Don’t All Religions Lead to the Same God?
Don’t All Religions Lead to the Same God?
Acts 17:16 – 34
John 14:1 – 11
When God is unknown ...
A few years ago, my wife, Kathy and I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. And as you do, we stood for a moment, in the Hall of Memory, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
You probably know, buried in that spot, are the remains of an unknown Australian soldier, recovered from a cemetery in France in 1993. And the War Memorial tells us that this soldier, buried in his Tasmanian Blackwood coffin, with his bayonet at his side and sprig of wattle on his chest, he represents all Australians who have been killed in war, especially those whose earthly remains are lost to us.
Many other countries have a similar tomb,
Under the Arc de Triumph, in Paris,
In the Arlington National Cemetery in the US.
We know it’s important to honour those killed in war, in fact the British journalist Paul Routledge once commented “You can judge a nation by the way it honours its war dead.” And because it’s hard to honour those we don’t know, Who have never been identified, we have a tomb, in honour of the unknown.
In that part of the book of Acts that we read earlier, the people of Athens, had a similar challenge when it came to honouring the many gods of the Greek Pantheon, let alone the other religions of the world. They erected statues, or altars, or idols, for the gods they knew about, But what do you do for any other god that might be out there?
How do you make sure you don’t leave one out?!
Is there a way to avoid upsetting some god who didn’t get an altar with his or her name on it?
Well, the solution for these first century Athenians, was to set up an altar, dedicated, “to an unknown god”,
And then that god can be honoured, just like all the gods they did know about.
But the problem caused by the plethora of religious options, isn’t one limited to first century Athens.
I’ve just come back from 2 weeks of annual leave, and what better way to spend your leave, than Internet shopping?!
So I’ve spent a fair bit of time on the Amazon.com website in the last 2 weeks, and I noticed that in the “Religion and Spirituality” category at Amazon, there are 1 million, 271 thousand, 498 different books you can buy to tell you about God!
If you are looking for God, that sounds like a great place to go, doesn’t it?
1 million, 271 thousand, 498 ways to God!
If you’re wondering how much it would cost to buy them all, I wondered that too! And based on the average price of book on Amazon, to cover all your bases, religiously speaking, you’re looking at 11 point 7 million dollars!
Within that, you can choose from
Raelism, founded by a French race car driver, who was abducted by aliens,
There’s Tibetan book of the dead and Egyptian book of the dead,
Visionary Fiction, whatever that is.
Naturally there’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam,
There’s the World Church of the Creator, which, doesn’t actually believe in a Creator, doesn’t believe in God at all, and as it turns out, is a racist, white separatist religion.
There are 652 thousand books about Christianity, including one, as it happens, with my name on the cover!
And there’s also, a book called “Ina May’s guide to childbirth”, which for some unknown reason, is listed under the occult!
Friends, we are in exactly the same position as the first century Athenians, standing in a religious supermarket, with countless competing claims, offering to make God known.
Don’t all religions lead to the same God?
The difference, between the Athenians and us, though, is that in Athens, they said “There are so many different religions, that must mean there are more we don’t know about”, and so they tried to cater to the unknown.
Today though, they typical response, and maybe this is you, the typical response is to think “there are so many religions, surely they must all be the same.
We don’t need to spend 11 million dollars at Amazon to cover all our bases, we can just choose whatever’s on special, because they all lead to the same place anyway! That’s the thinking.
And so when I was trying to work out, which questions shall we tackle, from the hundreds that were submitted to the If You Could Ask God website, well this one was obvious, because so many people had asked questions like,
“Don’t all religions lead to the same place?”
“Do Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus believe in the same God?”
“God, do you only love Christians, or people from other religions too?”
And you may be here this morning, because that’s your question.
And so I want to say thanks for coming along today, to think about it with us!
And if that’s your question, you’re in good company!
The Roman philosopher Seneca, who was around about 2000 years ago, he’s quoted as saying, The world is only one country
We are waves of same sea
Leaves of the same tree
Flowers, of the same garden
Or skip forward a few years, and another philosopher made the same point,
There comes a time when we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
We are all a part of God’s great big family
And the truth, you know,
Love is all we need
We are the world, we are the children, etc, etc thanks, Michael Jackson.
And really, this is the only religious position that our society is keen for you to hold, isn’t it? “Every religion is the same,
They all lead to the same place,
Our society, and maybe ourselves, are suspicious of claims of exclusivity.
