Some people think that religions are like paths going up a mountain. They suggest that there are many paths but whichever one you take you’ll arrive at the same place. However, if different religions are paths going to the same place who can we expect to find when we arrive and what will be our fate at the end of life’s journey? You see the many religions of the world have very different understandings of the divine. In Hinduism the divine is impersonal and approached through many lesser deities. Buddhism technically doesn’t have a god. So according to the ‘paths up a mountain’ theory those of us hoping to spend eternity with the God of Bible may be in for an awful surprise. If this theory is true how can people know what God is like? As for the afterlife, the many religions of the world differ here too! In Buddhism, after many reincarnations, you hope for Nirvana—which is like extinction, ‘the complete cessation or both desire and personality.’ Muslims look forward to a paradise filled with wine, women and song. I am hoping to spend eternity with the God who has invited me to call him ‘Father’, and to enjoy him with his people for ever. If the ‘paths up a mountain’ theory is true how can we know what to hope for after this life?’
Then there is the inadequacy of the picture itself. You see the idea of religions being paths where people are working their way towards God highlights the difference that exists between Christianity and other faiths. While other religions focus on people’s efforts to work their way towards a god or gods, Christianity says it is God who has done the travelling. God the Father sending God the Son down the mountain to people who are rebelling against him; God the Son taking the punishment that we owe so that we can know forgiveness and acceptance; God the Holy Spirit being given to enable us follow him to the end.
The fact is that the religions of the world give us conflicting pictures of the god or gods, salvation, and the afterlife. If they are the paths up the same mountain then we have conflicting messages of how the journey is taken and what to expect when we arrive. Indeed how can such contradictory pictures all be true?
This leads us to another picture used by those who believe all religions lead to God. They say it like blindfolded people touching an elephant. One person holds the trunk and describes something strong and long. Another person holds an ear and talks of something thin and wide. Still another holds the tail and says it is hairy and weak. This, it is claimed, are like people from different religions—they all describe something that sounds very different but is actually a part of a bigger whole. But such a picture has problems! It might make sense if the different people are describing different things, but how do we account for the fact that the different religions describe the same things in different ways—such as the nature of God, salvation, and the afterlife. There is no logical problem with people describing a tail as being different from an ear, but when people describe the same tail in contradictory ways then it makes no sense!
I believe that the essential issue is this: has God revealed himself in such a way that he can be known and related to or has he left humanity with a confusing array of contradicting ideas? Christians claim, that through his Word, God has shown us what he is like, how he can be known, and what we can hope for in him.
So how should we treat people from other faith backgrounds?
1. We should follow the example of the early church. Some people think that the fact that we live in an increasingly multi-faith society should cause us to alter what we believe. That with the competing claims of various religions it is wrong for any of us to say that they are right and that others are wrong. However, the early followers of Jesus operated in a Roman world that was full of different claims about gods. In that context they had no problem with claiming the uniqueness of Christianity and neither should we!
2. We should see their essential need as being the same as anyone else’s. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether someone comes for a Christian background, a Muslim background, or a Hindu background. People need Jesus! He died for all people and invites people from all cultures to know him. He is God’s one way of knowing true forgiveness and acceptance. He is in the business of creating a new multi-ethnic community around himself. So let’s pray for the opportunity to share our faith with all those we are in contact with; let’s strive to get to know people for various backgrounds; and let’s have a church community that loves the diversity of people that God will bring into his kingdom.