Written by Pete Lowman
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
Open in prayer.
Who had the opportunity to share some of last week’s material with someone who’s not yet a Christian?
How did it go? What snags came up?
So we’re launching this session with discussion in groups of three: What we do we say when an unbelieving friend asks us `We’re a pluralistic society. Our world has many sincerely-held beliefs. How can there be only one true faith, how can Jesus be the only way? Aren’t all religions true?`
These are very relevant questions when we face pressure from the authorities nationally or where we work, or even from our friends, to be more politically correct, `open-minded and tolerant`!
So again, let’s tell each other the responses we would make to our friends – because we need to hear ourselves do it! – and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group…..
When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…
- Sincerity’s not the issue: we can all be sincerely mistaken. If you were afraid you had cancer you might go to the doctor, and you might tell them, `But a year ago I asked one of the nicest, sincerest people I know, and they told me not to worry… ` The doctor may say: Your friend may be sincere, but you are in danger of dying of cancer. Some diagnoses are either true or false; some cures will save you and others won’t; you need to know which are which.
- In the end, some things are either true or false. Either God is personal (as in Islam and Christian faith) or he isn’t (as in Buddhism). Either Christ’s death is the centre of everything, because it has paid for our sins and saved us from hell - or it hasn’t (and our Muslim friends will tell us something very different about how we must seek to avoid hell). Either the resurrection was the most triumphant moment in history (Christian faith), or (as for Hinduism) it would have been pointless; or (Islam) it didn’t happen at all. And Jesus himself either was or was not what he claimed to be – the unique I AM, the Creator, the only way to God (John 14:6). No other major religious teacher has ever made this incredible claim – and it matters enormously! (To Muslims, for example, it would be the most terrible blasphemy.) Was Jesus right or wrong?
- If Christ’s claims are true, all other religions must ultimately be incomplete. All religions cannot be 100% true, because they disagree vitally with each other. There may be many good insights in each, but the most vital question is how we can be right with God, eternally. (So if Islam is right and we’re wrong, we’re in trouble!) And if human efforts or ceremonies can make us right with God, Christ’s agonizing death was unnecessary. So we cannot have Christ’s cross and other religions too; we have, unavoidably, to choose.
- Practically, it’s either true or false that we can’t please God by anything at all that we do – meaning, our sins can only be taken away if God himself rescues us by paying for them, and we then reach out to him and receive that unearned forgiveness for ourselves. Jesus’ gospel stands alone in daring to say this.
- It comes down to facts; and as we’ve been saying, this is where Christian faith is so strong. No other religious teacher has risen from the dead! If God did that, if Christ’s resurrection is a historical fact, then we’re dealing with something unique in history; only Jesus frees us from sin and death.
(Note: We can of course decide that the differences between the religions doesn’t matter - but that’s not saying all religions are same, it’s saying all religions are wrong as they stand, and my personal selection of their teachings is more truthful than any of them. That’s a huge gamble of faith in my own judgment! Tim Keller, in The Reason for God p.8, tells of a student who argued that the doctrines that divide the faiths aren’t what matter, because (he said) all religions believe in the same God, an all-loving Spirit in the universe. Keller observes that in that case Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all, in different ways, mistaken! So the student himself actually had quite a definite doctrine about God, but one different from all these religions; that is, he was saying he was right where Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all wrong – quite a step of faith.)
We need to be ready for two further questions about this:
Isn’t this arrogant?
- No, it isn’t. We didn’t figure it out by our own brilliance; God showed it to us. If you seek him, he’ll show it to you as well. (And a doctor’s not being arrogant if he tells you you’ve got cancer, or are pregnant, or both. He’s simply stating facts.)
- It’s politically correct to say that everyone has their own truth – and actually it’s that which is arrogant. Keller again quotes the comparison people make between the world religions and a group of blind men with an elephant: one feels the trunk and says it’s like a snake, another feels the leg and says it’s like a treetrunk, another feels the elephant’s large flat side, and all are partly right and this is how it is with the world religions. Keller observes that the heart of that whole story is that one person is more right than all the blind men, and that is because they can see the whole picture and none of the blind men can. Person saying this is assuming they can see better and more maturely than Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, Confucius…. If I heard myself saying that, I’d start to wonder who’s arrogant.
But doesn’t your attitude of Christian conviction cause wars?
- It’s true that dogmatic certainty will cause conflict unless it’s coupled with a commitment to loving your enemy; witness the massacres carried out last century in Russia, China and Cambodia, by atheistic communist governments, of anybody who disagreed with them.