1995 was proclaimed the International Year for Tolerance, by the United Nations, because it was thought that tolerance was an “endangered virtue.”
Well it was! Because we have re-defined tolerance!
Tolerance is now extinct in the public square, because tolerance now means equivalence.
“All religions lead to the same place,” we’re told,
Just pick one that works for you,
Matches your personality,
Fits your schedule, and you’ll be fine”
Tolerance can’t ever mean equivalence
But when it comes to finding God, tolerance can’t possibly mean equivalence.
And even the people of Athens knew that.
Did you notice, how the author, an historian by the name of Luke, captured the religious diversity of the city?
Page 1111 of those blue Bibles, there is verse 16, where there’s a little number 16 in the margin, While Paul was waiting for them, that is a couple of his friends, While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols
Historians say there were over 30,000 idols scattered around the city of Athens. The Roman satirist Petronius once remarked, in Athens it was easier to find a god, than a man.
The Athenians tolerated and promoted, every religion, but even they knew that worshipping this god over here, was not the same as worshipping that god over there.
If every religion was the same,
If every religion lead to God, they would have needed only one altar in their city, wouldn’t they?
Instead, they’ve got thousands upon thousands.
Yes, Athens was a religious supermarket alright!
But going to the supermarket can be dangerous!
Just last week, Kathy sent me to the supermarket to buy just one thing, and, you guessed it, I bought the wrong thing!
Apparently coffee flavoured milk isn’t the sort of milk that goes in a cup of tea!
These religions that surround us, that maybe you follow, they’re all incredibly different.
They make different claims,
They describe God’s character in completely different ways.
Some religions says it’s all about the effort we put in. So Ebrahim Moosa, the Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University in the US, says of Islam, Once you have done your prayers with a great deal of sincerity, concentration, and fulfillment, you get God's attention." Unquote.
The Christian scriptures on the other hand, say that God hears you when you cry out, regardless of how worthy you are.
And since these religions contradict each other at significant points, the laws of logic tell us they can’t possibly all be true.
They cannot all lead us to God.
Case study: The major religions contradict each other about an event we know in history
Let’s consider one event which we can verify historically; The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, around 30 AD.
The Bible, the Christian Scriptures, teach that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, that is, God’s chosen king, and that Jesus died, and that he was raised from the dead. That idea even gets a mention in our passage this morning.
Turn to Islam though, and the Koran teaches that Jesus didn’t die.
It says that people thought they had killed Jesus, but actually, they were just confused.
Let me read, Surah 4:157, And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did., For certain, they never killed him.
That’s pretty clear!
And then if we turn to Judaism, Jewish leaders today say the same thing as Jewish leaders in the first Century AD;, that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, and that he wasn’t raised from the dead.
Listen to these words form the Jewish Rabbinical Council of America: There is not, and has never been, a place in Judaism for the belief that the Messiah the son of David, will bring his Messianic mission, only to experience death, burial and resurrection.
Clearly, if Judaism is correct, then Christianity cannot be.
If Christianity represents the truth about how God has acted in the world, then Islam does not.
If you’re here today because you’re trying to find out the truth about God,
Or you want to help your friends find answers about God, don’t believe the politically correct rubbish that all these religions are the same!
John Dickson makes a funny comment in his book “A Spectators Guide to World Religions.” He says, ‘To say “all religions are the same” is a bit like saying “all Asians are the same.” You may say it, but no-one from Asia will agree with you.”’
It’s the height of arrogance,
“All those Asians think they’re different from each other, but I know better, I see that they are, in fact, all the same.”
“All those religions think they’re different, but I know better, I see the reality, that they are, in fact, the same.”
Ravi Zacharias, the Indian apologist says “Anyone who claims that all religions are the same, betrays an ignorance of all religions.”
Is being sincere in your religious belief enough?
But let’s come back to Athens,
As I said, the first century Athenians were very religious.
They were very sincere.
And maybe we think that counts for something!
Maybe you’re willing to accept that the different religions we encounter aren’t all true, but maybe that’s not what matters!
Maybe what matters, is that you’re sincere in what you believe.
Look with me at verse 22 of Acts 17, Paul has been brought to the Areopagus. This is the council of philosophers who were the guardians of the morality, and religion, and culture of Athens.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
Notice that Paul acknowledges their devotion and sincerity.
I see that in every way you are very religious.,
I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.
