Among the many things that Christians say that annoy people is their assertion that Christianity is the only true religion. Given the tremendous number of alternatives to Christianity on the religious market today, the assertion savours of intolerable arrogance, blindness, insensitivity, and self-righteous conceit. “The only true religion?” Who do these Christian people think they are? In the words of one critic, “That’s an outrageous thing to accept”.
The outrageousness of it is doubtless increased by the sins of the Christians making the claim. In the words of Isaiah (echoed by St. Paul) “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Isaiah 52:5, Romans 2:24). Christians seem to be no better than other people, and the fact that the Church has been around for two thousand years means that it has had time to make some spectacular blunders and rack up an impressive list of things of which it is now ashamed. (Before critics get too self-righteous themselves, it should be remembered that any group or institution that has existed for hundreds of years will do the same thing—such as, for example, the group known as the United States of America.) The Church has made lots of mistakes. As Nietzsche is reputed to have once said, “I’ll believe in the Redeemer when the Christians look a lot more redeemed.” According to Isaiah and Paul, it is a fair comment.
Perhaps it might help if the assertion were re-phrased. It is easy to misunderstand the assertion, and to read it as if the Christians were making a claim about themselves, their virtue, and the wonderfulness of their religion and their church services. But that is not what is being asserted. Christians are not so much making a claim about Christianity as a religion (with all the historical baggage that goes with it), as they are making a claim about Christ. In saying that Christianity is the only true religion, we are saying that transfiguration, healing, sonship, resurrection, and eternal life are only found in Jesus of Nazareth and in a relationship with Him.
This does not mean that there is no good in any of the other religions. All religions have some good in them, because all people have some good in them—whether the people are religious, agnostic, or atheist. That is what it means to have been made in the image of God. Christians do not assert that because Christianity is 100% true everything else on the religious market is 100% wrong. And they are not saying that all the non-Christians are going to hell (read Romans 2:6-16). But we do say that healing, joy, immortality, and eternal life reside in Jesus alone. Rejecting Him knowingly, decisively, and finally (such as some Pharisees did when they insisted He was demonically-possessed and in league with Satan; see Mark 3:22, John 8:28) cuts one off from this power and this life.
That is why Jesus said to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). The Pharisees who rejected Him would not find their way to the Father or to the Kingdom. Jesus was the door into the Kingdom (John 10:7), and the only way into eternal life.
That is also what St. Peter meant when he said to the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation [literally “the salvation”] in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been give among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Peter was not talking about the relative worth of other religions. He was proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah to people who rejected His Messianic claim and who were looking to find a Messiah and a Messianic salvation elsewhere. Peter was saying, “Don’t waste your time: Jesus is the only Messiah you are going to get”.
Jesus is the only source of life there is for this dying world, the only source of water in our desert. Damnation is not the infliction of arbitrary punishment on people who made well-intentioned but erroneous religious choices. It is not as if God is saying, “Oops! Sorry! Wrong religion! You picked wrong, and now I’m sending you to hell.” Damnation is the result of the soul deliberately and finally rejecting the life that is offered, like a flower that hates sunlight and soil and that therefore pulls up its roots from the earth and hides in the dark. A flower needs sunlight and soil to live, and if it refuses these, it will die—not because the sun and soil are mad at the flower, but because of the nature of flowers, sun, and soil. We need the power that comes through Jesus to live, to find healing, to enter into joy, and if we reject Him, we can never find life, healing or joy. The result will be death, sickness of heart, and misery. Jesus is the only source of life the universe affords. It is Him or nothing.
These stark alternatives were brilliantly portrayed in a conversation that a girl, Jill, had with a Christ figure, the lion Aslan, in C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. Jill arrived in Narnia dreadfully thirsty, but quickly and happily discovered that there was a stream nearby from which she could drink. But there was a problem: between her and the stream there lay a lion. Terrified of being attacked and eaten, she didn’t move. Then the lion said, “If you’re thirsty, you may drink”. When she didn’t move, the lion repeated the words.
Still terrified of the lion Jill said, “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” A low growl indicated the Lion was not going anywhere. Frantic with thirst, Jill asked, “Do you eat girls?”, and the Lion replied simply, “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms”. Not at all reassured, Jill concluded, “I daren’t come and drink.” To this the Lion replied, “Then you will die of thirst”. “Oh dear!” said Jill, “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
“‘There is no other stream.” That is the humble confession of the Church. In a world dying of thirst, Christ is the only stream, and if men refuse to drink of this stream, there is no other, and they will die of thirst. There is only one stream, one source of life, one way to Father, one name under heaven that has been give among men by which they must be saved. One true religion.
Fortunately for us who thirst, if we are thirsty, we may drink. Indeed, Christ came into the world precisely so that we could drink. In the last day of a great Jewish feast, He stood up and cried out to the world, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink! He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).
This is why the Church is prepared to brave the scorn of the world and declare with her Saviour that faith in Him is the one true religion, the one and only source of life. Try any other religion or philosophy or way you like. Sooner or later you will find out that apart from Christ, there is no other stream.
