A while back, someone at a party asked me what I believed. So I started talking about Jesus. But after just a minute he said, ‘But you’re not saying that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and all the rest are all wrong, are you?’ And to keep him friendly, all I needed to say was, ‘No, I’m not saying that!’ Instead I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying: they’re all wrong.’ And he couldn’t get away from me fast enough. Because I’d committed the cardinal sin in our culture of saying that what I believe is true for everyone and that all other beliefs are ultimately false. That is seen as arrogant and intolerant. Yet all I was doing was giving him Jesus’ answer to that question.
The question this morning in this ‘Bible & Modern Problems’ series is: ‘Don’t all religions lead to God?’ So we’re going to look at Jesus’ answer; think through some of the problems it raises; and get better prepared to answer it ourselves. So would you turn to John 14. And before we go any further, let’s pray.
God and Father of our Lord Jesus, You know all of us. You know those of us who don’t yet believe in Jesus, and through Jesus in you. Please help us to look honestly at his claims and to act on what we find to be true. And for those of us who do believe, please strengthen our faith in your gospel and make us more able and willing to share and defend it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So the question is: ‘Don’t all religions lead to God?’
Firstly, THE CULTURE’S ANSWER
The culture’s answer is: ‘Yes. All religions do lead to God.’
And it’s important to understand why the culture says that. The reason is that on the whole, our culture thinks that beliefs are just subjective opinions that come from inside you (or your community). Eg, imagine I said, ‘I believe fairies exist.’ I’ve no objective evidence for that. It’s just a subjective opinion that comes from inside me - or from inside my community: eg, maybe my parents read me fairy stories and that conditioned me to believe in them.
And our culture thinks that religious beliefs are just like that. This first picture shows how our culture sees religious beliefs:
The box stands for time and space where we live. And there are two people trying to answer the question, ‘Is there a God out there?’ And one person comes up with one belief and the next comes up with another. And the culture says that both beliefs are just subjective opinions, so neither of them can say, ‘My belief is true and your belief is false.’ They’re just equally valid opinions (or guesses) about God.
Now that way of looking at things is called ‘relativism’ - which says, ‘All beliefs are relative – ie, none can claim to be true.’ And where people think like that, if you say that what you believe is true and other beliefs are false, it’s seen as arrogant and intolerant.
Now a moment’s thought shows that relativism is nonsense. After all, by saying, ‘All beliefs are relative – none can claim to be true,’ you’re claiming that that statement is true. So relativism contradicts itself – ie, it’s nonsense. But people have swallowed it, which makes sharing the gospel trickier. So, let’s move on to…
Let’s take the question (‘Don’t all religions lead to God?’) to the Bible – to John 14. This records Jesus speaking to his disciples on the Thursday night before the Friday on which he died. And he’s explaining why he’s going to the cross, v1:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house [ie, heaven] are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there [that is, to heaven via the cross and resurrection] to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going."
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [ie, God the Father] except through me.” (vv1-6)
Two major points come out of that:
a) Jesus says he is the only way to be reconciled to God
This week, I’ve been using the David Lloyd Fitness & Racquets Club. A friend who’s a member kindly paid for a week’s membership for me. We arrived together at the entry turnstile beyond which non-members cannot go. He told me to wait there and that he was going to pay for a pass for me - and he went and did that at the desk. And then he came back to take me through.
And that’s a picture of what vv1-6 are about. Jesus is talking about membership of heaven - v2, ‘my Father’s house.’ He himself has always been a member, since he’s the eternal Son of God. Whereas we all start out life as non-members, out of relationship with God, rebelling against God. And by ourselves we don’t stand a hope at the entry turnstile of heaven. We deserve the judgement of being shut out.
But, Jesus says, end of v2, ‘I am going there to prepare a place for you.’ Ie, ‘Going to pay for your pass.’ And when Jesus died the next day on the cross, that’s what he was doing. Having all the judgement that should be held against us held against himself. So that we could be forgiven without justice being compromised.
