Article of the Month
By Johannes G. Vos
It is obvious that no religion is wholly false. There are elements of truth in all religions, even though as systems they must be regarded as false. How can this fact be explained?
According to the evolutionary theory of religion, the differences between religions are only a matter of degree. Some religions may be regarded as better than others, but there is no absolute or essential difference between them, it is said. This view of course follows from the notion of a gradual development from the most primitive to the most advanced. All religions are regarded as mixtures of good and bad features, only the proportions of good and bad vary in the different religions.
If we do not accept the evolutionary theory, we must seek another explanation of the good features in the false religions. The Christian explanation is that these good features are products of God’s common grace. “Common grace” means God’s grace given to all people of the world, apart from salvation in the Christian sense. This “common grace” does not save people’s souls, but it does have an influence for good on the human level, and it has a restraining effect upon sin and evil. This results in the good features of the various false religious systems of the world.
Moreover, the good in the false religious systems is only a relative good. It is not good in the highest sense. Buddhism and Christianity, for example, both teach that it is wrong to steal. As to the formal statement that stealing is wrong, Buddhism and Christianity are identical. But if we go a step further and ask why stealing is wrong, the two religions diverge. Christianity teaches that stealing is wrong because it is contrary to the will of God; Buddhism has no such insight.
Again Buddhism and Christianity both teach that it is a duty to relieve the distress of the poor by giving alms or charity. In this respect the two are identical. But when we inquire why this is a duty, we again face divergence. The Christian, if properly informed, gives alms to the poor from a motive of love for God. He is expressing his thankfulness to God for grace and salvation received from Him. But the Buddhist has no such motive. His motive is usually a selfish one — to gain a certain amount of spiritual merit or “credit” for himself. His motive is not compassion for the poor, nor love for God, but a desire to obtain personal merit.
For something to be good in the highest sense, according to Christian teaching, three things are necessary: (1) It must be something required by the will of God; (2) it must be done with a motive of love for God; (3) it must be done by faith. When measured by this test, it will be seen that many of the resemblances between Christianity and the false religious systems are merely formal and superficial, while in the essential content, beneath the surface, there is a wide divergence.
We are discussing elements of good in the false religions, not elements of good in the lives of their adherents. It is certainly true that people may be better than their creed, just as they may be worse than their creed. Some who profess to be Christians are very poor advertisements for Christianity. And some who profess what we regard as false religious systems may exhibit in their lives many good and noble traits.
For example, a man who does not know or love the true God may sacrifice his life in an attempt to save another human being from drowning or from perishing in a burning building. Certainly such an action must be regarded as “good” as contrasted with the opposite action, namely allowing your neighbor to drown or burn to death without making an effort to save his life.
But when we describe such actions as “good” we must remember that this is not the highest kind of goodness. Such actions, and the attitudes that lie back of them, are good in a relative and limited sense. They are good, we might say, on the human level. So long as we are considering only the horizontal dimension of life — our relationships within human society — such actions must be classed as “good.” But when we take in the vertical dimension of life, and consider also our relationship and obligation to God, we must say that no attitude or action which disregards Him or which is not done out of love for Him, is truly good in the highest sense.
In considering the various religious systems, we must avoid two extremes. We must avoid the extreme of saying that they are all good and differ only superficially from Christianity, and we must also avoid the extreme of saying that they are all bad and contain nothing that can truly be called “good.” Both extremes are wrong. We should seek to attain a judicial and balanced attitude toward the various religious systems.
When we say that the good features in the false religious systems are “good” only in a relative and limited sense, this is not a reflection on the sincerity of the adherents of those systems. We can regard the people with respect, even when we are compelled to pronounce their beliefs false. The people may be not only sincere in their profession of their religion, but, by the common grace of God, they may in their personal lives be much better than the religion which they profess. But we must remember that this does not amount to salvation in the Christian sense.
The author was Professor and Chariman of the Department of Biblical Literature at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He was a former missionary to Manchurai and China, and Principal of Newchwang Bible Semiary in Manchuria.
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