Aren’t All Religions the Same? (Easter Edition)

Painting of the crucified Christ, by Fra Angelico, circa 1437-1446

Painting of the crucified Christ, by Fra Angelico, circa 1437-1446, Wikimedia Commons

As we approach Easter, Christianity’s holiest day, it is natural to wonder if faith in “the risen Christ” represents the only way to have a true relationship with God.  In fact, it is increasingly accepted in modern culture that all religions are equally valid or that there is “one god, but many paths.”  However, is this premise true?  Can other religions provide equally valid ways of knowing God?

To address these questions, we will limit this post to the primary world religions.   There are several practical reasons for this limitation.  First, it is for simplicity’s sake, given the thousands of religions and philosophies that could be evaluated.  Secondly, it is reasonable to assume that if God has revealed Himself, He has done it in an effective way that has attracted many believers.  So under this pretext, we will evaluate Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism since they are generally considered the world’s most prevalent and influential faiths.

We first have to address if these religions can all be equally valid.  With even a cursory understanding of these different faiths, no one can believe they are all true and maintain intellectual honesty.  From the very beginning, they diverge and are contradictory in their most basic tenets.  Hinduism isn’t even consistent with itself, with teachings about god ranging from that of an eternal, impersonal being like Star Wars’ “force” to the existence of literally millions of gods.  Buddhism is arguably as much a philosophy as a religion and was started by Siddhartha Gautama, who specifically rejected Hinduism and taught that people could only find nirvana within themselves.  The “Abrahamic” religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam agree on a single, personal God, but they differ significantly on His nature and relationship with mankind.  It is clear that there is no way to reconcile these faiths as being equally valid ways to experience God since they are contradictory.  Either none of them are true or, at best, only one of them is.

Describing the full range of similarities and differences between these religions would take many pages.  However, it is relatively simple to detail the major theme that underlies practically every religion except Christianity.  All of them, at their core, teach that salvation results from people’s individual efforts.  In essence, we “earn” salvation by following a set of rules and practices.

For Judaism, salvation results from believing in the true God and living according to His laws, as outlined in the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud.  In Islam, salvation comes from worshipping Allah and following the teachings of his prophet Muhammad.  Hindus can escape the cycle of reincarnation and be reunited with Brahma (the universal, ultimate reality) in one of three ways:  dharma (religious works), inana (knowledge and meditation), or bhakti (devotion to one of Hinduism’s many gods).  Finally, Buddhism teaches that people reach nirvana within themselves by following the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path.  While each religion differs in its prescribed set of works, each is grounded in our ability to achieve salvation through our own effort.

Christianity is unique among the world’s religions in that it teaches we cannot earn salvation.  People have chosen to disobey God and cannot “undo” their sin by following a set of rules or prescribed rituals.  Christianity teaches that people are saved by God’s unmerited grace and mercy alone.  Through the person of Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered, in our stead, the punishment our sins deserved.  By asking for Jesus’ forgiveness, on the basis of Him having paid for one’s individual sin already, a person can receive, not earn, salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Further, this salvation offer is only available through Jesus Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5)

Given the irreconcilable differences, how do we know which religion is correct?  If salvation is due to our efforts, which set of rules and rituals should we follow?  One observation we have to keep in mind is that each of us individually, and people in general, are subject to pride.  It is this pride that can lead us to believe we are good enough to achieve God’s standards.  Viewed from this lens, it is easy to see how pride can lead to works-based theologies.  After all, no one wants to admit they are unable to please God or earn His favor.  Because pride is so universal, we have to be careful when evaluating any system that teaches we are effectively the authors of our own salvation.  This line of thinking is exactly what one would expect from religious systems created by people vs. by God.

On the other hand, if God is holy, as the Abrahamic religions teach, then sin must be repelling to Him.  And if God is eternal, as all of the major religions teach, then our sin is continually before Him.  Therefore, it cannot be erased by our temporal efforts, but only by His eternal power.  Viewed from this perspective, it is clear that good works and deeds cannot erase our disobedience.  They are merely us doing what we were commanded by a holy God.  Good deeds are His expectation, not a means of earning some reward or offsetting sin.  Christianity is the only religion that recognizes these facts, and in so doing, is the only one that reflects what a holy and eternal God would most likely think versus what mankind would want Him to think.

Another very telling fact related to Jesus is that most of the world’s major religions recognize Him as a special individual.  Islam regards Jesus as a prophet.  Hinduism teaches He is one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu.  Buddhism recognizes Him as a good teacher, but not at the level of Buddha.  Ultimately, each of those views is self-defeating and sets up logical inconsistencies within those religions.

Jesus repeatedly claimed to be God incarnate and that He was the only source of forgiveness from sin.  As CS Lewis states, such claims can only come from a liar, lunatic, or Lord (some critics will add “Legend” to that list, however, dispassionate analysis of the historical evidence eviscerates that criticism).  Islam’s claim that Jesus was a prophet must be wrong.  A prophet, who speaks for God, cannot make the claims Jesus made and still be only a prophet.  Buddhism’s claim that Jesus is a good teacher but not God incarnate (i.e. not “Lord”) must be wrong because neither a “lunatic” nor a “liar” is a good teacher!  Hinduism, while teaching Jesus is a god-man, is clearly at odds with most of Jesus’ other teachings like the existence of a single, loving, and personal God and the rejection of reincarnation, so He cannot be Vishnu.  After examination, we see that three of the five major world religions are ultimately proven untrue because of their own self-defeating claims about the person of Jesus.

We are left then with Judaism and Christianity.  These two religions are closely related and share the Old Testament.  In fact, Christianity grew out of Judaism.  Again, the issue comes down to the person of Jesus.  If He is God incarnate as He claims, the debate is over.  Because this question is of central and critical importance, it has been addressed repeatedly in other articles on this forum (with more to come).  Suffice it to say here, the consistent historical evidence within both the Old and New Testaments, as well as multiple early historians—Christian and Pagan alike—cumulatively build a solid case that Jesus was God incarnate who came to earth, suffered and died for our sins, and rose from the dead on Easter morning.  Jesus’ resurrection is a powerful illustration of the fact that He alone is Lord and represents the only way to know God and experience salvation.