In conversations with other Christians about the vast number of world’s religions, I usually encounter two different convictions:
- Only Christianity has the truth and all other religions are false. We could call this All-or-Nothing. It’s the black-and-white approach common in some conservative, evangelical churches. The religion of Jesus is true and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and every other faith tradition is utterly untrue. Christianity alone leads people to God.
- Though Christianity is the best and truest way to God, he also uses other religions to bring people to himself. We could call this Many Paths. Christianity is the main road, but there are twisting, backcountry roads that can get a person there as well. This conviction is relatively common in more liberal churches.
Both these convictions miss the mark. The conservative one because it restricts the work of Christ inside Christianity alone. And the liberal one because it expands the salvation of Christ outside Christianity alone.
But there is a third way of looking at this question.
C. S. Lewis and “Pure Nonsense”
C. S. Lewis is one of the most well-known converts to Christianity. But his arrival in the faith didn’t happen overnight. Ironically, God used pagans, over time, to guide him there.
Lewis delighted in, and even revered, the pagan imagination, including stories in the old mythologies about a dying and rising god. His conversion largely depended upon seeing Christianity as—in his words—the “completion, the actualization…of something that had never been absent from the mind of man.”
He summarized it well when he wrote: “I could not believe Christianity if I were forced to say that there were a thousand religions in the world of which 999 were pure nonsense and the thousandth (fortunately) true,” (God in the Dock).
What God did for Lewis, he does for others. @@Christ uses truths in other religions to guide people to the saving truth in Christianity.@@
Streams of Light
Several years ago, I taught a university course on the History of Religion. We covered Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and a smattering of other faiths. One delight in teaching the course was to point out not so much the vast differences between these religions, but the commonalities they shared. And rather than making me question the truth of Christianity, it solidified my conviction that salvation is found in Jesus and in Jesus alone.
I discovered the hints and shadows of truth that—in Lewis’s words—were “actualized” in Christianity. There was much that I rejected in these other religions, of course, but I also rejoiced in the belief in the power of the divine Torah in Judaism, the strict monotheism of Islam, the teaching of faith and grace in Pure Land Buddhism, and so forth.
None of these non-Christian religions were “pure nonsense.” None of them were utterly false. Rather, they contained elements of truth that gave witness to the activity of God in these groups. He was providentially injecting streams of light into the darkness, that thereby he might lead them toward the true light of Christ.
Discussing these streams of light are where we need to begin when we’re having conversations with our friends, coworkers, and family members who are not Christians. Rather than immediately pointing out why or where they’re wrong, let’s rejoice in why and where they’re right, then proceed from there to discuss vital differences.
It’s hard to build bridges if the first thing we do is drop bombs on the other side.
Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Salvation is found in him alone. This is the Christian confession of faith. But how the Spirit guides people to the way, the truth, and the life varies from individual to individual. He prepared the way for Lewis through the use of pagan mythologies. He can very well prepare the way for others through elements of truth in their religions.
So let’s thank God for truth wherever it is found, including in other, false religions. And in those religions, search for the activity of the true and saving Christ, who by all means is active to bring sinners into communion with the Father through the Spirit.
My new book, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul, will be available October, 2017. You can read more about it and pre-order your copy at Amazon. Thank you!