This week I have asked Tom Terry to answer my "Ask Roger" column. It's fantastic!
"I’m going to ask you a question and it’s a big one.
If there is only one true God who created all things, and if he has established only one way that a person may acquire eternal life, and if the only way to the one true God and eternal life is through Jesus Christ, then why does God permit other religions to exist thereby deceiving millions of people throughout history, ending in their eternal condemnation?
If Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life then why does God permit other religions to exist?
When you give it some thought doesn’t the existence of various contrary religions suggest that religion is a man-made venture and that God doesn’t really exist at all? Some lend support to this idea by noting that other major religions are usually tied to specific cultures around the world with specific histories. Generally speaking, Indians are Hindu, Arabs are Muslim, Africans are animists, Mongols are buddhists, Israelis follow Judaism, Chinese are Confucian, and so on. Doesn’t the idea of religions being tied to specific cultures demonstrate that those cultures created those systems as a way of relating to reality from their historical and cultural perspectives? In fact, I think a partial answer to that question is actually yes.
For thousands of years ancient cultures have worshipped a host of spirits, and so-called gods and goddesses: the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Canaanites, the Akkadians, etc. The worship of multiple deities through history seems to stretch back to the oldest cultures we know of, even as far back as the early tribes occupying Mesopotamia where we find history’s earliest written records. Some scholars believe that polytheism preceded monotheism and that monotheism actually developed over time as an alternative to the chaos of polytheism. Yet there are others, with whom I concur, that logically polytheism emerged after monotheism.
In the Bible we see the earliest form of monotheism expressed as the one God creates the world and populates it with Adam and Eve (Genesis 1-2). This early form of monotheism is rudimentary and doesn’t become fully developed for many centuries, but it existed at the beginning.
At sometime within a period of seven generations after Adam’s son, Cain begins having children, people—apparently—did not call upon the Lord (Genesis 4:17-22). This makes sense as it is doubtful that Cain would have taught his offspring to believe in and obey the Lord since he was in rebellion and separated from God. Yet Genesis 4:26 notes that by the time of Adam’s grandson, Enosh, “Men began to call upon the name of the Lord” (referring to the line of Seth, not Cain). From these passages we can surmise that during the earliest period of human history, probably some 6,000-10,000 years ago, early forms of monotheism and false religion existed side-by-side.
We might even say that the first false religion was actually created in the Garden of Eden when Satan said to Eve, “Has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). This facilitated unbelief on the part of Eve. Satan further developed his form of false worship by tricking Eve to obey him rather than to obey God when he said, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). This first act of rebellion against God established Satan as an entity to be obeyed. Thus, the first false religion giving obedience to another spirit other than God was created by Satan in an effort to elevate himself and steal that which belongs to God. But the creation of false religion did not stop there.
In what may have been moments from their first act of sin, Adam and Even immediately “Knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Genesis 3:7). In other words, man’s first act after rebellion against God was to use his human ingenuity to cover up his sin (as he understood it), thus creating a false religious approach to avoid God’s judgment.
While these first acts of false religion are not exactly full-blown polytheism, it is easy to surmise how these events could quickly lead to a population dissatisfied with God and his way of dealing with man, which gives rise to man creating other systems and even imagining other spirits or deities that might be more amenable to man’s efforts to create his own version of a spiritual life.
So from this short examination of scripture we see that the development of other religions began at the earliest ages of man’s history. Yes, monotheism was first. The creation of other religions began as a form of rebellion against God. In fact, with the introduction of sin we can probably say that the emergence of other religions was inevitable. For what are other religions but attempts by man to make sense of his reality apart from the involvement of an all-seeing God who judges him?
Why does God permit other religions to exist?
1. Sin requires false religion in order to exist because sin is a false religious expression about God and our relationship to him. The emergence of sin created the first false religion, therefore the development of other such religions in rebellion against God was also inevitable just as further sin was inevitable. Just as monotheism developed in sophistication over time, so too did false religion develop in sophistication leading to polytheism and the other systems that eventually followed. To ask why God allows other religions to exist is to essentially ask why God allows sin to exist.
2. Why does God permit other religions to exist? False religions demonstrate the futility of man-made systems which are set up in rebellion against God. Yet what did these numerous religions accomplish? We have the advantage of historical hindsight. We can look back to Egyptian polytheism, or Hittite idol worship, or Canaanite sacrifice, or Greek polytheism, and other ancient systems and ask the question, what did they accomplish? In the long view their societies fell and eventually their gods fell with them. The Bible has an interesting turn of phrase about the emptiness of idol worship, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations” (Romans 1:21 emphasis mine). This is the second answer as to why God permits other religions to exist: to demonstrate the futility of man-made systems which are set up in rebellion against God.
When we look at the false religions that exist in today’s world we think of systems like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even cults like Mormonism and Watchtower. These systems have been around for a long time so we see their longevity as potential evidence against the God of the Bible. But in doing so we lose sight of the fact that there have been many false religions that have existed over the millennia and they have all fallen at one time or another—leaving monotheism intact. We can therefore trust God in that these late comers will eventually fare no better. Lies degenerate over time but the truth always remains the truth.
3. Why does God permit false religions to exist? They exist to test men to see whether they will truly follow Christ. We get this directly from scripture.
After leading Israel into the Promised Land, God left certain polytheistic nations intact. These were nations that practiced some of the most extreme forms of idol worship which often included child sacrifice. The scripture says that God left them there because “They were for testing Israel, to find out if they would obey the commandments of the Lord, which He had commanded their fathers through Moses. The sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods” (Judges 3:4-6 emphasis mine. Also see Judges 2:22).
As we can see from this passage, Israel failed the test by succumbing to the pressure to worship the false gods of the nations among them. Because the Old Testament was written for our instruction (Romans 15:4) we can glean the principles from it that we need to understand why false religions exist today. To say it simply, God is testing us to see whether or not we will follow Christ or succumb to the latest thing that tickles the ears (II Timothy 4:3).
In conclusion let me sum up why God allows false religions to exist:
- Sin requires false religion in order to exist because sin is a false religious expression about God and our relationship to him
- To demonstrate the futility of man-made systems which are set up in rebellion against God
- They exist to test men to see whether they will truly follow Christ
In your spiritual journey, what are you tempted to believe or disbelieve?
- Have you abandoned belief in Christ for another philosophy or religion?
- Do you combine what you believe in the Bible with teachings from other religions to create your own path?
- Or does the existence of other religions convince you that all religion is false and ultimately futile?
Whatever your perspective may be there is truth to be learned from the pages of scripture. The Bible answers our most difficult questions about our existence and why certain things are the way they are. In those answers we can find solace, hope, and understanding so that we may know how to live and experience a relationship with the one true God of the universe, as long as we commit ourselves exclusively to him, through Jesus Christ."