A podcast listener and a friend of ours, a woman, writes in, “Dear Pastor John, I live in Singapore, a multi-racial and multi-religious small county in South East Asia. Non-believers sometimes feel the gospel is offensive or extreme because we say Jesus is the truth and only way to heaven. I have had people reply by saying: ‘So are you saying my religion is fake or I will go to hell when I die? All religions teach ‘good’ things. We should respect all religion.’ So how should we handle such a reply especially the latter comment about ‘respecting all religions.’ In my society, I find it sensitive to tackle and to discuss this topic with non-Christians.” What would you say Pastor John?
I think the first thing to say is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Bible presents it, is offensive and it is extreme until God opens the eyes of the heart and calls people out of darkness, the darkness of rebellion into the light of faith.
For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The words “stumbling block” and “foolishness” are very similar to the accusation that the gospel is offensive and extreme, and it is true — until the calling of God opens their eyes to see the good news.
We need to settle it in our hearts that we are willing to be criticized and even persecuted by bringing the best news in all the world, and having it characterized as foolishness. That has happened everywhere the gospel has been preached for 2,000 years. Some believe and rejoice in the gospel as the greatest news in the world. Others do not see it, and regard it as the height of arrogance.
So our friend there in Singapore points out that some people stumble over the claim that Jesus is the truth and the only way to heaven. And I think one helpful way to relate to this criticism is to communicate before you hear it and after you hear it the amazement, communicate amazement, that God would supply any way of salvation — not that he didn’t supply 10, but that he would supply any way of salvation to be reconciled with him.
In other words, Christians should shift the amazement away from the fact that there is only one, to the fact that there is one. There is one! This should stun the Christian if it doesn’t stun the unbeliever. And that sense of amazement might affect the conversation, because I think often they feel we are coming with this smug sense that we have got only one thing. You say: Are you kidding me? God Almighty stepped into the world to save sinners.
The apostle Paul was unashamed to walk into Athens and all of its deities and all of its competing religious allegiances and preach like this in Acts 17:30–32: “‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” So the response he got is the kind of response we can expect everywhere. Some mock, and some are interested.
When I hear the kinds of questions that our friend in Singapore is posing it makes me think that perhaps the most helpful thing to draw attention to would be that Christianity is a different kind of thing than religion. Christianity is news. It is news about a historical event just like you would say: Did you hear what happened last week? That is not a religion; namely, the incarnation of the Son of God, his life, his death for sins, his removal of the wrath of God, his dying, his resurrection. It includes his triumph over death and hell and sin and Satan.
And so the provision for reconciliation and salvation and eternal life with God was brought about by this great work of Jesus Christ in history. Jesus is alive, ruling in heaven today. He will come back unexpectedly to earth and judge the living and the dead. This is not a religion. This is news of God’s action in history to save rebellious human beings who do not glorify God by trusting and loving and worshiping and obeying him.
So how should we respond if somebody says: So you are saying my religion is fake? Well, one response would be to use the analogy of someone who comes to the hospital with a book of sayings and someone who comes with an antibiotic to help the person who is dying of pneumonia. Now the little book of sayings is not a fake medicine. It is not a medicine at all. It is another kind of thing.
But another person comes with an antibiotic. This is a medicine. The aim is to save the patient from death. One person has a book of sayings to help the person live well until they die. Another person has a medicine to save the person from death. It is not a matter of what is fake. They are two different kinds of things. That is the way it is with Christianity and all world religions. It is another kind of thing.
What about responding to the statement: Are you saying I will go to hell when I die? You might respond by saying: The whole point of the Christian religion is that all people are going to hell when we die. We are all going to hell. We all deserve God’s judgment because of our sin. You will not go to hell because of your religion. If you go to hell, it would be the same reason I would go to hell. We are both sinners. We have both offended God. We have both failed to love him and trust him and honor him and glorify him and obey him. And, therefore, our sin is infinite, because his honor is infinite. You and I are in the same condition. Hell is not about religion. It is about God’s justice and his response in justice to all of us who have failed to glorify and thank him.
And then, against that backdrop, you declare that, nevertheless, God in great love and at great cost has entered into our misery in order to rescue anyone who believes in his Son. And then if she says: Well, what about the response, all religion teaches good things? And the answer is certainly: Well, yes. But this, again, is a confusion of categories. Christianity does not offer itself to the world mainly as a superior set of teachings. It offers itself to the world as a message, as news about a redemption and a resurrection and an eternal life in history through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
We don’t need to get bogged down in arguing which religion has better teachings. The issue is: Who has a historical intervention of God into this world to bear the sins of man so that salvation can come to undeserving people? That is the question. And only Christianity has that message.
And it is the same with our response to the last statement. She said: We should respect all religion. Well, one could say it depends on what a religion claims to be. If it claims to have a better remedy for man’s greatest problem, we want to hear it and respect it. Christianity is not first a set of religious practices and ethical teachings that demands respect. It is news, the best news in the world about the coming of the Son of God into the world to bear the sins of man and absorb the wrath of God and reconcile rebels to their Creator.
So the sum of the matter in relating to people of other religions is: Keep bringing the conversation back to the biggest problem humans face: the wrath of God because of our sin. The greatest question is: Has God done something in history so that our sins can be forgiven and his wrath can be averted and undeserving people like us Christians can have eternal life? So it is not about a superior religious set of practices or teachings. It is about: Has God acted to reconcile rebels to himself?