- It’s essential in a pluralistic society like ours that we really see that respect doesn’t depend on agreement. If we are to live together, we must be able to hold strong convictions and yet respect each other without violence.
- And yes, religion-gone-wrong can cause wars. The first murder in human history was over religion, when Cain found his approach to God was the wrong one, his deep human yearning for relationship with God was frustrated, and he murdered Abel whose approach to God (by sacrifice) had been fruitful. But following Jesus and the new testament cannot cause wars and hatred, and no true Christian could attack Muslims or burn down a local mosque; why? …….. Because Jesus and the new testament call us to love our enemies. Indeed, people of other faiths are not even our enemies, but people Jesus loved so much he died in agony for them.
- Not only that; followers of Jesus know we are not saved by our goodness and so expect that in other religions there are people better than us; we’ve come to Jesus to be mended.
- Finally, for followers of Jesus the most vital thing in life is a free heart-choice of faith. No one can force that on anybody; which is why belief in the Christian faith leads, and historically has led, to freedom of religion. We’re longing for our neighbours of other faiths to meet Jesus; and therefore any religious violence or religious compulsion is not only unChristlike but unbelievably stupid.
we’ve been considering the previous two questions in the whole group, let’s
break back into threes for this one… `But
what about those who have never heard your gospel? Are all those who
haven’t heard of Jesus consigned to hell?`
Responses you might be looking for as leader could include…
- The most important thing to say about this is that we trust God. He is utterly just and also utterly loving; we trust them to his care
- But there are many things we aren’t sure about (as is the case in science too); and we aren’t embarrassed about that! Some Christians say that those who haven’t heard the gospel are without salvation. Others believe that Christ’s death can cover them too, if they have turned to what they’ve been shown of God for mercy, in repentance and faith. (Just as Abraham was saved, though he never knew Christ by name.)
Let’s expand this. Bible Christians disagree about this matter and that’s okay! Dick Dowsett’s book God That’s Not Fair! sets out concisely the position that those who have not responded to the gospel of the cross are all heading for a lost eternity; for an in-depth presentation of the same position see ch6 of D A Carson, The Gagging of God. And maybe they are right.
But there is an alternative position. Abraham never knew Jesus’ name, nor had he heard of the cross. Nor did Job – indeed he wasn’t even part of Israel; nor was Melchizedek or Jethro. But Scripture presents them as righteous people of God: because of their repentance and faith in what God had revealed to them, the cross covered them too. It seems at least possible that people today who have never heard the new testament gospel could be in the same situation (isn’t this the point of Acts 17:30?): God judges them by how they responded in repentance and faith to the light he’s given them thus far. (The glory of God demands that they be brought the whole story, of course. But that isn’t a matter of whether they go to heaven or hell; our motivation here is God’s glory - Christ has died for us and everyone must hear about that and worship him!)
So does this destroy missionary vision? Certainly not. To repeat, our primary motivation for world mission is the glory of God. Christ died on the cross for us and yet in so many places he is not yet worshipped; and if we love Jesus we must ask how we can tell everybody in farflung parts of China, in Teheran and Mecca, among the Siberian tribes, in Paris and Brussels. Nor in taking this position are we being `interfaith`; the new testament is clear that there’s only one true gospel in this world, the gospel of the cross; and while in God’s grace the cross may possibly cover people who have never heard about it, still if they are in heaven, they are in heaven only because of the cross. We can’t believe what the Bible says about the cross and still believe in any other religion, or that anyone will be saved simply by being a good Muslim or a good Hindu. Nevertheless, the possibility does exist that if they respond in repentance and faith to as much as they have seen from God, the cross covers them, and they go to heaven just as Abraham did and just as we do.
We can’t be sure of this, and therefore we may well be best to live as if Dowsett and Carson are right, and the unevangelized are all headed for a lost eternity. But if friends ask what we think about this, it is by no means certain from the Bible that those who have never heard the gospel all go to hell. Ultimately the God we know is utterly just and utterly loving, and we can trust them to his care.
But the real issue for our friend is what happens to those who have heard, to you and me!
