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In this lesson we are going to look at the Christian religion from a wide view as we compare it to other major religions in the world. This comparison will help us in three ways:
- Historical context - We will be able to see where Christianity fits in the general history of mankind and history of other religions.
- Understanding - By examining Christianity alongside other religions and their main ideas, we will be better able to understand the claims, teachings, and benefits of the Christian religion.
- Appreciation - We often fail to appreciate the value of what we have until we compare it to some other similar thing. The value of the Christian religion becomes more evident when it is compared to the teachings and claims of other world religions.
At the end of this study I hope that you will not only more fully understand Christianity but will also appreciate its incalculable value in your life.
Major Religions of the World
When speaking of the religions of the world many people think that there are literally hundreds or even thousands of groups and beliefs in the world when in fact there are really only about a dozen organized religions if you include what's called "primitive religions."
The dictionary defines "religion" as "…man's expression of his acknowledgement of the Divine…" The Bible writers use the word religion in describing the ceremonies that the Jews did in expressing their faith – (Acts 26:5). When we talk about the religions of the world we are referring to the different ways mankind has developed to express the idea that there is something other than himself (usually higher) here in this world.
Christians believe that Christianity is not a man-made religion but rather given to us by God. However, for the purpose of this book, I will put it alongside other religions in order to see where it fits in historically and theologically. On the other hand, there are many philosophies and movements that come and go throughout history which have impacted society but are not necessarily religions, for example:
- New Age Movement – combination of ideas from existing religions and philosophies.
- Communism – political and ideological movement.
- Naturalism – outgrowth of Atheism, tries to explain world without God.
These and others have had influence on the world but are not considered organized religions.
2. Organized Religions
In order for something to be a religion it needs certain features:
- History/origins – all religions can trace their origins to a place or a person.
- Concept of Deity – main feature of religion is that it acknowledges the existence of a higher being or power.
- Concept of mankind– a key question that most religions try to answer is, "Where did man come from?" and each religion has an explanation of some kind.
- Salvation – each religion has its own answer to the problem of the human condition and some offer of a better existence.
- Worship – most religions provide their own ceremonies that express their faith. These are done as individuals or collectively.
- Scriptures – religions keep records of their founders, teachings, history, worship, etc.
- Geography – most religions have certain countries where they begin and flourish and where they exercise their influence.
Not every religion exhibits each one of these features, but most of them have a majority in common. The nature of our study will be to compare the different religions of the world according to these categories.
Before we discuss the major world religions however, I think that it would be helpful to talk for a moment about what are called "primitive religions." These do not fit into the pattern of major, organized, world religions but are ideas practiced by many in the ancient world and even in today's society but in very different and disorganized ways. Some features of primitive religions include:
- Strong belief in magic.
- No individual God or gods or powers.
- Practiced in various forms including:
- Animism – objects inhabited by spirits (charms, etc.).
- Dynamism – impersonal forces at work in nature (e.g. sacred burial or hunting places).
- Fetishism – an object into which power is introduced (e.g. voodoo).
- Totemism – association of animal and human characteristics. Practiced by Native American Indians.
These types of primitive religions kept few written records, had little organized theological thought or worship, and mostly focused on nature and man's relationship with his environment. We can trace primitive religions historically:
- From early tribal groups – 4000 BC
- To Egyptian nature and mystery cults – 3200 BC
- Babylonians introduced magic/astrology to the mix – 3000 BC
- The Greeks began with primitive nature religion that evolved through a mythological stage (many gods) to a philosophical stage and end up as a mix with Roman style mythology (the Romans took the Greek gods and gave them Roman names: Zeus=Jupiter).
- The Romans mixed Greek mythology with their own primitive nature religions.
- Eventually the Roman religion was eclipsed by Christianity.
However, you still see traces of ancient Roman primitive religion in the Catholic form of Christianity with its saints, images, candles, and mystical practices.
I mention primitive religions because they are still practiced in many countries today (e.g. voodoo in Haiti and Native American peoples in North America) and many ideas from primitive religions are recirculating today in other forms (New Age Movement - emphasis on the pre-eminence of the environment / Falun Gong in China trying to harness spiritual power through physical means). But primitive religions are not part of the group of major world religions that are practiced by the majority of the populations on earth in the last 2000 years or so.
As I mentioned previously, not counting primitive religions, there are only 11 major organized religions in the world. These are usually listed in geographical terms based on where they began. We will review and summarize each briefly beginning with the least familiar first.
