that you “accept the Hindu system of culture and life… what counts is conduct, not belief.” Hinduism includes every belief and assimilates it into a hodgepodge of spiritual ideas held loosely together by an overarching view that ultimately what we call “God” or Brahman, is in everything and everything is in God. There is nothing else. Everything you think you know, whether by science or experience, is an illusion. This life is an illusion, a fantasy. Only God is totally real. But nothing can be known about God because God, Brahman, cannot be understood in human thought or put into human words–God is illogical in essence and unknowable. The human problem, in Hindu pantheism, (the idea that everything is God) is that we think of ourselves as selves. We need to let that go and become absorbed in the Universe by “detachment from all desires and emotions… by absorption in the divine.” But if everything is God, then so is cruelty and evil. And if the murderer and victim are both God, then no harm done! there is no way to distinguish between hate and love. Hinduism says that nothing true can be said about Brahman–but then that statement is self-refuting because it is also a claim about something that is true of God. Hindus are taught not to think or look for a God above and beyond, but inside themselves to realize they are God and so is everything. To borrow a good quote, “…the Hindu belief system is very inadequate; to tell a man earnestly seeking God that he is God, is like telling a [hungry] beggar that he is food!”
While preparing this sermon for posting on the blog this afternoon, I and the other patrons of the coffee shop I’m sitting in were startled by the hysterical outbursts of an obviously very upset woman near the front of the cafe. I went and sat with her to help her calm down and find out what the trouble was. She had every reason to be hysterical. Her world had just been turned upside down and she felt like she had just lost everything—including the security of knowing where her next meal might come from. I found out she was hungry. And she started weeping, “God, help me! God, help me.” Imagine if I’d said, “Don’t worry, you are God. The answer to your problems is within you.” Instead I bought her a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and when she calmed down she used my phone to call some friends for help. Hindu answers seem woefully inadequate to the problems of real people.
What about Buddhism?
Is Buddhism “Existentially Liveable”? Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama about 500 years before Christ, as an offshoot of Hinduism. There are lots of schools of thought in Buddhism, in its two main branches today, but some reflection on the common tenets of Buddha’s thought will help us answer the question. My favourite quote from Buddha shows how illogical his thinking was: “I have not elucidated that the world is eternal, and I have not elucidated that the world is not eternal. I have not elucidated that the saint exists after death, I have not elucidated that the saint does not exist after death. I have not elucidated that the saint both exists and does not exist after death.” Buddhism is an adaptation of Hindu belief developed in order to answer the problem of human suffering. It’s not really a philosophy of God at all, but of life: the author of The Path of Buddha, states, “In Buddhism, there is no such thing as belief in a Supreme Being, a creator of the universe, the reality of an immortal soul, a personal Saviour.” Buddha taught his “Four Noble Truths”–the fact of suffering, its cause, its end, and the path to ending suffering–and a path of how to live the right way to achieve the ultimate goal of ending suffering. Buddhism teaches that the cause of suffering comes down to human desires. The more free you can become from desires, the better your next life will be, and repeat in life after life after life until you reach nothingness–Nirvana and a ceasing of all suffering. So Buddhism teaches its followers, “Those who love a hundred have a hundred woes. Those who love ten have ten woes. Those who love one have one woe. Those who love none have no woes.” So the teaching of Jesus, “Love one another,” is not a solution to suffering: in Buddhism it is part of the cause of suffering. In fact, Buddhism is not liveable: every Buddhist strongly desires to be free from suffering, but desire is the very problem Buddhism tries to eliminate. Practically, as one book points out, “How one is supposed to be desireless without desiring to be desireless is a problem few have any time to answer.” And statistically, countries where Buddhism is dominant remain some of the worst in terms of human suffering. G.K. Chesterton was right when he said, “We may call Buddhism a faith; though to us it seems more like a doubt.”
What about Islam?
