Welcome to this study book! May God bless you as you read it and make you a blessing to others.
In this first chapter a distinction is made between God -- who reveals himself to humankind -- and religions, which are a human response. The three main sections look at the theological, the biblical and the experiential aspects of the Christian and other faiths. The book uses some 'distance learning' techniques which are designed for home study. One of the advantages of using such techniques is that you can select for detailed study the sections that interest you most. However, we hope that you will read the whole chapter and use it as a springboard to propel you forward into the rest of the book!
When you have completed the chapter we hope you will:
She was elderly and from a privileged family; accompanied by the usual relations, servants and baggage, she got into the railway compartment in which my friend and I were traveling. We were making the 800-mile journey up country to the city where my friend was to begin her teaching assignment.
It was late at night and we hardly noticed her until the next morning when, as my friend was reading her Bible, she said, "It always makes me happy to see people reading their holy book." Conversation followed, during which we all shared something of what our belief in God meant to us and she displayed such a sense of God's nearness that we were able to talk together as one might in a group of Christian friends. As we shared what Jesus meant to us, she spoke of him as a wonderful prophet whom she greatly revered. She encouraged us to speak of him as our Lord and Saviour, although she did not share this belief. Our conversation ended and she then spent some time performing her morning prayers.
As we arrived at our destination there were questions in my mind. How does God look upon someone like this? Is it possible to have a relationship with him without accepting the saving death of Jesus on the cross? How should a Christian witness in such a situation?
Later, my friend said, "What a wonderful way to start my life and work in this country!" Indeed it was. It happened many years ago, but I still remember this 'chance' encounter. The questions it raised are still very real, and they form the basis of this first chapter. We do not so much attempt to answer them as to clarify the issues and bring them out in the open.
This is the question with which we must start. We know Peter's answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). This points clearly to the uniqueness of Jesus. In a world of multi-faith societies this is a very relevant question. But what do we mean by 'unique'? If we are thinking of Jesus as the founder of a religion, or as an example of a really good teacher, then he is not unique in that sense. He is unique because he fulfilled the purposes of God in away no one else has ever done, or ever could do. He is unique because God is unique and he is God. God created us and worked out his purposes uniquely through the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 4:32-35 explains this very clearly:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; as from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other.
There is an important distinction between 'God' and 'religion' which is now always made clear in discussion. Religion is a human activity, an effort to reach out to and know God, which at best leads us to find God and to worship him. At worst, however, it can go horribly wrong and can be influenced by evil and demonic powers. Religion reflects the dilemma of humankind, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), but disobedient to him (Genesis 3:6). Someone as close to Jesus as the apostle Peter illustrates this dilemma. Jesus commended Peter for proclaiming him to be the long-awaited Messiah, but when Peter in the next breath protested over his predicted suffering and death, Jesus called him Satan and a stumbling-block. Like Peter we may experience times of God-given insight, but we are also prone to misunderstanding and error. We need to learn more of humility and repentance, as the apostle Peter did. It is important to remember this as we meet and relate to people of other faiths.
We need to 'see' Jesus before we attempt to study religions. We need to see that 'he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law' (Matthew 7:29). We need to hear him proclaim, 'Before Abraham was born, I am!' (John 8:58), remembering that I Am (yahweh) meant 'God' to the Jews. If we do this we will not only proclaim, 'There is only one God', but we will go on to say that God, the only source of salvation, has provided the only way to obtain salvation, through the sacrificial death of his Son, Jesus the Messiah. Christian proclaim categorically, 'There is no other way' (cf. John 14:6) and 'There is no other name' (Acts 4:12).
This proclamation is in sharp contrast with the secular thinking of our day. The French sociologist Michel Foucault taught that all ideologies consist of 'regimes of truth' which are not fixed but are relative to time, place and situation. This teaching that truth is not absolute has permeated into religious thinking and is responsible for the religious pluralism of our day. It is as if the different religions are on display as products to be chosen by consumers to suit their particular needs. The fact that people from different social, ethnic and religious backgrounds may live side by side with us and that we want to attempt to reach out to them 'does not', as Dr. Chris Wright says in his book What's so Unique about Jesus? simply dissolve the theological distinctions and conflicts that exist between the Christian faith and other beliefs' (Wright, 1990, p. 24). (Note: This book has now been rewritten and republished as Thinking Clearly About the Uniqueness of Jesus [see end of chapter].)
