Updated: Sep 3
You stand in awe at the foot of the mountain. You trace the line of the path on which you stand as it begins to wind up the mountain, its line growing ever thinner before eventually disappearing behind a ridge just a fraction of the way up. Other paths to the east and west lead up the mountain side too and you wonder which route will lead you to the summit.
As you scratch your head, a hiker passes by. You call to him, asking which path to take. Without even stopping, he confidently tells you all these paths lead to the summit, as do many others that start elsewhere around the mountain’s base. Sceptical, you trot along behind him as he powers ahead, asking how he knows – has he climbed the mountain before or does he have a map? He laughs! No, he has never been up the mountain before, nor does he have a map, but he knows all the paths must get to the top eventually. Why else would they be etched into the mountain face by thousands of boots that had walked them before and had never come back? You’re really not sure. You can think of a very good reason why none of them had come back! Plus, some of the paths, including the one you’re on, have signs claiming to be the only safe route and telling you to avoid all others. You wish the lone hiker well, but decide to wait for a better authority.
A while later, a woman appears coming down the mountain on a path a short distance to the west of your location. You ask if she has been to the summit and she affirms with a smile that she has, using the very path she is now descending. You’re relieved – you’ve found your path! You ask her if it’s true that all the paths lead to the top. She thinks they might, although she didn’t see anyone else at the summit who hadn’t come on her path, nor did she see any other paths leading on to the plateau she had climbed to. She had heard, though, that some of the other paths did get to the top, although none were as picturesque or as easy as the one she’d used. The summit, however, was unbelievably beautiful. So much so that she had wanted to stay there forever. She only came down to convince others to start the climb and join her there. She bids you farewell and walks off towards the nearby village.
You’re about to start your climb when you hear, then see, a mountain rescue helicopter coming in to land. As it nears the ground, an ambulance comes up the road, lights flashing. You watch, fascinated, as the chopper crew unload a man on a stretcher and transfer him into the vehicle. After the commotion dies down, you walk over to the helicopter and engage the pilot in conversation. He’s been flying rescue missions here for five years. You ask him about this theory that all paths lead to the summit of the mountain and he tells you not to be so ridiculous. Only one path is safe, he says, and it’s not the one you are standing at. How can he be sure, you ask? The pilot responds with a smile, “Because I have flown over the mountain and I’ve seen all the paths.”
Some paths, he tells you, are only loops go part way up, then turn and come back down. Others, like the one you’re on now go up as far as a false summit from which the true peak, permanently shrouded in clouds cannot be seen. You think sadly of the woman as he tells you how frequently people make that journey and wrongly claim they have been to the top. Still other paths, like the one to your east – which the confident man went up – lead along treacherous ledges until they meet an abrupt end on the edge of a ravine. Many hikers fell over these edges when the fog came down on the mountain, keeping his team in constant busyness. You tell hi, about the man you saw then, as he scrambles to take off again, you thank him and head for the only path you can trust – the one he has seen from above the mountain.
Clarifying the Question
The story of the mountain is, of course, an allegory for the spiritual quest. God (or ultimate reality) is at the top of the mountain and the various paths are different religions that claim to lead to Him (or it). This paper sets out to address the question whether all religions are paths to the true God. There are two ways this may be true – universalism and pluralism – and two ways it may be false – atheism and exclusivism. The question of atheism, which claims there is no God at the top of the mountain, is important, but will not be addressed in this paper. My aim here is to consider the other three possibilities from a Christian perspective.
Universalism claims that God is all-embracing, accepting everyone in the end whatever values they have lived by. It has been claimed by a minority of people in most religions, including Christianity, but the mainstream belief in most faiths is that some people will not be united with God eternally. Universalism sounds nice at first thought, but most people will reject it if they think it through. It can only be true either if God has very low standards, in which case there is no justice and even Hitler gets in to Heaven, or if God plays us like puppets, overriding our rejection of Him and forcing us in to accepting His rule. If so, it really doesn’t matter what we believe or how we live and religion becomes pointless.
Most people who claim that all roads lead to God aren’t advocating universalism, but suggesting that sincere followers of various religions will be accepted by God in the end. This position may be called pluralism. Pluralism seems like a nice option, side stepping apparently arrogant claims that any one religion is right while also avoiding the unpalatable thought of some very nasty people being accepted by God. Pluralists speculate that God may have given different people diverse paths, or that there may have been one original path to which human beings have added their own theories, or that our perspectives on God are inevitably limited and every religion contains some truth. If we could only strip away the accretions of doctrine and theology that surround the essence of religion, we would find that they all offer real knowledge about God.
