There’s a genuine struggle deep down within our human nature that wrestles between our personal convictions and the desire to be collectively agreeable. What I mean by that is this: we have a beautiful gift of being able to find common ground with anyone, so it’s not surprising that we have the tendency to drift to a place where we look at all religious convictions as only slightly different paths that lead to the same destination.
Don’t shut down on me just yet. This article is not with the interest of spewing opinions with out-of-context Bible verses. Believe it or not, I’ve had the opportunity to study many of the world’s most common religions, and I’d like to share some of the findings and logic that have led me to embrace Christianity as true above the others. And you’ll be thankful to see these reasonings don’t start and end with “because the Bible says so.”
There is a really interesting story from the Bible I would like to start with, though. Not a command or teaching. Just a quick history lesson to show that this concept of embracing more than one religion as equally right or true is not quite the revolutionary, progressive idea it’s being made out to be in our increasingly pluralistic society.
In 2 Kings 17, we can read what happened when the Assyrians attempted to resettle the land of Israel after they had taken the Jews into exile. We’re told that God sent lions among the Assyrian people because they were worshipping their own gods and not the True God. The response by the Assyrians was to petition their king to send a Jewish priest back to this land of Samaria in order to teach them how to appease “the god of the land.” But even as they attempted to respect God, they continued their other religious practices, which would’ve included everything from prostitution to sacrificing their first born kids.
Amazingly, this story is close to 3,000 years old, and yet we can recognize many of the common elements of pluralism in it that we think are unique to our modern, culturally-aware society. The Assyrians feared God. They recognized His existence and influence, making no attempt to deny Him. But they also made no attempt to consider how this God could be as true and real as the other gods they were lighting their kids on fire for. (I guess no one stopped to recognize or wonder how the Israelites had never been known for fertility problems– quite the opposite, actually– as they worshipped God without prostitutes or killing their firstborn.)
To say we should all respect and even practice a bit of teaching from multiple religions, thereby achieving greater tolerance or spiritual maturity isn’t a new idea. It’s fun to think new ideas are possible, especially when it comes to spirituality. But if you do enough digging, you quickly realize that even what we call “New Age” spiritual ideas are actually ancient ideas presented with a bit of updated cultural relevance. Even with our self-driving cars, we’re just not as clever as we think.
Of course it’s easier to say everyone is right. We all appreciate the chance to avoid rubbing someone the wrong way, especially an entire group of people with hundreds or thousands of years of cultural heritage. I completely get that, and to be clear, I’m not saying we can’t all live together without violence and oppression. That’s ironically the kind of tolerance Jesus Himself displayed. But to go to the extent of saying that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in Hinduism get us to the same truth as Islam, Taoism, Animism, Buddhism, and Christianity, would require us to ignore each religion’s fundamental teachings and only focus on human nature, which has nothing to do with a religion’s teaching. In fact, human nature is the problem most religions attempt to resolve.
Let me unpack that a bit because it’s really important.
Discuss religion with enough people (sadly, even with many self-professing Christians) and you’ll start to recognize a common belief that all religions are fundamentally the same and only superficially different. That is to say, dedicate yourself to any one of them and you’ll end up where we are all hoping to go. Maybe we’ll just be dressed a bit differently when we get there.
There is serious misinformation fueling this belief, though. Because if you study any one religion for a single hour, you quickly realize that not only does each one claim to have an exclusive understanding of what is true, they each introduce a competing set of characteristics as to the nature of who they call god and what we must do in order to find favor with each of their gods.
The argument goes something like this: since most religions forbid things like murder or stealing, then they have fundamentally similar teachings and everyone benefits the same by following any one of them. But this logic is focused purely on morality and only reveals that humans were created with an embedded understanding of basic right and wrong. That is superficial and is actually another religion in itself (humanism). In this, we have not even touched anything supernatural yet. If we wanted to go there, we’d have to start asking how we resolve, or find forgiveness for, the wrong when it’s committed from a higher power. And for this, every religion has a different truth because the nature of each of their gods is different. The core of each religion presents a path that is not parallel to the others, but one that is more perpendicular. We make the mistake of thinking that because two paths intersect briefly at the very beginning, they’re not still taking their journeyers to different locations.
Case in point: Let’s consider Buddhism and Christianity on their common elements of suffering and charitable works.
Buddha’s four noble truths acknowledge suffering. Jesus also acknowledges suffering when He told His disciples they would suffer on account of Him. But this superficial similarity can’t blind us to what each was saying about suffering: Buddha, that you can escape it by achieving enlightenment; Jesus, that suffering for His name should be accepted and even embraced as a way to illustrate the suffering that Jesus Himself went through for our eternal salvation, and that God alone can redeem the world’s suffering.
Similarly, the eightfold path of Buddhism advises charitable works while Jesus commanded His followers to love their neighbors sacrificially. Again, we have to look behind the scenes and understand the motives for each religion’s teaching. In Buddhism, this charitable work contributes to a follower achieving enlightenment. But in Christianity, it’s purpose is to reveal the character of God and how He has given of Himself to care for us. There is no human achievement involved when it comes to salvation in Christianity.
These are fundamentally different teachings that cannot and do not coincide. They cannot both be true.
I read an article recently that suggested Christians embrace Muhammad as having the same source and intentions as Jesus. The article called this progress. But what sounds really nice to say is actually impossible in practice. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus did not die for the sins of mankind, which is the cornerstone of Christian belief. For a Christian to embrace Muhammad and therefore the Qur’an, they are rejecting everything that Christianity teaches.
Someone practicing Buddhism will tell you that it is up to their own efforts to achieve their ultimate goal of enlightenment. A Christian will say that what Jesus did on the cross by offering Himself as the ransom and justification our sins demand is the only way to find forgiveness and eternity with God. And a Muslim would say, somewhat similarly to Buddhism, that Allah will give them paradise if at the end of his life his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds (even though he also must admit their religious texts show that Allah doesn’t always use the same standards for judgement with every person).
And this is just three examples.
Ironically, it’s the devout adherents to each single religion (who these people are trying desperately to affirm) that reject pluralism most immediately. It’s the people who actually understand even just one of the religions beyond a surface level who see most clearly how every religion cannot lead to the same place and be equally true with others. In their great effort to say everyone is right, the people and beliefs they affirm are looking at them and calling them wrong. And the maddening part of all of this is that it’s here where the pluralist thinkers get frustrated and pressure devout adherents of one truth to say that they, too, are right, ignoring that by doing so, a devout adherent would be recanting the very teachings they’re being affirmed of. No religion gives its followers permission to embrace other religions as being true.
I fully accept this article is likely not going to change anyone’s mind from wanting to believe that we’re all going to the same place through obedience to any religion. But what I hope to do is encourage Christians and adherents to other individual religions to allow themselves to explore other religions and go beyond just surface level. I think part of the resurgence of this pluralistic idea is due to a lack of understanding about what makes each of the world’s religions unique and different. And as long as we are unable to explain those differences in intelligible ways, people will continue thinking they’re all the same. Christians, especially, should know what Islam teaches and what the Qur’an claims. We should know what Hinduism and Buddhism teach, and be interested in learning about the other truth claims out there, because it’s only then that we can truly defend what we believe.