Perhaps before we break for coffee, some short comments about three questions often raised by our Muslim friends:
Whole books have been written about these questions; an excellent one is E M Hicham, Your Questions Answered. (Hicham himself grew up a Muslim and has written an excellent introduction to Islam, How Shall They Hear? See also www.word-of-hope.net, which contains much more thorough resources than we can attempt here. Another good, brief guide is Sharing Christ with Muslims, published by Frontiers, www.frontiers.org.uk.) But of the many things our Muslim friends may ask, three questions deserve a brief comment as they seem especially common:
`God has no partner; how could God be born as a man?` For us too, the idea is abhorrent that God, or Allah (for this was the Arabic Christian word for God first!), might have a sexual `partner`. But in the Injil, the new testament, Colossians 1:19 tells us that Allah chose that all his divine fullness should be embodied in one human body, that of Jesus Christ. Surely our Muslim friends do not dare to say that Allah the Almighty cannot do that? And, surely they do not dare to say that they know the mind of Allah so well that they can say with certainty that he would not do that?
The same issue arise when our Muslim friends say `God doesn’t sleep, or eat or drink… God cannot die, it would be against his nature`. Who are we to dare to say what Allah cannot do? Who are we to say what Allah would not do?
(It is astonishing, when one of the greatest things about Islam is its high respect for Allah, that sometimes our Muslim friends seem to claim to understand fully what he is and does. Even quantum physics completely transcends human understanding; and faced with the nature of God we are like a dog trying to understand complex mathematics! What we should reasonably do is trust the pictures he gives us. It is the same with science. Is light made up of waves or particles, it surely cannot be both? But in fact both pictures help us grow in grasping something deeply complex. It is the same with the trinity - it will help us if we think of God as in some way three, as the Bible says, and also if we think of him as one, as it also says. Likewise, it will help us to see Jesus the Word (or expression) of God as equal to the Creator (just as the Injil explains in John 1:1,18, 5:16-18, 10:30,20:28), yet it will also help us if we listen when Jesus says that the Father who sent him is greater than he is (see John 14:28, in the light of John 13:16). Equality is too wooden a concept to suffice alone for understanding the full nature of God himself. Each of the word-pictures God gives us help us grow in understanding something glorious beyond our reach.)
(And while it is true that `The word Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible` - and we could certainly do without it if we had to - the concept is clearly present in, for example, 2 Corinthians 13:14, or in the phrase Jesus commanded for the central Christian ceremony of baptism in Matthew 28:19.)
What is surprising is that our Muslim friends often say, `Jesus never said “I am God” or “Worship me”`. Among Jesus’ clear claims of deity is John 8:58, where he takes to himself I AM, the old testament name that belonged to God alone. (The Jews understood this full well and immediately picked up stones to stone him for blasphemy, v59.) But indeed the whole narrative of John’s gospel comes to its culmination in the moment at the end of John 20 where Thomas finally passes beyond his doubts and worships Jesus (and of course Jesus does not rebuke him!) with the explicit words `My Lord and my God!` (John 20:28). Another example of the disciples worshipping Jesus is Matthew 14:33.
But, our Muslim friends may say, `Your Scriptures have been changed.` The question we must respond with is, When did this happen? Any believer in the Quran must take seriously Sura 10:94-97, where Allah tells Muhammad, if he is in doubt, to turn to the earlier Scriptures and those who read them (the old and new testament). (See also Sura 5:46-47.) It is inconceivable that Allah would command this if those Scriptures were already ruined by alteration before that time. But if our friends say that the alterations happened after Muhammad, we can invite them to join us in visiting the British Library to see the Codex Sinaiticus, which predates Muhammad by 200 years. With full manuscripts like this we are able to get beyond any alterations after Muhammad’s time, and to see the Scriptures as they were when Sura 10 declared their importance.
We in our turn have questions for our Muslim friends. The main one must surely be, How can you be safe on judgment day? How can you be sure of acceptance by God? Because Islam offers no certainty of forgiveness such as Christians know. And that is in part because it offers no real relationship with God before death. (One thing we may want to talk together about is what prayer means for us - not a ritual repetition, but a conversation with our Father.)
Since our gospel is ultimately `Christ crucified` (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2), we should seek to share all we can of the wonder of Jesus as God reveals him to us more and more through reading the new testament, the Injil. And likewise the wonder of the cross; one of Islam’s two great annual feasts is Eid, remembering Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. But that event needs the context of the Bible to receive its full significance; as part of the line of sacrifices of Abel, of Passover, and the Tabernacle and Temple ceremonies, it points towards the cross where finally the ultimate sacrifice was made that enables our sure salvation.
IT’S ABOUT TIME WE TOOK A BREAK FOR COFFEE…….
