America is a melting pot. People from every conceivable ethnic and religious background come together to form one nation–e pluribus unum, from the many, one. At the heart of our national sense of unity stands the crucial principle of religious toleration. Under the principle of religious toleration, all religious systems are guaranteed freedom of expression and equal treatment under the law. No one religion has exclusive claim to legal rights and government establishment. The government of the United States of America expresses the will of the founding fathers that there will be no “established national religion.: Thus, we have no state church that enjoys exclusive privilege under the law.
With the principle of equal toleration has come the idea that no religion has exclusive claims to truth. Though the concept of legal religious toleration says nothing at all about the validity of truth claims, many have drawn the implication that equal toleration means equal validity. Thus, when Christians or advocates of any religion make claims of exclusivity, their claims are often met with shock or anger at such a narrow-minded posture. To make exclusive religious claims is to fly in the face of national sentiment. It is like attacking baseball, hot dogs, motherhood, and apple pie (not to mention Chevrolet).
In the sixties the uplifted index finger became a symbol not only of a number one ranking for a football team, but also a popular sign of the members of the “Jesus movement” that there is but “one way” to God, the way of Christ. The zeal of the Jesus People met great resistance and hostility at this point.
One of the most embarrassing moments I ever experienced came in a freshman class in college. it was a time of painful public humiliation. The professor was a former war correspondent who was outwardly hostile to Christianity. In the middle of a class she looked at me and said, “Mr. Sproul, do you believe that Jesus is the only way to God?” I gasped as I felt the weight of he question and knew that every eye in the room was on me. My mind raced for a way to escape my dilemma. I knew that if I said yes people would be angry. At the same time, I knew that if I said no I would be betraying Christ. Finally, I mumbled almost inaudibly, “Yes, I do.” The teacher responded with unmitigated fury. She said in front of the whole class, “That’s the most narrow-minded, bigoted, and arrogant statement I have ever heard. You must be a supreme egotist to believe your way of religion is the only way.” I made no reply but slouched rather meekly in my chair.
After the class was dismissed, I went to speak with my teacher privately. In the conversation I tried to explain to her why I believed that Christ was the only way. I asked her if she thought it was at least theoretically possible that Christ be one way to God. She allowed the possibility. I asked if she thought it were possible that without being narrow-minded or bigoted a person could come to the belief that Jesus was God. Though she did not believe in the deity of Christ, she recognized that people could, in fact, believe that without being bigoted. Then I explained to her that the reason I believed that Christ was the only way because Jesus Himself taught that.
I reminded her that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). I also pointed out that the New Testament refers to Christ as the “only-begotten” of the Father, and that “there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:12). I said to her, “Can you see that I am torn between my loyalty to Christ and the modern spirit of pluralism?” I said, “Do you see that it is possible for me to believe in the uniqueness of Christ because He taught it? If I believed Christ was the only way because I believe that my way must be the only way because it is my way, that would be an act of arrogance and egotism.” She finally acknowledged that it was possible for someone to believe in the uniqueness of Christ without being arrogant and apologized sincerely to me. However, she went on to raise a more serious question than the question of my arrogance. She said, “How can you believe in a God who only allows one way to Himself?” Isn’t it narrow-minded of God to restrict redemption to one Savior and one faith?”
Aren’t All Religions Basically the Same?
In the final analysis this is the issue that must be faced: Is God so narrow-minded that He provides only one way of redemption?
Part of the reason we struggle so deeply with a question like this is due to the impact of the results of the nineteenth century approach to the study of comparative religion. In the nineteenth century there was a concerted effort by scholars to examine closely the distinctive characteristics of the major religions of the world. The “buzz word” of the day was “essence.” Many serious studies of religion were published which contained titles like The Essence of Religion or The Essence of Christianity. These books reflected an attempt to get at the basic core of religious truth that was found in all religion.
Religion was often reduced to its lowest common denominator. Frequently the distilled essence of religion was pinpointed by the phrase “the universal fatherhood of God and universal brotherhood of man.” Thus it was seen that at the heart, all religions were working for the same thing. The outward trappings of religious belief and practice differed from culture to culture but at the root their goals were the same. Thus, if all religions were essentially the same then no one of them could ever make exclusive claims to validity.
Out of this quest for the essence of religion came the now famous and popular “mountain analogy.” The mountain analogy pictures God at the peak of the mountain with man down at the base. The story of religion is the account of man’s effort to move from the base of the mountain to the peak of fellowship and communion with God. The mountain has many roads. Some of the roads go up the mountain by a very direct route. Other roads go up the mountain in a circuitous fashion, but eventually reach the top. Thus, according to the proponents of this analogy, all religious roads, though they differ in route, ultimately arrive at the same place.
Out of this conviction that all roads lead to God has come a considerable number of ecumenical movements, pan-religious endeavors, and even new religions such as Bahai which seek a total synthesis and amalgamation of all the world religions into one new unified religion.
