What does the Bible say about other religions

This is a second in a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

The first reference point for Christians in considering the place of other religions is the Bible. But here an immediate problem is that the Bible was written before Islam appeared in the Middle East and without an awareness of the content of the great Asian religions. Are its passages seemingly hostile to other religions aimed at the other great world religions? No, the biblical writers had something else in mind. Their focus was the hostile or incomplete belief systems surrounding the Hebrew people and early Christians at a time when they were carving out their own identity. Their affirmation of a newly discovered faith and the shortcomings they found in religions around them was in the strong language of passion and discovery. The biblical quest was toward finding the Messiah and Jesus, the Savior, not toward a balanced appraisal of world religions as they evolved historically.

As a way of considering the Bible’s relationship to other religions, it is possible to list several central passages into what appear to be “Closed” and “Open” categories, representing narrower roadblock and wider Reign of God or Kingdom of God interpretations. The more frequently cited passages erected as barriers supposedly excluding other religions are “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) and “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. ” (Acts 4.12), which biblical literalists usually cite as limiting divine salvation only to confessed Christians who have verbally accepted Jesus as savior during their lifetimes. This excludes much of humanity, then and now, since only a minority of the earth’s population will have heard of Jesus, and fewer still will have had a realistic chance of knowing much about Christianity as a religion. If this interpretation holds, only a handful of the world’s peoples gain salvation, while millions merit exclusion or damnation through no fault or effort of their own.

“The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt.”

The Bible is much more than a series of isolated billboard slogans. If passages like the above are considered in the wider context of Acts and John’s Gospel, they are subsumed by the New Testament’s central theme, the cosmic, consistent love of God for all humanity and the created universe through Christ, proclaimed in the wider concept of the Reign of God. In the Johannine account this represents the “true light which enlightens everyone” (John 1.9) that “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14). God’s loving presence is manifest in all creation and all humanity, expressed as the true light and eternal Word that assumed mortal form in Jesus. “The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt full of verse-size bullets to be fired off as they are needed,” Diana L. Eck has written. The director of the Harvard Pluralism Project describes the “I am the way…No one comes” (John 14.6) passage as the pastoral response of Jesus to a timorous disciple, Thomas, on the night before the death of Jesus. “It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one,” she concludes, providing an expression of comfort, not condemnation, an expression of personal commitment to Christ, but not to the denigration or demonization of neighbors. Attempts to make this Johannine passage a narrow statement of God’s intent contrast with several other clearly more welcoming passages in that gospel, including “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) and “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16). The contrasts are clear.

The second passage often quoted by those who would limit the place of other religions in relation to Christianity is, “There is salvation in no one else,” (Acts 4:12). But this passage in context represents a more limited statement by Peter, who is pressed by hostile interrogators, and who makes a bold personal witness to the power of Jesus in his life. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with examples of the remarkable energy of the young church, and its members were bold and unambiguous in their declarations of their newly discovered Christian identity.

Other writers have suggested that passages like the above should be understood as the “survival language” of the young church, action language whose intent was to rally people to the new faith. These passages are not actual photographs or newsreel footage, but more like artist’s sketches attempting to capture the essence of an encounter. These affirmations are like “love language,” the extravagant, poetic language a lover might use to address the beloved.

Thus, the Roadblock passages should not be seen as creedal or doctrinal formulae, but strong affirmations of personal and communal faith. They represent an invitation to follow and act like Jesus, to rally Christians to faithful representations of the teachings of Jesus, not set up doctrinal roadblocks to exclude others.

The Reign of God, the Unifying Message of New Testament

Affirmation trumps rejection, welcome is stronger than exclusion, and the New Testament message is clear about that through its core message about the the Reign of God. The phrase “Reign of God”, Basileia tou Theou in Greek, Malkuth in Hebrew, appears over 150 times in the New Testament. It has been translated as the “Kingdom of God,” though that is misleading, especially if it connotes a specific political or geographic kingdom. Another translation might be the “reigning of God,” suggesting not a static kingdom, but an active, engaging process. Spoken of often by Jesus, yet never clearly defined, the Reign of God was proclaimed in general outline in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7) and the Beatitudes (Mat. 5: 1-11), and reinforced elsewhere in the teaching mission of Jesus. At the heart of this message is a call for justice, freedom, love, and equality among peoples. This declaration represented a radical affront to the religious and political authorities he encountered, and Jesus paid for it with his life.

The New Testament Reign of God welcomes non-Christians as common seekers after a truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ but experienced in different historical settings by other religions as well. The Kingdom was consistently made available to outsiders. Jesus said to a Roman centurion, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Mat.: 8:10) To a Canaanite woman he declared in healing her daughter, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Mat. 15:21-28). Jesus conversed with a foreigner, a Samaritan woman, (Jn. 4:7-15) who sought “living water” and elsewhere cited the example of the “good Samaritan” who had pity on a wounded robbery victim (Lk. 10: 29-37). Pagans, outsiders, or foreigners were consistently welcomed by Jesus, and at the final Passover dinner he told his followers he would not eat the Passover again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 22: 16).

This, in broad outline, is a reading of what the Reign of God means. Many world theologians of recent decades understand the kingdom to be freely offered to both believers and members of other religions. If their lives and beliefs reflect what Jesus preached, they too are witnesses to the Kingdom in global settings. This moves considerably beyond Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” and the classic confines of Exclusivists and Inclusivists, and affirms that God’s loving reach extends to other religions, most of which the earthly Jesus would not have encountered in the Middle East of his time.

Keith Ward, in his recent book What the Bible Really Teaches, sketches an imaginary picture of what constitutes salvation in such a setting:

It would perhaps be a picture of a trillion trillion suns, of uncountable forms of conscious and creative life, of virtually endless reaches of space and time, universe upon universe, all held together in the mind of Christ, raised from destruction and decay of the material realm to participate in the deathless and trans-temporal nature of divine Wisdom. On one small planet at the edge of a small galaxy, one young man was taken to share in the divine nature, to disclose its final purpose and mediate its illimitable power to the inhabitants of that small world. And what they see is the ultimate transfiguration of time itself into eternity, the final reconciliation of the whole universe in Christ….What the Bible really teaches us about salvation is no less than that.

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

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