Some remarks on the uniqueness of the Christian faith

by Alan Myatt

It is popular to argue these days that all religions are essentially the same and that they are all striving towards the same goal. But is this an accurate assessment of the situation? Is Christianity another version of the same themes found in all religions? Does it allow us to view all religions as paths to the same God, or is there something unique about Christianity that sets it apart from the others in some fundamental way? That is the question I would like to address. We shall begin with a discussion of the nature of religion and offer a brief reflection on this question.

The Nature of Religion

One of the most perplexing problems of religious scholarship is the inability to agree upon a definition of the subject matter. Definitions of religion vary widely and many despair that it can be defined at all. This raises some difficulties indeed. The requirement of an adequate definition is that it be built around those common elements shared by all religions. This is the problem. In the final analysis, is it possible to discover any elements common to all religions? Various attempts have been made to address the problem of definition resulting in several specific schools of thought on the question.

Substantive definitions are those attempting to define the essence or substance of religion. Various approaches have been offered. Emile Durkheim identified religion in terms of its separation of life into two distinct realms, the sacred and the profane. The sacred engenders a sense of awe, fear and majesty over against the mundane world of everyday life called the profane. To interact with the sacred, a set of rituals develops along with a theology to rationalize the ritual. Religion is said to be preeminently a group activity. Rudolph Otto described religion as the experience of the holy. It is a realm of mystery and otherness. It both attracts and repels but is in some sense irresistible. Schleirmacher, the father of modern liberal religion, characterized this feeling as a sense of absolute dependence. Finally, Mircea Eliade added to the notion of the sacred and profane the idea that this includes the division of both time and space. He asserted that human beings are really homo religiosus or the being who craves the transcendent. The sacred is a permanent structural element of the mind.

A second school of thought comprises functional definitions. Religion is defined in terms of how it functions in meeting the basic needs of individuals and society. Milton Yinger, for example, holds that religion functions to enable humans to struggle with the ultimate problems of human life such as death, evil, suffering and injustice. Richard Niebuhr defined religion, or rather God, as that which we rely on that makes life meaningful and worthwhile. Anything, in this view, could be one's "god." It does not require belief in the supernatural. Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge counter that only belief in the supernatural is adequate to meet the needs for transcendence that most humans experience. Therefore, only supernatural systems should be considered religious. However, it seems to me that secularized systems of belief, communism for example, often engender a level of commitment that could only be characterized as religious fanaticism. But, then this is part of the problem of definition.

Finally there are symbolic definitions based on the theory of symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism holds that people do not respond directly to the world or other people, but to symbolic meanings placed on other objects, people and behaviors. Macrosymbols are those involving world view and cosmology. Religion, then is a symbol system that provides a world view explaining the nature of reality. It must provide intellectual coherence and also provide meaning and comfort in the midst of pain. The symbolic interactionist system assumes an epistemology that ultimately denies the knowability of the empirical world.

After a cursory examination of these schools it seems apparent that they all fall short of solving the definitional problem. However, each of these may be useful to some extent depending upon the types of questions one is asking about religion. Nevertheless, I agree with philosopher Gordon Clark, who treats this subject in his book, Religion, Reason and Revelation. Clark begins by demonstrating that all attempts to unify the various religions under one term fail. Functionalist definitions fail because functionalists cannot agree on the basic human needs religion meets and how it does so. Substantive definitions fail to agree on what the substance of religion itself is. Is it the belief in God? Which God? Hindu and Moslem concepts of God are so absolutely at odds with each other as to make the word "god" itself meaningless if both are included. Some definitions are so inclusive that the distinctiveness of religion seems to be lost, while more restrictive definitions tend to eliminate systems of belief and practice that we would like to include.

The problem of defining religion is, thus, really a problem of circularity. The method requires at the outset the knowledge it claims to arrive at in the end. To find the common element in all religions we must first be able to distinguish religion from non-religion, but to do this we must first find the common element. Hence, while there are religions it is difficult to find a generic category, religion, adequate to include them all.