I once had a conversation with a Bahai priest. He told me that all religions were equally valid. I began to interrogate him concerning the points of conflict that exist between islam and Buddhism, between Confucianism and Judaism, and between Christianity and Taoism. The man responded by saying that he didn’t know anything about Islam, Judaism, or the rest but that he did know they were all the same. I wondered aloud how anyone could assert that all religions were the same when he had no knowledge of what those religions professed or denied/ How can Buddhism be true when it deniesthe existence of a personal God and at the same time Christianity be true when it affirms the existence of a personal God? Can there be a personal God and not be a personal God at the same time and in the same relationship? Can Orthodox Judaism be right when it denies life after death and Christianity be equally right when it affirms life after death? Can classical Islam have a valid ethic that endorses the killing of infidels while at the same time the Christian ethic of loving your enemies be equally valid?
There are only two possible ways to maintain the equal validity of all religions. One is by ignoring the clear contradictions between them by a flight into irrationality; the other is by assigning these contradictions to the level of insignificant nonessentials. The latter approach involves us in a systematic process of reductionism. Reductionism strips each religion of elements considered vital by the adherents of the religion themselves and reduces the religion to its lowest common denominator. The distinctives of each religion are obscured and watered down to accommodate religious peace.
Why does this kind of reductionism take place? Perhaps there are many motivating factors for it. Certainly one of the most powerful factors is the desire to end religious controversies and the upheaval they bring. Differences in religious conviction have led again and again to passionate disputes between people, family alienation, violent forms of religious persecution, and in many cases even war. Thus if we were able to achieve a universal religious essence perhaps we can end these very costly disputes. The goal is peace. The price is truth.
if religion deals with matters of ultimate concern, there is little wonder that religious debates produce so much passion. But if we are interested in truth we can never discover it by denying real differences of truth claims. The peace that is produced by reductionism is a false and carnal peace. We recall the false prophets of Israel who, in their desperate attempts to avoid conflict, cried, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. Jeremiah’s lament remains relevant, “These men heal the wounds of the daughters of Zion, slightly” (see Jeremiah 11).
It is one thing to seek an atmosphere of religious debate that is characterized by charity. It is quite another thing to say the matters under debate are not important. It is one thing to protect the right of every religious person to follow the dictates of his conscience without fear of persecution; it is another to say that opposing convictions are both true. We must note the difference between equal toleration under the law and equal validity according to truth.
Why is God So Narrow-MInded?
We are still left with a problem, however, of a narrow-minded God who provides only one way of redemption. Does this not mean that people who live in a culture where that one religion is proclaimed have a decisive advantage over people living in other cultures? Let’s examine the deeper question of the narrow-mindedness of God who provides only one way of redemption.
We remember the words of Jesus when he said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few( Matthew 7:13-14).”
What kind of a God would have such a narrow gate? The question implies a serious accusation; that God has not done enough to provide redemption for mankind. Let us examine the accusation from a hypothetical perspective. Let us suppose that there is a God who is altogether holy and righteous. Suppose that God freely creates mankind and gives to mankind the gift of life.
Suppose He sets His creatures in an ideal setting and gives them the freedom to participate in all of the glories of the created order with freedom. Suppose, however, that God imposes one small restriction upon them, warning them that if they violate that restriction, they will die. Would such a God have the right to impose such a restriction with the penalty of forfeiture of the gift of life if His authority is violated?
Suppose that for no just cause the ungrateful creatures disobeyed the restriction the moment God’s back was turned. Suppose when He discovered their violation instead of killing them, He redeemed them. Suppose the descendents of the first transgressors broadly and widely increased their disobedience and hostility toward their creator to the point that the whole world became rebellious to God, and each person in it, “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).
Suppose God still determined to redeem these people and freely gave special gifts to one nation of people in order that, through them, the whole world would be blessed. Suppose God delivered this people from poverty and enslavement to a ruthless Egyptian Pharoah. Suppose this privileged nation, as soon as it was liberated, rose up in further rebellion against their God and their liberator. Suppose they took His law and violated it consistently.
Suppose that God, still intent upon redemption, sent specially endowed messengers or prophets to plead with His people to return to Him. Suppose the people killed the divine messengers and mocked their message. Suppose the people then began to worship idols of stone and things fashioned by their own hands. Suppose these people invented religions that were contrary to the real God and worshiped creatures rather than the Creator.
Suppose in an ultimate act of redemption God Himself became incarnate in the person of His Son. Suppose this Son came into the world not to condemn the world, but to redeem the world. But suppose this Son of God were rejected, slandered, mocked, tortured, and murdered. Yet, suppose that God accepted the murder of His own Son as punishment for the sins of the very persons who murdered Him.
Suppose this God offered to His Son’s murderers total amnesty, complete forgiveness, transcendent peace that comes with the cleansing of all guilt, victory over death and an eternal life of complete felicity.
