Over the past 2 decades or so, many studies have shown that there is a renewed interest, especially among young people, in the spiritual dimension of life. Many people have discovered that the materialistic & humanistic approach to life that had been so predominant in our culture for the previous century, is ultimately empty & unsatisfying, & are now looking for something more, something to give their lives more meaning and significance. But at the same time, many young people have become disillusioned by the institutional church and some of the hypocrisy they find there. And so this has prompted for many of them an interest in other religions and spiritual practices: eastern mysticism, new age teachings, even the occult & paranormal phenomena. As we have seen over the last few weeks, there are a number of “Modern Myths” or misconceptions in peoples' minds that may be roadblocks in people being willing to take Christianity seriously.
Perhaps one of the most common myths is the one we want to address this morning that says: "All religions are basically the same” After all, aren’t all religions basically just different paths to the same destination? Are there not other equally valid ways of coming to God? Is Christianity really the only way to God?"
This is a tough issue for 2 reasons: 1st of all, we know that there are millions of people who believe & practice other nonChristian religions all over the world. While there are an estimated 1.7 billion Christians in the world, there are also over 900 million Muslims, 700 million Hindus, & 300 million Buddhists. Those are pretty significant numbers. What do we say about all these millions of people who have grown up in other religious faiths?
The 2nd reason that this is a tough question is because we live in a climate today where 2 of the most admired qualities in our society are "tolerance & pluralism". It is very unpopular to go making value judgments about another persons' cultural, religious or moral beliefs. Who am I to say that, what one person believes is any more valid than what someone else believes? And so often you hear people today say, as we saw a few weeks ago: "Well, it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as it works for you" As long as you don't hurt anyone else, you can believe whatever you want. And to a certain extent, this is a good thing. People should have the freedom to believe what they want to believe.
The only problem is, that with so much emphasis on tolerance & being non-judgmental, the whole concept of truth becomes secondary. The question: "Is it true?" is simply not asked, especially when it comes to spiritual issues. Now you may believe with all of your heart that the earth is flat, or that Santa lives with his elves at the North Pole, but no matter how strong your belief is, it doesn't change for a minute, the fact that those things simply aren't true. But this is how many people seem to approach this whole question of faith & belief. And so the question we must begin with here is: What is the truth? And when it comes to the spiritual realm, truth is not necessarily found in our own human logic, or what sounds reasonable & acceptable, but first & foremost, it is found in God's revealed Word to us. At last that's certianly where I'm coming from in trying to answer this question.
In the passage we read earlier from Acts 17, the apostle Paul gives us some insight into how we might respond to this question. Here, as Paul travels thru Greece, he finds himself one day in the great city of Athens. Now for centuries, Athens had been recognized as the center of philosophical & religious thought for the whole Med world. Aristotle, Socrates, & Plato had all taught philosophy in this city. In v21, it says that everyone in Athens did nothing but talk about & listen to all the latest ideas. Paul also noted that Athens was a very religious place. There seemed to be a different idol on every street corner in the city. And as Paul addresses the leaders of the city in the Areopagus, he makes some observations that help give us some insight into how we are to understand other religions.
1. Paul tells us that God created every human being with a built-in hunger to seek after him & know more about him. “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (17:26-27) The basis for every religion in the world is that God-given desire we have within us to know our Creator. And indeed God's heart is that all men would come to know him. In fact that's really the theme of the entire Bible, from Gen to Rev, that God took the initiative to reveal himself. Even tho God begins with one man, Abraham, & one nation, Israel, his ultimate desire is that all the nations & peoples of the world would come to know him. In the book of Rev, we see people from every tribe & nation worshipping God in heaven.
2. All religions have some element of the truth to them. God has revealed himself to a certain extent to all people, thru his creation. "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Rom 1:20)
3. But at the same time, because of man's sinfulness & brokenness, our understanding about God tends to become clouded & confused. Whenever we try to figure out God on our own, we will tend to reshape him into our own image, into something we're more comfortable with. Paul observes that the Athenians were a very religious people. But he also tries to clear up some of their misconceptions. God is not found in an image made out of gold or silver or stone, nor does he live in temples made by human hands.