SO: AT THE END OF ALL THIS THE BIGGEST QUESTION STILL IS: WHO WAS – AND IS - JESUS?
This is the vital question. If Jesus is God, it makes all the difference.
We can’t `prove` that, here, now, collectively. In the end each of us must meet with Jesus for ourselves. The aim here is to give us enough material to go away and read the gospels - on our own or, better, with somebody else; and pray, whether or not we believe; and decide.
Again we need to master the facts. Why should we trust what the gospels say about Jesus? As we said last session, it doesn’t matter at this point whether we share the belief that they are 100% reliable. We can decide where we stand on that once we’ve decided to follow Jesus. What matters now is that they are generally reliable accounts of what Jesus and was like. And that seems clear.
It’s not just that there are no proven contradictions or errors. It’s not just the vast number of documents – as we noted last session, much more than we have for any comparable historian such as Tacitus - the absence of radical divergences between them, and the many quotations from the gospels elsewhere that assure us we have a fairly reliable text. It’s also that they were written so close to the events, in a culture marked by retentive memory, and when many witnesses of the events would still be alive to challenge falsifications; and written by people, and in a community, whose moral integrity seems a historically accepted fact, even among their enemies.
But most of all: people died for the reliability of these documents. The early Christians were not new age spiritual tourists; they would most certainly have wanted as accurate as possible a record of what their Master did and taught. Many of them knew they might come to very unpleasant ends for their beliefs. They and their families could be beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped, tortured. One of the early Roman emperors took to using burning Christians as human torches for his garden. If we imagine ourselves in the position of someone who remains a Christian knowing this is how it might end, we can see that those early believers would surely want to be as certain as they could be that their gospels were telling the truth. For all these reasons, then, we can be confident that these colourful, earthy accounts are at least very close to what Jesus actually said and did.
And as we read them, they are enormously impressive. What touches us most says a lot about who we are. Some of us may well be captivated most by the shrewdness and sublimity of Christ's words and stories. For others it is the glory of what he does: his identifying with the poor and broken and untouchable; the way he loves joyous celebrations, yet stands unflinchingly in the way of entrenched evil; his generosity in caring, healing, and forgiving; the astonishingly moving events when he washes the disciples feet, including Judas, or the restoration of Peter after his betrayal. And so very much more. If there was ever someone who lived life as it should be lived, we so often feel, this is it.
We can’t prove this in these notes, and we shouldn’t try. What’s vital is for us to expose ourselves again, before God, to the experience of encountering Jesus in the gospels. And if we do that with an open mind – we know this, don’t we - what we see is enormously impressive and enormously attractive. Gandhi, not a Christian, said, `He expressed, as no other could, the spirit and will of God.` Napoleon said, `I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man… Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison… The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine, everything is above me…` His experience is almost universal…
But then comes a very serious problem. This Jesus is enormously impressive – yet he also makes astonishing claims. He gives us enormously perceptive guidance on one moral issue after another, and yet he takes an extraordinary line on his own goodness; he cannot see that he himself has any moral flaw, he has no awareness at all of any wrong in his own heart. (His followers Peter and Paul are very different in this respect (Luke 5:8, 1 Timothy 1:15).) And when he makes these claims of sinlessness, it’s interesting that John the Gospel writer, who knew Christ so well, reports it without flinching (he apparently has no debate to record in which Jesus fends off accusations of sin); indeed, he says (John 8:29-30, 46) that that is when other people started to follow him.
This is disturbing enough, but it gets worse. He makes massive claims about himself, and consequently massive demands of his disciples (to the point of their self-destruction, if he were not who he claimed to be). No other major religious teacher - Buddha, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Paul - ever made such claims. And the more we read the gospels, the more we see Jesus’ teaching centres absolutely, over and over again, on his hearers’ response to himself, and his demand for absolute discipleship.
He is, he says, in an utterly different class from all God's preceding messengers; greater even than God's own law. Only he knows what God is like, and our response to him will decide our eternal fate. He alone gives life to the dead, depending on whether or not they believed on him. He, personally, is the way, and the truth, and no one comes to God except through him.
Staggeringly, `Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father' (God). He, not the Father, will judge the world, `that all may honour the Son' (himself) `just as they honour the Father'. He is God's equal, the eternal `I AM', the very Creator who hung the stars in space. And anyone who does not honour Jesus does not honour God, he says; worship of God only has meaning if it is worship of Jesus. And there are many, many more such verses, some of them listed in the notes.
