Volume 9 - Issue 2
Christianity and world religionsBy David Wenham
What should be the Christian’s attitude to the world’s religions? That is the question addressed in the three main articles of this Themelios. A hundred years ago most Christians would have subscribed to the view that non-Christian religions are demonic and that their adherents are destined for hell. The Christian’s responsibility was seen therefore as bringing the light of the gospel to the heathen and seeking to rescue them from their darkness. Today many Christians see things differently: they believe that there is truth in all religions and that there are different ways to God. The Christian may therefore wish to share his understanding of God with others, and certainly should seek to show God’s love in the world through social action and concern; but the Christian has no right or need to seek to convert people from other religions to Christianity.
Various things have led to the rise of this new Christian view of religions: increased international travel and communication, the growth of religious studies (as distinct from Christian theology) as a major academic discipline in the ‘Christian’ west, the decline of the political power of old colonial countries such as Britain and the rise of non-Christian power-blocks, and the immigration into the west of non-Christian peoples have all helped to break down the old religious insularity of many Christians in the west. We know today much more than we used to about other religions; we are aware of the sophistication of non-Christian religious systems; we are conscious of points of similarity between Christianity and other religions and of the extraordinary religious piety of some non-Christian people—famous people like Mahatma Gandhi and ordinary people, whose faithfulness to their religion puts many Christians to shame. We are also embarrassed by the failings of our so-called Christian culture. All these things mean that it is far more difficult than it was for Christians glibly, even arrogantly, to assert the superiority of Christianity and to dismiss other religions as evil.
But another quite different factor that has contributed to the change in Christian attitudes to other religions has been the weakening within the Christian church of fundamental Christian convictions. Thanks to negative biblical criticism and to the pressures of secular thinking in the west, western Christians over the past century have grown uncertain of their own faith—uncertain about Jesus, uncertain about the Bible, and particularly uncertain about the reality of judgment. Such uncertainty could not but produce a change in Christian attitudes to other religions. There is clearly no possiblity of proclaiming the exclusive superiority of Christianity as the truth of God or the way of salvation, given such uncertainty, and it is not surprising that some Christians have been exploring the idea that all religions are differing and equally valid expressions of man’s religious quest.
But if we have correctly identified some of the factors that have led to the new ‘ecumenical’ view of religions, what are we to make of that view? On the one hand, any Christian should welcome the replacement of the old imperialistic and simplistic dismissal of non-Christian religions by a more respectful and sympathetic attitude. It is right that Christians should take seriously the beliefs of their non-Christian neighbours, and there is every reason why Christians, who have often in the past devoted themselves to the study of the non-Christian philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, should study the non-Christian religions of today’s world. It is right that Christians should recognize and respect the truth preserved in other religions and the real good done in the world by non-Christians, and that Christians should be humble about the failings of Christians and of the Christian church. It may indeed be true that non-Christian religious systems are demonic in some senses—we should beware of romanticizing non-Christian religions and of minimizing the darkness that is a feature of much non-Christian religious practice—but we must recognize too that the secular society of the so-called Christian west is often equally dark and demonic, and so (sadly) are some parts of the Christian church.
But, although humility and respect towards people of other faiths should characterize Christians, the notion that Christians can recognize other faiths as valid alternatives to the way of Christ cannot be accepted. Such a view cannot be squared with the teaching and attitudes of Jesus: he quite clearly believed in divine judgment, not least on the religious of his day, and the good news he brought was not that God is tolerant to all, whatever their beliefs or attitudes—would that in any case really be good news?—but rather that God in his love has provided a way out of judgment and into life for those who will receive it. (John 3:16 accurately sums the situation up.) The excitement and also the urgency of Jesus’ proclamation arose from his offer of forgiveness and life to those living in the shadow of death: people needed to hear and to believe the good news. The same urgency and excitement characterized the life of the early church: they knew that they had good news to pass on, which the world—the religious and the irreligious—badly needed to hear. The news was not that they had a better religion to offer, but that God had done something through Jesus which was of decisive importance for all men and which all men needed to hear and respond to.
Given the attitude of Jesus and the apostles, it is hard to see how the view that the way to life is broad enough to embrace all religions has a real claim to being Christian. We today may find the notion of God judging the heathen a difficult one, though the ‘lostness’ of our world is obvious enough. We may believe that there is room for uncertainty about whether any who have not heard the gospel may be saved. We may be sure of the justice and mercy of God. But we must beware of reshaping our doctrine or ethics to what we in the secular twentieth century find acceptable. The response of Jesus and the early church to the ‘difficulty’ of judgment was not to reject the doctrine, nor to hope that the heathen would somehow be all right, but it was to be urgent in preaching the gospel of salvation.
That should be the response of all Christians who, despite the questionings of the biblical critics and the scepticism of our secular age, believe and know in experience that the good news of Jesus is still the truth of God and the way to life—for individuals and for the world. We should indeed be respectful and humble in our attitude to other religions; but, like the patient who has found the cure to a deadly disease, we should want to pass on the news of the cure to other sufferers. We must not be lulled by our theological studies or by anything else into comfortable but deadly apathy towards those who are without Christ; we must be unswerving in our commitment to passing on the good news of Christ as the light of the world.1
We welcome two new journals that may be of interest to theological students. The Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology is produced jointly by the Scottish Evangelical Theological Society and the Scottish Evangelical Research Trust, and is edited by Dr Nigel Cameron. The first issue includes articles by Derek Kidner on ‘Retribution and Punishment in the Old Testament’, by David Torrance on ‘The Word of God in Worship’, and by William Still on ‘The Pastor’. It costs £2 and may be ordered from Rutherford House, 17 Clarement Park, Edinburgh, Scotland EH6 7PJ. The first issue of the Journal of the Irish Study Centre includes articles on ‘C. S. Lewis and the Literary Scene’ by Harry Blamires, on ‘Religion and Politics in Contemporary Ireland’ by David Hempton, and on ‘The Myth of Darwin’s Metaphor’ by David Livingstone. It costs £1.50 + postage, and may be ordered from the Irish Christian Study Centre, 9 Stranmillis Rd., Belfast, Northern Ireland BT9 5AF.
1 ‘A useful popularly written book on the biblical view of judgment and on the Christian’s missionary responsibility is Dick Dowsett’s God That’s Not Fair (Sevenoaks: OMF/ Bromley: STL, 1982).