Who Do We Think We Are?
Who Do We Think We Are?
"Who do we think we are? How do we know we're right? Can every other religion be wrong?" I would hazard a guess that this is the number one question being asked of Christians today. It comes in many different forms—sometimes not as "in your face" as I just phrased it—but it is one all Christians need to have an idea about how to answer. People all around us are asking it.
There are two passages that I want to lift up today as we think about how to respond to this question. The first is from the Book of Acts and gives Peter's response to the Jewish high court when they asked about the power behind a healing encounter: "It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed …. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." That's from Acts chapter 4, verses 10 and 12.
The second offers the classic answer to this question from Jesus' own lips. It was delivered to his disciples on their last night together. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me." That's John 14:6.
Who do you think you are?
Most people who begin a conversation with words like these are probably harkening back to some personal experience where they were put down by Christians, or saw Christians in an arrogant, judgmental light putting down others. So let me begin by saying who I think or hope we are NOT. I hope we are not people who are intolerant and judgmental of the beliefs of others who disagree with us. I hope we are not anti-intellectual, being unwilling to engage in the hard work of honest discussions with others who have questions about our faith.
So in order to answer this question, we must first begin by building relationships with people—not shying away from talking about faith issues, but doing so in ways that offer genuine respect for others. But that leads us quickly on to our next question.
Can every other religion be wrong?
First of all, neither Christians nor the Bible says that every other religion is completely wrong. Listen to this passage from the Book of Romans: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). The Bible teaches that many people in many places have responded to the glimmer of the Creator God shining through creation. And many have organized their religions to pursue it.
Furthermore, Paul goes on in Romans to proclaim that God has given all human beings a conscience that points toward him and his law: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law … they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Romans 2:14-15).
One of my most admired missionary thinkers is Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, who for 40 years served the church of South India. He speaks of God at work in many converts from other religions. "[There is] an element of continuity which is confirmed in the experience of many who have become converts to Christianity from other religions. Even though this conversion involves a radical discontinuity, yet there is often the strong conviction afterwards that it was the living and true God who was dealing with them in the days of their pre-Christian wrestlings." Here is another highly respected Christian leader declaring that not every religion is completely wrong.
In his classic work Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes something that captures both sides of the issue and speaks directly to the tension Christians have concerning this question:
"If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to persuade myself that most of the human race has always been wrong about the questions that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.
"But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that, where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others."
A good many people today would take issue with C. S. Lewis. They would say in math there is only one right answer. But in everything else—ethics, morality, as well as religion and all spiritual matters—there can be no right answer because no final "truth" is even possible. This is a very simplified description of the term postmodernism that we hear used so much today.
The Modern period began in the 16th century with the happy confidence that human reason was up to the challenge of making the world a better place. Whether it was truth about the natural world or truth about the existence of God made no difference— final, absolute truth was "out there" (as they used to say in the X Files TV show) and, given enough time, humans would find it.
The Postmodern period began in the middle of the last century in Europe, and toward the end of the century in America. After the devastation of World Wars, Vietnam, fear of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, and the social revolutions of the 60's and 70's, people began to doubt this confidence that human reason was creating a better and better world. As that confidence went down the drain, so did belief that there was any absolute truth "out there" that explained everything. Rather, there were only pieces of truth based on peoples' subjective, personal experiences. And, if that is the case, who are you to say that "your truth" is any better than "my truth?" Everyone's truth is equal.
You've all heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man feels the tusks and says, "The elephant is like a sharp spear." Another grabs hold of the trunk and says, "No, the elephant is like a snake." A third blind man wraps his arms around a leg, and says, "No, the elephant is like a tree." And so on.
This children's story is often told as example of how each world religion encounters a small part of God. Unlike C. S. Lewis with his math analogy, no one can claim to have the "right" answer because everyone's answer is only partly right. Everyone touches only a small part of the elephant. This attitude feels good in our highly pluralistic world, where we encounter people of other religions on a regular basis. Furthermore, no one can deny that, all throughout history, religious people—with Christians often at the forefront—have used worldly power to exploit and dominate other peoples.
The upshot of all this is that well-meaning people have concluded: there is no ultimate truth. If we just agree that all religions are equally true, all these conflicts will go away. All religions are just holding different pieces of the same elephant—or as it is also often expressed, all religions are just different paths up the same mountain. But when you look a little closer, it's pretty obvious that this view is illogical.
Take for example the whole idea of God. In Buddhism, there is no god at all, only a path of enlightenment to reach nirvana, which is total nothingness—the elimination of all desire. In Hinduism, there is also no personal god, for Brahma is an impersonal, all-pervading force of the universe—God and the universe are identical. Is it not illogical to believe that religions with a personal God (like Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) can be equally true with religions that deny any personal God (like Buddhism and Hinduism)? A personal deity either exists or does not exist. Someone must be wrong.
Take another example from this passage in Hebrews: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the Universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful Word" (Hebrews 1:1-3).
