Most people in the United States consider themselves Christian, and most Americans consider the United States to be a Christian nation in some form or fashion, even though we are a secular state. In recent decades the extent to which American might be called Christian has been changing rapidly. Along with the decline of membership in Christian churches has been the rise of relativistic attitudes which think that one religion is as good as another. The influx of immigrants from other parts of the world, from the Middle East and from Asia in particular, has brought a significant number of adherents to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions. Temples and mosques are appearing around the United States. The trend is more obvious in the large cities or near major university campuses, because that is where the immigrants have usually gathered. Even people of Anglo-Saxon heritage are converting to non-Christian religions, even though the numbers are quite small. American culture is now very pluralistic. Many basic Christian values and assumptions are no longer considered basic values and assumptions. As Ravi Zacharias, a Brahman Hindu born in India who converted to Christianity, declared:
Philosophically, you can believe anything, so long as you do not claim it to be true. Morally, you can practice anything, so long as you do not claim that it is a "better" way. Religiously, you can hold to anything, so long as you do not bring Jesus Christ into it. If a spiritual idea is eastern, it is granted critical immunity; if western, it is thoroughly criticized. Thus, a journalist can walk into a church and mock its carryings on, but he or she dare not do the same if the ceremony is from the eastern fold. Such is the mood at the end of the twentieth century.1
The purpose of this brief study is to outline some of the problems a Christian faces in trying to live a life of faith in a pluralistic society and to point in the direction of an appropriate Christian response to non-Christian beliefs. This is only an introductory outline which must be brief due to the constraint of space. The issues at hand and the available options are oversimplified more than once, no doubt.
How should Christians respond to the growing non-Christian presence among us and the erosion of Christian values in our society? First, we should strive to be a good example and to live an authentic Christian life. Many believers who are attracted to other religions are drawn away from their Christian origins because of inconsistency and hypocrisy on the part of Christians with whom they are acquainted. The immorality, apathy, and indifference of Christians is frequently the reason that some are repelled from the Christian faith. If this negative experience of Christianity is paired with a genuine, sincere practice of a non-Christian religion by an acquaintance, then the attraction toward a new faith is likely to be very strong.
Second, Christians should strive to be informed about world religions. We should learn at least the basics of the major belief systems in the world. Ignorance can lead us in two equally unacceptable directions. It can cause us to be susceptible to adopting a belief system without really understanding it. We may disregard negative portions of that system while naively focusing on a few of its attractive qualities. Another unacceptable consequence of ignorance is blind bias and prejudice which is unwilling to see any good or truth in another religion. There is much beauty and truth in all of the major world religions. If these were not present, people would not be attracted to them so easily. God has revealed himself, not only in special ways which are recorded in the Bible, but also he has shown himself in general ways which are available to all (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14; Ps. 19:1- 6; Acts 17:22-31). This means we should expect to find much good in most or all world religions.
Third, Christians need a deep knowledge of their own faith. While there is common ground between most world religions, the differences are vast and significant. Christians who do not understand their own faith are going to be unable to address these differences. They will be unable to defend their own belief system.
Fourth, we must examine our motives in regard to dialogue with those of other belief systems. If our motive is simply to try to prove someone else wrong, it would be better if we did not even participate in the discussion. We should approach dialogue with appreciation for that which is good and noble in others. We should approach dialogue in humility in light of our own failings. We should approach dialogue in love, with benevolent concern for the eternal welfare of others.
What are the possible relationships between the competing faith systems of the major world religions? These can vary from one extreme to another. Let us note two extremes and one possible mediating position.
All equally true: Pluralism and relativism are powerful factors in our current setting which encourage people to ignore any claim to absolute truth by anyone, except the contradictory claim that all assertions are equally true. Under the guise of tolerance, many say that all religions are right. This approach would discourage evangelism. While it might encourage peace and harmony, it sacrifices truth. Contradictory ideas cannot both be equally true. Furthermore, absolute and universal claims are not even allowed. As a group discussion of the World Council of Churches concluded:
Pluralism means that not only are there many religions and beliefs but these religions and beliefs are equally true and valid. Therefore, all truths are relative and all religions are relative. Such an understanding of pluralism cannot be accepted by Christians. In Western countries pluralism has become a dogma of "faith", in which it is understood that everybody's opinion is as good as each other.2
If pluralism is true, then the Muslim cannot say: "There is no God but Allah," and Jesus is not permitted to say: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me" (Jn. 14:6).