Is Islam “Factually Verifiable?” As we watch on TV (in 2014), images of the Islamic State executions and conquests in Syria and Iraq, we come face to face with a system of religious belief dating back to the self-proclaimed prophet, Muḥammad ibn `Abd Allāh, around 600 years after Jesus. It is a religion centred around Muhammad’s writings in a book called the Koran. Historians of religion note that Islam is really a Christian “heresy” since, as historian E.O. James said in History of Religion, “…[Muhammad] got most of his material from late forms of Judaism and Christianity, often curiously distorted and garbled.” Muhammad taught that Jesus was “the Word of God”, the greatest prophet, that he was sinless, born of a virgin, and performed miracles (Sura 4:169; 3:36, 37 & 19:19). But against the historical and manuscript evidence I talked about in my first post in this series, and in the second post, most Muslims still believe today, as they have been taught, that Jesus never died on the cross and was never resurrected, but was snatched away to Heaven by God. Muhammad could not accept the historical reality of Jesus crucifixion because he believed that it would mean God had failed Jesus–and that’s the whole point of the religion of Islam, an Arabic word that means “surrender”, that God, or Allah, always wins and all people must submit to God by submitting to Islam. Therefore, holy war is commanded in the Koran, in order to spread Islam. Muhammad planned 65 military campaigns and saw the expansion of his religious empire throughout the Arabian Peninsula. After his death, many of the the historic centres of the Christian faith, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, North Africa–these became Muslim, not by the spread of beliefs and ideas but by war. After the crusades, Islam spread under the Turks to conquer the centre of world Christianity at that time, the Byzantine Empire, which has been Islamic, modern Turkey ever since. In the Koran, Sura 66:9 says, “O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites… Hell will be their home…”. Because of passages like this, historian Sir Steven Runciman wrote, “Unlike Christianity, which preached a peace that it never achieved, Islam unashamedly came with the sword.” Drs. Kumar and Sarfati conclude, “So while atrocities committed in the name of Christ, such as during the Crusades, were inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, the atrocities committed by Muslims are consistent with Muhammad’s teachings and actions.” You and I know most German citizens were not in favour of the extermination of 6 million Jews at the time of the Holocaust– and most Muslims today want peace not war. But the events unfolding in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Libya today show that many Muslims follow Muhammad’s example. Other Islamic governments who seem moderate by comparison, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, UAE, etc., actually don’t disagree with the militant hopes of more violent groups—they essentially disagree with their methods!
Some will argue that the Bible promotes violence as well, but I would argue that’s a misinterpretation. For example, passages where war is commanded or violence narrated and at times condoned, are balanced with an explicit commandment, “thou shalt not kill”. (One of the most horrific stories in the Bible, in Judges 19, seems on the surface to condone brutal violence, not to mention mistreatment of women. But a closer reading reveals that the story is in reality a judgement, a condemnation of the disregard for human life and rampant immorality found at that time in the nation of Israel—which had suffered massive moral decline to the point that happenings in Israel were no better in places than had been the case in former times when the land was populated by the Canaanites, c.f. Judges 20:4-10. According to the biblical account, then, just as the immorality and abuse of human life rampant among Canaanites led to the condemnation and conquest of their nation, God condones holding people—even in Israel in Judges 19-20, responsible for their own immorality and abuse.) God requires justice for crimes of evil. But as the Bible’s story unfolds, and God’s plan is revealed in greater and greater detail, the later passages of the Bible reveal that love triumphs over justice: Jesus’ teachings call for love, peace, reconciliation and mercy. Contrary to much public opinion, from the beginning of the biblical storyline, God reveals that His will is for all people to love one another, respect life, protect the weak and vulnerable, and yes, enforce justice in the face of evil.
We celebrated Remembrance Day in Canada just a couple of weeks ago. On that day we remember the sacrifice of Canada’s men and women who served in various wars to see justice enforced and evil restrained. World War II is a prime example: no one would say the war was what civilized people wanted. But morality demanded that our nation and others take a stand to confront evil, stand in its way and say, “Stop!” The Bible shows God stepping into a messed up world to put a stop to evil. At first by providing a moral code, and judgement by force; in the end by changing hearts through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In contrast, Muslims are taught to reconcile apparent contradictions in the Koran by giving more weight to the later writings: these got more and more violent as Muhammad got older and more powerful. His rantings become progressively more severe and in favour of violence and war against unbelievers. You would think that a divine call to war against infidels would have strong support in historically verifiable proofs that Muhammad was a true prophet of God. But Islam doesn’t have such proof. There is no evidence Muhammad’s scriptures came from God–and the writings attributed to him are not consistent with the teachings of the other prophets he said came before him, like Moses and Daniel and Jesus. So not only are Muhammad’s writings lacking verifiable historical proof, they are inconsistent with and contradictory to the writings of earlier prophets Muhammad himself claimed God had sent.
In their book, which I relied on a lot for this sermon, Kumar and Sarfati show Christianity is unique.
Christianity answers the questions of history, offers a solution to the problem of sin, removes the burden of guilt, releases from the fear of death, reverses despair into hope, and provides power to live a victorious life with God. [The conclusion] is therefore completely logical, ‘For the human sickness there is one specific remedy, and this is it. There is no other.’
