“Doesn’t the sincere Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu worship the same God as the Christian, but under a different name?” This question is often asked and is related to the questions about the heathen and getting to heaven by living a moral life.
I. There are many similarities between Christianity and other religions in the moral and ethical realms. The equivalent of the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments can be found in most of the religions of the world. But as we will see in the question, “Won’t a good moral life get me to heaven?”, systems of ethics are like “sets of swimming instructions” and will never allow us to reach “Hawaii.”
II. Uniqueness of Christianity. Although similarities exist, for example, between Christianity and Islam, the two faiths are diametrically opposed on the most crucial question: Who is Jesus Christ? Islam denies the deity of Christ, that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. It denies that He died on the cross and rose from the dead. But the Christian faith affirms these facts on every hand. Both faiths cannot simultaneously be true at this particular point. One is correct; one is incorrect.
The same is true of Hinduism. The greatest Hindu disciple of modern times, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, refused to believe that Christ was the only Savior and deliverer from sin. He wrote in his autobiography:
“It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate Son of God, and that only he who believes in Him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by His death and by His blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it …. I would accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept” (Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography, pp. 170, 171) (italics mine).
No one questions the sincerity and intensity of faith of Mahatma Gandhi. But sincerity or intensity of faith do not create truth. Faith is no more valid than the object in which it is placed. Believing something doesn’t make it true, and disbelieving in something doesn’t make it false. We can believe whatever we wish but we have no right to change the basic claims of Christianity to make it what we would like it to say. The question is, “What is true?” And truth must be accepted on its own terms.
III. The claims of Christ are to be reckoned with.
Jesus is a man of history. We know this from (1) the 27 different documents of the New Testament (which were initially circulated separately and later collected), (2) the writings of the church fathers (Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, Origen, etc.), some of whom had personal contact with the disciples themselves, and finally (3) the secular historians, Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, and Lucian.
The sources reveal the following things about Him and His life.
He claimed to be God (John 1:1, 14; 10:30-32; 14:6-9; Mark 2:1-12).
He claimed to be sinless (John 8:46; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5; 2 Cor. 5:21), and His followers (who lived with Him constantly for several years), backed up His claim.
He demonstrated divine power over nature, disease, and death (Mark 4:41; John 9:1-41). It is significant that His enemies did not deny His miracles; they only sought to discredit Him by questioning the source of His power (Mark 3:22) and finally tried to kill Him. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe him” (John 11:48).
He claimed that He alone could deal with man’s basic problem – sin (John 10:14-15; Mark 10:45; 14:22-24; Isaiah 53:1-12). John the Baptist called Him the “Lamb (sacrificial) of God, which takes away the sins of the world.” As one studies the religions of the world, he becomes aware that no provision is made for the forgiveness of sin apart from the cross of Christ. It is at this very point that Mahatma Gandhi displayed the inadequacy of his faith and the frustration he experienced in sensing a barrier between himself and the One Whom he sought to know. He wrote:
“For it is an unbroken torture to me that I am still so far from Him, who, as I fully know, governs every breath of my life, and whose offspring I am. I know that it is the evil passions within that keep me so far from Him, and yet I cannot get away from them” (italics mine).
All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were types and shadows, looking forward to that final substitutionary sacrifice which would take away the sin of the world. “And not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption… But now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:12, 26). “…And without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Lev. 4:20; Heb. 9:22).
IV. On the basis of Christ’s claims, we have four alternatives: He was either a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or the Truth. If we say He is not the Truth, we are automatically affirming one of the other three alternatives. When someone holds one of the other three positions, we should invite them to show us the evidence they have that would lead us to adopt their view.
Liar. This view sets forth the premise that when Jesus claimed to be God, He knew that He was not, but deliberately deceived His hearers to give more authority to His teaching. Few would hold this position seriously. Even those who deny His deity agree that Jesus was a great moral teacher. It would seem highly unlikely that at the base of all this moral teaching was a deliberate lie about His own identity.
Lunatic. Some assert that Jesus was sincere, but deluded and self-deceived. It is true that there are people today in institutions who imagine they are Napoleon, George Washington, or even Jesus Christ. But we see no evidence in Jesus of the abnormality and imbalance we find in a deranged person. His poise and composure are not characteristic of people who suffer from megalomania or some other paranoid disturbance.
Legend. Many assert that much of what is recorded was never said by Jesus at all, but rather attributed to Him by His enthusiastic followers in the third and fourth centuries. They merely put words in His mouth, and if He were here today, He would repudiate these ideas.
The problem with this position is that it tends to disregard the findings of modern archaeology. Recent discoveries are confirming that the New Testament documents were written during the lifetime of Jesus Christ’s contemporaries. The development of an elaborate legend would need a more significant time lag. This lag does not exist with respect to Christianity.
For example: People in that skeptical age would have been no more likely to circulate and accept a legend such as this than our neighbors today would be likely to spread a report that the late President John F. Kennedy claimed to be God, said He had the power to forgive sins, and rose from the dead. Too many people who knew President Kennedy are still around. With so many testimonies to the contrary the rumor could never get off the ground.
Truth. The only other alternative is that Jesus spoke the truth. Anyone can make the claims that Jesus made, but no one has ever backed them up as He did. Jesus is the way to God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man comes unto the Father but through me” (John 14:6). He is the bridge to God. The San Francisco Bay is joined to the Pacific Ocean by an expanse of choppy, troubled waters and swift ocean currents. High above these troubled waters is the Golden Gate Bridge, which spans this narrow entrance to the bay, joining the city of San Francisco and the picturesque little artist’s colony of Sausalito. Everyone chooses to use the bridge, rather than jump into the cold, swift currents and run the risk of being swept out to sea. And no one has yet approached the city of San Francisco with a petition to erect another bridge right next to the Golden Gate… it isn’t needed. Jesus Christ is the Bridge over troubled waters.
V. Non-Christian Sources for Christianity.
Josephus, a Jewish historian, says: “As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.” Antiquities, XX 9:1, Early 2nd century.
Tacitus (born A.D. 52 to 54), a Roman historian of the 2nd century, in writing of the reign of Nero, alluded to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome: “But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.” Annals, XV, 44.
Seutonius (A.D. 120), another Roman historian of the 2nd century, refers to a “Chrestus” who had led a new superstition. He also says:
“Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” Lives of the Caesars, Vitae Neronius, XVI, 2.
Pliny (A.D. 112 – Letter to Trajan), a regional leader of the Roman government in writing to the emperor Trajan was seeking counsel as to how to treat the Christians. He explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones. He explained that he had made the Christians bow down to the statues of Trajan. He goes on to say that he also “made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.” In the same letter he says of the people who were being tried that:
“They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called on to deliver it up.” Letter of Pliny to Trajan. Epistles, X, 96.
Lucian, the satirist of the 2nd century, spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians. He connected them with the synagogues of Palestine and alluded to Christ as:
“…the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world… Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.” The Passing Peregruis.