And he says, v3:
‘… if I go and prepare a place for you [by dying and rising from the dead], I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am [ie, he’ll come back at the end of time and take all who’ve trusted in him through into heaven]. Then read on, v4:
You know the way to the place where I am going."
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" [They didn’t understand any of this until after the cross and the resurrection.]
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (vv5-6)
Ie, Jesus is saying, ‘I am your way back into relationship with God now and your way of being welcomed into heaven at the end.’ Just like I could say that friend was my way into David Lloyd. He paid; all I had to do was accept a pass. So Jesus is our way into relationship with God – and, ultimately, heaven. He paid; all we have to do is accept forgiveness back into relationship.
Now that claim is unique. Those other religions which believe God is personal and that we need to be reconciled to him all say that something we do is the way – whether it’s trying to be good, or religious activity, or whatever – you pay your own way.
Whereas Jesus says: ‘I am your way. My death for your forgiveness has paid your way. All you have to do is: accept it; trust me.’
And that unique claim has a unique result if we trust it. Because it brings assurance – ie, certainty that God accepts us. And that’s unique. I’ve talked to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and so on - and I’ve never met one who’s been able to say, ‘I’m sure God accepts me. Sure that if I died tonight, I’d be welcomed in.’ Because on the ‘pay your own way’ belief, you never can be sure you’ve done enough. In fact, the honest people are sure they haven’t done enough. And I’ve always found it fruitful to ask members of other religions whether they’re sure God accepts them, and then to explain why I am sure God accepts me. Because that gets you to the fundamental difference between the gospel and world religions – Jesus paying your way versus you paying your own way. And that assurance can be very attractive to those who’ve been trying to pay their own way. And maybe that’s you. Maybe you need to hear (or hear again) that you don’t have to earn relationship with God. You just have to accept it as a gift. And if you don’t know how to do that, do ask a Christian you know.
Now others will find that assurance arrogant - because they assume we believe in ‘pay your own way’ and that we think we’ve done enough. Which would be very arrogant. But we need to explain that we believe in Jesus paying our way. So it’s no more arrogant to say, ‘I’m sure God accepts me’ as it was last week to say, ‘I’m sure David Lloyd will let me in’ – since a friend had paid for me to be let in.
Just look back again to the end of v6. Jesus says:
“No-one comes to the Father except through me.” (v6)
Now John wrote this Gospel to evangelise fellow-Jews. So just think how offensive v6 would be to them. Because they believed they already had a way to God. They had the Old Testament (OT) and they were sincerely, devoutly trying to come to God through that (see John 5.39-40). But John’s Gospel says: now Jesus has come and paid for the forgiveness the OT could only promise, there’s no coming to God through the OT alone. A Jew today can sincerely, devoutly try to come to God through the OT, but it won’t reconcile him or her to God. And if that’s true of Jews – whose beliefs about God overlap so much with the truth – it’s even more true of those with much more distorted beliefs about God – eg, Muslims. This verse isn’t denying that such people are sincere and devout. But it is denying that their sincerity and devotion brings them back into relationship with God. It doesn’t (compare Romans 10.1-4).
Now a big question is this: does v6 mean, ‘No-one comes back into relationship with God except through conscious faith in Jesus?’ If so, what about those who’ve never heard the gospel?
The first thing to say is that the Bible is more worried about those who have heard. Because the Bible is crystal clear that those who have heard and reject Jesus will be rejected by him on the day of judgement and spend eternity in hell (see, eg, Mark 8.35-38; 2 Thessalonians 1.8-9). That gives me no pleasure to say, but I’m bound to, because the Bible does. So those of us who have heard need first of all to sort out our own response before speculating about others (see Luke 13.22-30).