Suppose God gave these people as a free gift the promise of a future life that would be without pain, without sickness, without death, and without tears. Suppose that God said to these people, “There is one thing that I demand. I demand that you honor my only-begotten Son and that you worship and serve Him alone.” Suppose God did all of that, would you be willing to say to Him, “God, that’s not fair, you haven’t done enough”?
If man has in fact committed cosmic treason against God, what reason could we possibly have that God should provide any way of redemption? In light of the universal rebellion against God, the issue is not why is there only one way, but why is there any way at all? I know of no way of answering that question.
Why Do Christians Say that Christ is God Incarnate?
At the heart of Christianity stands the person and work of Jesus Christ. His person and work are part of the essence of Christianity. It is in who He is and what He has done that the essence of Christianity can be discovered. Both in His person and work we find elements of utter uniqueness. The Christian claim is that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth we meet God incarnate. Buddha never claimed to be anything more than a man. Mohammed never claimed to be anything more than a prophet. Moses and Confucius were mortals. If Christ was in fact God incarnate, then it is a travesty of justice to ascribe equal honor to Him and to the others. To do so would necessitate either falsely attributing to mortal man the attributes of deity or stripping Christ of His divine nature.
In the truth claims of Christianity we find the notion of the sinlessness of Christ. If Jesus was in fact without sin, this would put Him in a class by Himself. If He had no other uniqueness, this one factor would set Him apart from every religious leader the world has ever known. Though claiming something does not make it true, nevertheless the fact that Jesus claimed to be sinless is significant. By that claim the religious stakes are established. If the claim is true, then Jesus’ uniqueness is assured. If the claim is not true then Jesus fails to qualify as even one of many great religious teachers. He would only qualify as a hypocrite and a charlatan.
The claim of resurrection is vital to Christianity. If Christ has been raised from the dead by God, then He has the credentials and certification that no other religious leader possesses. Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead. Moses is dead. Confucius is dead. But, according to the truth claim of Christianity, Christ is alive. If Christ has been vindicated by resurrection, His uniqueness as an object of religious devotion is established.
Another dimension of the uniqueness of Christ that is vital to Christianity is His work of atonement. Moses could mediate on the law; Mohammed could brandish a sword; Buddha could give personal counsel; Confucius could offer wise sayings; but none of these men was qualified to offer an atonement for the sins of the world.
It is not only the resurrection of Christ that makes Him unique but it is His death that puts Him in a class by Himself. His death was made as a payment for the sins of mankind. His sacrifice was perfect. Here we see the direct correlation between the uniqueness of His person, of His sinlessness, of His atoning death, and of His resurrection. Together these factors describe the only-begotten of the Father.
It is a mistake, indeed a fatal mistake, to assume that God is pleased by “religion.” The cliche that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere” involves a devastating error. We can be sincerely wrong and miss the way of redemption offered by God. What we believe in makes an ultimate difference to our destiny. “Religion” can be a substitute for truth; a man-made system of distorting the revelation of God.
Christ alone is worthy of unlimited devotion and service. His total value sets Him apart from all pretenders to the throne. He alone is able to redeem. He alone is worthy of worship.
The exclusiveness of the Christian truth-claim must always rest on the uniqueness of Christ. Christians are not immune from arrogance and bigotry. Yet arrogance and bigotry have no ally in Christ. Christ’s critique of these evil practices is more severe than any critic of Christianity can muster. At the same time this one who is so critical of arrogance and bigotry calls us to a single-minded devotion to truth. He claims to be that truth.
Key Points To Remember:
Are all religions good? Does it matter what you believe?
(1) Religious toleration does not mean equal validity of truth. The problem of exclusive claims to truth are deeply rooted in our culture. We must keep in mind the difference between religious toleration as a matter of legal rights and the concept of equal validity of truth.
(2) Objective evidence, not arrogance, must be the basis for Christian truth- claims. Christians must guard against communicating a sense of arrogance about their convictions. The uniqueness of Christ must be established on the basis of objective evidence rather than by personal preference.
(3) All religions do not teach the same thing but differ at key points. Attempts to make all religions “basically the same” involves the serious problem of reductionism–reducing everything to a broad common denominator. Analogies such as the “mountain analogy” obscure the real and crucial differences between world religions.
(4) The uniqueness of Christ and His own exclusive claims are the heart of the issue. To understand that uniqueness we must understand the whole pattern of biblical history. If the biblical history is true, then we can never suppose that God “has not done enough” to provide for our redemption.
(5) In light of biblical history it is easy to see why there is only “one way.”
(6) In spite of the fact that the world has been in constant rebellion to Him, God has provided a way of redemption. The ultimate question of redemption is the question why God would bother to provide any way of redemption for us. The wonderful truth is that even though we don’t deserve it, in Christ “we have redemption through his blood…the forgiveness of sins…according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).