The Bible on Non-Christian Religions

The Bible on Non-Christian Religions September 26, 2016

What does the Bible say about non-Christian Religions? The simple answer is nothing, for the same reason the Bible doesn’t say anything about airplanes, 401Ks, nuclear power, and iPhones. The concept of religion as we know it didn’t exist in the time that the Bible was written. It comes about much later in human history.

As Tamoko Masuzawa shows in her brilliant work “The Invention of the World Religions,” our contemporary concept of religion was invented so that Europeans could get a better grasp of the world being discovered by colonialism. Religion, a term previously reserved by Christians only for Christianity, was generalized in order  to place the human social phenomena that we now call religion in relation to the universal claims being made by European civilization. Indeed, even as these human social phenomena were drawn into the category of “religion” they also received their European names: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, and so on. The “ism” indicating their categorical relatedness.

The Bible, by contrast, isn’t interested in religion as we know it. It is interested in those human social phenomena that bear on God’s specific claims upon humans. And those claims are not, using the word religion in the modern sense, necessarily religious.

In the Bible God’s claims on all humanity are pretty straightforward. God tells Adam and Eve, and later Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” God’s break up of Babel in Genesis 11 underscores the fact that God intends that humans to have children and migrate outward from their original home. God also makes humans stewards of God’s creation. “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

And in relation to that function as stewards of creation God sets restrictions on human behavior.  Speaking to Noah, the last representative of all human kind to receive a revelation from God. God renews the covenant with Adam and then adds, “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”

Finally, as God calls Israel into being through Abraham God makes it clear that the worship of gods other than God, and in particular idolatry, is forbidden. And, moreover, all humans are obliged to recognize God’s covenant with Israel. Israel is also obligated to follow a vast array of more specific laws that represent God’s claim on Israel as a people. But in terms of universal claims, those made on Adam, then on Noah, and then through Abraham on the nations are all there are.

These claims require considerable elucidation. It is relatively easy to see how the most basic claims God makes on humankind both with regard to their purpose and their stewardship of creation can be expanded into a rich ethic of human behavior. We find this occurring in the Jewish scripture or Christian Old Testament. Particularly through the prophets God clarifies what God’s initial claims on human beings mean for those human beings in changing social contexts.

The central claim of the New Testament as a whole is that in Jesus Christ God makes a new, universal, covenant with all of humanity, and thus makes claims upon humanity that augment but do not over-ride those with Noah and Abraham.

Although the New Testament is a rich account of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the response of the apostles to Christ, the answer to the question of what God requires doesn’t seem terrible complex. God requires that people put their faith in Jesus the Christ because he is the Son of God, and thus the sole of source of life and everything that makes life possible. Only faith in Christ so orients the human person to God as to make it possible to both live a full human life into eternity.

Yet it would be simplistic to think that this single claim upon human persons is simple. At the very least placing one’s faith in the ruler of the universe entails obedience to that ruler. And both confession and repentance of one’s sins against that ruler. Moreover, as evangelists the apostles naturally looked for a tangible response beyond the promise of obedience indicate assent to faith. Only this gave them, and those who heard them, the assurance that the good news had been heard. Only a tangible response, a profession of faith, and baptism as a sign of that response assured the apostles and ultimately the church that it has been faithful in its obedience to Christ to preach the good news. So a simple claim has complex repercussions for the faithful, the apostles and the church that succeeds them in their mission.

But what about those who never hear the gospel? Here the New Testament is agnostic. It simply doesn’t speak to the issue. Self-evidently those who never heard the gospel do not know the revelation that identifies Jesus as the Christ and speaks of salvation through the Cross. But this doesn’t logically entail or otherwise imply that they have not put their faith in God as the source of life and everything that makes life possible. God’s self-revelation both precedes and is more extensive than the work of the incarnate Christ and his church. “God has not left God’s self without witnesses” as we read in Acts 14.