An absolute core conviction of Christians is the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—he was not only a messenger of God, but God incarnate, God in the flesh. Whether it be Buddha or Mohammed, many world religions have key prophets and could agree with the first part of this verse. But no other world religion has the audacity to claim their prophet is God in the flesh. Obviously, the Jewish faith does not accept this—it is the height of blasphemy to the Jew. Obviously, Islam does not accept this—the fact that Allah, who is distant and aloof from the world, would enter the world and then die as a human being is inconceivably abhorrent to the Muslim. Are these inconsequential differences? No. They are fundamental. Either Jesus is God in human flesh or he is not. Someone must be wrong.
Or, take the ideas of salvation from different religions. Satanists accept God, but seek their salvation through Satan, God's antithesis. Could a religion that believes in salvation through God and a religion that believes in salvation through Satan—God's opposite in every way—simply be two different paths meeting at the summit of the same mountain?
Finally, consider the basic premise of most world religions: Do these works—follow this way of life—and you will gain favor with God. Christianity is 180 degrees opposite, for it says there are no works you can do to achieve salvation. Just trust God, ask for forgiveness, and it's yours for free.
Most world religions say, "Do this." Christianity says, "It's been done for you." In most religions, you will never know—and can never know—if you've done enough to earn God's favor. Only Christianity offers an assurance of salvation based on what God, not us, has done. Could these two diametrical approaches—religions based on the premise of what humans can do and a religion based on the premise that humans can do nothing—both be equally true? Someone must be wrong.
How do we know that we are right?
Which leads to the third question: How do we know that we are right? I would have to say we cannot know in any ultimate sense until we die. That might sound strange to hear from a preacher, but it's the truth so we might as well own up to it. Only one person has come back from the dead to tell the world the final truth—and he did not march up to the Roman governor's palace and show himself to Pontius Pilate to remove all doubt, but only visited his own disciples. On that occasion, in response to Thomas, Jesus replied, "Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe."
Ever since, following him has been a matter of faith, not certain knowledge. And faith can never finally be proved. It can only be shared. When someone asks, "How do you know you are right?" the best thing we can do is share our own faith story.
For me, I have a faith story leading up to the moment in my college fraternity room when I placed my life in the hands of Jesus Christ. Since then, I have had more experiences that confirm in my heart and soul that God is real, that God's love for me is real, and that the Bible is a reliable word from God of what I need to know about God and my life. Furthermore, when I use the reason God has given me, the biblical worldview, when compared to competing world views, makes a great deal of sense to me. I have intellectual reasons why my faith makes sense. So when someone asks me, "How do you know you're right?" I have my own story and my own reasons to share. Hopefully, so do you.
But in an ironic way, I think the radical pluralism and relativism that surrounds us today can actually be an advantage. It frees Christians from the institutional power many of our neighbors have always resented about us. There are so many people around us today who have rejected Christianity because they could not stand the institutional package in which it came to them.
But now things are different. Now we are out on the margins with everyone else—just one option in the great flea market of belief systems available today. Our case for the truth of the gospel will have to be made with more humility … and with a genuine desire to serve and listen to others—to start where they are, rather than where we are. I think this is a good thing. The best way to answer, "Who do you think you are?" is with a humble heart to listen and serve.
Let me sum things up. If you believe that ultimate spiritual truth does exist in the universe—that real truth for everyone is "out there"—then either Jesus was right and correct when he said "I am the way, the truth …" or he was not. It can't be both. What we cannot say is, "Well, this is true for me, but it may not be true for you." And notice carefully that you or I do not claim this about Jesus—he claims it for himself. If I have placed my life in his hands, then I cannot be faithful to him if I do not believe it and not act on it.
Think of it this way. Many laws are humanly determined and can be debated or changed. If I get a speeding ticket and think a $100 fine is too much to pay, I can contest it and try to get the law changed. But other laws are not open to human debate—they are fixed in the universe. If instead of getting a speeding ticket, I drive my car over a cliff, the law of gravity will apply to me whether I think it unfair or not—even whether I was aware of it or not. Christians believe that, just like the law of gravity, there are other ultimate truths about reality that apply to every person who has ever lived—including, "There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Honestly, our dilemma today is this: A good many church-going people have been browbeaten and brainwashed by our society into accepting its premise that, because there is no ultimate truth, any personal faith sharing—no matter how sensitive or gracious—is intolerant and judgmental. Or, at very least, bad manners. If there is no ultimate universal truth—if everyone gets to choose whether gravity exists for them or not—then I guess it makes little difference.
But if there is ultimate truth, then we have a responsibility. It is not our job to convert people to the truth—God alone does the converting; God alone works this miracle of faith in human hearts. However, it is our job to share what we believe, what we have experienced in our own lives, and why we are certain about our faith.
Let me leave you with this question: If gravity exists, and you see your son—or daughter or parent or friend—driving toward the edge of a cliff, blithely assuming their car will sail off into mid-air with no consequences to them, is it intolerant to stand at the edge of the cliff waving your arms to warn them to stop before its too late? Most people would not call your effort to tell them what you believe about gravity intolerance. Most would call it love.