What about those who have never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel? There are millions of people in this category, some because they lived before Jesus came to this earth, some because they have lived in areas where the gospel has never been heard, others, such as young children and those with learning difficulties, are people to whom it is not possible to communicate it. Surely a just God cannot condemn them?
This is perhaps the point at which we should remind ourselves that it is God who saves, not our evangelistic skills. We must not be limited in our view of his grace, but at the same time we must be true to Scripture, as we believe God has revealed it to us. Wright asks: 'Does that necessarily mean salvation is only through actual knowledge of Jesus Christ and conscious faith in him?' (p. 36) Some would answer yes and point out that this gives a sense of urgency to our evangelistic efforts, but others would take a more agnostic view. In any case, it is just as well to remember that 'Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face' (1 Corinthians 13:12). We must expect to 'know in part' in this life and to look forward to when we shall 'know fully'. We need to remember that 'the secret things belong to the Lord our God' and to concentrate on sharing 'the things revealed' (Deuteronomy 29:29).
The Bible gives a number of instances of outstanding men and women who could not have had specific knowledge of Jesus. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look back to Abraham. He lived before the time of Jesus; he lived before the Law was given to Moses; yet the Bible tells us that 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' (Romans 4:3). Hebrews 11 goes even further, giving a list of those who were justified by faith, including some whose connection with God's plan and purpose in Jesus Christ seems remote. Enoch was a man who lived by faith and who consequently 'did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God' (Hebrews 11:5).
It is clear from the parables of Jesus that there are going to be surprises; that there will be those who expected to be saved but are not, and those who were not expected to be saved yet who were accepted by God. It is obvious that we do not see as God does. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a good example. Who would have thought that it would be the tax collector who 'went home justified before God' (Luke 19:14)? Imagine the impact this story would have had on those who heard it for the first time! The conclusions that such parables lead to is not that God is unfair, but that he is amazingly generous. This should in no way dampen our evangelistic zeal; rather, it should make it spring from our deep gratitude. It would be strange if a doctor failed to treat a seriously ill person because the hospital possessed a life-support machine; it is strange if we do not pass on really good news because a person may possibly get by without it. Surely the extent we see the gospel as good news determines our desire to pass it on. If we truly perceive it as good news, nothing will stop us.
We do not know how Pilate asked that question. With longing? With mockery? With disillusionment? With despair? We do know, however, that this is the central question as we consider the Christian and other faiths. The way we answer it will show the position we hold.
It is difficult to see how biblically-based Christians can hold pluralistic views, which, as we have seen, present a relativist view of truth. Wright describes the pluralist positions as follows:
Even if the beliefs of one religion are diametrically contradictory to those of another, you don't need to decide which is true and which is false, for they can all be 'true' at some more profound level of reality which we do not yet understand. (p. 46)
Wright also points out that pluralists want to see God (theos) at the centre of the religious universe, not Christ or Christianity. He also distinguishes between pluarlism and syncretism, which is 'the desire to blend and unite the best in all world religions into one future composite world faith' (p. 46).
Although there are those who believe they can be Christians and hold pluralist views, the real debate is between those who exclude any religion other than Christianity from possessing any revealed truth or way to salvation (who may be called exclusivists) and those who think other faiths may have some truth revealed to them but that they are not ways to salvation (who may be called inclusivists) a. Some inclusivists may also believe that 'although Christianity remains the highest and final truth, a non-Christian religion can contain supernatural elements of grace for a person (until the arrival of the gospel) as a free gift from God on account of Christ' (Wright, 1990, p. 41).
Between the exclusivist and inclusivist poles lie many Christian people, perhaps some of us. One of the most important aspects of these different views is that Christians should learn to live with them. Many inclusivists are deeply committed to Christ and exclusivists are not hard and unfeeling. Dick Dowsett has written a book called God, That's Not Fair!, which, through correspondence with a younger friend, presents the exclusivist view. Here is an extract:
Of course the agony of this is when you translate it into real people. It is easy to talk about theory, but I find it hard when I think of my [Muslim] neighbours... We would be callous in the extreme if we did not long to find some way whereby some of them at least could be saved.
But the biblical way to achieve this is not to look for hints in Scripture to encourage our wishful thinking. Rather, it is by loving and costly friendship and evangelism of committed Christians that [Muslims] will be won. (p. 39)
Look at the diagram overleaf. Where would you place your own arrow on the spectrum? You might like to pencil it in. It will be interesting to come back later and see whether your position has changed at all as a result of reading this book and having discussion with Muslims.