Isaiah knew this long ago: “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters!” (Isaiah 55:1). Somewhat later, St. John was still trumpeting the same message to thirsting world: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17). This is still the Church’s message: Let all who are thirsty come to water, and stand by the side of Jesus. You won’t be denied. If you want to drink and live, there is no other way, no other stream.
Father, this may seem nit picking but the problem is religion. All religion tends toward legalism and ideology. Nietzche’s father was a Lutheran pastor. He initially reacted against the hypocritical legalism he saw around him. We Orthodox have the same problem. Historically our missionaries have tended less to the “convert or die in hell” routine but as a convert in a strongly Lebanese parish, I and my late wife were excluded and judged by many simply because we were not Lebanese. Few others like us in the parish. It hurt. It took me a long time to begin to forgive that hurt.
I came for one reason, Jesus Christ. When we do preach Him, His Sacrifice and His Mercy AND give instruction on how to acquire it we go beyond religion.
That is what brings life and sets Christianity apart. As a religion/ideology it is no better or worse than any other. Those who love power will use it nefariously
Michael, I’m sorry believers were unkind to you. Many Christians believing in Jesus are in the dark as to who Jesus is. They hear the Gospel stories and read the Pauline Letters and the Acts of the Apostles and they fail to see how the Trinity informs the Christian Faith. The Orthodox Faith may have a propensity toward legalism and ideology.
Linda, fallen man has a propensity to legalism and ideology. It is our default state. I have the same propensity. My real point, which I expressed poorly, is that only Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, Buried and Risen over comes that. His Mercy endures forever. It took me far too long to allow His mercy into my heart. I wanted justice. Which is the point of every ideological system religious or not. I just needed to remember: “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”
Forgive me for saying it do clumsily.
Thank you for the thoughtful post, Fr Lawrence; I’m a long-time listener and reader but a first-time poster. Your remarks reminded me of two recent conversations with friends who are not Christian. “Oh yeah, Christianity, the place for hypocrites” was the first remark, and although said lightheartedly, was nonetheless provocative (to say the least). The second was a conversation with a friend who was remarking on his father-in-law (who was an Orthodox Christian), and how he goes to church and “pretends he’s a saint” but has seen him do some “unsaintly things”. There seems to be this idea that Christians are a group of hypocrites that simply don’t see their hypocrisy. Your comment that Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and therefor managed to mess up a lot reminded me of these conversations. Any institution that has been around for that long has had plenty of time for the humans that make it up to commit atrocities in its name. How could a group of people claiming to have the “one, true faith” also be so terrible?
Initially I had an urge to argue against this idea of hypocrisy; after all, who wants to be called a hypocrite? But it is undeniably true, so what’s to be done about it? After some thought I realized the only thing to do, and probably the best thing, was to agree. The truth is that we are all hypocrites; and Christianity is no exception. We try to faithfully follow Christ and love God, but continually mess that up. The situation holds true outside of the Christian life as well. All of us have wished we had not done this one thing or another or treated a situation with more love (surely the examples could go on and on). We all make mistakes, and don’t “live up to” our potential. Hopefully everyone’s framework they use to deem what is good and bad allows them to realize these mistakes, to fix them, and to progress towards an ideal.
This progression to an ideal really brought to light what the purpose of the Church is, perhaps best said by saint John Chrysostom in his “Homily Against Publishing The Errors Of The Brethren”: “the Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls.” In the modern day you might also add that the Church is not a “hotel for the holy”, a place where all the “saved” gather. It is easy to fall into this trap of thinking it is a “hotel for the holy”, especially when defending the fact that Orthodox Christianity is the one, true faith. If we do “believe” in something so true and beautiful, why is the Church full of so many unfaithful sinners? And here is the crux, the thing each of us needs to explore every day: we are not yet who we were made to be. Before communion we confess “that you are truly the Christ, the son of the living God, who came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the first”. As part of the life of the Church and its central mystery, we ritually admit to this hypocrisy. We admit to it at the same time we consume the body and blood, the one thing that gives us true life. A deeper understanding of how each of us belies what we profess to faithfully adhere to should lead to a better understanding of where we fall short.
Although my first friend meant his comment as a lighthearted attack on Christianity, it might very well be a slogan we should adopt during catechisms (with the necessary explanations surrounding it of course)! The idea fits well with the Eastern Church’s understanding of sin. Sin is not some crime committed deserving of a punishment, but rather how we have “missed the mark” in our calling to image God. The Church exists so that we may fulfill that potential by living in repentance and enacting the Kingdom. Similarly, my other friend who had seen this hypocrisy play out, clearly had an “hotel for the holy” understanding of the Church. Instead of understanding the faith as a dividing line between good and bad people, we need to see it as the place where true healing of the bad within each of us can take place. As Solzhenitsyn said in the Gulag Archipelago, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” With the help of the Church, we can hope that this dividing line is much more on the side of the good, while concurrently realizing how much bad remains.
With all this written about friends and faithfulness, a quote from the bard seems fitting: “words are easy, like the wind; faithful friends are hard to find”. My faithfulness to my friends, my family, my community, all underpinned by faithfulness to Christ, is ultimately the most convincing apology for Christianity. We can best defend our “one true faith” by not acting like hypocrites and living it out. Thank you for the thought provoking post father; I enjoyed reading it and responding to it.