Far Eastern Religions (China, Japan)
1. Taoism (China)
Founded by Lao-Tze (604-517 BC)
- Man is the highest level. To experience God one had to look within man and nature and find "balance" in life. (e.g. ying/yang)
- Taoists reject all human institutions as counterproductive.
2. Confucianism (China)
Founded by King-Fu-Tze (551-478 BC)
- No heaven or hell for people.
- The focus was on the proper relationship between people in a society by cultivating basic personal virtues.
- The practice of this "religion" was the cultivation of these virtues (e.g. wisdom, good morals, etc.) based on his teachings.
3. Shinto (Japan)
No founder - evolved from a basic "nature" religion and added concepts from Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism.
- Mystic nature religion that evolved into a veneration of the island of Japan itself as the center of creation with its leaders as the descendants of the gods.
- The purpose of the religion at one time was to promote Japanese supremacy. (stopped after WWII)
- Shrines and temples are devoted mainly to ancestor worship today.
4. Buddhism (India, China, world)
Founder - Siddhartha Gautama (563-480 BC), The Enlightened One, Buddha.
- There is no one personal supreme being.
- Life is a mixture of spirits, gods, beings that are all in a continuous process of becoming part of the "whole."
- The "State of Nirvana" is reached when a person ceases to desire a conscious independent life and is fully absorbed into the whole.
- Like a drop of water is absorbed into the ocean, it ceases to be itself and becomes part of the ocean, the whole.
- Meditation, yoga, self-denial, study leads to Nirvana.
Eastern Religions (India)
1. Hinduism (India)
- Oldest organized religion still practiced today - 2000 BC.
- No founder. Evolved from nature religion to a social system that produced 4 strata or castes in Indian society with the priestly or religious leaders at the top.
- Similar to Buddhism in that the goal of life is complete oblivion (Moksha) and merging with Brahma (ultimate life power).
- Good deeds, self-denial, yoga, avoiding bad karma helps the soul reach Moksha. It may take several lifetimes in several forms (animals and human) before the soul reaches this state (reincarnation).
2. Jainism (India)
Founder - Nataputta Vardhamana (599-527 AD)
- Similar to both Hinduism & Buddhism in that the goal is Moksha, Nirvana. Difference is twofold:
- Only way to reach it was self-discipline and self-denial - not knowledge. (Jain means "to conquer")
- Once reached however, the individual becomes part of the whole but not completely oblivious, he still has consciousness.
- Founder starved himself to death after claiming to have reached Moksha in his lifetime.
3. Sikhism (Pakistan)
Founder - Nanak (1469-1558 AD)
- Lived in an area bordering Hindus and Muslims.
- Combination of Hindu and Muslim ideas (Moksha and reincarnation, Hinduism / Monotheism, Muslim).
- One reaches Moksha through love of God and doing good. Moksha is a conscious experience.
- Rejected Hindu "caste" system, equal society, believed in the brotherhood of all men.
- Ruled by a succession of "Gurus," the last of which (Govind Singh) required all devotees to add Singh (lion) to their names and carry the 5 K's:
- Kesh (long hair)
- Kangha (comb)
- Kachh (shorts)
- Kara (steel bracelet)
- Kirpan (sword)
Near Eastern Religions (Middle East)
So far we have looked at religions that are not too familiar to us in the West. As we begin the Near Eastern religions we'll be reviewing groups that we know more about - well, except this 1stNear Eastern religion.
1. Zoroastrianism (Iran)
Founder - Zoroaster (660-583 BC)
- Based on the visions of Zoroaster.
- Monotheist taught that doing good and avoiding evil brought one to God in heaven.
- Used fire in their worship system.
- Believed that God sent a special envoy every 1000 years called a "Sadshyant."
- Some think that the "Wise Men" who visited Jesus were Zoroastrians.
- Only a few thousand left, mostly in Mumbai (former Bombay) area of India.
2. Islam (Saudi Arabia, world)
Founder - Mohammed (570-632 AD)
- Based on the visions of Mohammed and writing of these in the Koran as the final word of God.
- Man goes to Paradise through complete submission to God.
- Submission is exercised through practice of "5 Pillars"
- Confession - repeating phrase "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet"
- Alms giving - 2% income
- Prayer - 5 times per day
- Fasting - during holy month, "Ramadan"
- Pilgrimage - trip to Mecca in Saudi Arabia
Originally spread through military means. Different groups within Islam often in conflict with each other: Sunnis, Shiites, Sufiis, Bahai, Black Muslims and Islam Nation.
