By Donald S. Tingle
The world is full of religions. If Christianity is just one of many faith traditions, what makes it so special, so distinctive from all other religious claims?
The answers Christian have given to that question often fit somewhere between two extremes. But somewhere in the middle lie the answers we need to show followers of other religions why Christianity alone truly leads us to God.
On the extreme right some might say, “Christianity is true; therefore all non-Christian religions are false. Non-Christians are so thoroughly blinded by Satan that nothing worthwhile can be found among their teachings.” From this perspective, everything about Christianity is distinctive. Such people are quick to say, “The differences between Christianity and all other religions are . . . ,” and then give a long list of what they see as fundamental distinguishing marks.
On the extreme left are those who see little or nothing that is distinct within Christianity. They might say, “Christianity is good, beautiful, and helpful, but such things can be found in other religious traditions as well. Other religions can offer sufficient avenues of truth. So let good Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims stay as they are without trying to persuade them to accept the gospel message.”
You might imagine that those on the extreme left are in greater error than those on the extreme right. And perhaps some of them are, especially those who are willing to give up basic elements of the Christian faith in their dream to blend together various religious traditions into a single “superreligion.” If some tend to think there is nothing distinct about Christianity, they probably haven’t really understood the gospel message.
Those on the extreme right, however, face an equally great but opposite error. Rather than being too inclusive, they may become too exclusive. When we endlessly search for what makes us different from them (whoever they may be), we can easily develop a sectarian mentality. And if that happens, it is not at all difficult to begin asking, “How far has the darkness spread? Is it only among those outside of Christianity, or has it crept into some church groups too? Since light has no fellowship with darkness, shouldn’t we cut ourselves off from those churches? And how pure is my own congregation? Perhaps it is time to break away and start a new church.”
Sectarians, in their attempt to maintain a pure orthodox doctrine, step into heresy. The Greek word for heresy was used in the New Testament to mean “factions” and “divisions” (see 1 Corinthians 11:18; Galatians 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1). We can be right doctrinally, but if we sever ourselves from other Christians to form our own little party, this is heresy.
Remember, too, that the term orthodoxy refers not only to believing right doctrine but also to giving right glory. Unfortunately, we as Christians can stand up for truth in a manner that brings shame rather than glory to the very truth we are trying to defend. Jesus warned us of such dangers when he told the parable of the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Of course we must side with truth, as we understand it. But we must add to the mix a great dose of humility since we may not always have the most correct interpretation of the scriptural truth we are trying to preserve.
An Alternative to the Extremes
Is there an alternative to these two extremes, a better way to explain the distinctive nature of Christianity, an approach that gives full honor to the Bible and to the nature of the religions around us?
Recognizing the “balanced-middle” is a good starting place. Both extremes are partly right and partly wrong concerning facts, doctrine, and attitudes.
Those on the extreme right play down the role of natural revelation. They forget that something of God’s invisible attributes has been clearly shown to the world through what has been made (Romans 1:19, 20). Furthermore, God has given us a natural law to show us what is good and bad behavior (Romans 2:14-16). C.S. Lewis reminds us that God has given the world “good dreams,” those odd stories in religions about a god who dies and comes back to life again, expectations that find their fulfillment in the gospel. The world has not been left without a witness of God, even among those who have no revealed Scripture (Acts 14:17).
Throughout the history of Christianity, parts of its message have also been received into other world religions, modifying the religion itself. The cross-fertilization of ideas between religions is a complex subject, because it is not always clear who influenced who or when ideas were introduced. But at this stage in the history of religious thought, we can safely say that the following ideas are not the sole possession of Christians. More than one major religion teaches that:
• There is only one God, maker of Heaven and earth, whom we must worship.
• God is more than just an impersonal force; God also wills and acts.
• God has come to dwell among humans, even through incarnation.
• The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spoke through prophets such as Moses, David, and Jesus.
• Right thoughts, right words, and right actions are all important aspects of morality.
• We must love others, treating people the way we want them to treat us.
• God can help us to do right.
• There is a resurrection of the dead and an afterlife of reward or punishment.
• We can receive Heaven only as a gift of God’s grace and mercy, because we can never be good enough to earn it.
Not all religions share every belief listed above, and different religions may give different interpretations for these beliefs, but these beliefs are not found only within Christianity.
A danger arises at this point. People can go too far with this list and forget that there are still fundamental differences that make each religion distinct. Christianity is not merely a hodgepodge of things found in other religions.
Focus on Jesus
So what are the distinguishing features of Christianity? Simply these: (1) the story of Jesus Christ, and (2) what this means for humanity. Without Christ, there would be no Christian faith. This appears too obvious to mention, and perhaps that is why it may be overlooked.
Let’s consider this as we explore the difference between Christianity and Islam. Christians often say their faith teaches that God is love, whereas this idea is nearly absent within Islam. It is true the Koran offers only a few verses that talk about God’s love when compared with the New Testament, and even then the emphasis seems to be on God loving those who love him. But there are other attributes of God mentioned in the Koran that emphasize God’s care for those who have gone astray and who need to be brought back to the straight path. In particular, there are numerous references to God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, things that show God’s love, even if the word love is used sparingly.
Muslims believe that God is love. In fact, one of the “most beautiful names” for God in Islam is al-Wadud, “the Loving One.” Muslim mystics have written thought-provoking poems about the lover and his beloved, referring to the love between God and his worshipper.
Then what makes God’s love distinct within Christianity? God’s love was shown through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Islam you can know that God is love. In the story of the gospel of Christ, you can see it lived out and therefore explained in a way that you find nowhere else.
Any similarities Christianity shares with world religions have been shaped and interpreted through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Various religions have a sense of community; the Christian community is the body of Christ. Various religions have purification rites; Christian baptism is participation with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection to a new life. Various religions have fellowship meals; the Christian fellowship meal (Lord’s Supper) is called the body and blood of Christ. Distinctive features of Christianity exist simply because of their association with Christ.
The story of Jesus has influenced the religious ideas of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and even Jews. Jesus has penetrated other religious groups far more thoroughly than Christians have. This attraction to Jesus himself, or sometimes an aversion to him, leaves a mark on other religions, but it is a very incomplete and often jumbled picture.
Irenaeus, a second-century Christian writer, asked his readers to imagine that a skilled artist made a beautiful image of a king; it is constructed entirely from precious jewels of various sizes, shapes, and colors. The picture is later taken apart and the jewels are placed in a box. Someone, not as skillful as the first artist, wants to recreate the picture, but he has never seen the king or the original portrait. Using the same jewels, he recreates an image; it is poorly constructed, but the precious jewels are all there.
That is something like what we are dealing with concerning Jesus and various religions. Bits and pieces of Jesus’ story and teachings are known to them, but the original image still needs to be recovered—and it can’t be done without access to the original picture in the gospel.
Others may have found many of the jewels. But that doesn’t mean they have been able to figure out what the King looks like. It is the job of Christians to help.
Donald Tingle is executive director of COMENSERV, a ministry to Muslims, and lives most of the year in Kosovo. Read more of his writings at www.writingsbytingle.com.