Friday, July 20, 2007

What about other religions?

One of our pastors, John, opened his current sermon series (on "Faith and Doubt") by reading from a letter. The letter asked, very intelligently and eloquently, how we could be sure that Christianity reflected ultimate truth, given that there are many other beliefs and cultures, and that people of other faiths have accomplished much good in the world, and some of their adherents live lives that seem more peaceful and developed (etc) than our own.

Last week, he answered a completely different question, viz., "Why should I believe that there is a personal god who has something to say about right and wrong, good and evil?" -- specifically why he (our pastor) believes that.

Last night, a friend brought up the question of what happens to people who do not believe in Jesus when they die. Do they go to heaven or to hell?

Here I offer short answers to the first two questions, and a meta-answer to the third.

First, how do we know that Christianity, rather than Judaism or Islam or Buddhism (etc) is the truth? Well, one reason I believe it's the truth is basically this: We can be reasonably sure that Jesus Christ said a lot of the things he did. In particular, he said that he would be killed, and resurrected on the third day. This actually happened (the tomb is empty, and people like F.F. Bruce(?) and Lee Stroebel, who try to explain away said tomb, end up becoming Christians themselves). Hence everything else Jesus said is probably just as reliable. That's my short answer #1.

Pastor John answered the second question much better than I could. He gave several reasons, of which I can currently remember these:
  1. People may say ethics are arbitrary, but their arguments prove they actually think otherwise.
    This is basically C.S. Lewis's first argument from Mere Christianity. I think the first chapter of that book is titled "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe" or something like this.
  2. Personal beings point to the existence of a personal creator.
    He pointed out that we never put animals on trial. A dog wrecks the carpet or furniture, and we don't debate whether the dog is good or evil; the dog was just doing what dogs do. We don't computer programs on trial, either. If they're defective, we fix them, or we erase them and start over. Researchers in artificial intelligence have been trying for decades to produce "intelligent" machines, but even if they succeed, that only reinforces the point that the existence of personal beings strongly suggests that they were created by someone (or Someone if you prefer) personal. I'm sure I've left out many of the intelligent things he said about this one.
  3. The experience of joy points us to something beyond it.
    Joy is great, but it suggests to us that there's something more that we long for.
  4. God changes lives, and our lives need changing.
    Nobody has ever said, "I used to be selfish and greedy, but the Big Bang theory has persuaded me to be generous and giving." Or, "I used to kill people and do drugs, but now that I've come to embrace the ultimate meaninglessness of life, I now help homeless people to get back on their feet."
Let me know if you want a pointer to the transcript or mp3 of John's sermon.

The third question... what happens to people of other faiths? Well, if you read Romans chapter 2, you might get the impression that they'll be judged based on what they know. Romans 10 (particularly around verses 10-15) might give you a different idea.

So what's the answer? Well, it beats me. But I suspect one thing and I know one thing.

What I suspect: What you believe about this question has more to do with your personality than anything else. If you're an angry sort of person who likes to tell people what to do, you're more likely to say God will send them to hell. If you're a warm and fuzzy type, you're more likely to think God takes a more inclusive view.

What I know: God does not show favoritism. -- Romans 2:11

Fortunately for everybody, it's God who will decide these things, not you or I.

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