The Christian answer to this question, according to Clark, lies in the reality that God created humankind in His own image. The first humans existed originally in a state of moral perfection and had direct revelation from God. Here was the beginning of religion. When humankind fell into sin, however, the resulting estrangement from God resulted in human beings grossly distorting this revelation. These distortions evolved in different directions over the passing of many generations until vastly diverse systems developed. Nevertheless, they are all, in some sense, the result of human interaction with God's continuing revelation and so they are called religions.

To Clark's statement of the problem I would add that the compulsion for meaning and transcendence experienced by human beings is a result of the need for the presence of God in one's life, due to being created in God's image for the purpose of relationship with Him. However, the sin induced distortions mentioned above result in distorted attempts to meet this need. This is a rather exclusive statement, because it amounts to the claim that only the Christian faith is true and all other religions are either distortions or denials of it. This, indeed, is what the Bible claims to be the case. (see Romans 1:18ff) Proving such a claim in detail is beyond the scope of this paper, but it does lead us into our next consideration. If Christianity is true and all other religions, in some sense, are a distortion of this truth, then the Christian faith ought to be absolutely unique in some fundamental aspect. To this we now turn our attention.

Christianity and Other Religions

At the outset it should be clear that if scholars in religious studies and related fields can find no common elements to agree on by which religion may be defined then the claim that all religions are somehow the same or are attempting to achieve the same ends is obviously false. Otherwise, finding the common element would be quite simple. The fact is, however, when we examine the various world religions we discover quickly that they consist of totally incompatible world views.

Again, for the sake of space I will be limiting my remarks. Rather than attempting to entertain the full range of the various religious systems, I will focus on the concept of God and the method of attaining salvation as expressed in the major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Even here the discussion shall be limited to those points essential for noting in what ways the Christian faith is distinct from the rest.

All world views may be divided into at least two different categories; those that postulate an ultimate personality responsible for the existence of the universe and those holding the universe to be ultimately impersonal. In the latter category one may place all forms of atheism, materialism, the major Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and also all varieties of the occult including current New Age philosophies. Whether the universe is conceived of as in some sense a living organism (Hinduism, New Age) or as purely mechanical (naturalism, secular humanism), these positions hold in common the notion that ultimate reality is essentially impersonal. God, if he is admitted to exist, is defined as the sum of all reality (pantheism) or perhaps reality is defined as in some way emanating out of the being of God (panentheism). The central notion is that there is only one type of Being (note the capital B) and that God is a part of this. The being of God is therefore correlative to the Being of the universe. Usually God is conceived of as utterly impersonal, perhaps as the conglomerate of the universe's energy, or "cosmic love" (how love can be said to come from the impersonal is a difficulty usually ignored). Such contemporary religions as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism would also fall into this category because, even though they have personal gods, they each posit a finite god who exists against the backdrop of a larger impersonal Being in general over which He has no personal sovereign control.

In these systems salvation varies somewhat. Typically in pantheism and even panentheism, such as modern process thought, salvation is defined in terms of human progression up the Great Chain of Being toward absorption into the impersonal nothingness of God or toward perhaps personal godhood. This is accomplished via some type of mysticism. This mysticism typically involves varying degrees of two features. The first is the entering altered states of consciousness in order to destroy the rational mind and its illusions that deceive one from apprehending one's own deity. The second is the following of some kind of legal code in order to purify oneself and earn higher degrees of exaltation. Different systems in this category may differ greatly in details, but this general description captures, I believe, the essence of them all. Importantly, there is no sense of being utterly helpless and ruined by sin and therefore unable to do anything to accomplish one's own salvation. This sense of one's own sinfulness is, of course, essential to Christian belief.