The third alternative, exclusivism, is the terribly old-fashioned sounding belief that there is only one true way to God. At the risk of losing your interest, this is the position I intend to argue for. In the hope you will come with me, I hope to show that it is the only authentically Christian position.
Aren’t all religions basically the same?
Before considering the question whether all religions lead to God, it is important first to address a closely related claim: the suggestion that all religions basically teach the same thing. Most commonly, the ‘thing’ they are said to encourage is love for others. It is not difficult to see why this claim might be popular with politicians and leaders who want to encourage peaceful co-existence and for whom love for everyone sounds like an attractive quality. There are, however, three significant problems with the claim.
Firstly, it exaggerates the similarities and underestimates the differences between religions. The ethical standards of different religions often have similarities, but a closer look reveals important differences, even when concepts seem superficially similar. Such commands like ‘love others’ tend to be located within ethical codes more detailed than simple principles like love or justice. Comparing Buddhism and Christianity, for example, both agree that people should not steal, lie, kill or commit adultery, but the Christian insistence on honouring one’s parents flatly contradicts the Buddha’s example of renouncing family to seek enlightenment. More importantly still, Christian commandments about loving other people are always set in the context of loving God first – only by doing so, we believe, can we learn to truly love others – whereas Buddhism has no concept of love for God.
Secondly, a command to love requires some additional definition. The meaning of a command to ‘love’ others, for example, is modified by the meaning of the word ‘love’, additional teachings about how it should be expressed, and the people it commands us to love. Other religions certainly command loving, or compassionate, behaviour towards others, but these duties are often limited to family or people within our families. The Qur’an, for example, contains statements that appear to command believers to kill non-believers. Christ, by contrast, commanded his followers to love everyone, even including their enemies, and only to repay evil with good. He intensified the meaning of love even further by presenting himself as the ultimate standard.
Thirdly, the whole project of comparing ethical standards assumes that religion is primarily about ethics. That may be true of some religions, which claim that we can earn God’s approval by good works, but not of Christianity. The more important aspects of religions are often the points where they diverge. An illustration from my professional background in medicine may help. Ethics may be thought of as regimes for healthy living, like advice on diet and exercise. These are, clearly, always good for the patient, but if she has a life-threatening cancer that results from earlier deviation from the guidelines, lifestyle adjustments will not save her life. She needs a more radical solution, including surgery to cut out the tumour, which she can’t perform herself. Religions make very different proposals as to the diagnosis of our basic problem and the proper cure. In Buddhism, the disease is desire and the illusion of the permanence of the self that arise from it, the remedy is freedom from egocentric desires, and the treatment is adherence to an eightfold path the Buddha taught. In Christianity, by contrast, the disease is rebellion against our Creator (sin), the remedy is a gift of eternal life made possible by Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection, and the treatment is to repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ. If Christianity is correct, then, to follow Buddhism would be like eagerly feeding a patient who is wasting away because of cancer nutritious food, hoping to fatten her up again, rather than allowing a skilled surgeon to cut out the tumour.
It is an unavoidable fact that there are important differences between religions. We must consider each religion on its own terms and not slip into claims that they are all the same. Most religions claim, and most of their followers believe, that their religion is an exclusively true, or at least the truest, account of God.
Isn’t it arrogant?
To the modern Western reader, exclusive claims about religions are likely to sound arrogant. In the mountain illustration, the only person who could authoritatively say which roads led to the top was the one who had a bird’s eye view – the helicopter pilot. The accusation that it is arrogant to claim that only one road can lead to God seems fair when we realise that to know this with certainty, we would need to: (a) know who and where God is; (b) know all the possible roads that have claimed to lead to Him; and (c) be completely fair in our assessment. It should be obvious that no ordinary human being has this knowledge. I certainly don’t, and I am not qualified to write this article on my own authority. Returning to the illustration, for a human person to see that all roads lead to God at the top of the mountain, they would have to occupy a position in the sky above the top. They would have to be above God!
