What distinguishes Christianity from other religions? Let’s begin by pointing out what Christians do not believe in. They do not believe that all other religions are simply wrong altogether. Atheists do think believing in any sort of God is one huge mistake. But Christians are free to think that all religions, even the queerest ones, contain some truth in their teachings. Nevertheless, where Christianity does differ from other religions, Christians believe they are right and others are wrong. This sounds arrogant to many modern, liberal thinkers. But consider this. In mathematics, there is only one right answer to a sum and the other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer to being right than others. To say, everything can be true, is plain silly and illogical. If something is true, logically it means that something else is not true. Furthermore, try telling a Jew or a Muslim that what they think is merely a truth among many truths? I don’t think you would get far in the conversation.
What are all these other religions in the world? They can be divided according to the sort of God they believe in. For instance, Pantheism believes in a God who is beyond good and evil. What we call good or bad is merely a human point of view. Goodness and evil have no objective reality. They are completely determined by one’s subjective perspective. For instance, if someone says, I feel this is the right thing to do, that feeling is determinative of what is right or wrong irrespective if something or action is good or bad objectively.
Another sort of God represented in Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha’i, or what you may be taught by a yoga instructor, is an extension of our thought patterns. Such a God is found within us by way of contemplation and certain mental exercises. This is a very popular sort of God in our western culture because you can find Him on your own and don’t have to bother with any external structures and institutions. Furthermore, you can shape this God into whatever shape or form that suits your preconceived needs and priorities in life.
The other sort of God, worshipped by Jews, Muslims and Christians, is quite definitely good or righteous, a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to believe in one way and not in another. Let’s begin with what Christians believe. They believe God invented and made the universe – like a man painting a painting, or composing a tune. A painter is not the picture and does not die if the painting is destroyed. But God is not exactly like a painter because, unlike a painter who uses paints to produce his painting, God created the universe ex nihilo, that is to say out of nothing. Some religions believe God created the world out of some sort of matter or demiurge (e.g. Plato). But the problem with this sort of God is who created the demiurge? And if some other God created this matter or demiurge, then the God who used it to make the universe can’t be truly God. Atheists believe the universe resulted from the confluence of atoms that just happened to collide, causing a chain reaction, and poof we have our universe. The problem with this theory is, who created these first atoms?
Instead, Christians believe in a God who created the world out of nothing and only such a God could come up with the intricate and beautiful universe that exists. Of course, this raises a very big question. If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong and is now a place where bad things happen? Some argue that if God existed the world could not be so cruel and unjust. If He existed, God wouldn’t let such things happen. But this argument is flawed. How so? Where does this idea of just and unjust come from? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of what is a straight line. What is the Atheist comparing this universe with when he calls it unjust? In the very act of trying to prove that God does not exist the Atheist shows that He does. Consequently, atheism is too simple. Even if we said, the universe has no meaning, no right or wrong, we are still left with a problem. If the universe has no meaning where did we get the idea it has no meaning in the first place unless we know what it means for the universe to have meaning?
Ok so atheism is too simple. There is another view of God that is also too simple. Some Christians believe God is a God of love and acceptance, but have no time for the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin, hell, the devil and redemption. But here is the problem. All real things, including God, are not simple. A table looks simple, but a scientist will tell you what it is made of – types of wood, atom structure of the wood and how light waves bounce off the table and hits my optic nerve which then sends a message to a certain part of my brain so I can see the table – is not simple. Likewise, God, if He is real and He is, is not simple.
So why do some Christians come up with such a God? They do so because that way they can complain about doctrine being too complicated and say it’s irrelevant. And they (many priests are included in this group!), want to say this because they don’t want to do the hard work of study and learning.
Since reality is not simple, neither are the solutions to our problems in this world. There are two possible answers to the problem of sin, evil and death. One is called dualism. A dualist believes there are two equal and independent powers, or Gods, at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and this universe is their battlefield. But this view of reality doesn’t make sense and here is why. What do we mean when we call one of them a good power and the other one a bad power? Clearly, we are making a distinction and decision as to what is good and bad. But where does that distinction come from? The moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to these two powers; some law, standard, or rule of what is good which one of the powers conforms to and the other does not. But that must mean there has to be a third God higher than these two who is the real God. Furthermore, one of them is in a right relationship with this real God and the other is not.
The same point can be put in a different way. If Dualism is true, then the bad power or God must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality, nobody likes badness just because it is bad. People will do bad things to acquire sex, money, power or safety. But all of these things in and of themselves are good things. The badness consists of pursuing them in the wrong way or too much. People can be wicked. But wickedness is the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness; you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. Therefore, the notion of there being a bad force on equal footing with a good one doesn’t make sense.