See, they were so aware that every religion is different,
So frightened that they might have inadvertently overlooked some god, that they had set up this altar, to whatever other god might be out there, that they might have missed with their 30,000 other idols.
That is sincere, isn’t it?
But what happens when Paul encounters these very sincere and religious Athenians?
Is he happy to just let them carry on, being sincere?
Does he congratulate them on their sincerity?
No, he doesn’t does he?
He says, “Let me tell you the truth”, “Let me make known to you, what you don’t know.
you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you
Paul says sincerity is no substitute for truth,
And while you have plenty of religion,
And plenty of devotion,
And plenty of sincerity,
You don’t have the truth, and I want to share the truth with you.
There is literally, a religious supermarket in Brooklyn in New York. The guy who runs it, whose name is Jason, will sell you everything you need, for whatever religion, you want to be part of.
Bath oils that keep away evil spirits,
Statues of Jesus in every skin shade imaginable, and with every possible hair colour,
Supplies for Satanism and witchcraft,
And of course, the perpetual best-seller Voodoo dolls.
And this shopkeeper, Jason, says, of his customers, “As long as they believe, it works for them.”
That is, as long as you’re sincere, your religion will get you to God!
But friends, nothing could be further from the truth!
Every day, the headlines are filled with stories of people who are sincere, but wrong.
People who believe something with all their heart, and yet are shown to be, often tragically, mistaken.
Just last Saturday morning, a university student in San Francisco came home in the early hours of the morning, and inadvertently pressed the wrong button in the lift.
So although he truly believed he was walking into his own apartment on the 5th floor, he actually walked into an apartment on the 3rd floor, and was shot and killed by the man who lived there, who thought he was being robbed
Sincere, but wrong.
Some of you know, I was following news of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on Twitter, perhaps not the best place to find my news, but in the first hours after the plane disappeared, thousands, literally thousands of people were writing things like these “I know the plane has landed somewhere safe”,
“In my heart of hearts I know it’s true, the plane will be safe back in KL, Kuala Lumpur, tonight.”
We know those statements to be patently untrue!
Sincere, but wrong!
In no other area of life, would be even entertain the idea that sincerity is all that matters.
The next time you’re sitting on a plane, about to take off, and the person sitting next to you says “I’m pretty sure I could do a better job of flying this plane than the pilot.”
What do you do? Do you press that little call button and ask the flight attendant if he can swap seats with the pilot?
He seems you know, sincere!
If you think that’s a good approach to life, I’m never going to travel with you!
No, Paul didn’t just see the people’s sincerity, and think, “Oh, well, they’ve got some religion, they seem to be happy, I’ll just head off to the next town and see if anyone there needs to hear about Jesus”
No, he wants the Athenians to understand the truth about God, verse 23, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
Paul knew that truth matters.
And the Bible is very clear about where to go if we want to find out the truth about God!
We can know, not just about God, but we can know God, because he has made himself known to us.
Christians believe, that God entered into human history, in the person of Jesus.
That other passage we read earlier, from the gospel of John, is eye-witness testimony about Jesus’ life and ministry.
Have a listen to what Jesus says, about finding the truth about God,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
I know a pastor of a church, who was asked to read from this passage at an interfaith service, with people from different religions all taking part. Except he was asked to read just the first sentence of verse 6.
To say that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, well, that’s innocuous enough. But to say, no one comes to the Father except through me, well that is a claim of exclusivity, isn’t it?
Jesus is saying, “follow me, and I will lead you to God. I am the way, because no other way, will get you to the Father, to God.”
That claim, is staggering in its enormity.
Jesus is claiming that no other religion,
No other mode of spirituality, can get you to God.
In these words, Jesus answers a resounding “no” to our question;, “Don’t all religions lead to the same God?”
“No”, Jesus says, “I am it.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear a claim like that, I’m immediately sceptical.
But Jesus tells us why he can make a claim of exclusivity like that,
Why he’s the only one who can make God known.
It’s because, he says, if you know me, then you know God!
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
That is, if you’ve had an encounter with Jesus, then you’ve had an encounter with God.
The Bible’s testimony is that Jesus is in himself, the truth of God, the life of God, and so stands alone, as the way to God.
And it’s through Jesus’ life, Through his death in the place of people like you and me who have rebelled against God, and ignored God, That’s the means that God himself has provided for us to have a relationship with him.
One of the books you’ll find in the Amazon.com bookstore is “The God I Want”, edited by James Mitchell.