The next thing to say is that behind that question often lurks the assumption that God is unjust: that he owes salvation to the vast majority - minus Hitler and some others – but seems to be failing in his obligations. But our starting point must be to acknowledge that God owes us nothing but judgement. And that it’s a miracle of undeserved love that anyone is saved. To illustrate that, just imagine God had left me as someone who’d never heard the gospel. I was born into a non-Christian home. Never went to church. Never had a Bible. Never heard about Jesus. I was ‘the pygmy in deepest darkest Africa’ – only I lived in Basingstoke. What if God had not brought the gospel to me through Christians, and had not by his Spirit turned me round and forgiven me? What if he’d left me rebelling against him until I died? When I finally faced him, could I have said, ‘Condemning me would be unjust, because I never heard anything?’ No. Because the Bible says there’s no-one who’s never heard anything (no-one conscious and able to hear; we have to trust God over the ‘hard cases’ like those who die in infancy and the mentally handicapped). It says we all know something of God through creation and conscience (see Romans 1.18-20; 1.32 and 2.12-16). And I have enough memory of going against conscience before I knew Christ to know that if God had left me, I would have carried on repeatedly going against conscience – and he could, in the end, justly have condemned me. God can justly condemn someone who’s never heard the gospel.
You see, our problem (as sinners who rightly sympathise with fellow-sinners) is how God can possibly condemn people. Whereas the Bible’s problem is how God can possibly forgive people - and still care about justice. And that problem took the cross to solve (see Romans 3.25). But God is just either way – whether he turns a person round through just forgiveness, or leaves them to face just condemnation. God is just either way. And once you acknowledge that, the question finally becomes, ‘Why doesn’t God turn everyone?’ And Romans 9-11 is the closest the Bible comes to an answer. But it’s an answer that begs further questions - and ultimately our ‘answer’ has to be to trust that God is just and good in all he does.
One other thing to say is that some Christians speculate that God might deal directly with those who haven’t heard in some way we don’t know about. It’s attractive to think so. But it’s pure speculation. And nothing in the Bible points in that direction.
So if we’re sensitive to the problem of those who’ve never heard –and we should be – the thing to do is not to speculate, but to get on with being part of the solution - spreading the gospel where we are and supporting the spread of the gospel world-wide. So, onto:
b) Jesus says he is the unique truth about God
Look down to v6 again:
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father [ie, show us God the Father clearly] and that will be enough for us."
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. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. (vv6-11)
We saw in heading 1 that the culture thinks religious beliefs are just subjective opinions that come from inside you.
But that’s not what Christian beliefs are. Have a look at this second picture:
The box is where we live. The crown stands for God. And the Christian claim is that God is not just solitary (like Allah); he has a Son. So the ‘F’ stands for God the Father and the ‘S’ for God the Son. And the Christian claim is that God has revealed himself by sending his Son into the world to become a man – the man Jesus.
That’s what Jesus is claiming in v6 where he says, ‘I am the truth’. He means, ‘I embody the truth about God because I am God-become-human’ (see also John 1.1-2, 14).So in v9 he says, ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.’ And in v10 he says, ‘If you’ve heard me, you’ve heard God.’
And again that’s a unique claim. Eg, Muhammad’s claim was, ‘I have received the truth. – Allah has spoken to me and I’ve written it down in the Qu’ran.’ But that begs the question, ‘Why believe his claim? What evidence is there that God was somehow behind Muhammad?’
Whereas Jesus claimed not just, ‘I have received the truth,’ but, ‘I am the truth. – I am God-become-human.’ And if we ask the same question, ‘Why believe his claim?’ there is evidence about Jesus that there isn’t for any other religious figure. End of v11 – there is the evidence of Jesus’ miracles, or literally ‘works’ – including his death and resurrection from the dead. Evidence not just that God was somehow behind Jesus, but that Jesus was somehow God.
And if that’s true - if 2000 years ago God became man and walked this Earth to make himself known – then it’s true for everyone, because that’s the nature of things that happen in history. Just like it’s true for everyone that Queen Victoria reigned in England, so it’s true for everyone that Jesus rose from the dead, left an empty tomb, appeared to eye-witnesses, is currently reigning over everything and will one day meet each of us - either as Judge or as Judge and Saviour.
