The belief that people of all religions worship the same God, just in a different way, seems to be the cultural norm today. Behind this is the idea that all beliefs should be tolerated and that any claim to ultimate truth is arrogant.1
Sadly, many Christians have inhaled the relativistic air of our pluralistic culture and fallen for this idea. However, it is not intolerant to acknowledge differences in belief. In fact, it is only when we take other views seriously on their own terms instead of trying to assimilate them to our own belief that we are truly being respectful to them. The fact of the matter is that all the world’s religions make particular truth claims and seek to live those out.
The idea that we all worship the same God just in different ways is a fairly easy thing to say if you don’t know what different religions believe. For example, Buddhists deny the existence of a personal god, while Hindus believe in many gods. Mormonism is also a polytheistic religion, though Mormons restrict their worship to only a few gods.
The doctrine of the Trinity especially distinguishes Christianity from the world’s religions.
Even in the three monotheistic world religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—there are fundamental differences in God’s character, attributes, and especially his nature. Although all three are monotheistic, Judaism and Islam are Unitarian monotheists (the belief that the being of God exists as one person). Christianity on the other hand is Trinitarian monotheism. This is the belief that within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each is a distinct person, yet each is identified as God: Father (1 Corinthians 8:6); Son (John 1:1–3; Romans 9:5); Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). The doctrine of the Trinity especially distinguishes Christianity from the world’s religions. In Islam, even though it is misunderstood,2 the doctrine of the Trinity is considered blasphemy! It is completely illogical to say all paths lead to God when even the notion of God that is held by each religion is contradictory.
Another major difference between Christianity and the world’s religions is that the world’s religions do not have a realistic view of human nature (i.e., our sinfulness)3 since all teach salvation by human effort or goodness.4 All religions, except Christianity, tone down both the bad news of our sinfulness and the good news of God’s free grace. None of the world’s religions present any good news (gospel) that someone has liberated us from the reign of sin and death. In Christianity, salvation comes through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and not through human effort (1 Corinthians 15:1–4; Romans 4:4–8).
On all of these points, it is not that each religion is professing different aspects of one truth, but that they are contradicting each other in their truth claims. While the world’s religions may all point you in the direction of heaven and tell you that you can save yourself, Christianity teaches that Jesus has come, not just as a moral leader to show us the path to God, but to be our Way, our Truth, and our Life (John 14:6), the only One who can give us peace (John 14:27; Romans 5:1).
When it comes to our cultural situation today, we should also keep in mind that the book of Acts tells us that Christianity was born in a time of persecution and immorality in a world where the church was in the minority. Yet it was in that culture that the apostles proclaimed the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation for all people (see Acts 8:5, 13:23–39, 16:30–31, 17:30–31, 20:21):
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Even when the apostles were told by the authorities to be silent and no longer proclaim Christ, they responded by saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). In a time when the emperor claimed to be Lord and the moral code was decidedly in opposition to Scripture, the Holy Spirit gave that early church the ability to be faithful and to preach the Word of God without fear or compromise. He did it then, and he can do so now.
What About People Who Never Hear About Jesus?
If all religions do not lead to God, then a common question that usually comes up is this: “What happens to those who have never heard about Jesus?” Obviously, this is a very emotional question because it deals with the final destiny of people. This is an important question because how we answer it will determine how we engage other religions with the gospel. We need to keep in mind two things: first, that the theological reality that God is our Creator and man is in rebellion against him and, second, that the Bible tells us that all people know of God’s existence and are therefore accountable to him. The apostle Paul tells us:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Romans 1:18–20).
Because of our fallen state, we disobey God and, consequently, make counterfeit gods/idols (Psalm 96:5). Jesus is sent into a lost world that is already guilty of rejecting the God whom they know exists and therefore are already under his judgment and on their way to hell (Romans 2:5, 16). In other words, God does not punish people for not knowing about Jesus, but for their individual sins against him (Romans 1:20–32) and their rejecting the clear revelation of God that has been evident ever since God’s creation was completed.
People may say, “Isn’t it unfair of God not to provide more than one way of salvation?” But in reality, we should be thankful that God has provided even one way. God is under no obligation to save any of his fallen creatures. We do not deserve salvation; it is solely based upon his grace (Ephesians 2:8–9).
What about those who argue for inclusivity, the belief that there is access to salvation outside of Jesus? The Roman centurion Cornelius is often used as an example of a gentile whose faith in God was accepted without him knowing about Jesus. It is true that Cornelius is described as a “devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2), and as Peter himself said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34–35). But does this mean that Cornelius did not need to hear about Jesus to be saved? We need to keep in mind the context, which is that the gentiles, as well as the Jews, need to hear the gospel. Peter explains this as “preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). He also ends his message by stating that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Cornelius’s salvation occurred during Peter’s presentation of the gospel, since Peter himself says, “He will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (Acts 11:14).
The Bible makes it clear that the world is in desperate need of Jesus, which is why we take the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation.
God has chosen the gospel of Jesus Christ as the means by which people are to be saved (Romans 10:17). Although he is free to work outside of ordinary providence, as is recognized by the Westminster and London Baptist confessions of faith (5.3), he is under no obligation to do so. The Bible makes it clear that the world is in desperate need of Jesus, which is why we take the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation.
It is important to remember as we share the gospel with those from other religions that they are made in the image of God and, therefore, have dignity and value. As Christians, we should also remember that at one time we “were without Christ” and “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12, NKJV).5 Therefore, we should not reach out to people in fear or hate, but with love and grace, as this is what we have been shown by our Savior (Ephesians 2:5; Titus 3:5). The nineteenth century Bishop of Liverpool, England, J.C. Ryle exhorted Christians to remember those who are without Christ:
We are often reminded of the many who are without food or clothing or school or church. Let us pity them, and help them, as far as we can. But let us never forget that there are people whose state is far more pitiable. Who are they? The people without Christ! Have we relatives without Christ? Let us feel for them, pray for them, speak to the King about them, strive to recommend the gospel to them. Let us leave no stone unturned in our efforts to bring them to Christ. Have we neighbours without Christ? Let us labour in every way for their soul’s salvation. The night cometh when none can work. Happy is he who lives under the abiding conviction that to be in Christ is peace, safety and happiness; and that to be without Christ is to be on the brink of destruction.6