Now, the concepts of God (God or ultimate reality is impersonal) and salvation (advancement towards deity) given above are totally contradictory to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. They are nothing alike. It is obvious therefore, that the New Age/Hindu claim that all religions are one must be seen as either based on a failure to seriously study and understand other religions or else as deliberately dishonest. For example, the typical approach taken in New Age circles is to redefine all of the terminology of the Bible with occult meanings and then claim that really Jesus agrees with them. The historical and cultural context of the Bible is ignored in order to smuggle into it concepts that are completely alien to it. In cases where the meaning of the text is so clear as to be beyond such manipulation they simply claim that the text was corrupted and changed by some later church council or Pope. The esoteric teachings of Jesus, favoring reincarnation for example, have been removed say the New Agers. Thus the presumption that all religions are really saying the same thing is preserved. Never mind that serious scholarship has established beyond any reasonable doubt that the text of the Bible has been remarkably preserved. In fact there is no evidence whatever of any conspiracy to remove teachings, such as reincarnation, from the Bible. Since the veracity of the biblical text has been placed beyond question by scholars, the only avenue left for the Hindu/New Age approach to religious unity is the aforementioned reinterpretation of the Biblical text. This Orwellian treatment of religion is correctly taken as an insult by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Those religions claiming that the universe originated in an ultimately personal source share more in common. These faiths, which have all derived in one way or another from the ancient faith of Abraham, hold to an absolute personal monotheism. There is only one God whose supreme attribute is that of personality. He thinks, wills, acts, and even expresses emotions such as love, grief, and anger. It is claimed that he created all things out of nothing and that he is thus the ultimate reality. Therefore, there is introduced the notion of the Creator/creature distinction. God is other in that he is a totally different category of Being. There is not one Being in general, but rather there is created being and uncreated Being. But here the similarities end.

For all of their bickering, contemporary Judaism and Islam are agreed on the absolute unity of God. He is personal and he is one. In addition, both systems agree that salvation from sin is accomplished by obedience to his requirements. So again the basis of salvation is one's own accomplishment of keeping various laws and regulations or living a morally clean life. And here we have a major departure from the Christian gospel and its idea of God.

The uniqueness of Christianity centers around its view of an absolute unity of the essence of God (there is only one God) and its insistence that within this essence exists three distinct personalities (or centers of consciousness) known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In addition to the doctrine of the Trinity is the uncompromising assertion that human beings are totally lost and corrupted by sin (total depravity) and that no amount of moral living or law keeping, ritual, etc. could possibly earn one's salvation. God's standard for meriting salvation would be a life of absolute perfection. That is impossible for anyone to achieve.

The doctrine of the Trinity is utterly unique to Christianity. While other religions have had triads of various sorts, none have held to the idea a strict monotheism with three persons involved. This defines the Creator/creature distinction more precisely because it implies that God is absolutely independent of His creation. In Islam and Judaism God needs His creation in order to experience diversity and hence His Being is to that extent correlative to the being of the universe (i.e., God is not complete without the universe and therefore he is dependent upon it). The God of Christianity experiences unity and diversity (including love and relationship) within his own Being and thus stands in need of nothing. His act of creating the world was done simply because it pleased Him to do so, not out of any sense of need.

One should also note that the existence of a personal Trinity in eternity past means that love and relationships are truly eternal. They are an essential aspect of Ultimate reality. Unlike the Hindu, New Age, and materialist world views, the Christian is not left with the problem of how to derive love as an ultimate value from an impersonal ultimate reality, which by definition cannot love. Likewise, the Christian does not have the problem of the Jew and Muslim, with a God who is incomplete in Himself and who must therefore create a universe with people in order to experience love and relationship. God did not need to create the world. He was not lonely, as is often said. He already lived in relationships of absolute and perfect love in eternity past, before the universe was ever created.

In regards to salvation, the New Testament is clear that humans are sinners and that God's justice demands retribution and punishment for sin. While the normal human reaction is to rebel against such a notion, our own experience serves to help us understand that justice demands the punishment of sin. If you were a parent whose child were molested and murdered would it be an act of love to simply ignore the perpetrator of the act? No, love would demand that justice be sought. Just as our own sense of justice is repulsed at the idea of allowing a child molester who murders his victims to get off on a legal technicality, so the justice of God is repulsed at the notion of allowing sin to go unpunished. Who in his right mind would simply look the other way if his own child were such a victim? Justice is a necessary corollary to love. God's love for the universe and the people He created is such that He must punish those who abuse it and them. The problem is, since God's standard is total perfection, all of us have fallen short. We have all abused God's creation. Indeed, we have all attempted to live independently of God. In claiming our autonomy from God we have committed the ultimate abuse of living as if we were our own gods. We are thus deserving of his judgment.

