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Aren’t all religions the same?

“Re-ligion” means reuniting or reconciling with God. In the sense that the religions of the world are all attempts to (re)unite people with Deity, the supernatural or the eternal (in whatever form or forms that be conceived), yes, there is a sameness. But there the commonality ends. It’s an umbrella term, a bit like saying, "aren’t all human cultures the same?" To the extent they are a local social, linguistic, artistic, political expression of humanity, yes. Different religions may have similar benefits; a sense of purpose, of hope for the future, of belonging. They may have similar desirable effects on society, inspire people to look beyond themselves and work for the good of others. One of the five pillars of Islam is charitable giving. Christians have been pioneers in aid to the poor, in medical relief work and emancipation. Religion, like any other force for good, can also be warped and exploited for evil and the advancement of power and wealth. Yet, fundamentally, all religions are not the same, once we consider the actual basis of re-ligion with Deity; how Deity is conceived and what constitutes “salvation.”

I recently had the privilege of visiting Bali. Although Indonesia is primarily Muslim, the Balinese have clung to their version of Hinduism with its Buddhist and animist traditions incorporated. Religion is thoroughly integrated into every aspect of Balinese society and everyday life, from household living to agriculture, art and government. Public and private buildings alike are adorned with temples and altars and fresh offerings of flowers, fruit and incense are placed in every major room each morning. Many people wear the black and white checked cloth signifying the balance of good and evil, and/or a combination of black, red and white weave or check in acknowledgement of the three major deities. There are many festivals, major and minor and daily devotions are the norm.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in Balinese religion after a mere couple of weeks, but two aspects stand out in contrast to the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ. These are the relationship of good and evil and the idea of what we must do to be “saved.” For the Balinese, good and evil are concepts that are often personified in statues and other art forms and in theatre dance, and represented in the ubiquitous black and white symbolism. They are both necessary, and both in balance. There will be a statue representing evil paired with a statue representing good. Neither good nor evil seem to ultimately win out, but forever remain in balance. Whilst this can be a helpful, even comforting, explanation of why bad stuff happens, I would suggest two reasons why the Christian concept of God is ultimately more satisfying. Firstly, Christians believe that God is in control. There are different theological perspectives on how God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge interact with human free will and responsibility, but ultimately, for Christians, the one God is supreme, all powerful, and perfectly good. Whatever happens, perceived at the time as “bad” or “good,” it will be within God’s long term, all-encompassing and perfect will and power. People don’t suffer, die or prosper because of luck, or because of the deeds of a past life for which they have no recollection. It is not fate, but a wisely executed plan with an ultimate, eternal purpose. Life is not cyclical in a series of reincarnations but linear, this life a tiny foretaste and provision for eternity. Evil may appear to triumph, as God allows human sin to run its course and fully exhaust itself, but the Bible explains that sin and death and evil have now been restrained and their final elimination is inevitable (Matthew 12:28–29; Hebrews 2:14). History will culminate in the return of Christ and the ushering in of an eternity of life the way it was always meant to be. Christians suffer knowing that this life is heading in an eternal direction and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. These words were written by Paul, no mere theorist, who had suffered tremendously in his Christian life:

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2nd Corinthians 4:16–18).

The second significant contrast I observed was stated succinctly in a comment made by a Balinese to a friend if mine. “Oh, your God is good, he makes an offering to you, you do not have to make offerings to him.” For the Balinese, as with many other faiths, the way to re-ligion with God/gods is through acts of service, the good works we do, the rituals performed. Islam is about submission to the will of Allah, observing the five pillars, conforming to the example of Mohammed. Ancient cults required sacrifices, Judaism requires observance of the Torah. Christianity prescribes the way of life acceptable to God, too, but here is the crucial difference. The Christian God understands that we cannot keep his laws perfectly. He has acted to address our weakness and sin by taking sin and its penalty upon himself in the person of his Son, to do away with it and enable us to please him by having faith in Jesus Christ. By “putting on” Christ, like a garment we are clothed in his righteousness, and enabled to be re-ligioned (reconciled) to God. We are not saved by righteous works, deeds of absolution, or rituals. We are saved by grace, an undeserved gift. Any good works that a Christian does are the response in gratitude for what God has first done for us. Christian rituals such as baptism and the Lord’s supper are remembrances and symbols of that one great saving act of the cross. We don’t have to offer “stuff” to God, he owns our very selves, bought with the precious blood of his Son (2nd Corinthians 5:17–21). The one good and sovereign God does not need our rituals or service and I suspect that the Apostle Paul’s reaction to Bali, had he been there, might have been similar to his reaction to Athens (Acts 17: 16–34). Altars and offerings were everywhere, to a multitude of gods, including the “unknown god,” just in case any deity had been overlooked.

"People of (Bali), I perceive that in every way you are very religious... (but) the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything... Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

This I think is the fundamental, counter-cultural difference between Christianity and other faiths. We don’t have to offer stuff to God, Jesus did that perfectly, once for all. It's not about stuff we have to do, but what God has graciously, undeservedly, done for us. Good and evil are not equal opposites; God is wholly good and he is sovereign, those in Christ have nothing to fear, our eternity is secure in him.

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