Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What About Other Religions?

Logically, the mutual exclusiveness of religious claims is evident to many people. There are fundamental differences: 

How do we get right with God? (Through good works or by grace) Where do we go after death? When a person dies, he can’t reincarnate, go to heaven or hell, end up in purgatory and cease to exist all at the same time. They can’t all be true. At least, one view must be wrong.

But the pluralist may respond like this: The doctrinal dogmas may be different but the spiritual experience or moral teaching/practice is the same. Different religions are just fighting over words when they are experiencing essentially the same thing (Story of ten blind men encountering the elephant for the first time). 

In reality, although it sounds humble, pluralism says, “All religions are mistaken or partially correct like the blind men. All of them did not get the whole picture. But now I got the truth of what the elephant is like!” The only way you can know everyone else is blind is if you are the one who can see the elephant. Despite their mistaken beliefs, they are all in some way responding to God. It is just that they are not doing so in the manner in which the believers themselves think they are. But it is hard to see why this way of rejecting other’s beliefs as ‘blind’ is any more tolerant than the non-pluralist.

Do all religions really teach us to do good? They do share much ethical insights but differ on moral issues also. Is it good to have many wives or just one? Is it good to eat meat or sacrifice animals?

What is the common subjective spiritual experience that all religions share? (John Hicks: a move from self centeredness to Reality-centeredness) But if the Real is absolutely beyond knowing, how can we know it exists? If no truth claim can describe it, how can one say anything of it?

Zen Buddhism claims mystical, direct, unmediated access to the ultimate nature of reality (satori – enlightenment). It is not just a human response to the Real. If true, then one religion has direct privileged access to truth contrary to pluralist claim. What does it mean to be ‘self centered’ or ‘Reality centered’? (Realize you are one with Brahman? Recognize that nirvana is ultimate? Center your life on Jesus?). It’s too vague and reductionistic in a way not acceptable to what other faiths claim about themselves...

Is belief in ‘one way to God’ narrow-minded as it shuts you off from new insights that come from other religions?

It is common to confuse ‘narrow-mindedness’ with holding a particular view with strong conviction. Gregory Boyd: “Narrow-mindedness does not attach to what you believe, but how you believe it. If I refused to consider any perspective, any religious book, and any philosophy which disagreed with my own, that would be narrow-minded. But just because I hold to a belief that disagrees with other perspectives, other religious books and other philosophies doesn’t itself make me narrow.”

Can we learn insights from other religions? Sure, but it doesn’t mean we cannot be critical as well. “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” – G.K. Chesterton

Isn’t it unfair that God revealed Himself to only some people and not to others? What about those who have never heard of the good news? Where is the justice in that? It should be more open to all. 

Different theories to reconcile God’s justice with the necessity of the gospel for salvation: God will not offer the gospel to those whom He knows would not have responded positively anyway. Or, after death, those whom God knows would respond positively may be offered the gospel. Keller: It’s a mystery that God has not revealed to us.

What does Romans chapter 1 say about ‘not enough evidence for God’? Actually, people are suppressing the universal knowledge of God they do have because of sin. People are without excuse for God’s moral character, power and wisdom have been evident to all since creation of the world. They are still accountable for how they live by the moral law within their hearts. So it’s still fair because they won’t be judged by what they don’t know. But the bad news is we have all violated our own moral standards and deserve just punishment. That is why we need a Savior (Christ) who died for our sins.

There are different theories to reconcile God’s justice with the necessity of the gospel for salvation. See Terrance Tiessen’s “Who Can be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions

Ecclesiocentrists: Access to salvation is only available to those who hear and receive the gospel at least in the case of competent adults.

Agnosticism: It’s a mystery that God has not revealed to us since Scripture is silent.

Accessibilists: Salvation is through Christ alone but accessible to the unevangelised beyond the boundaries of the church. Non-Christian religions are not salvific.

Religious instrumentalists: Salvation is through Christ but accepts that non-Christian religions are means of salvation.

“[My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Pluralism promotes peace and tolerance in a world of religious conflict. When you have exclusive hold on truth, it will lead to problems. Solution: Take religions less seriously or literally i.e. Jesus is God. 

But everybody brings their essential faith commitments (which cannot be proven by science). Everyone has their worldview (about where we come from, who we are, the purpose of life and our destiny) and all have their exclusive views.