3. Judaism (Israel, world)
Founder - Abraham (approx. 2000 BC)
- Earliest of truly monotheistic religions.
- God has chosen the Jewish race to be his special representatives and will bless the world through them.
- Keeping God's laws (contained in Jewish scriptures given to Moses, prophets, etc.) keeps you as God's people and blessed here on earth.
- No consistent view of afterlife.
- Main temple used for worship in Jerusalem destroyed in 70 AD.
- Synagogues now used for assembly, prayer, singing, readings.
Modern Judaism has three main groups:
- Reform Judaism - liberal branch. Reconcile beliefs to modern science and society. Promote modern state of Israel.
- Conservative Judaism - still hold to concept of Messiah or personal Savior to come.
- Orthodox Judaism - hold to historical practice and beliefs of ancient Judaism except for animal sacrifices. Extremely conservative in dress and religious law.
4. Christianity (Israel, world)
Founder - Jesus Christ (4 BC - 29 AD+)
- Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah/Savior of the Jewish religion.
- He is the embodiment of God in human form, and thus his teachings and commands have divine authority.
- He performed public miracles and was executed by the Roman government.
- He rose from the dead after three days, appeared to His disciples for 40 days and then ascended to heaven.
- Christianity believes that the death of Christ pays mankind's moral debt before God and people are saved from judgment by faith in Jesus and will live a conscious eternal life with God.
In brief form, these are the summaries that describe the world's 11 major religions.
The Supremacy of the Christian Religion
Now most of this chapter has dealt with the description of the major religions that exist today. I would like to finish chapter 2 by listing three reasons why Christianity is the superior religion among all religions, including the primitive ones discussed previously.
#1 - Christianity has a superior revelation of God.
Most religions have a very limited view of God as either an impersonal force or a kind of super-human being. Christianity reveals that God is pure Spirit with consciousness, will, power, knowledge, moral force and communicative power. Christianity explains what kind of being God is as well as what He wants from us and for us.
#2 - Christianity has a Superior Leader.
All other religions have men or women as leaders, prophets, gurus, priests, etc. Christianity has God Himself as leader in the form of a human being, Jesus Christ. In the Christian religion the leader is always alive and present to direct and encourage His followers in every generation.
#3 - Christianity offers a superior solution to the problems of humanity.
Other religions offer to solve humanity's problem by imposing religious rules or practices, or a final solution after death occurs. Christianity on the other hand:
A. Identifies the underlying problem causing human suffering.
Separation from God because of disobedience to God's laws (sin) leads to guilt, shame, rebellion, death, judgment, and condemnation.
B. Provides a solution for the problem.
God Himself takes the responsibility for paying off mankind's moral debt through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.
- In Christianity, God does for humans what humans cannot do for themselves. He eliminates guilt by eliminating the moral debt caused by sin.
- In Christianity people do not find salvation based on their ability to practice their religion or observe moral codes, (as is the case in every other organized religion).
- In Christianity God Himself, through Jesus Christ, saves people based on their faith in Him.
The practice of their religion and the keeping of moral codes are ongoing expressions of that faith but not the dynamic that ultimately saves them.
C. Christianity offers a better hope.
Far Eastern and Eastern religions' best offer is that the individuals cease to be at death or sooner. Islam and Judaism offer a Paradise that is much like here on earth, only better. In many respects this is what primitive religions also offer: safety here, ideal situation after death. Christianity, however, offers its followers the hope that while they are alive here on earth they can expect:
- Freedom from guilt and fear
- Peace of mind
- Loving relationships with other believers
- Greater insight into the mind of God
- A spiritual renewal
In addition to these things Christians can look forward to an afterlife where they are:
- Conscious spirits with personal identity
- Free from physical limits including death and sin
- Joined to God in an intimate personal relationship for eternity
There are many more reasons we can argue why Christianity is superior:
- Greatest number of followers.
- Most historical written records.
- Eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life.
- Positive impact of Christianity in the world, etc.
But I have only given a few in this chapter to highlight the superior nature of Christianity's claims. In our remaining five chapters we will examine more closely the Christian faith and the lifestyle of those who practice it.
- Why do you think that there are so many similarities between the major religions in the world including Christianity?
- What one thing, in your opinion, makes Christianity superior to other religions? Why?
- Why does God permit so many religions to exist and grow?