What about other religions?
Many of us love people who belong to different religions, and we may feel uncomfortable claiming we know the truth while others are mistaken. This leads many to adopt a position that accepts all religions as valid. “Why can’t other religions be different paths to the same summit?” Or “all religions teach the same basic principles.” These are the cries of those trying to be tolerant and accepting of others’ beliefs.
But before you jump on this bandwagon, ask yourself, are we climbing a mountain here, or are we trying to discover what’s true? What if you had some friends who believed cult leader Jim Jones’ claim that he was Christ? Knowing what we know now, after his followers were poisoned to death in Guyana, isn’t it true that they were deceived by a false messiah? Today we can agree that these sincere, convinced followers were sadly mistaken. If only we could have convinced them they were mistaken before it was too late!
When you think about it, a lot of people must be mistaken about religion. When the Hindu scriptures teach that souls are reincarnated, and Christianity teaches that people are “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), someone has to be wrong. Of course, they could both be wrong (if there is no afterlife), but they cannot both be right.
This turns out to be the case in one area after another. The religions of the world contradict each other directly; they do not teach basically the same thing. This is true whether they are teaching on the nature of God, the nature of humans, the way of salvation, or the meaning of history. These differences are particularly sharp when we compare the religions of the world to biblical Christianity. World religions share many similarities to one another, but not with Jesus’ teaching. We have to decide who we think is right.
Such a search will turn up some important facts.
First of all, many religious scriptures are based on speculation about nature. For instance, an Egyptian religious myth that seems to be speculation teaches how clouds are created. According to this myth, the god Apsu masturbates and his semen issues in clouds.
Such a myth draws most of its insight from nature: the speculator has seen clouds rain on the fields, and the resulting fertility is one of the most commonly worshiped features of nature. The idea seems to be that, just as man’s semen fertilizes the woman, the semen of the clouds brings fertility to the fields. The earth is often pictured as a mother and the bride of the sky or storm god for this reason. Today we know that clouds are not created in this way and there are other reasons why fields are fertile.
What about truth?
How should the honest thinker today respond to such a myth? The answer is clear. Even if we had a relative or loved one who believed it, it simply is not true. By admitting this, you’re not rejecting those who believe in false worldviews, or saying that you are superior to others. In fact, Jesus calls on us to love those who are not Christians just as we love those who are (Matthew 5:46-47).
We can study religion to understand the meaning and value to those who believe it. Even if these religions bring comfort to those who hold them, we dare not overlook the issue of truth. When we say God is real and his word is true, we’re not merely suggesting that these are true for us, or true in some religious sense. We are saying God is just as real as we are, and that his word is true whether people believe it or not.
Where to draw the line?
Once we begin to admit that some religious teachings are false (like the bizarre one mentioned above), we have to wonder where the line should be drawn. Should only the worst religions be rejected, such as those promoting human sacrifice or cannibalism? Or should we also reject those teaching that women cannot enter the eternal state (Hinduism)?
We quickly realize that once we are prepared to say any religion is wrong, we have crossed the threshold into a critical assessment of all religion. By crossing that threshold, we have admitted that all paths do not lead to God.
Verification and falsification
A critical approach to religion has a positive side, too. When a view is falsifiable, it is also believable. Any claim that is not falsifiable cannot be discussed rationally. For instance, consider the claim that UFOs exist but they only appear when no one is watching. Such a claim can be neither verified nor falsified. It is, therefore, beyond discussion because it depends on blind faith. The realm of blind faith is also the realm of mindless faith, as we saw earlier with the story about taking the unknown pills your friend offers.
On the other hand, no sophisticated view can be verified on every point. Even the most rigorous scientific outlook has to accept first principles based on implication and reasonable faith, such as the belief that our world is real and that our senses convey truth. Yet this doesn’t mean a scientific worldview is unfalsifiable in general. Some areas are falsifiable, and others are not.
The same goes for accepting the knowledge you receive in classes and from research. You don’t always verify these findings yourself, but you trust the review and publishing system.
This is also the case with spirituality and various scriptures. Although we may be unable to verify or falsify some areas, other areas can be checked against history, geography, science, etc. If the areas we can check prove false, we have no reason to believe the areas we cannot check. This is why we should reject any scripture’s claims to truth if they contain verifiable, gross errors—and this is bad news for most religions.
For instance, the Book of Mormon mentions cities in the new world, but none of them have ever been discovered. Cities mentioned in the Bible, on the other hand, have nearly all been identified, and many have been excavated.
