Cross Examination

Is There Truth in Other Religions?

Hospitality, humility, kindness, equality: all things true, beautiful, and good.

A few weeks ago I had lunch at the local Sikh temple (Gurdwara). I live in British Columbia, where Sikhs are the largest faith group after Christians, so I was keen to have a chat with temple leaders to discuss ways we could mutually encourage the university to support students through chaplaincy programs.

I dropped by the Gurdwara just as the service was finishing and joined a stream of people heading into the hall for a common meal—what Sikhs call langar. Over conversation and lentil curry, I watched families and friends laughing and eating, old men ladling out rice to kids, a few migrant workers waiting for a free meal, and everyone—men, women, and children—seated on the floor as equals before God.  Hospitality, humility, kindness, equality: all things true, beautiful, and good. Who could doubt that there isn’t truth in Sikhism or any other religion?

In fact, many Christians do doubt the presence of truth in other religions. In the past, some theologians even declared other faiths as demonic or idolatrous, insisting on Christianity as exclusively true. I think a better position keeps at least three things in view. 

First, to appreciate truth and goodness in other religions is not to endorse them as paths to salvation. Reformed Christians have always confessed that salvation is God’s gift to undeserving sinners, realized through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and mediated through the Spirit. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NRSV). Let’s keep this truth distinct from the question of whether truth exists in  religions other than our own.

Second, to affirm that there is truth in other religions in no way diminishes the greatness of our God or his gospel. For if the Father’s creating and saving grace is as wide as we confess, if Christ’s lordship is as total as we claim, and if the Spirit is as free and sovereign as we profess, then shouldn’t we expect to find fingerprints and footprints of our triune God throughout his broken world and not just in the church?

When I worked as a missionary in Malawi, African friends often reminded me that God was present in their land long before European missionaries arrived in the 19th century. God was inspiring stories, teachings, and rituals as hints of the gospel that would later transform their culture. Yes, the gospel has been entrusted to the church to proclaim. But it's not ours to possess. It's bigger and deeper than the institutional Christian religion.

A third point closely follows: We detect truth in other religions through the gospel and not apart from it. It's not as if we have a general idea of what is true and good and beautiful, which we then find scattered throughout the world’s religions. I come across this thinking frequently on campus among students who dabble in faith traditions, picking and choosing the “best” parts depending on personal taste. When I took part in the langar, I was drawn to displays of hospitality, generosity, and the like because they resonated with the gospel. As Christians, we discern truth in other religions through a biblical, Christ-centered perspective. I like how the great Reformed missiologist Lesslie Newbigin calls Jesus “the decisive clue” by which we evaluate and explore the world around us, including other religions. Through that clue, we can see truth in other religions, even as we invite adherents of other faiths to join us in pursuit of the fullness of truth that is in Christ.

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Comments

Thanks for your article Todd.

For the most part, I agree with your main conclusions, but I do wonder a bit who or what this article is meant to address/correct?  I doubt that even the 'past theologians' to which you refer would insist that there's no truth whatsoever in any other religion.  And in fact, I think we ought to insist with them that any religion that denies the exclusive existence of the triune God is demonic and idolatrous (see 1 Corinthians 10:18-22).  However, to say as much is not to insist that other religions get nothing right or that people who subscribe to such religions are to be shunned and avoided.  Quite the contrary, Christian love compells us to compassion for those who are 'under the power of the evil one' (1 John 5:19), and to share with them the only solution to the dire condition we once shared with them.

I'm also unclear as to what you mean when you say that the gospel is bigger and deeper than the institutional Christian religion.  There may be senses in which that's true, but the Christian religion is distinguished by a core set of truth claims as to what is (and is not) the gospel.  I'd hate for anyone to interpret your comment as a suggestion that the gospel is something 'bigger and deeper' than what orthodox Christianity says it is.