So I was talking to the washing machine man the other day. He asked me what I did without knowing what he was getting himself into, and we got talking about what he believed and what I believed. And at the end, he said, ‘Well, it’s really each to his own, isn’t it?’ Ie, relativism – ‘You have your truth and I’ll have mine.’ And we need to find a gentle but bold way of saying, ‘No. You’ve misunderstood me. This stuff really happened 2000 years ago, and it’s as true for you as it is for me.’
So, ‘Don’t all religions lead to God?’ The culture says, ‘Yes.’ Jesus says, ‘No.’ And if we feel uncomfortable about that, let’s remember that the law of non-contradiction is on our side. So:
Third, THE LAW OF NON-CONTRADICTION’S ANSWER
The fact is: all religions make truth-claims that contradict one another. Eg, the gospel claims that Jesus is the Son of God and that his death on the cross paid our way back into relationship with God. Whereas Islam says Jesus was not the Son of God and denies that he even died on the cross. So the law of non-contradiction says: they can’t both be true. Either one of them is true, and the other false. Or they’re both false. The impossible thing is that both of them are true. And you can repeat that ‘compare and contrast’ exercise for all the religions with the same result.
So you cannot with any integrity say, ‘All religions are the same.’ And we shouldn’t let people get away with saying it.
When I taught in Kenya for a year, my class asked me one day, ‘Sir, how do you white people tell one another apart?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And they said, ‘Well, you all look the same.’ And I said, ‘Funny you should say that, because that’s what a lot of white people would say about you.’ And they couldn’t believe it. They lined up an identity parade from different tribes and took me along it, with a running commentary on the different faces: ‘George is Luo he’s black.’ ‘Julius is Kamba – he’s brown.’ ‘Mutemi is Kalenjin – he’s orange.’ And so on. And I could soon tell black faces apart as clearly as white ones.
To say, ‘All black people look the same,’ is really to say, ‘I don’t know any black people – I’m ignorant.’ And to say, ‘All religions are the same’ is really to say, ‘I don’t know any religions – I’m ignorant.’ Because they contradict. So last heading…
Fourth, OUR OWN ANSWER
Where do you stand on all this?
It may be you’re not yet a Christian, and that I’ve offended you. If that’s because of the way I’ve said anything, I apologise. But if it’s because of what I’ve said, I make no apology – because I’ve simply been passing on Jesus’ answer, and I guess most of your problem is with him. Because from one point of view this is offensive. It is offensive to be told we’re in the wrong with God and that there’s only one way to be put right with him – and that it’s his way, it’s through him paying for our forgiveness through the death of his Son on a cross. That is offensive and humbling. But from another point of view, it’s amazing. Because you’re being offered forgiveness back into relationship with God - paid for by Jesus; free; all you have to do is accept. And if you’re close to doing that, this will also have shown you one of the costs of accepting. Because, being a Christian involves telling others that Jesus is the only way to God. It involves people thinking you’re arrogant and intolerant and cutting you dead at parties (and possibly worse).
And if we are Christians? I want to say: the gospel is not a problem (despite this sermon appearing in a series headed ‘The Bible & Modern Problems’). It can sometimes feel like a problem in a relativist culture. But the problem’s the culture, not the gospel. And I want to call on us to relish the assurance that we have in Jesus – of knowing for sure what God is like and that he accepts us. And I want to call on us to learn how to share and defend this gospel better. And above all, I want to call on us to do that with love. Because I think maybe the biggest reason our culture wants to say ‘All religions do lead to God’ is that it’s terrified of disagreement. Terrified that it’s a short step from disagreeing with someone to hating them, to hurting them, to killing them. And that’s not an unreasonable fear, in our world, is it? And we need to show that we love people even when we disagree with them – on this or any other issue. And we need to remember that disagreeing with people by sharing the gospel is in fact that highest form of love for them.
Because if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no-one comes to God except through him, the most loving thing you can do for someone is: tell them.