So too, why accept the truth claims of any religion or scripture if it offers no reason for belief? Again, we see the amazing difference where the Bible is concerned. The powerful evidence we went over earlier is missing from other religious texts.
To summarize, it seems clear that some religious claims are false. If this is true with some, then it may be true with others in whole or in part. Therefore, we should try to evaluate religious teaching, not only from the standpoint of the good feelings they create in their followers, but also from the standpoint of whether they are true. When religions contradict each other, we should not claim all of them are valid.
If you conclude that one religious doctrine or sacred scripture is more believable, that doesn’t imply personal arrogance or intolerance toward others. We make evaluations of this kind in other areas of life every day. If you see someone driving the wrong way on a one-way street, you aren’t arrogant just because you recognize error.
So the real question is not whether people adhere to religious views because their families did, or whether they may find comfort in that. The deeper question is whether any of these views are actually true or real.
Don’t people follow their upbringing?
This widespread view doesn’t match the facts on the ground. People do not necessarily believe whatever they were raised in. Today, for instance, Christianity is expanding rapidly with thousands of converts weekly in lands that have no history of Christian belief, like India and China. Meanwhile, in the west, where Christianity has traditionally held sway, belief in Christ is declining.
Why one way?
According to the Bible, Jesus is the only person in whom God put on humanity. Jesus is also the only provision for forgiving sin. His death alone can forgive our debt to a holy God. He himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. Nobody comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). He also said, “All who came before me were robbers and thieves” (John 10:8). He warned that powerful forces of deception seek to lead people astray (John 8:44). He said of Satan, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
So according to Jesus, we live in a world where people are being led astray and are in daily danger because of his bitter enemy. We should all carefully consider the dangers of discounting Jesus after he was so powerfully validated by God.
At the same time, we should be accepting and tolerant of people from other religious views. Believers should not judge and condemn believers in other faiths, but lovingly share the gospel with them.
What about people who never heard?
The Bible teaches that Jesus is the only provision for being forgiven. But that doesn’t mean only Christians are forgiven. People before Jesus’ day had faith, and were forgiven and went to heaven. This, in spite of the fact that they didn’t even know Jesus’ name. The content of their faith was different than ours today, but it was still faith. And their forgiveness came through Jesus’ death, applied retrospectively.
That proves that God is willing to apply Jesus’ death to people who haven’t heard about the cross. In a key passage in Romans, Paul discusses people without the benefit of the Bible. He says,
That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).
You can see from this passage that people can know about God even without anyone telling them. God has made it “evident within them” because we can recognize we have souls. Also, people can look at nature and realize someone had to make this. At the very least, someone had to get nature started.
Paul concludes, “They are without excuse.” That means, there must be something they can do. We don’t know what it is, but if there were nothing they could do, they would have an excuse. So we can infer people can respond to God without anyone telling them.
However, it appears that few people have this response on their own. One clear reason for that is what follows in Romans,
They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. (Romans 1:23, 25)
Here, Paul explains that worshipping the creation isn’t good enough. People know better. Why worship the creation, when it’s clear someone had to create it? Often, the answer is that people feel intimidated by the true God, and prefer smaller gods of their own making.
Romans and other books also make it clear that religion based on earning salvation by one’s good works are too false to bring forgiveness. So even though salvation is possible without hearing the message of the cross, it is unusual.
 This myth is from an inscription inside the pyramids of Mernere and Pepi II, dating from about the twenty-fourth century B.C. Available in translation by Phyllis Ackerman, “The Dawn of Religions,” Vergilius Ferm, Forgotten Religions (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950).
 “The divine couple, Heaven and Earth... are one of the leitmotiven [central motifs] of universal mythology.” Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 240. See his whole discussion on “Earth, Woman, Fertility,” 239-264.
Eliade, one of the most well-known comparative religion scholars in recent times, takes relativism to its logical extreme when he says, “It should always be remembered, before passing judgment upon cannibalism, that it was founded by divine Beings.” And, “Before pronouncing a moral judgment upon these customs, one should remember this—that to kill a man, and eat him or preserve his head as a trophy, is to imitate the behavior of the Spirits, or of the gods. Thus, replaced in its own context, the act is a religious one, a ritual.” Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities, (NY: Harper & Row, 1967) 47, 200. Are we seriously ready to take the denial of objective truth this far? If not, where do we draw the line?
Denise L. Carmody and John T. Carmody, Ways to the Center (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1984), p. 89.