The Bible's attitude toward other religions is that they are an extension of this bid for autonomy. They are viewed as suppressing God's truth in order to avoid acknowledging God. How can this be? After all do they not place God as central to their faiths just as Christianity does? Yet here, the crucial question is, which God? From the biblical standpoint to worship any God besides the Trinity of the Bible is to worship no God at all. It seems that humankind, in its rebellion against the true God, wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants the security of a deity to protect it, but it wants to preserve its independence to determine its own destiny. This bid for autonomy is in stark contrast to the uniqueness of true Christianity in the area of salvation.

Non-Christian religions have a system of salvation that depends ultimately on the achievements of the person who practices the religion. Whether it is through keeping rules or meditation or other actions, the good deeds and works of the individual are given as the cause of salvation. This is seen most clearly in the popular notion that if you live a good life and treat people well then you will be admitted into heaven or be accepted by God. This is exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches. Christianity asserts that you can do nothing to merit, earn, gain, or secure salvation for yourself. No amount of religious activity or good deeds are sufficient. It demands that in order to be saved from the coming wrath of God one must bow before God as one's Creator and as an utterly helpless sinner seeking forgiveness. That is, one's autonomy and independence from God must be renounced. One must believe that Jesus is God and trust Him alone for salvation. We cannot save ourselves, but Jesus promised that if we would trust him instead of ourselves then He would under no circumstance turn us away.

However, human nature desires anything except to bow in complete submission to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by the Bible's insistence that all humans, by nature, hate God. This does not refer to their emotional attitude towards some idea of spirituality or deity. In fact, Hindus and Muslims may appear to be deeply spiritual. However, the biblical notion of hate is not so much an emotion as it is an action. If you reject someone, you hate them, whether or not you experience any feelings about it. Hence, fallen human beings are said to hate God because they reject the God of the Bible, regardless of how spiritual they may appear. Those who persist in this are deserving of God's judgment.

Recent accounts of Near Death Experiences have been described in various popular books. These NDEs give the impression that the notion of judgment and punishment in the next life are antiquated superstitions. On the other side awaits a being of infinite light who is totally loving and accepting. He admits everyone to paradise, regardless of their religious beliefs and their past life. There is no notion of judgment for wrong doing, and not a hint of the reality of hell. Indeed, the notion of eternal torment in hell is horrible, but it is countered by the moral revulsion that one should feel at the notion of Adolph Hitler leaving this life only to find himself in the loving embrace of a non-judgmental being of light. Justice demands some accountability from the Hitlers of the world. In any case, one must come to grips with the fact that we have in the Bible an accurate record of the teachings of Jesus and that this record shows that Jesus taught the existence of hell and the reality of eternal punishment. In fact, Jesus taught more about hell than He did about heaven. And in order to make things clear to all of His critics, He stated bluntly that anyone who did not believe that He (Jesus Christ) was the Creator God Himself, incarnate in the flesh, would die in his sins (John 8:24).

The Christian view of things creates quite a dilemma for us. We are all finite creatures. Our finitude, however, is not the problem. For while we are all willing to admit that the Hitlers and Stalins of the world might deserve hell, the Bible instructs us to look within ourselves. Any honest appraisal will reveal that we too, each of us, has committed transgressions worthy of eternal condemnation. We may want to deny it, just as the alcoholic denies his condition, but that does not change the reality of it. True Christianity teaches that we all deserve God's wrath. However, a finite creature cannot exhaust the wrath of an infinite God, therefore the punishment must be eternal. The implication of this is that the entire human race is doomed to eternal punishment. According to the Bible, this is indeed the case, except that guilty sinners could be set free if a substitute were found to bear their punishment for them.

If it is true that a finite creature could not exhaust God's infinite wrath then a mere human substitute would not suffice. On the other hand, an infinite person could in one moment exhaust God's wrath. The only such person who could do this would be one of the persons of the Trinity. God's great love motivated Him to seek a way of saving humans from eternal destruction by providing a substitute. Such a substitute must be human, to atone adequately for human sin, but must also be God in order to exhaust the wrath of God. Thus the incarnation - Jesus Christ, the God-man.

