By L. Alfred James
We are currently in a series of blog articles that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to Christianity. We first saw reasons to move from belief in materialism to belief in the supernatural; then from belief in the supernatural to belief in a personal God; then from belief in a personal God to belief in Christianity. Today I want to make another argument for Christianity being true while the other major religions of the world (I simply refer to them as “world religions”) are false.
As you might expect, every world religion recognizes that there is something wrong with human beings. This is a no-brainer. It doesn’t take more than one single viewing of the evening news to perceive that something is seriously amiss with the world. Reports of war, genocide, murder, theft, terrorism, greed, sexual infidelity, divorce, addictions, racism, etc. are paraded across our television screens with sickening regularity. Obviously, something is very, very wrong with human beings.
What is the solution? This is the precise question that every world religion attempts to answer. They all point out ways for human beings to get back into alignment with God, a god, multiple gods, or the spiritual principles that govern the universe. Getting back into alignment will (supposedly) grant a person eternal peace, change their moral habits for the better, and help them to lead others to this same solution—thus making the world a better place. This is what we might loosely call salvation; salvation for the individual and, hopefully, for the world.
Over many centuries Hinduism has come up with multiple paths to salvation. Hindus believe that you can find salvation through any of these methods: by being very righteous, by self-denial and yoga, by knowledge that is obtained through practices of piety, by good deeds and meditation, or by devotion to some god or gods. If you do any of these things well enough you will be saved. That means that either you will be promoted to a better earthly life—when you are reincarnated—or you will completely escape the cycle of reincarnations. Of course, you can never be sure you’ve done them well enough. But you can give it your best shot.
Buddhism teaches that you must fulfill the eight-fold path to find salvation (you must have the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration). If all of these right things become part of your behavior with enough regularity and enough intensity you will be saved from the miseries of this human life, and from any miseries in the afterlife. Of course, you can never be sure you’ve done them well enough. But you can give it your best shot.
In the seventh century Muhammad came up with a different solution. He said that the way for human beings to be saved is SUBMISSION. People will be allowed to enter paradise in the afterlife if (and only if) they dutifully follow the five pillars of Islam. That means there are five things you have to do: confession of the truth, prayer, fasting, giving to the poor, and going on pilgrimage. If you do all of these things well enough you will be saved. Of course, you can never be sure you’ve done them well enough. But you can give it your best shot. (Actually, if you want to make darn sure you will make it to paradise there is only one option: die in Jihad. In case you didn’t know it, this belief is the motivation of every terrorist who crashes a plane into a building or blows himself up to kill others. That means that terrorism is, fundamentally, a theological problem and it will only be solved by the theological beliefs of certain groups of Muslims changing.)
Judaism is not all that different from the other world religions. Observant Jews believe that God called their ethnic group to be his witnesses on the earth. The primary way to live up to this calling is to do what the Old Testament law requires. If you do all of these things well enough you will be saved. Of course, you can never be sure you’ve done them well enough. But you can give it your best shot.
Thus, every one of these religions teaches that you are supposed to do something in order to find salvation. Every one of them says that if you PERFORM well enough you will be saved. And if you make these performances habitual, it will make you a better person. And if enough people follow suit it will make the world a much better place. Therefore, each individual’s salvation is primarily a result of their own effort. And if the whole world becomes a better place, it is also a result of everyone giving it a good effort.
This is where Christianity is extremely unique. It does not say that the way to be saved is by good works. It says we can never win God’s approval by being “good enough.” Philip Yancey cites an incident involving C.S. Lewis that illustrates this far better than I can:
During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.1
Yancey highlights an extremely important point. Every other belief system teaches that God (or a god, or a group of gods) will love you if you PERFORM. That is, they teach conditional love. They approve of you only if you meet certain conditions. This might not seem like a big deal at first, but if you think about it conditional love is one of the very things that is wrong with the world and making it such a mess. Consider this: When we believe that someone loves us only if we perform, we absolutely resent it. It is a perfect recipe for hatred.
Think of the teenager who feels like her parents only love her if she gets good grades, or the young man who believes that “Mom and Dad will not love me unless I am successful in my career.” These are people who severely resent their parents. Think of the husband who is sick and tired of his wife angrily harping on him to buy her flowers, take her out to eat, mow the lawn, clean the house, and take care of the kids. “This woman only loves me if I do all of this stuff. Only if I perform.” Think of the wife who believes her husband only values her for sex, her cooking, and her housework. The perfect recipe for resentment in any relationship is to love someone based only on how they perform. Make a person feel like they have no value apart from what they do and I promise you they are going to avoid you as much as possible.
Conditional love. It’s an awful thing in families, marriages, and friendships. Yet it is the core ingredient of all of the world’s religions; but it is the key thing that Christianity opposes. Christianity teaches that we are saved only be grace, and transformed only by grace.
Moreover, because we are not saved based on our own good works we can know for sure that we are saved. We can be absolutely certain of it. John said he wrote his first epistle so that his readers will know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). Paul said that Christians have the Holy Spirit as a “deposit guaranteeing” their inheritance of eternal life (Ephesians 1:13-14). Paul also says that there is nothing that can pull us out of our relationship with God, “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). He further says that God’s transformation of our moral character is unstoppable: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
So, we’ve seen a number of reasons for thinking Christianity is actually true: philosophical reasons, anthropological reasons, and historical reasons, and now, we see it comports with human nature. It gives us what we need the most: unconditional love. And it gives us the comfort of knowing that God is saving us and transforming us and nothing can stop him. The other world religions cannot do that.
1. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 45.