The promotional material for the book describes it like this:
“The book consists of personal attempts by individual writers and thinkers to forget, all they have ever learned about God and to ask themselves what God, if any, they really want.”
Well Jesus’ words leave no room for that kind of thinking, do they? Jesus’ words, if they’re true, mean that imagining the god I want is pointless.
The claim of Christianity, is that only through the person of Jesus, can we know God, both because of who Jesus is, God, come in the flesh, and also because of what Jesus does, dying in our place, so we can be acceptable to a perfect, pure, and holy God.
That’s the Bible’s claim to truth, but it’s a claim that can be hard to swallow!
And it’s a claim that isn’t warmly received in a pluralistic, multi-religious society.
The truth about God is for all people, everywhere
But remember, ours isn’t the first pluralistic, multi-religious society!
The claims of Christ were just as counter-cultural in first century Athens, as they are in Australia today.
And yet it’s into that context, the Apostle Paul says the truth about God, as embodied in Jesus, is for all people, everywhere.
See down there in verse 29 of Acts 17, Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people, everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Before God was made known in the person of Jesus Christ, people were ignorant about what God was really like, they knew something, but they didn’t have the whole picture,
But in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, God has opened up the way to himself, ignorance is no excuse, all people everywhere are called to repent.
My colleague, Darren, is into jigsaw puzzles, although I think actually when his family do jigsaw puzzles together, Darren’s job is mostly just to make the coffee!, but if you’re into jigsaws, I’m sure you know that moment, when you can’t really see how it’s supposed to go, but you put one more piece in place, and suddenly, everything becomes clear.
You can then tell where the rest of the pieces belong, and you can see the whole picture.
Paul says, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is a bit like that puzzle piece.
The cross, makes sense of all of God’s work in the world, and gives us the ultimate picture of who God is.
And with such a great revelation, ignorance of God won’t be overlooked.
The truth about God is for all people, everywhere.
And the Apostle Paul says, to these sincere Athenians, who were well entrenched, in plenty of other religions, he says to them, all people everywhere, must repent.
Repenting was something Paul himself knew something about! He had been a life-long follower of another religion, devoting his life to wiping the name of Jesus from the face of the earth!
But when he came face to face with the claims of Jesus,
When he realised that he was the only way to God, he knew he had to repent, turn to God, and believe what God was saying.
But to say that all people everywhere must repent, that’s a provocative statement, isn’t it?
If we’re going to turn our back on all these other ways that claim to be able to get us to God,
We’d want to be pretty sure that this is the right way.
It’s one thing for Jesus to say “No one comes to the Father except through me.”, but how do you know if that’s true,
How do we know that claim can be trusted?
What’s to say that this isn’t all talk?!
Well, standing in the religious supermarket of Athens, among the guardians of that city’s religion, Paul says, Jesus’ place, at the centre of everything that God has ever done in the world, is confirmed.
Every word he spoke is stamped with God’s authority.
Every claim he made is amplified throughout history, by his resurrection from the dead.
For he, that’s God, has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.
When people who aren’t trustworthy die, they stay dead.
In fact, when any normal person dies, they stay dead.
But in raising Jesus from the dead, never to die again, God the Father gives him a great big stamp of approval and says “I stand behind everything he said.”
See the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the proof of Jesus’ place in God’s plan for all history.
The resurrection is the evidence, that Jesus really is, the way, the truth, the life, the only way to God.
The truth about God is for us
he commands all people everywhere to repent.
It’s universal, but it’s also personal. We have to respond to God.
You have to respond to God.
I have to respond to God.
And what is an appropriate response?
Not to choose a god we like the sound of,
Not to just pick one religion from among all the others and hope for the best,
Not simply to be sincere in what we believe, or be happy that others are sincere in what they’re believe.
Interred in the tomb of the unknown soldier in the Arlington National Cemetery in the US, were the remains of American servicemen from World War 1, World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam.
In 1998, the remains of the Vietnam War unknown, were exhumed, and through DNA testing, were found to be the earthly remains of Air Force Lieutenant Michael Blassie, who was shot down near over Vietnam exactly 42 years ago, today!
The unknown, was now known.
What do you do in that situation?!
You can’t put the body of a known soldier, back in the tomb of the unknown soldier.
And so the Vietnam unknown tomb, is now sealed but empty.
And Michael Blassie, is buried near his home, where his friends and family can honour his memory.
It would be an horrific offence, to continue to call him unknown, when we know exactly who he is.