There is a possible objection to agnosticism about those who never hear the gospel.  It stems from the way in which the New Testament understands the relationship of humans to God. Humans are depicted as being in thrall to sin, subject to it so completely that they cannot live a fully human life, much less eternal life, without the intervention of God’s grace. And, this objection goes on, only through the hearing of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ by means of the apostolic teaching of the church does God intervene in human life with God’s grace. It follows from this view of both human sin and God’s singular method of self-revelation that those who do not hear and respond to the apostolic witness to Jesus as the Christ cannot be saved. Faith in God is simply unavailable through any other means.

I do not think a credible reading of the New Testament supports the idea that faith in God is available only through the Christian preaching of the gospel. But I won’t argue that point in this blog. Because whatever you believe about the possibilities of human faith in God, the primary question that Christians must ask about non-Christian religions is how they relate to the claim upon humanity made by God, both in the covenants of the Old Testament and the covenant of the New Testament.

Put another way, what matters about non-Christian religions is whether they lead toward or are opposed to human fidelity to God’s claims upon humanity, and ultimately God’s claim that humans must place their faith in God. Given God’s claims on human beings as they culminate in the demand for faith in God through Christ the essential question is always: does this tend toward or away from faith in God? (I just note that because there is complete identity between God and Christ there is no difference between faith in Christ and faith in God.)

Now actually evaluating whether a non-Christian religion hinders or helps people place their faith in God is complicated. Some aspects of religion, particularly apparent idolatry or the worship of gods other than God are clearly antagonistic to the gospel. That is clear enough in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It is equally clear that if a religion encourages unrighteousness then it is antagonistic to the gospel.

There is, however, a twofold problem in applying these criteria to non-Christian religions. First it isn’t easy to judge whether a particular religion as such promotes idolatry, the worship of false gods, and/or unrighteousness. Hinduism and Buddhism, which seem on the surface to be idolatrous, both offer a sophisticated rational explaining that devotion to religious icons is not the worship of idols. Similarly both claim that the multiple deities toward whom devotion is shown are not rivals to God but mere concretizations for the human imagination of God’s attributes. It is worth remembering that Protestants past and present have made the same accusations against Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy that they made against non-Christian religions in this regard.

We face the same problem looking for signs that non-Christian religions teach unrighteousness. Jesus rebuked the pharisees for teaching unrighteousness, but he was clear that the Jewish law was righteous. Similarly with regard to any non-Christian tradition we would need to distinguish between fundamental ethical principles and their possible misapplication by religious leaders. And when we do this it becomes hard to see how these non-Christian religions are different from Christianity. They are a mixed bag with regard to encouraging unrighteousness. And like Christianity, all maintain in principle that they encourage only righteousness. Having studied non-Christian ethical systems for many years I can say that it is hard to find a single instance where the teaching of a non-Christian religion is in conflict with Christianity on ethical principles. Finding ethical purity in the teaching of Christians is equally difficult.

And this brings us to where I think we need to be as Christians looking at non-Christian religions: taking them on a case by case, individual by individual basis. They may be a form of “preparation” through which individuals and communities come to more readily hear the gospel. They may provide a community that mitigates against the worst forms of unrighteousness. They may direct human attention toward the divine and away from the folly of idols. Or they may through icons direct their followers to faith in a God they barely know. Or they may encourage the idolatrous and evil. Or they may encourage vast injustice. They may become a set of loyalties so strong that they prevent acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord. Or they may teach their followers so much that is consonant with the claims of Jesus that on hearing his name these followers are immediately drawn into allegiance to him. I have seen all these things in followers of non-Christian religions.

To summarize: religion doesn’t exist as a category of Biblical analysis of the human condition, therefore all we can do is evaluate religions in light of the claims that the Bible tells us God makes upon human persons and the human community. And given the complexity of actual human social phenomenon our final analysis will have to be made individual by individual as we engage persons with the gospel.

A closing note: I welcome comments to this blog, but I will not personally respond to any that are posted under an alias.

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