All false but one: The other extreme is not logically inconsistent but it is morally unattractive. It is possible that all religions are false with the exception of one. This approach, though, tends to lead to extremism and inflexibility, even to violence. Little room is found for respecting the conscience and sincerity of others. Little or no inclination will be present for appreciation of shared truths.
One unique and superior: If one believes that one's own faith is unique in certain ways and superior to other faiths, one does not have to reject everything found in other faiths as untrue. A little or even a lot of another faith system might be accepted as true. If God has revealed himself, not only in special revelation (that which is given initially only to a few), but also in general revelation (that which is available to all through human reason or in nature), then many truths ought to be present in various world religions. For example, most religions have a belief of some sort in a deity and in the efficacy of prayer to that deity. Commonly held beliefs such as this can provide a starting point for dialogue. They can promote mutual understanding and goodwill between people. It is not illogical, though, to believe that one's own faith contains elements which are unique, that are not held in common with other faiths, and that are superior and vital.
While the first approach above would discourage any evangelism at all, the second approach often encourages tyranny, even holy war. It shows no sympathy for competing belief systems. The third mediating approach makes room for evangelism, but one that springs from a genuine belief that something unique is being offered. It would allow for a large measure of sympathy for other belief systems. Nevertheless, it would stake its claims, kindly and gently, but firmly, for the truth of its own way of thought. This, I believe, is how Christians ought to present their faith in dialogue with those of other belief systems.
In this introductory guide there is no time to look at the areas of common belief between Christianity and other major world religions. Such an area of common belief can range from huge, major overlaps of belief (as between Christianity and Judaism) to very little of a shared faith (as between Christianity and animism). What, though, is unique about Christianity? What is special? What message do Christians have to offer that no one else has? Our message is simply Jesus Christ. The following is a very brief outline of some unique points of the gospel.
A unique birth: Jesus Christ is the only person in the history of the world who was not merely a human being. Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, his father being God himself (Mt. 1:20; Lk. 1:35). Thus Jesus was both God and man in one person. He was God incarnate in human flesh (Jn. 1:14).
A unique life: We believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life. Not only did he never do anything wrong, he constantly did that which is right (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5).
A unique teaching: Jesus Christ was the master teacher who gave the most marvelous religious and ethical teaching to mankind that anyone has ever given (e.g. Mt. 5-8). We would expect no less from God in the flesh.
A unique death: Jesus Christ died "for our sins" as an atonement. We know, in part because of his resurrection from the dead, that his death was accepted by God as payment for the debt of man's sins.
A unique resurrection: Jesus Christ was resurrected from the grave on the third day. The evidence for his resurrection is quite strong, and it comes from a variety of sources.
A unique coronation: Jesus Christ ascended into heaven after his resurrection and was made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). He was given authority and made king, not over some country or a piece of land somewhere, but over heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18-20).
A unique consummation: Jesus Christ will return and call all mankind to judgment. He is the one who will execute universal judgment on all who have ever lived (Acts 17:30-31).
If Jesus had only claimed to be a prophet, then Christians could not claim anything unique about their Lord. But since he is the greatest of the prophets and more than a prophet, we are justified in making such claims. If Jesus had only been a mere mortal, we could not claim anything more for him than the followers of Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius or other great religious figures. But since Jesus was and is the Son of God, the Lord, and the Messiah, we cannot be satisfied with limited and temporal claims for him. Only universal and eternal claims are worthy of his true significance.
On one occasion several people turned away from following Jesus. Jesus turned to the remaining disciples and asked them: "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn. 6:66-69). Jesus Christ is the only mediator, the only savior for mankind, and the monogenes Son of God (1 Tim. 2:5). "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
1Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of
the Christian Message (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000) vii.
2"Common witness within a religiously plural context: Group report," International Review of Mission 90 (July 2001):346.
The following contains works which argue for the uniqueness of Christ as distinct from other founders of world religions or various gods of world religions. Some focus on similarities and differences between Christianity and other world religions and possible relationships which can exist between adherents.
The books in this section argue for the traditional view of Jesus as the divine Christ, which is crucial to the questions of his uniqueness and his ability to be the only savior for mankind.
These works provide a general survey of the historical development, teachings, and current expression of the chief world religions. Some are done from a Christian perspective. Others are more neutral in viewpoint.