Hindus are often proud of the inclusivism that is characteristic of their religion and contrast it with other religions. Hindu writer Sheshagiri Rao, for example, describes Christian missionaries’ declaration that only Christianity is the true way to God Christianity as, "totalitarian claims [that] betray pride and self-righteousness", and claims by some Roman Catholics that Hindus may be ‘anonymous Christians’ as "supercilious and patronizing notions”.[i] In the same article, however, Rao argues that the Hindu deities, Allah and Christ, are expressions of one God and that, “paths are many, but God is one. […] Differences are in languages and perceptions, not in substance”. The irony is that Rao does to Christianity what he accuses Christians of doing to Hinduism. His claim for pluralism could be said to be totalitarian and his insistence that Christ is just one expression of a universal god could seem patronising to Christians. There is a fundamental logical contradiction in the claim that all roads lead to God. How can two systems of belief that flatly contradict each other be equally true? Each religion must be taken on its own terms. Either we give up trying to determine what is true and just try our best at some religion or none, or we consider seriously the claims of authentic expressions of religions. We may reject them as untrue, but we cannot reduce them to something they do not permit.
We really cannot claim that all religions are paths to God without arrogance that is at least equal to that of religious people who claim their faith alone is a path to God. It has, however, become fairly common for ‘spiritual but not religious’ people in the contemporary West to say exactly this kind of thing. God, they claim, cannot be known with any clarity, but we will all reach God in the end. We don’t need to follow any religious authority – organised religion is a killer – we just need to engage with the spiritual aspect of our being. People like Ziad, a young man who contributed to a BBC web page on the theme of spirituality: [ii]
[I believe] all religions are expressions of the one truth. Like the base of a mountain, humans have compelled themselves to be different. The more we detach ourselves from our ego, the closer we reach the divine spark which is to be alive, to be conscious and share that consciousness with others.
I am sure such people don’t mean to be arrogant, but I hope you (or they) can see when they consider things that this is actually a very bold claim to make. To stake our eternal well-being on our own opinion seems risky in the extreme, like the hiker without a map who set off at full stride on the path of his preference.
Religion and authorities
There is a reason why so many people throughout history have followed recognisable religions and why religion is alive and well – even on the increase in its adherence and influence – in most regions of the world. It is, at least in part, because they have preferred to trust another authority above their own. Few religious people claim to have an exclusive insight into ultimate truth on their own authority. They claim it on the basis of another authority – generally that of the founder of their faith, although sometimes that of a governing body. The question becomes how reliable those authorities are.
The rise of ‘religionless spirituality’ in the West has its roots in the increasing recognition in the second half of the twentieth century that knowledge is partial and perspectival – we only know the parts of truth that we can see from our own cultural perspective. This was a helpful corrective to discriminatory and imperialistic approaches of the past. It contributed to the suspicion of all authorities, including religious ones, and the rise of non-religious spirituality.[iii] The risk, however, is that we are so suspicious in principle of authorities and so concerned about misunderstanding truth because of our perspective, that we assume that all authorities are equally invalid and that we cannot know anything at all. These assumptions, which we wouldn’t apply to our physical health, could cause us to miss out on truth that we can know. In thinking about authorities and religion, it is helpful to distinguish two kinds of religions.
Some religions can be described as mystical. They claim that ultimate spiritual reality can be known through the inner experience of human beings. The largest mystical religions – Hinduism and Buddhism – originated in India, and a host of smaller ones began either in China or India. Rudolf Otto used the word ‘numinous’ to describe the experience of awe mixed with a sense of being drawn to the mysterious divine nature that mystical religions report.[iv] The emphasis is on experience and religion, as suggested by nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, can be defined as, "a feeling of absolute dependence".[v] Within mystical religions, the idea that followers of different faiths are experiencing the same divine being is unproblematic. Indeed, it is relatively unimportant whether the religion has a historical founder or whether its followers believe the right things What matters is that they have the right experience, which is potentially accessible to everyone, even if we may need teachers or gurus to point the way learned in their own experience. The shift to religionless spirituality in the West is, effectively, a shift towards mysticism.
The other major division of religions can be described as prophetic. These faiths claim that God has revealed truth that we otherwise could not know in words given to prophets. The main prophetic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – share a common origin in the Semitic peoples and adherents all claim Abraham as their progenitor. Where they differ is over the prophet whose teachings are believed to be the final or supreme revelation of God: Moses in Judaism; Jesus in Christianity; and Muhammad in Islam. Prophetic religions often value experience, and most have a mystical strand – Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam and some forms of both Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity [vi] – but they argue that experience must be consistent with and tested against revealed truths about God. How else can we know if it is God we are experiencing as opposed to some false or deceiving spirit? Prophetic religions claim to have historical origins and to uphold true doctrines.
