Thinking Biblically About the World’s Religions

Thinking Biblically About the World’s Religions

All over the globe, billions of people adhere to a variety of different belief systems.

Ten major non-Christian world religions abound today: Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism.1 The so-called minor religions are too numerous to count (e.g., various basic or folk religions, native American, African, etc.).2 Many people wonder how this morass of religious claims relates to biblical truth, and more specifically how it relates to the truth-claims of historic Christianity.3

Current cultural perspectives of pluralism, multiculturalism, and relativism make this perennial question all the more perplexing. However, sound biblical principles can build a foundation for a Christian perspective on, and response to, the world’s religions.

Assessing and classifying the world’s religions from a distinctly biblical perspective proves complex. Not even all Christians agree as to the proper point of view. However, eight identifiable theological principles emerge from a study of Scripture to help in this task.

1. The general revelation of God: Basic knowledge about the one true God’s existence and nature is clearly revealed to all people through the created order, as well as through the providential ordering of history, and through the human conscience (see Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:18-21).4

In light of general revelation, commitment to the one true God and to the unique veracity of Christianity does not imply that all features of other religions are false. Since God created the universe and subsequently each human being in his expressed image (Gen. 1:26-27), authentic traces of him can be found in all cultures, among all peoples, and, with some important qualifications, even among all religions.5 Creation powerfully, perpetually, and universally reflects the Creator. Human beings sense the reality of God by observing and encountering nature.

Scripture also reveals that as God’s special creation, individuals know in the core of their being that there is a God who holds them morally accountable. This inherent and intuitive sense of the divine explains humanity’s deep-seated religious and moral impulses.

Humans have even been called homo religiosis because of their basic religious tendencies and nature. Anthropological and sociological findings confirm that religion has been a universal phenomenon throughout human history.6 Even avowed atheists often seek existential answers to life’s ultimate questions, sometimes in an amazingly “religious” manner (the philosophies of atheistic existentialism and Marxism provide good examples). General revelation explains the powerful phenomenon of spirituality and illuminates why many of the world’s religions agree in some specific areas, particularly concerning core ethical issues.

2. The effects of sin on mankind: Humans’ fallen (sinful) condition has impaired their cognitive and/or belief-forming abilities (noetic faculties) resulting in moral and spiritual obtuseness. Thus, a person is naturally predisposed to suppress and distort the knowledge of God disclosed in general revelation (see Rom. 1:18-25; Eph. 4:17-19).

While members of various world religions have a real (though rudimentary) knowledge of the biblical God via general revelation, their present sinful state (on account of the Fall, Gen. 3) leads them to suppress this truth. Fallen human beings may be described as “spiritually schizoid,”7 both desiring and resisting God simultaneously. While humans were made for fellowship with their Creator, they nonetheless resist acknowledging the true God and accepting moral accountability to him.

This powerful divine awareness within man cannot be completely shut down. It inevitably comes forth. But apart from further divine grace, this spiritual impulse usually takes the form of an “idolatrous” distortion. Various religious belief systems worldwide––namely animism, polytheism, pantheism, finite godism, occultism, and humanism––demonstrate such spiritual perversion. In his famous encounter on Mars Hill (Athens), the apostle Paul described a similar pluralistic religious scenario (Acts 17:16-34).

So, even though a person knows of God via general revelation, he or she naturally (apart from the special grace of God) chooses not to believe in the true God (Rom. 3:10-12),8 instead exalting an idol or false deity. The general consensus among Protestant evangelicals holds that general revelation in and of itself cannot release a person from sin’s grip, though it does reveal and condemn unbelief. In other words, all people have access to true revelation, but that very revelation ultimately holds them accountable to their Creator for their response to him.

