In a world where we can instantly find, buy, and swap anything, spirituality becomes just another commodity in the Amazon store of life. And what most people are shopping for are practical tips to live a better life according to whatever they define as better. When I spoke to Indian-born Christian thinker Ravi Zacharias for this project, he called these people “happy pagans.” These people are in no mood to ponder the four great questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. They suffer no pain. They feel no distress. The anvil has not fallen out of the sky on their life. They anticipate good times ahead and see little reason to include the Christian faith in their future. Why would anyone on a roll waste time on a religion with downer concepts like judgment and hell?
But something deeper than consumerism drives the belief that “there are lots of religions, and I’m not sure only ONE has to be the right way.”
People have always had a beef with Christianity’s claim of exclusivism. They say it is wrong to claim that Jesus is the one Savior of the world or that faith in Him is the one and only route to God. If they were back in my old hood next to the flight path, they might say there are many airlines and flights that get you to God. They would assure you there are tons of places to take off and land.
This opposition to exclusivism is vaguely intellectual. Critics of Christianity contend that all religions are limited in their grasp of reality, as in the old story of several blind men groping an elephant. A guy who finds the trunk does not describe the elephant in the same way as another who discovers an ear. Each has only a limited perspective of a larger whole, just as each religion only sees part of God. According to this analogy, every religion actually describes the same thing. Like a guy from Phoenix said, “Jesus, or God as we know Him, Allah, Yahweh, they’re just different names for the same Almighty being.” In this scheme, religious viewpoints are essentially interchangeable and equally true.
I don’t think anyone actually lives like one faith is as valid as the next. Hardly anyone signs up to be a suicide bomber to be rewarded life with 72 virgins in paradise. Most do not worry about evil spirits lurking in trees and rocks. People feel safe ignoring Zeus. And on Sunday mornings many people would rather worship at the Church of the Holy Comforter than walk through a church door.
This viewpoint of extreme religious pluralism doesn’t hold up. Religious followers do not agree that all religions believe the same thing. Saying that all religions teach the same thing is highly offensive to all followers of all faiths. If you go up to a devout Muslim and say, “Uh, do you believe the same thing as a Buddhist?” they would say, “The Buddhist? The guy who doesn’t even believe in God? No!” If you ask a Universalist, who believes that everybody goes to heaven, if they think like a Mormon, they will gladly buy you a coffee and explain how they are radically different.
People who, in the name of tolerance, reduce all religions to a handful of shared moral principles fail to notice their own staggering intolerance. They think they are being nice, but they are not.
Ravi Zacharias has traveled to almost 70 nations and has made the study of religions a life pursuit. He points out that Buddhism is supposed to be the most peace-loving and accommodating of all viewpoints, and yet Gautama Buddha, born a Hindu, rejected two fundamental doctrines of Hinduism: the caste system and the full authority of sacred Hindu texts. As Zacharias concluded in our phone conversation for this project, “The most unfortunate assumption that is made is that all religions are fundamentally the same and only superficially different. It’s exactly the opposite. Religions are fundamentally different and at best superficially similar.”
Christianity is not alone in saying its beliefs supplant all others. Every faith and every belief system make exclusive claims. In fact, anyone who asserts anything proves they implicitly accept some things as true and reject others as false. It doesn’t matter whether the subject of conversation is Christ or college basketball or climate change.
From our standpoint as Christians, a world full of religious options boils down to two things: good works or God’s grace. It is one or the other. Other religions require good works—living a moral life, obeying the law, reincarnating to pay off your karmic debt. Christianity holds to God’s grace—getting to heaven not because of what we do but because of what Jesus has done. We do not ascend up to God through our piety or good works. God became man to reconcile mankind to God. Like the apostle Paul wrote, “For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. This is the message God gave to the world at just the right time” (1 Tim. 2:5–6 NLT). What we believe is different.