To return to our original story about the mountain, the eager hiker without a map was like a follower of a mystical religion, believing that all paths can lead to God because ultimate truth is to be found inside ourselves. The woman who had come down the mountain, by contrast, is more like a prophet in a prophetic religion – claiming to have seen the truth and to communicate it to others. She was, however, a false prophet, because she thought she had reached the summit when, in fact, she had merely paused at a plateau. We must grapple with the tricky question of how we can recognise the authentic version of a religion and whether the authorities who claim to know ultimate truth about God are trustworthy and reliable.
The question of authority is, clearly, more important in prophetic religions than mystical ones. If we are to decide what versions of a religion are authentic, we must return to the teachings of its founder. Some mystical religions, such as Hinduism, have no historic founder or unifying doctrines. [vii] There are Hindu scriptures, the most foundational of which are the Vedas, but those oldest Hindu texts, whilst respected by all Hindus and generally believed to have been spoken by the gods in ages past, do not form the basis of contemporary Hindu practice, which is influenced much more by later writings and teachers that do not have universal approval across all branches of the religion. Other religions do have a recognised originator – the Buddha for Buddhism, Muhammad for Islam and Jesus for Christianity. Here we have a problem, however, since we do not have direct access to the founders. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad nor the Buddha wrote a book, while Hinduism does not have a single founder. We do, however, have books (Scriptures) that claim to be faithful records of their teachings and we can compare the characteristics of these books.
The main Scriptures of Buddhism, agreed across all branches, are the Tripitaka, which is believed to have been written in first century BC, around 300-400 years after the Buddha’s life. By the time these scriptures were compiled, Buddhism was sponsored by kings in the Indian subcontinent. The earliest accounts of the Buddha’s life are a century older, but this gap is so long that scholars debate the historicity of the Buddha. In line with what I said earlier about mystical religions, many Buddhists respond that it does not matter whether the Buddha was a historical figure, since his story, whether true or fictional, serves as an example of how to attain liberation. The Buddhist Scriptures present the Buddha as an exemplar of one of the reform movements within Hinduism that seemed to have been common around his time. He broke with some important aspects of Hinduism, such as the caste system, to present an alternative understanding of ultimate reality and the path to it.
The Scriptures of Islam, known as the Qur’an, were compiled after the death of Muhammad from oral accounts of people who attributed them to the prophet. A single, standard version of the Qur’an in Arabic is accepted by all Muslims. It is the version approved by the third ruler of the Muslim community (Caliph) after Muhammad, Uthman (reigned 644-656 CE), around 20 years after the prophet’s death. He had the centralised authority to destroy alternative readings. The Qur’an recounts some episodes that appear in earlier Scriptures associated with Judaism and Christianity, even referring to Jesus as a miracle worker born of the virgin Mary. Muslims claim that there were many prophets before Muhammad, some of whom are named in the Qur’an. Islam, however, disagrees with these older religions in important ways and some details in the Qur’an contradict accounts in the Bible. Muslims explain this by saying that the earlier prophets’ teachings were consistent with Muhammad’s but that the books that record them, found in the Bible, were distorted after their deaths and only Muhammad’s words, in the Qur’an, were preserved without error.
The Christian Scriptures about Jesus, the Gospels, record the life and teaching of Jesus, focusing on his death and claiming that he rose again. The earliest, Mark, was written around 40 years after the events it describes, when Christians were a tiny and powerless group on the margins of the Roman Empire. The Gospels are, however, only four of the 66 books contained in the Bible, which were written by around 40 authors over a period of around 1500 years.[viii] Jesus located the significance of His teaching and life within the wider story of the books that preceded him (the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament) – Creation, sin and God’s covenant with the nation of Israel – claiming to be the continuation of Israel’s story and the fulfilment of prophecies contained in them. He also authorised the writers of the other New Testament books, the earliest of which can be dated to around 20 years after Jesus’ death.[ix] Importantly, there are thousands of manuscripts of biblical books that demonstrate a remarkable degree of consistency in preservation of the text over long periods of time; many more than we have for any other ancient text. We can say with confidence that the Bible books we have contain what was originally written and, at least in the case of the Gospels, that they were written by people who were close to the events in place and time.
Comparing these three major religions, we can say that only Christianity has three distinctive features:[x]
a. Multiple supporting texts (unlike the single text of the Qur’an) written over a period of time (unlike both the Tripitaka and the Qur’an);