So here is the point. The other reasons for faith we’ve talked about in these weeks are very significant. But for this writer at least the biggest question is this: what on earth shall I believe about Jesus? Shall I hide from the question? No, that’s pathetic. But then there are only three alternatives.
When he talks like that and says he’s God, did he know it was false?- was he a liar, a deliberate, conscious deceiver, lying knowing his closest friends were successfully enough deceived that they would die in agony for this? Or was he unaware, did he not know it was false? Was he the kind of lunatic who walks around a mental hospital thinking he is the Creator? Or – were they true, and he was, and is, God?
At the end of the day we do have to look Jesus in the face, consciously, and put our whole being as the stake of what we’re saying behind one of these alternatives: Jesus you were a trickster – misleading and deceiving and leading your e closest friends to torture and death for your lies. Or Jesus, you were a lunatic and should have been given drugs and sorted out.
But then we think of the facts. Jesus the conscious trickster, setting up his own bogus personality cult? Can I stake my life on that? Can we fit that with our experience of the profundity of the gospels, the glory of the sermon on the mount? For three years he travelled around an often-hostile Palestine with a handful of his closest friends; and they did not notice his deceptive nature? If it was all a lie, what was he doing in Gethsemane? Why didn’t he just run away? And what on earth was he doing on the cross? Reread the horror of that story. The idea that he was a trickster just doesn’t work.
Well then, we may feel, that’s impossible; so I will look Jesus in the eye and stake my life that he was a lunatic. But that’s even worse; as I encounter the shrewdness, the simplicity, the calmness, the sanity of what he does, the calm relational skills he demonstrates in so many varied situations. A lunatic who thinks they are the creator of the universe is seriously crazy, yet this man is so evidently, calmly, wise. Claiming to be the very Creator (how could one imagine that?): how could he be so sublimely sensible, yet so enormously out of touch with his own nature? (And above all in Judaea, a culture shaped through and through by a sense of the utter uniqueness of God?) How could he be so totally out of touch with his own nature? Can I stake my life on that?
In the presence of the Gospels, the choice seems stark. I cannot – can you? - look Jesus in the face and say, You were totally lunatic when it came to any perceptions about yourself, needing the medication of powerful drugs; deliberately or not, Jesus was an utter megalomaniac. But nor can I say, You were an egoistic liar, a trickster, consciously misleading (and so destroying) your closest friends. But then if neither of these options makes any sense, the only other way is to commit myself to him as the Lord; God in a human body, coming as was prophesied for centuries beforehand, that he always claimed to be. For Christians throughout the ages, that has seemed the only reasonable alternative.
Chinese-American writer Ada Lum says, `His penetrating humour, his iconoclastic challenge to the establishment, his devastating calmness in the midst of personal danger, his compassion and respect for prostitutes as sisters, his warm magnetism for children, his redemptive view of crooked politicians, his unorthodox social habits, his deep integrity in the face of full-blown dilemmas - all these characteristics should inspire us to ask, "Who then is this?" The deity of Jesus Christ awes me.' That’s how I feel too.
We can’t `prove` it here. We can only decide these things as we read the data for ourselves. But if Christian faith is true at all, then we can only decide these things through placing ourselves in a position of humble (which does not mean believing) openness for encounter with God; by taking our Gospels and saying to God- even if we’re praying to a God you’re not sure is there, God is pleased when we do that – 'If you are there, if in your mercy you show me from these pages the truth about my life and about who Christ was, I will follow you wherever you lead.' To Christian belief, each of us stands in the presence of God with the possibility of choice; to take the whole issue off the periphery and expose ourselves to it realistically; to draw, and then live by, our conclusions. And if I were talking to a friend, then in love and fairness I might also want to plead with them, This is unimaginably important; heaven and hell and our future for millions of years depend on what we do with this.
And finally for ourselves as Christians: there are probably lots of other reasons why we individually are believers. But just from what you yourself have seen of Jesus, could you now be willing to stake your life that he was a liar after all? Or, that he was a maniac? And if neither, then you know that he’s God. You don’t just hope. You don’t just believe. You know.
And then you know that there is a Jesus present in our world. He loves you enormously; he’s going to be there for you this month; he’s going to see you safe from hell & safe to heaven. It’s glorious. And as Studd wrote, if that Jesus be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for him.
He is God: he is for us. And nothing else in life compares to him!
(Books worth reading further on this include: Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter; Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; and J N D Anderson, Jesus Christ: the Witness of History.)
© Pete Lowman 2012.