For example, even pluralism will exclude other beliefs like the incarnation of God in Christ. It works only if followers of all faiths water down their conflicting truth claims in favor of pluralism. In the end, the only way humanity could attain unity is when they exclusively agree on a ‘faith’ different than their own.

The real question, then, is “Which fundamental belief leads their believers to be the most loving and honor those with whom they differ?” (See: Reason for God, page 18 – 21)

Peace may be achieved not at the cost of truth or dismissal of genuine differences. In fact, tolerance itself implies disagreement. We do not ‘tolerate’ people who agree with us. They are on our side! If every religious person is a pluralist, what room is there for tolerance? Instead, genuine tolerance recognizes conflicting truth claims and does not press for artificial common denominator. Despite our differences, we respect and honor one another as persons who have the God-given right to believe, practice and propagate our faiths. We should avoid what Alister McGrath called ‘a repressive enforcement of a predetermined notion of what something or someone should be, rather than a willingness to accept them for what they actually are.’

OK fine – Only one religion is true or all are false. But how can you tell? How do you choose your ‘home’ or belief (worldview)? By research or upbringing? 

What are some criteria that you think ‘the true religion’ ought to have? There are some tests of truth that can help us measure different religious claims (moral criterion, coherence, empirical/historical claims, trustworthy authority). We can know whether these claims are true or false, rather than wishful thinking.

Greg Koukl: For example, if I told you that out in my car, in my glove box, I have a square circle, how many of you would want to take a peek? There are no square circles because a square circle is a contradiction in terms.

It's like a person who said, "I met a woman who was ten years younger than her son." Now, no empirical search is necessary for you to reject this claim. By definition, mothers are older than their children. That is why there can't be a woman ten years younger than her son. Even if the most brilliant person said this to you, you could immediately reject it.

The point I am making is this. There are some particular things you can judge as false without ever leaving the room because a moment's reflection tells you there is something wrong. These things can't be true because they violate the test of coherence. In other words, it doesn't make sense; it's contradictory.

What about this “all religions are the same” view? What it fails to take into consideration is that much of religious truth is actually competing and not complimentary. Religions have contradictory claims. For example, God in the Christian tradition is personal and in the eastern tradition is impersonal. God can't be personal and not personal at the same time. One view must be wrong.

The point is, we can use this test of coherence to disqualify certain views as being false on their face. The religious pluralism view--the idea that all religions lead to God, that all roads lead to Rome--is false on its face because all religions can't be true at the same time.

Has Science Disproved God?

It is common to believe that there is a conflict going on between science and belief in God. As a result, some Christian youths gave up their faith in college because they mistakenly concluded that science has proved that chance, random natural processes formed human beings and everything else in the universe. On the other hand, it does not help the cause of the gospel if people are not equipped with a robust understanding of Genesis that does not distort or deny scientific facts.

Scientists gain knowledge by making systematic observations, proposing hypotheses as explanations of phenomena and design experiments to to test their results. Good scientific theories are rational, true description of the world and accurately predict future results. By its methodology, science cannot prove or disprove God who is invisible, spiritual, beyond space and time.

C.S. Lewis: “Looking for God by exploring space is like reading Shakespeare's plays in the hope that you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth… My point is, if God does exist, He is related to the universe more as an author is related to a play”.

Far from being a threat, science is only possible based on some faith assumptions: There is a real world out there accessible to our senses, our minds can rationally understand it and the uniformity of natural causes. The same personal Creator who created the world also created our sensory and rational faculties so it’s reasonable there is correspondence between them.

Joe Boots (“Has Science Disproved Religion?”): “If the universe is ultimately chaotic – if all is in flux – then you cannot finally know anything. How can we believe in the uniformity of nature in a chance-driven universe? How can we trust that the chemical accident of our brain is giving us valid knowledge? It is the Christian worldview alone that can provide the pre-conditions of intelligible science. It is God who provides the order, structure and regularity that make the cosmos rational. And he has made us in his image, with mind and spirit distinct from matter, capable of exploring and understanding the world.” The Christian worldview is foundational to science, at least consistent with it

Scientism: “Only what can be quantified by scientific methods or empirically tested is rational and true”. Therefore, miracles are impossible since they cannot be tested.

But scientism is self-refuting because what kind of experiment can prove that? The position itself cannot be quantified or verified in any scientific test. It is a philosophical claim about science rather than a conclusion of science. Alvin Plantinga: The argument is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight because the light was better there. Or even worse: Because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light. If God exists, miracles are possible

What is evolution? 