What I thought your article might do is talk more about how the truth that exists in other religions could serve as connection points for evangelism (which you hinted at in your Malawi experience). But absent that thrust, as I said, it's unclear who or what this article is meant to address/correct.  The simple affirmation that there's truth in other religions seems, on its own, a vague point to make.  And the fact that there is truth in idolatrous worldviews ought never be used to diminish the abiding antithesis between idolatry and the worship of the triune God.

Perhaps there's opportunity for you to say a bit more as to what kind of misunderstanding(s) you hope this article will illumine.  As I said, I'm not aware of anyone who has insisted that there's no truth whatsoever in other religions.

Thanks, Todd, for reminding us that all religions contain elements of truth.  But I agree with Craig’s comment that the theology of all religions separate each at their core teachings from each other, especially when it come to salvation or acceptance with God.  Religions are all mutually exclusive.  For instance, Christians teach that there is no other name under heaven by which to be saved other than the name or person of Jesus. Therefor all other religions are excluded from salvation because they do not teach, believe or trust in Jesus for salvation.  Other religions exclude Christianity (such as Muslims) because they (Christians) teach that Jesus is God, a false teaching to Muslims.  All religions are mutually exclusive, including Christianity.

Wouldn’t it be more than interesting if when we get to heaven, we should sees Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses, Agnostics, and Buddhists enjoying the blessings of heaven?  I’m sure many a Christian would want to ask God why all these non Christians were in heaven.  I could imagine that God might respond, “Oh, all these are here, including Christians, not because of what they believed, but in spite of what they believed.  They are all here because I am a loving God.”  But I guess we as Christians would rather exclude those who don’t believe like us, just as they (non Christians) would exclude us.

Hey Roger,

I agree entirely with your first paragraph.  However, your second paragraph would reduce the Bible to a massive, massive misrepresentation of God's plan and means of salvation.

I also find your parting comment unfairly biting (i.e. how Christians "would rather exclude people.")  First of all, Christian beliefs about the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of faith in him derive from scripture, not from personal preference.  Secondly, there's nothing exclusionary about believing that one must have faith in Christ to be saved.  That would only be exclusionary if we didn't evangelize.   In much the same way, there's nothing exclusionary about a doctor who believes there's only one form of treatment that will save her patient...unless she doesn't tell her patient about it.  In fact, it would be a profoundly hateful thing for a doctor to believe that there's only one effective treatment but to then tell her patient that they'll probably all work out OK.  Criticize the church for a lack of zeal for evangelism, fine...but not for believing in the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of faith in him.

Thanks Craig, for your further comment and clarification.  You suggest that my second paragraph is a massive misrepresentation of God’s plan and means of salvation.  In your mind, any plan of salvation other than the Christian plan is a massive misrepresentation of God’s salvation plan.  Muslims, Hindus and every other religion would say the same thing about Christianity, a massive misrepresentation of God’s plan for salvation.  And they would also, like Christians, say that only their Scriptures are truly inspired by God, and therefor are truthful.  Of course, as Christians, we respond that all religions can’t be right, only one can be right.  And that’s Christianity.  Of course the deist (belief in God based on the evidence of reason and nature alone) will say all supernatural revelations are false, Christianity included.  The deist will suggest that all religions are human inventions, not divine, and therefor no religion (or Scriptures) can be trusted. 

You suggest there is nothing exclusionary about a doctor who believes there’s only one form of treatment that will cure, as long as he shares his insight.  The problem though, is that there are hundreds of doctors (religions) that think they have the only valid cure, and they are all willing to share their cures.  Beside that, the majority of the world’s population have never heard a valid presentation of the Christian gospel and therefore the majority of the world’s population (according to Christianity) are going to hell as unforgiven sinners.  Where’s the good news?

So Christianity doesn’t seem to have easy answers.  I kinda like the idea that God will welcome all into his eternal kingdom, simply because he is a loving and forgiving God, a God willing to give his creatures a second opportunity to do better.

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