Just because all of the world’s religions express important elements of spiritual truth doesn’t mean that they all represent enough truth to lead to God.
The history of religion shows how immoral and violent religion can be. Most modern people would look upon the actual practice of many extinct religions with horror. The Canaanites, for instance, practiced human sacrifice, bestiality, and ritual prostitution. The Phoenicians practiced a similar, horrible religion. In the New World, the Aztec Indians practiced ritual human sacrifice on a scale that is almost beyond modern imagination.
Even our relativistic, “Postmodern” culture would find it difficult to defend religions that encourage impersonal ritual sex, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. It’s just too obvious that such religions don’t bring out the best in people. Neither do they produce healthy civilizations.
History also shows us that some civilizations that were founded on evil religion were ripe for destruction. The Canaanites were conquered by Israel. Carthage was utterly destroyed by Rome. The Aztecs were conquered by a few hundred Spaniards and a vast army of Amerindian allies from surrounding tribes who longed for deliverance from Aztec terror.
The major religions that still survive today have lasted a long time, gained many followers, and produced complex and highly developed cultures. Those that have survived into the 20th century generally uphold a moral law similar to the biblical 10 Commandments. But the world’s major religions do not share a consensus about how to come to terms with our failure to live up to the moral standards of our faith.
While all major contemporary religions have a fairly close general consensus regarding the moral law—the kind of behavior that deserves to be classified as virtuous or sinful—they fall far short of showing us how to come to terms with our own failure to live up to the moral standards of our faith.
According to the New Testament gospel of Christ, knowledge of the moral law brings awareness of sin and guilt (Romans 3:19,20; Romans 7:7-13; 1 Timothy 1:7-11), but is in itself not a means of salvation. Knowledge of the moral law only brings condemnation, and with condemnation comes guilt and the many destructive ways people try to suppress it (legalism, self-righteousness, scapegoating). (See the ATQ article, Can Assurance of Salvation Be Found in Obeying the Old Testament Law?) Only reliance upon Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in our behalf provides a solution to the awareness of moral condemnation and agony of guilt that rises out of knowledge of the moral law. Only Christianity offers access to God because it answers the problem of evil and guilt.
Jesus Christ fulfilled the moral law both in His life and in His death. He obeyed it perfectly. Of the entire human race, only He never sinned (see John 5:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22). He also laid down His life to pay the penalty for sin demanded by the law (see John 3:16; John 10:11-l8; John 11:50-52; Romans. 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians. 5:21). Because Jesus Christ fulfilled the requirements of the moral law, believers in him are restored to relationship with God through grace and no longer alienated and tormented by guilt. Only with Jesus Christ as both master and example can people manifest God’s love and exhibit a righteousness that fulfills the law without being shackled by it (Romans 13:8-10).
Far from being a European religion, Christianity’s origins were in the Mideast, a place far from Europe but just next door to Egypt and North Africa. Jesus and His followers weren’t blue-eyed and light-skinned. They were Semitic people, dark-skinned and dark-eyed. For that matter, Scripture itself declares that the religion of Jehovah and Christ is a universal religion ( Genesis 22:17-18; 26:4 ; Psalm 72 ; Daniel 2:44 ; Mark 16:15 ; Acts 8:27-38; 17:22-28 ; Revelation 11:15 ).
When the Christian gospel first began to spread about 2,000 years ago through the lands that bordered on the Mediterranean Sea, the peoples of the subcontinent that today is known as Europe were living a tribal existence, divided by hundreds of tribal languages. Just like other tribal peoples, Europeans were animists who worshiped and feared the spirits and sometimes practiced human sacrifice to appease them. They told and retold the legends of their gods and ancestral heroes around their night fires.
Although many of them had already been forced to submit to Roman authority, the European tribes in those days were much like African tribes today, or Native Americans at the time of Columbus. Among the warriors captured in battle and sold in Mediterranean slave markets were tall, blond Germans (then known as Goths), red-haired Celts and Britons, and short, dark-haired Iberians (from the regions we know as Spain and Portugal). More than a thousand years of tremendous cultural, social, linguistic, and political change would occur before the scattered, warring European tribes would be consolidated into the great modern, nominally Christian nations of Europe.
All people, whether African, Asian, Native American, or European,have tribal beginnings. Christianity was essential to the civilization of Europe. But Christianity isn’t unique to European civilization. Christianity is a religion of all mankind, a tree that has its roots planted among people of every race and culture.
We don’t know why God chose the Jews as the people through whom He revealed Himself. Their racial characteristics are as unlike Europeans as they are unlike Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. Certainly, the central location of Palestine was important to the spread of the gospel. But the pagan tribal peoples of Europe were civilized through a gospel that came to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ, a dark-skinned Semite who lived His entire life in a small area of the Mideast, far away from the Europe.
When asked this question, most people think of traditional faith systems like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shinto.
The answer is more complicated.
Traditional faith systems have less in common than one would think. Some are atheistic or indifferent to the possibility of God’s existence. Some are unconcerned with personal immortality. What they do have in common is concern with ultimate values, connection with a system of ritual, and the power to command reverence, admiration, and personal commitment. These characteristics set them apart as “sacred.”
Defining “religion” is complicated by the fact that newer faith systems with no direct relationship to traditional faith systems have the same “sacred” characteristics. Secular humanism, free-market capitalism, Marxism, nationalism,1 and ethnic “tribalism” are just as religious in their practical effects as traditional faith systems. Millions of people look to nationalism, political ideology, or tribal loyalty for their spiritual values, and a large percentage are willing to die for them.
This is why it is unrealistic to apply the term “religion” only to traditional faith systems. Any institution or belief system that has “sacred” characteristics should be considered a religion.
- Scholars have shown how all of the “secular” institutions and belief systems in this list function as religions, but this quotation on nationalism provides a good example: “Scholars have long noted the way that nationalism has supplanted Christianity as the predominant public religion of the West. Hayes’s 1926 essay, ‘Nationalism as a Religion,’ puts forth this idea, which in 1960 he developed into a book entitled Nationalism: A Religion. For Hayes, humans are naturally endowed with a ‘religious sense,’ a faith in a power higher than humanity that requires a sense of reverence, usually expressed in external ceremony. Hayes argues that the decline in public Christianity with the advent of the modern state left a vacuum for the religious sense that was filled by the sacralization of the nation, the ‘enthronement of the national state—la Patrie—as the central object of worship.’ According to Hayes, political religion enjoyed the double advantage of being more tangible than supernatural religion and having the physical means of violence necessary to enforce mandatory worship. Benedict Anderson similarly argues that the nation has replaced the church in its role as the primary cultural institution that deals with death. According to Anderson, Christianity’s decline in the West necessitated another way of dealing with the arbitrariness of death. Nations provide a new kind of salvation; my death is not in vain if it is for the nation, which lives on into a limitless future” (William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence [Oxford Press, 2009], 114) Back To Article