Microevolution: Variations take place in an organism over time producing modifications of existing characteristics. These are adaptive changes, through natural selection, allow the organism to survive and reproduce. For examples, color variations in moths and bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. This is not a disputed issue. Greg Koukl: “Microevolution may tell us how finches get larger beaks or how moths take on
darker colors, but it doesn’t tell us how we get finches or moths in the first place.”

Moreland: “Macroevolution is the general theory that all life arose from non-life in some pre-biotic condition (where chemical reactions plus some form of energy gave rise to the first life), and all life evolved from the first life up to Homo Sapiens”. This is the disputed area.

Christian positions in response to Macroevolution: (Reading the World) 

Young Earth Creationists – Ken Ham, Henry Morris, Duane Gish
About 10,000 years old earth, literal reading of Genesis, question the dating of fossils, reject macro evolution.

Theistic Evolutionists - Alister McGrath, Francis Collins, Polkinghorne. God created the initial materials and set up the natural laws, then guided the whole evolution process.

Old-Earth, Progressive Creationists – Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples. Accepts big bang cosmology, dating of fossil record, rejects macroevolution, holds that God progressively intervenes millions of times to create new species

Intelligent Design (ID) – Philip Johnson, Dembski, Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection: the anthropic principle, specified complexity in DNA, irreducible complexity in organic structures, design can be empirically detected.

Exegetical issues in understanding Genesis 1 & 2: (Reading The Word)

Evangelical biblical scholars who take the Bible seriously have different interpretations of Genesis 1 & 2. What does bara (“to create”) mean? To create out of nothing or create some new thing out of already-existing materials. Does yom (“day”) refer to a 24-hour period or an unspecified period time as well? See Ray and Sue Bohlin in How to talk to your kids about evolution and creation ( for three possible views:

“The first is the literal or the very recent creation account. Some people would call the proponents of this view "young earth creationists." They believe that each of the six days of creation was a twenty-four hour period similar to our days today. These days were consecutive and in the recent past, probably ten to thirty thousand years ago. They hold that the flood was a world-wide and catastrophic event and that all the sedimentary layers were a result of Noah's flood. All the fossils, therefore, are a result of the flood of Noah.

The second way of looking at Genesis 1 is the Day Age Theory, sometimes called Progressive Creation. Here, each of the six days of creation is a very long period of time, perhaps hundreds of millions of years. God would have created progressively through time, not all at once. The flood was a local event in Mesopotamia or perhaps even a world-wide, but tranquil flood. Therefore, the flood did not leave any great scars or sediments across the earth.

The third view understands Genesis 1 as a Literary Framework. This view suggests that Genesis 1 was not meant to communicate history. Peoples of the Ancient Near East used a similar literary device to describe a complete or perfect work; in this case, a perfect creation. God could have created using evolution or progressive creation; the point is that there is really no concordance between earth history and the days of Genesis 1.”

The literary framework begins with a “formless and void” earth in Gen 1:2. The first 3 days remove its formlessness with light, sea and sky. The last 3 days remove the void by filling them with living things. In any case, humility and respect for differing views among Christians who take the Bible seriously are called for.

The Big Picture: Controversy should not distract us from the key messages of Genesis. (See Tony Watkins’ What you need to know about the evolution debate -

God is the creator of everything. The universe owes its existence solely to God's will.
The universe didn't create itself and it didn't appear by chance.

The world reflects its creator. The created world is orderly (and therefore understandable by rational human beings) and good. It shows us enough about God that there's no excuse for anyone not to believe in him (Romans 1:20).

God is the law-giver who gave us the responsibility of being stewards of the earth. All created things have a divinely appointed purpose and not a product of random accident.

Human beings are God's image bearers, reflecting His character in our self-consciousness, creativity and aesthetic awareness, rational and moral responsibility and relational and spiritual dimension.

Human beings are rebels against God. Sin ruined our relationship with God, nature and each other. So we live in a world of alienation, fear, violence and lies. We hide from God and from each other. We are under God's judgment. Incredibly, God still sought out the fallen couple and promised gracious redemption (Genesis 3).

A Possible Strategy: Share our convictions in this issue humbly and be willing to listen to others. There is space for diversity on some of the details. Emphasize on the major message of Genesis. Be ready to challenge macroevolution on scientific grounds (Intelligent Design) if required. But even if macroevolution is true, why can’t God guide and superintend the natural processes in creation? It cannot logically disprove God.

