Of course, we can believe in God and not religion. As Americans, we value independence and individuality, so the idea of being part of an “organized religion” isn’t attractive. (Plus, the phrase “organized religion” is redundant!) Or many Americans might believe in some sort of higher power, but they pick-and-choose their beliefs, basically creating a religion of their own. (Is this “disorganized religion”?) I remember once, many years ago, thinking of my own beliefs as a mix of Christianity, Buddhism, and Jedi. Yes, “Jedi” as in Star Wars.
But from a Christian point of view, there is a critical reason for not just believing in any god or higher power, but believing in Jesus Christ. Christians believe eternal life can only be acquired from believing that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh, and he willingly died on a cross as a sacrifice for our sins. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can make a choice to no longer be separated from God and only by accepting Jesus Christ’s gift of salvation can this be accomplished.
Thus, the Christian faith claims exclusivity. Of course, Christianity isn’t the only religion to claim to be the lone, unique way to God. Further, some think it’s arrogant for any faith to claim this, but the simple fact is that all religions can’t be right.
Many times people with good intentions will make statements about how all religions are basically the same. Often people say things like this to avoid arguments and disagreements, which may feel like the right thing to do at that moment, but if we’re going to be honest, we have to admit that different religions teach different beliefs and those beliefs contradict each other. For example, after I die I can’t be reincarnated (as Hindus believe) and become one with the universe (as some New Age faiths believe) and go to paradise (as Muslims believe) and be reborn on my own planet (as Mormons believe) and cease to exist (as atheists believe). Furthermore, Jesus can’t be God incarnate as Christianity claims and at the same time not be God as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons claim. Since Christianity’s claims depend on Jesus being who the writers of the New Testament say he is, if these other religions are right, Christianity is clearly wrong. Where there are contradictions, everyone can’t be right.
Moreover, there is something about Christianity that does make it truly unique: God’s salvation is not earned. In other religions, a person must earn his or her way into God’s good favor through performing certain acts. Some churches, including the Catholic Church, don’t always present the good news of Jesus Christ in this way (which is one of the reasons the Protestant Reformation happened hundreds of years ago). Salvation through our own actions is not what the New Testament teaches; Jesus of Nazareth did all the work on the cross. All we can do – or need to do – is believe this and accept the gift. Prayer, baptism, being involved in a church, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, and doing good works are all essential in the life of a Christian, but none of those things earn salvation.
I once had a friendly discussion with a Muslim about the Bible and the Koran. The many similarities were eye opening for both of us, but once I explained how Christians aren’t saved by their own works but only by accepting the gift of Jesus, who did all the work, it became clear to him that these similarities were only on the surface. My Muslim friend responded in surprise, saying this Christian teaching was “the exact opposite” of what the Koran taught. This unique Christian teaching is truly contradictory to what other religions teach. If salvation can be earned through our own efforts, then Jesus was tortured and crucified for nothing.
Because of this teaching, some Christians even argue that Christianity is not a religion at all. Of course, if we are talking about religion as a set of ideas built around a belief in God, then Christianity is obviously a religion. But if what we mean by religion is a system of beliefs where following certain rules can gain us God’s favor, then Christianity is certainly not a religion. God’s favor cannot be won nor can God be manipulated through rituals, ceremonies, or even good works. This is why Christians often speak of their faith as a relationship, not a religion.
The type of religion where someone only hopes to win God’s favor is not a relationship and often a selfish endeavor. This type of religion often leads to a person, whether he or she is keenly aware of it or not, trying to manipulate God for his or her own benefit. As we know from our relationships with friends and family, any time one participant seeks only his or her benefit in the relationship (especially through manipulation), it really is not any sort of relationship at all – not in any positive sense anyway. Christians should do, for example, good works not in hope of manipulating God, but because they understand the love God has shown to them, and they want to honor and share that love. Christian action is the result of Jesus’ free gift of salvation; salvation is not the result of Christian action.
Let me be clear that though I don’t believe in pluralism when it comes to knowing God, this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be respect, forbearance, or true friendships between those of differing faiths. Enough strife and utter nonsense has been committed in the name of religion. Christians should take the lead in learning to express “I believe my faith is the one true way to God” and even “No, all faiths are not the same” in a way that honors the God who valued Jew and Gentile, freeman and slave, and male and female equally. All of us must understand that disagreement – whether on the receiving end or giving end – doesn’t necessarily equal disrespect.
Of course, we can also ask, “What if no religion is right?” and of course, this is a legit question. But if God wants us to know him, is it unreasonable that he would reveal a way to do so? If God didn’t want us to know him, frankly, we wouldn’t. And then there would be nothing we could do about it (and nothing we’d have to do about it, I suppose). But I believe in a God who wants us to know him because there are ways to know him. If there is a God, it’s the most important thing in the world, universe, and all of eternity. But knowing what is the true way of knowing God is equally important.
NEXT: God: Who Cares? (Part 3) Non-religious Reasons to Care.