Salvation, then is a free gift, given via faith to those who cease to trust in their own efforts at salvation and bow before Jesus as Lord, God, and Savior, trusting in His finished work on the cross plus nothing for their justification and salvation. Even this faith is itself a gift of God. Christianity is unique in its concept of God and of salvation and offers this gift to all who will respond.

In this sense the Bible presents Christianity as an absolute antithesis to all other religions. All religions are not the same, and neither are they all striving after the same ends. Christianity stands absolutely unique among the various faiths of the world and it presents each person with the necessity of making a radical choice. One may reject it as false, but the Bible does not leave it as an option that one could include Christianity among the other religions as simply a variety of the same thing. The Bible itself claims to provide a comprehensive framework for the interpretation of all reality. It insists that all other faiths are attempts to suppress God's truth and to avoid acknowledging the real God. To this the biblical writers cry out that all must repent and be born again, giving up their idols to follow Jesus Christ.

Additional Reading

Rather than clutter this paper with footnotes I have decided to include a list of books that will provide documentation for the above discussion and also additional information. Of course, the best place to start in order to learn about Christianity would be the Bible. In this case, I would suggest starting with the Gospel of John.

Additional Reading

Rather than clutter this paper with footnotes I have decided to include a list of books that will provide documentation for the above discussion and also additional information. Of course, the best place to start in order to learn about Christianity would be the Bible. In this case, I would suggest starting with the Gospel of John.

Anderson, Norman, ed. 4th ed. The World's Religions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.

    A good introductory text from an evangelical Christian point of view.
Blomberg, Craig. The Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, Inter Varsity Press, 1987.
    A scholarly defense of the veracity of the New Testament gospels as an accurate representation of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Clark, Gordon H. Religion, Reason and Revelation. Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1978.
    Contains Clark's argument that religion cannot be defined.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: BakerBook House, 1986.
    A basic introductory text of Christian theology.
Groothuis, Douglas. Jesus in an Age of Controversy. Portland: Harvest House, 1997.
    Contains a scholarly refutation of the notion that the Bible was changed in order to purge occult doctrines such as reincarnation from the teachings of Jesus. Reveals the basic dishonesty underlying New Age attempts to co-opt Jesus into their system.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper and Row Perennial Library, 1954.
    This little book argues that the true path to spiritual perception is mind altering experiences, either via meditation or hallucinogenic drugs. The book presupposes the unity of all religions as argued in The Perennial Philosophy.
_________. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper and Row Perennial Library, 1945.
    Huxley argues for an underlying unity in all religions based on pantheism.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1964.
    For those unfamiliar with this important concept.
Newport, John P. Life's Ultimate Questions: A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989.
    A standard philosophy of religion text with discussions of the various world religions and their approaches to different questions.
Rawlings, Maurice. Beyond Death's Door. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978.
  ________. To Hell and Back. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993.
    Dr. Rawlings is a cardiologist with over thirty years of experience as a physician and teacher. He gives a very different account of NDEs from the usual fare, arguing that some return speaking of judgment and wrath.
Roberts, Keith A. Religion in Sociological Perspective. 2d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990.
    Provides a discussion of the various schools of thought concerning the nature of religion.
Schaeffer, Francis A. He is There and He is Not Silent. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1972.
    A discussion of the possible world views and their implications. Schaeffer argues that only Christian theism adequately answers the basic philosophical questions that have plagued humanity for centuries.
Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. 50 Anv edition, New York: HarperOne, 2009.
    For many years a standard text in college religion courses that supports the essential unity of all religions.
Sproul, R. C. If There is a God, Why Are There Atheists? Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1978.
    This book describes the psychology of atheism. Atheism is said to be a form of wish projection in which the atheist denies the existence of God because he or she is unwilling to face the implications of judgment. An interesting and provocative book that must be answered by any atheist wishing to maintain intellectual integrity.
Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979.
    A philosophical presentation of the presuppositional defense of Christianity. Van Til examines the presuppositions required to avoid the destruction of all knowledge into nihilistic skepticism and concludes that Christianity alone provides the solution.