4. Finally Paul tells them that altho God may have overlooked man's ignorance about him in the past, now he has revealed himself most clearly and fully thru the coming of his Son into the world, & he calls all men everywhere to repentance & to faith in Christ. (17:30) The Bible never says that there are many paths to God. On the contrary, it very clearly says there is only one: that is thru faith in JC. "I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." He doesn't say "I am a way”, or “I am one possible way”, or even “I am a better way”. He says: “I am the way" In order to come to God, you must come through Christ. I don't see how you can get around that. Peter echoes that idea later in the book of Acts when he says: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:16) Again that is pretty clear: Jesus is the only name by which we can be saved. Paul writes to Timothy: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Ti 2:5
So with so many different religions in the world, how can we say that Jesus is the only way to God? It’s because Jesus is entirely unique & different from all the other religious leaders the world has ever seen:
1. He is unique in his identity. In the NT, Jesus is called "the Alpha & the Omega, the first & the last" (Rev 1:8, 17)He is described as "The image of the invisible God…by him all things were created” (Col 1:15-16)“God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him." (Col 1:19)In short Jesus is nothing less than very God of very God, & the early church worshiped him as such And this sets him apart from the leaders of the other great world religions. For eg, Muslims would never dream of worshipping Muhammad as God. And it is questionable whether Buddha ever even believed in the existence of God as we understand that term. But the NT does not hesitate to identify Jesus as God the son
2nd, Jesus is unique in his achievement. By dying on the cross, he was able to do what no one else could, what we cannot even do for ourselves: and that is to save us from the results of our sin. Because we have all sinned, we all need a Savior. Jesus became that Savior for us, by dying on the cross for our sin, as a substitute for us. No other religious leader ever claimed to have done such a thing
3. Finally Jesus is unique in his resurrection. He says in Rev "I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!" (1:18) Muhammud, Bhuddha, Moses all died and were buried. If we knew where they were, we could go & visit their graves today. But you cannot visit Jesus’ grave because it is empty! He is still alive today! And so Jesus is the only way to God, because he is unique: unique in his Divinity, unique in the saving power of his death, unique in his resurrection from the dead.
What then are we to say about other religions? At its heart, all religion is man's attempt to find God & reach up to him. And while all religions undoubtedly have some good in them, & may give us a certain understanding & insight into who God is, they ultimately fall short because none of us can find God by our own efforts. If we are going to come to know God, he must reveal himself to us. He must provide us a way to be restored back to a right rel'ship with him. And that's exactly what God has done thru his son. He has revealed himself in these last days thru the person & words & work of his son, JC. Only in him do we find infallible truth about God, & how we are to come to him.
Many people say, well that is great, but What about those people who have never even heard about Jesus? What happens to them? This is a very difficult question, & ultimately I'm not sure we're given a definitive answer. Let me try to answer that question this way:
1st, we can be sure that God is always fair & just in his dealings with mankind. As Paul says to the Athenians: "He will judge the world with justice"
2ndly, no one will be saved by their religion. We are saved by God's undeserved love for us as demonstrated at the cross. We accept that gift by faith
3rdly, there were people in the Bible who were saved by grace through faith, even though they had never heard the name of Jesus. Abraham, for eg, was justified by his faith in the promise God gave him, even tho he died long before Jesus was born. Jesus himself told a parable about a tax collector who went home justified before God, after he prayed "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner"
Finally, while we may not be able to say with certainty what happens to someone on the other side of the world who has never heard of Jesus, none of us here are in that category. We have no excuse. If we have heard the good news about what Jesus has done for us on the cross, & we still deliberately reject him, then one day we will stand before God, & be held accountable for what we did with J.
How then are we to respond to those of other faiths & religions?
1. We should respect what other people believe, even if we don't share those beliefs. We should never think that just because we are Christians that we are any better than anyone else. It's only the grace of God that has allowed us to know Christ
2. We should never apologize for telling others the good news about Jesus. No matter what religious background we are from, we all need to receive Christ.
3. We should make sure that we have accepted Christ for ourselves. That really is the the bottom line. As the writer of Hebrews warns us "How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" All of us in our own way are reaching out to God. But God has not left us on our own to try to figure him out. He has revealed himself to us by sending his son, Jesus, into the world. If you want to know God, then you need to come to Jesus. If you have never done so, I would invite you to do just that as we bow our heads in prayer