3. The satanic dimension: While some religions may be the mere product of human speculation, at least some forms of religion are actually energized by Satan and his minions (Matt. 24:24; 1 Cor. 10:14-22­).9

Scripture indicates that Satan and demons (fellow angels who followed him in rebellion) stand behind pagan idolatry, actively blinding the minds of unbelievers. Their motive is to deceive mankind with a powerful spiritual counterfeit. Heresies and false doctrine are sometimes associated with demonic influence. Scripture explicitly condemns certain religious practices as repugnant to God, and these practices are connected to demonic activity. Rather than arising merely from misguided human striving, some religious beliefs and practices come from a truly malevolent source.

In light of human sin and satanic activity, no human being stands on purely neutral spiritual ground. While the satanic dimension of pagan religion can be overstated, the reality of spiritual warfare behind the scenes of the world’s religions (especially those deeply rooted in occultism) must be recognized.10

4. The uniqueness of Christ and his exclusive claims: The New Testament reveals Jesus Christ as God in human flesh (John 1:1; 10:29-31)11 and, thus, as the only Savior of humankind (Matt. 11:27; John 1:18),12 restoring the eternal relationship broken by sin.

According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ is not one way among many ways to God. Nor is he merely a prophet or messenger who points people to God. Rather, Jesus is God in human flesh, who came personally to Earth to reconcile the world to God through his sacrifice on the cross (2 Cor. 5:19). Jesus Christ not only declared himself the Lord and Savior of the world (Rom. 10:9-13; Phil. 2:5-11), but also, like Yahweh in the Old Testament, he declared himself Lord and Redeemer to the exclusion of all other so-called saviors.

Jesus made unequivocal exclusionary remarks concerning other possible ways to restore fellowship with God: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The apostle Peter buttressed this christological exclusivity with his statement: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).13

The unique identity and exclusive claims of Jesus Christ differ from those of all other religious leaders. Only Jesus makes exclusive claims to divine authority and possesses the powers and prerogatives of deity. The doctrines of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection reside at the heart of Christianity and set it apart from all other religions.14 According to the Bible, God is personally, intimately, uniquely, and decisively disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ, forever. All people everywhere, regardless of culture, race, or religious heritage must look to Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

5. The necessity of gospel proclamation: People experience salvation by conscious faith in response to the explicit preaching of the gospel (Rom. 10:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:1-4).15

God intends that the good news about Christ’s sacrificial atonement for sin be proclaimed to all people everywhere. People respond in faith to the preached message about Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus the Holy Spirit works through the content of special revelation (the declaration of the gospel of redemption in Christ) to bring about a person’s response of faith (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5). God’s grace heals the fallen human will and illuminates the mind with special revelation, thus correcting the inevitable distortions of general revelation (Eph. 2:4-6; 4:17-24; Phil. 2:12-13).16

The apostle Paul presents a cogent argument concerning the necessity of gospel preaching and its direct connection to salvation:

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ . . . Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14-15, 17).

 6. The importance of truth: Salvation depends on the correctness, the truth, of one’s belief (John 3:36; 8:24).17

According to Scripture, salvation rests not merely upon personal sincerity, but also upon the objective correctness of one’s belief. Doctrinal correctness matters. Faith in a false God or a false Christ or a false gospel cannot result in salvation. An individual’s trust must be placed in the genuine Lord and Savior’s true person, nature, and atoning sacrifice. Believers may not fully comprehend or may have genuine misunderstandings of or even limited exposure to biblical truth, but certain doctrinal boundaries stand firm. Paul’s warning to the Galatian church concerning a “different gospel” dramatically underscores the importance of sound biblical doctrine:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so know I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8-9)

No false god, false Christ, or false gospel can atone for sin and bridge the chasm it cut between God and every human. As the apostle John declares: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).