Every Sunday in this church we preach the Bible to show that Jesus is God’s Saviour and Solution to humanity’s deepest problems: to death, suffering, despair and sin. We preach the Gospel–that what the Bible records happened through Jesus in real history is “Good News,” hope in which God invites every human being to discover for themselves. But today let’s finish by putting Christianity to the test we used for other religions: Is it 1) Logically Consistent, 2) Factually Verifiable, 3) Existentially Liveable?
- We saw two weeks ago, that the claims of Jesus Christ stand up to rational inquiry; that they are logical, that in fact if God exists, as the Bible gives every reason to believe, faith in Jesus is the most rational, logical, reasonable response possible. “[Logical] Absurdities which are expressed in Hinduism and Buddhism… are not found in Christianity.”
- We saw last week that the Bible is the most historically verifiable ancient book in the world. The text of our modern editions of the Bible are incredibly accurate to ancient copies dug up and discovered by archaeologists again and again. Thousands of ancient copies confirm it: There is no book like the Bible. The many historical events and details recorded in the Bible have been put to the test over and over again and found to be true. And even the hard-to-believe events, like the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead, is backed up with so much evidence, even from non-Christian sources, that it is no wonder that God invites skeptics to put the Bible to the test. The Bible does not call readers to put your trust in an abstract philosophy, or a dubious claim that “God told me to tell you this…”, but in an historical event– “the Christian faith is grounded and rooted in history.”
- But is Christianity “existentially liveable”–can you live it out in a real and authentic way?
The very concept of reality affirmed by Christianity is the concept everybody actually lives by anyway even if they don’t share the faith. This worldview fuelled Western civilization and democracy: there is right and wrong, good and evil, morality and immorality–genocide is evil; murdering children is evil; love and kindness are good; schools were built to teach literacy so that people could read the Bible; hospitals to love and care for the sick. These good things flourished in Western civilization because of Christianity and so did science. Peter Harrison, now the Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, wrote,
It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible…the reverse is the case: …when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world.
Strange as it may seem, the Bible played a positive role in the development of science… Had it not been for the rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the subsequent appropriation of biblical narratives by early modern scientists, modern science may not have arisen at all. In sum, the Bible and its literal interpretation have played a vital role in the development of Western science.
“Literal interpretation” here does not mean wooden and naive, but according to rules of literary interpretation. Drs. Kumar and Sarfati agree: “scientists started to study nature in the same way they studied the Bible. Just as they studied what the Bible really said, rather than imposing outside philosophies and traditions upon it, they likewise studied how nature really did work, rather than accept philosophical ideas about how it should work…”
Psalm 19 in the Bible explains that God reveals Himself in part through His Creation:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” (Psa 19:1-2 ESV)
The New Testament announces that God became a human, revealing Himself in a personal way, to reach out and show His love in real history, with a written record and eye-witnesses we can believe:
” And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known,” and, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (Joh 1:14-18, 12).
There are many religions. But there is only one God. And Jesus Christ is how He invites us to know Him.
 Christianity for Skeptics, Steve Kumar and Jonathan Sarfati (Creation Book Publishers, 2013), p 137.
 Ibid., p 138.
 Sproul, R.C., Objections Answered, G/L Publications, California, p. 40, 1978. Quoted in Ibid., p. 138.
 Kumar & Sarfati, p. 177.
 Sen, K.M., Hinduism, Penguin Books, Middlesex, p. 37, 1961. Quoted in Ibid., p 141.
 Radhakrishnan, S. The Hindu View of LIfe, London, p. 38, 1931. Quoted in Ibid.
 Barbour, I., Issues in Science and Religion, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, p. 234, 1966. Quoted in Ibid., p. 144.
 Quoted in Head, J. and Cranston, S.L. (Eds.), Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, Warner Books, New York, p. 61, 1977. Quoted in Ibid., p. 170-171.
 Morgan, K.W., (Ed.), The Path of Buddha, Ronald Press, New York, p. 71, 1956. Quoted in Ibid., p. 146.
 Ibid., 147.
 Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man, Hodder & Stoughton, London, p. 21, 1947. Quoted in Ibid.
 James, E.O, HIstory of Religions, English University Press, London, p. 190, 1956. Quoted in Ibid., p. 149.
 Ibid, p. 152.
 Neill, S., Crises of Belief, Hodder & Stoughton, London, pp. 81-82, 1984. Quoted in Ibid., p. 149.
 Quoted in Lundstrom, ref. 454, p. 37. Quoted in Ibid., p. 152.
 Ibid., 152.
 Ibid., p. 153.
 Ibid., p. 178.
 Harrison, P. The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science, Cambridge University Press, 2001. Quoted in Ibid., p. 132.
 Harrison, P. “The Bible and the rise of science, Australasian Science 23 (3):14-15, 2002. Quoted in Ibid.
 Ibid., p. 133.