What does make sense is whoever this bad force is, it’s someone whose taken what is good and pursues it in the wrong way and thus, part of this good power’s world. Here we begin to see why Christianity has always taught that the devil is a fallen angel. It recognizes that evil is a parasite, taking what has been created as good yet pursuing it in the wrong way. Christianity believes there is a devil, dark power or whatever you want to call evil in this world that was created by God and was good when it was created but it went wrong. Christians agree with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between two independent powers. It thinks it’s a civil war, a rebellion against that which is good and we, if we’re not careful, can easily be lured by the devil into participating in his rebellion.
Christians, then, believe there is an evil power, force or sometime called the devil in this world. But this raises a problem. Is this state of affairs in accordance with God’s will, or not? If it is, He would be a strange God. If it is not, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being who has absolute power?
But anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to her children, I’m not going to tidy up your room every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own. Then she goes up to the room one night and finds the room a mess. That is against her will. On the other hand, it was her will that allowed the child to leave the room untidy.
Likewise, that is how God operates with human beings. He created us with free wills which means we can go either right or wrong. But why did God give us free will? Because free will, although it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love, goodness or joy worth having. Everyone knows that best love between humans is when two people give it to each other freely. Love that is forced is not love. Of course, God knew what would happen if we used our freedom the wrong way. Apparently, he thought it worth the risk
But what’s the big deal about disagreeing with God? What difference does it make? He is the source from which all your reasoning comes from. You cannot be right and Him wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its source. When you argue against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all. But why did God make humans of such rotten stuff that we went wrong? That’s a silly question when you think about it. Remember the better stuff a creature is made of – and humans are made of pretty good stuff considering we’re all made in the ‘image of God! – then the better it will be if things go right, but also the worst it will be if things go bad.
How did things go wrong? Why did the Devil become a fallen angel and go against God’s will? The moment you have a self, there is the possibility of putting yourself first – wanting to be the centre – wanting to be God. That was the sin of Satan and the sin he taught the human race. He put into our heads the idea that we can ‘be like gods’ (in the form of a snake), to be our own masters and invent some sort of happiness for oneself apart from God. Out of that hopeless attempt has come all the problems we face in this world – hoarding of money, poverty, war, prostitution, classes, slavery etc.
The reason why putting ourselves first can never succeed is because God made us. He invented us as a someone would invent an engine for a car. A car is made to run on gasoline and it would not run properly on anything else. Likewise, God man humankinds to run on Himself. That is why it is no good asking God to make us happy in our own way apart from Christian practices, i.e. prayer, reading the bible, receiving the sacraments, worshipping and going to church. There is no ultimate peace and happiness apart from God because there is no such thing apart from God.
Nevertheless, humanity has taken this senseless path because we’ve bought into the Devil’s lie that we can make ourselves happy. So, what has God done about it? Since we are all created in the ‘image of God’, we have what are called ‘consciences’ and thus an innate sense of what is right and wrong. That is why we can find some Christian truths in other religions and philosophical systems such as Platonism. That is also why St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Roman Church that we are without any excuse when it comes to discovery the true God and doing his will. But the power of evil in this world is such that we’re easily swayed towards self-centeredness. That’s why God selected one particular people – the Jews – and spend centuries hammering out the sort of God He is, that He is the only true God and showing the way to follow His will. The Old Testament gives us an account of this hammering process. Up to this point what we Christians and Jews believe are one and the same.
But then came the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turned up a man who went about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins, that He’s always existed and He will come to judge the world at the end of time. Now unless this Jew was God his claim to forgive sins is so preposterous as to be comical. We can all understand how we can forgive each other’s sins. You tread on my foot and I forgive you, you hurt my feelings and I forgive you. But what do we make of man who shows up and never seen announces that he forgives you for treading on someone else’s foot or hurt someone else’s feelings? He told people that their sins were forgiven and never waited to consult us about it. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the person chiefly offended in all the offenses we’ve committed. That only makes sense if He really was the God whose laws were broken and whose love is wounded in every sin we commit.
Unfortunately, the majority of the Jewish people believe that what Jesus said about Himself was blasphemous and rejected Him. They are still waiting for the Messiah to come. They are still God’s people, as St Paul teaches us in Romans 9-11, because God promised they would always be their God. What Muslims believe break off at this point too but even more so. They too think the notion of a man claiming to be God is blasphemous. But, instead of Moses and the prophets being their guide it’s a man name Mohamad whom they believe God spoke his Word to and that word is the Koran.
Here is the strange and significant thing about Jesus. When you read the Gospel stories of Jesus’ life you don’t get the impression that He was silly or conceited and therefore, easy to dismiss as some do today. We believe Him when Jesus says He is humble and meek, not noticing that if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we would attribute to some of his sayings. Therefore, it is quite foolish to say, I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God. But that is a silly thing to say. A man who said the things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would, as C.S. Lewis once said, be a lunatic – on the level with a man wo says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. Jesus is either the God-Man who came to save the world from its sins or crazy. The last thing He can be is a moral teacher.