7. The value of apologetics: In order to guide people through faith barriers and expose fallacious religions for the spiritual danger they represent, followers of Christ bear responsibility to answer various challenges to the truth of the Gospel. Those who study the teachings and arguments of other religions show God’s love by offering a sound apologetic critique (2 Cor. 10:4-5; Tit. 1:9).18

The religions of the world must be taken seriously. By studying other religions’ history and background, sources of authority, categories, teachings, and arguments, and understanding their worldview orientation, Christians equip themselves for spreading the good news of salvation. In addition to knowing Scripture, the effective Christian apologist does well to learn other religious adherents’ mindset with an insider’s mastery. Such insight helps expose distortions, contrasting them to the light of biblical truth.19 Powerful in effect, this difficult apologetic task was the apostles’ clear calling: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). The serious challenge of the world’s religions deserves Christianity’s best apologetic effort in response.

8. The proper respect of persons: Because all people bear God’s own image, a biblical response shows proper personal respect to people of other religions (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6).20

The Bible declares that people reflect the Imago Dei (image of God) and have inherent dignity and moral worth as a result. Every person therefore deserves personal respect regardless of race, gender, religion, or social class. The individual right of persons to believe whatever they wish, regardless of whether a particular belief is wrong, absurd, or contrary to biblical truth must be respected. This amounts to respecting individual volition and individual moral responsibility. Others’ religious practices must be tolerated so long as they do not violate the legal and moral rights of others.

 However, respectful tolerance does not preclude those who believe in the Bible from using ethical means of persuasion to convince others of truth, including the truth-claims of Jesus Christ. While being socially tolerant and respectful, Christians can and must be intellectually intolerant of conflicting truth-claims.21 The Bible calls believers to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)—motivated by love and expressing love in words, actions, and attitude.

Christian Particularism

In summary, the scriptural data support what has historically been called Christian exclusivism, or, as some evangelicals today prefer to call it, “particularism.”22 The historic Christian worldview affirms that (1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior of mankind, and (2) explicit (or conscious) faith in Jesus Christ is essential for eternal fellowship with God. This is the historical position of the Christian church and can be distinguished from two competing current-day positions, namely pluralism and inclusivism. Pluralism affirms that all major religions are true, thus rejecting both points. Inclusivism affirms that explicit faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation, thus rejecting point two.23

The exact relationship between gospel proclamation and salvation by faith continues to be discussed among Christians.24 Some evangelical particularists argue that while the proclamation of the gospel is necessary, they suggest that the sovereign God is not dependent upon the imperfect efforts of human beings to bring the message of salvation to the unevangelized. They suggest that God on rare and special occasions conveys his gospel through other extraordinary means (e.g., dreams, visions, spirit-energized insight from general revelation). In their view, those who have never explicitly heard the gospel message are not unduly penalized for the church’s failure to fulfill the Great Commission.

Other evangelical particularists insist that hearing and responding to the explicit gospel message is both the necessary and the only way to partake of salvation. They argue that Scripture clearly connects the conscious response of faith to the explicit preaching of the gospel, and that God commands the church to fulfill its universal imperative to preach the gospel to all people. They also suggest that God’s revelatory intervention through extraordinary means is purely anecdotal and without clear or explicit scriptural support.

Both camps concur, however, that the church has a divine imperative to preach the gospel to the entire world, and that people must manifest explicit faith in Christ. This mandate surely includes bringing Christ’s Word to those who cling to erroneous beliefs. People in pluralistic and global societies need to consider and understand the biblical perspective on various truth-claims. Christians have been given the responsibility to make the gospel known to people of every nation and culture around the world, including those who live right next door.

Comparing the Leaders of the World’s Religions:

Religion Leader Status Mission
1. Buddhism Buddha (Gautama) Enlightened one Lead others to Nirvana
2. Confucianism Confucius Ethical teacher Build moral society
3. Hinduism Krishna Divine Avatar Hero of the Indian people
4. Taoism Lao-Tzu Sage Teacher of the Tao (way)
5. Jainism Mahavira Great Hero Teacher of asceticism
6. Judaism Moses Prophet Communicate the will and law of Yahweh
7. Islam Muhammad Final Prophet Communicate the will of Allah
8. Zoroastrianism Zoroaster Prophet Communicate the will of Ahura-Mazda
9. Christianity Jesus God Incarnate Redemption of mankind (Lord, Messiah, Savior)

