The Same or Different?
Figuring out the uniqueness of Christian faith can sometimes be a challenge. Perhaps a friend who is Muslim says to you, “How can I be a good Muslim and not love Jesus?”1 If he accepts Jesus, why isn’t he a Christian? Then there is the Buddhist co-worker who reminds you that the problem of existence is that all of life is marked by suffering and that we do not find ultimate happiness or satisfaction in anything we experience. How come he sounds so much like the book of Ecclesiastes? What about the ardent atheist in your dorm who rejects all notions of transcendence yet seems to thunder about moral law in a way Moses might have admired? Where does this passionate moralism come from, given he’s sawed off the legs of anything that would support it? There may not be many Marxists left, but historically Marxism has been committed to a vision of a future new world order of justice and righteousness where everything is finally put right. Were they all channeling N.T. Wright! How did that happen?
Typically, our way of dealing with the question of other religious traditions is to use categories of light and darkness, truth and lies. We bring light, all others deal in darkness; we announce truth, the rest is all lies. In an ultimate sense these binary categories are true. At the end of the day, there is no gospel in Islam. When all is said and done, neither Buddhism nor Hinduism is the way to life everlasting. It is true that Satan’s kingdom is a kingdom of darkness and he is the father of lies (Col. 1:13; Jn. 8:44).
A Missional Lens?
However, is it necessary to nuance this for both biblical reasons as well as missional reasons? In the traditional account of the origin of the Qur’an, Muhammad was outside Mecca in the cave of Mount Hira when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said, “Recite!” “What shall I recite?” the Muhammad replied. Again, the angel commanded, “Recite, O Muhammad.” Yet a third time, Gabriel demanded, "Recite in the Name of Your Lord Who created. He created the human being from a clot. Recite and your Lord is Most Honorable, Who taught (to write) with the pen, taught the human being what he knew not..."2 And so, the first revelation was given, the first of many over a period of about 23 years. It is these many revelations that together comprise the Qur’an.3
Many Christians, reflecting on this story, have interpreted it as a story, not of angelic visitation, but of demonic possession. While it may be argued such a take can’t be ruled out altogether, does the apostle Paul point us in a different direction in Romans 1:18 – 25 that might prove more theologically insightful and missionally helpful? As we noted in the second article in this series, God has so clearly revealed Himself in conscience and nature that the human race is without excuse. This revelation is active and constant with respect to every human being with the result that we are without excuse with regard to the knowledge of God. He has made who He is plain to all (v. 18-21).
Man Engaged with God
But that’s not the end of the story. Recall, if you will, Bavinck’s definition of religion, “Religion is our response to God. It is our response to God’s revelation of Himself in creation and conscience. And it is the response of the whole person. It is the response of everything we are. In Biblical terms, it is the response of the heart.” There is God’s revelation and then mankind’s response. There is always a response and, apart from God’s grace in Christ revealed in the gospel and given through the Spirit, our response, Paul says, will be one of rebellion (v. 21, 24), repression (vv, 18b, 25a), and replacement (vv. 22, 23, 25b).4
In other words, man is not neutral toward God. Apart from the saving work of Christ, we are rebels, covenant-breakers. Made for God, we declare Him our chief enemy and seek to banish Him from our conscious awareness. However, what we have sought to repress from our awareness cannot be fully hidden away. Like the beach ball we try to hold down under the water, what we “can’t not know” always seeks to resurface – and does! In the form of idols – imitation gods, substitute gods.
Street Level Relevance
Second, what a great encouragement this approach to Romans 1 provides in understanding our role in evangelism. We don’t initiate a conversation about God with anyone! God is already in conversation with everyone! Graciously, he calls us to take those conversations to a new level as we bring the good news of the God who has revealed Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. Coming along side our neighbors in humility, aware of our own ongoing struggle to resist the heart dynamic the Apostle Paul describes, we bring the Word that alone has the power through the Holy Spirit to bring the ever turning gears of repression and replacement to a grinding halt.
So, you may ask, what does that help us explain or understand? Well, a couple things at least. First, it helps us understand the formal (and sometimes more substantive) similarities that exist between Christian faith and other faiths. Is it possible that the emergence of a radical monotheism in a cave outside of Mecca in the context of a deep-seated polytheism – was not because Muhammad was demon-possessed but because he was wrestling with God? Is it possible that the great religions of history are humankind’s response to God’s revelation? This is what the process of repression and replacement looks like as it flows from the depth of human existence, as it emerges from the human heart. With reference to Romans 1, Bavinck reminds us, “God concerns Himself with every man. Buddha would never have meditated on the way of salvation had God not touched him. Muhammad would never have uttered his prophetic witness if God had not concerned Himself with him. Every religion contains, somehow, the silent work of God.”5 And yet the tragedy of our sinful condition is that we suppress this silent work and replace God’s revelation with idolatrous substitutes.
1Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet of God who is virgin born and they anticipate his second coming. However, they also reject traditional Christian teaching with respect to Jesus Christ as the Eternal Son incarnate in history, his death on the cross, and, therefore, his resurrection. According to Islam, Jesus did not die but was assumed bodily into heaven.
3I trust the reader understands that I am describing the Qur’an and its origin as a Muslim would.
4For a much fuller and extended treatment of Romans 1:18-25, see Bavinck, ch. 5, “The Impact of Christianity on the non-Christian World” in The Christian Faith and the Non-Christian Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948); Part II, ch. 1,“The Nature, Place and Task of Elenctics” in An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1960); ch. 9, “Human Religion in God’s Sight” in The Church Between Temple and Mosque: The Study of the Relationship Between the Christian Faith and Other Religions ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1981).
5The Church Between Temple and Mosque, 200.
Do you agree or disagree with Bob’s assessment of other religions, i.e. that while they’re wrong they aren’t necessarily demonic? Does your assessment of these religions square with what Paul teaches in Romans 1:18ff?
For an article that will help you articulate the uniqueness of Christ, download “Why Jesus Is the Way” from the Colson Center Library. Or from the Online Store, you can purchase this book for a study on the various religions of the world: Comparing Christianity with World Religions.