The Big Bang: William Lane Craig: “The absolute origin of the universe, of all matter and energy, even of physical space and time themselves, in the Big Bang singularity contradicts the perennial naturalistic assumption that the universe has always existed.”

What about Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design? 

John Lennox: 

“According to Hawking, the laws of physics, not the will of God, provide the real explanation as to how life on Earth came into being. The Big Bang, he argues, was the inevitable consequence of these laws ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’

…But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions... His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine.

That is a confusion of category. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up… To use a simple analogy, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion in themselves never sent a snooker ball racing across the green baize. That can only be done by people using a snooker cue and the actions of their own arms.”

What about multiple-universe theory to explain the fact that our universe appears fine-tuned for human life to exist? 

Tim Keller, The Reason for God:
“Alvin Plantinga gives this illustration. He imagines a man dealing himself twenty straight hands of four aces in the same game of poker. As his companions reach for their six-shooters the poker player says, "I know it looks suspicious! But what if there is an infinite succession of universes, so that for an possible distribution of poker hands, there is one universe in which this possibility is realized? We just happen to find ourselves in one where I always deal my self four aces without cheating!" This argument will have no effect on the other poker players. It is technically possible that the man just happened to deal himself twenty straight hands of four aces. Though you could not prove he had cheated, it would be unreasonable to conclude that he hadn't.”
Robert Jastrow:
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

Theodicy: Why Is There Evil And Suffering?

The Reason for God-Why Evil and Suffering

Where is God in the midst of our pain? Why doesn’t He do something about the evil and suffering in this world?

David Hume: Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is cruel. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

This serious objection against the existence of God is sometimes called the Archilles’ heel of the Christian faith. How would you answer? It becomes a profoundly difficult question (both intellectually and emotionally) if you believe in a biblical vision of God as holy, loving and all-powerful. For people who experienced terrible tragedy, this is a personal issue not just philosophical. Empathy and pastoral care are more appropriate. Remember Job’s friends.

The first thing to note is this: The Bible recognizes, allows, and even invites such questions. If you are troubled by the reality of sin and suffering in the world, you are not alone. Listen to the wailings of suffering Job, the laments of prophet Jeremiah, the angry complaints of Habakkuk or Psalm 22; leading to the climax of Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” You can hardly find any faithful saint who does not wrestle with the why questions. The Bible recognizes, allows, and even invites such questions.

While we cannot explain the detailed purpose behind every specific case of suffering, the Bible gives us clear answers on two other important questions that help us to trust in God’s goodness and power:

1) “Does God care? Where is He in our pain?” 
God is with us when it hurts: He is not far away, looking indifferently at our struggles. Rather he has come in the person of Jesus and suffered personally on the cross on our behalf. The answer cannot be that God doesn’t care. Only the Christian faith shows us a God who suffers injustice, rejection and pain with us and for us.

Albert Camus, the existential philosopher: “The god-man (Jesus) suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death”

“Jesus of the Scars” (a poem by Edward Schiltoff) 

The other gods were strong. But Thou wast weak.
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to Thy throne.
And to our wounds, only God's wounds can speak,
and not a god has wounds but Thou alone.

2) Will evil and suffering be resolved one day?” 

God will renew the heaven and earth: We despair with the question of whether evil will eventually be overcome because it appears so powerful and pervasive. But Jesus promised that God will intervene and stop evil one day. He will wipe the tears from our eyes and turn weapons of war into instruments of peace. There will be future resolution when relationships will be restored, all creation restored and healing justice in society.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the ultimate sign that God’s righteous rule will eventually prevail over sin and death. Evil shall not have the last word. 

What God has done in Christ on Easter morning, He would do on a cosmic scale for the entire creation, including us! In the meantime, we are to live today as if the future is already present. The way we live should point forward to what God’s kingdom in its future fullness would look like (like a movie preview). Therefore we have every reason and motivation to be His agents of healing justice in a sinful and suffering world.

Perhaps our need is not to have evil explained. A more urgent question is:

What are we doing about the evil and suffering in our world? It’s a call to action, not just reflection. Are we actively working as individuals and church to alleviate suffering of the poor and marginalized?

Read on for further details on some possible Christian theodicy approaches and non-Christian views on evil and suffering