Thinking Biblically Glossary

  • Pluralism: the view that all religions, or all major religions, are equally true and thus equally valid paths to God or to ultimate reality.
  • Multiculturalism: the assertion that every culture has its own subjectively valid truth, even if cultural truth-claims conflict.
  • Relativism: the view that truth and morality are subjective and changeable; a rejection of absolute standards of truth and morality.
  • Animism: the belief that all nature (including inanimate objects) is alive with souls.
  • Polytheism: the belief that multiple gods exist.
  • Pantheism: the belief that “all is god and god is all” (i.e., god is identical with the universe).
  • Finite Godism: the view that god (or gods) is finite in nature (limited and imperfect).
  • Occultism: the exaltation of hidden or secret truth and participation in quasi religious practices such as spiritism, magic, and divination. These practices are expressly condemned in the Bible (Deut. 18:9-13).
  • Humanism: the naturalistic philosophy that views human beings as of ultimate value.
  • Existential Atheism: the philosophy set forth by such writers as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and Albert Camus (1913-1960). A 19th and 20th century philosophy focusing on an individual’s subjective existence in a meaningless universe, where the individual must take responsibility for his acts of free will and attempt to carve out some personal meaning, purpose, and significance.
  • Marxism: the political/economic philosophy of the German thinker Karl Marx (1818-1883). This philosophy sets forth a theory and practice of worldwide socialism that allegedly promotes the establishment of a classless society.
  1. For good general information about these ten world religions, see Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991); John A. Hutchison, Paths of Faith, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991); David S. Noss and John B. Noss, A History of the World’s Religions, 9th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1990); Lewis M. Hopfe, Religions of the World, 7th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1998); Robert S. Ellwood, Many Peoples, Many Faiths 5th ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996). For a Christian assessment of the world’s religions, see Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998); Dean C. Halverson, ed. The Compact Guide to World Religions (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1996); Norman Anderson, ed. The World’s Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); Norman Anderson, Christianity and World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984).
  2. Hopfe’s book also has some good general information on some of the world’s minor religions.
  3. By “historic Christianity,” this author refers to orthodox biblically based creedal Christianity.
  4. See also Acts 17:25-27; Rom. 2:14-15.
  5. Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 116.
  6. See Hopfe, 6.
  7. Halverson, 16.
  8. For a discussion of the proper relationship between general and special revelation, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “Revelation Times Two?” Facts for Faith (Q2 2000), 50-54.
  9. See also 2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Thess. 2:9-10; 1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 2:9; 12:9.
  10. Clinton E. Arnold, Powers of Darkness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992).
  11. See also John 8:58-59; 14:8-9; 20:28; Phil. 2:5-7; Col. 2:9; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1.
  12. See also John 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 5:11-12.
  13. See the analysis of these passages by Douglas Geivett and Gary Phillips in More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 230-37.
  14. McGrath, 119.
  15. See also Eph. 1:13; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 1:23-25.
  16. Samples, 53.
  17. See also 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Tim. 1:3-4, 18-19; 6:3; Tit. 1:9; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-3; 2 John 7-11; Jude 3-4.
  18. See also 1 Pet. 3:15. 
  19. This apologetic strategy is set forth in Curtis Chang,Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
  20. See also James 3:9.
  21. For a Christian assessment of tolerance, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “Must We Be Intolerant In Christ’s Name?” Facts for Faith (Q2 2000), 8-10.
  22. See the positions of Alister McGrath, Douglas Geivett, and Gary Phillips in More Than One Way? 151-80, 213-45.
  23. Ronald H. Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 11-12. Nash critiques both pluralism and inclusivism while defending exclusivism.
  24. See the interaction between McGrath, Geivett, and Phillips, in More Than One Way? 256-70.