Who Believes What?

bigstock-World-of-Faith-Dove-of-Peace-5930116 When the Willow Creek Community Church did a survey they found that some in their congregation, and especially their post-Christian friends, thought that all world religions are essentially the same. If their doctrines are similar and point in the same direction, why is it important to choose the “right” one?  In response to the survey, the church invited a learned representative from each of the major faiths to a service.  A Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and Christian sat together on the platform and answered questions from the moderator Bill Hybels.

I cannot do full justice to the fascinating discussion that took place that Sunday without reproducing it verbatim.  Barring that, I will condense some of the main points instead.  Keep in mind that a different spokesperson for one of the faiths might have come up with different responses, but these do broadly reflect some of the differences in common beliefs.

What is your understanding of God?

Hindu: God was All-consciousness, before creation, and out of his playtime he created the universe.  So God in one form is the creation, and also to put life into it he entered the creation, countless times.  Indeed, anyone can attain Godhood status by following the rules set out.

Buddhist: We focus not on God or gods, but on the teachings of Gautama Buddha who lived in the 5th century B.C.  We strive, like the Buddha, to become enlightened human beings, who serve out of compassion and try to end suffering in the world.

Muslim: God is a mercy-giver.  He is peace.  He is the first and last.  He is the owner of the Day of Judgment.  He is the owner of the universe.  He is the guide.  He is the light.  He is the Mercy.

Jew: I would suspect everyone here would recognize the God of Judaism through Judaism’s daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, both of which have patterned their own theology after the mother religion, Judaism.

Christian: God is all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere present.  He is spirit and exists eternally in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Also, he is a personal God, which means he invites me to get to know him and to grow in a deep, loving relationship with him.

A person comes to you and says, “My life is a mess, I have wandered very far away from God, I have misbehaved, I have done terrible things.  I want to get close to God.”  How would you instruct that person?

Hindu: He has to go to the Scriptures to read the holy books, and to go to the place of worship to where the holy ones are.  And that would be only a stepping stone.  From the books he will get instructions, and he must follow those instructions.

Buddhist: If a person is seeking a relationship with God, they have come to the wrong place because the Buddhist tradition is not focused on God.  However, if you come to a Buddhist teacher and you’re troubled, depressed, angry or dissatisfied, you’ve come to the right place because they will be able to give you some very specific ways to change the way you think and to clean out the difficulties.

Muslim: We believe that all human beings are born believers.  In their heart, regardless of how bad they are, there is a spot there that believes in God, and all we have to do is to bring about the point and to open the ears, to see and hear and feel the existence of God.

Jew: You can’t deal with deep-felt guilt simply through belief and a deity removing that terrible fear and guilt from you.  If that were true there would be no need for psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts—to whom go priests, rabbis, pastors who do believe in God profoundly and devoutly, but that doesn’t always take care of the deepest quest of the human being.  I think relating to God is relating pretty much as the deepest relationships available to human beings are.

Christian: This is the central message of the Bible, how to relate to God.  When we put our faith in Jesus Christ alone, who paid the penalty for our sins, God promises to wipe our sins out, and we are brought into a growing, loving relationship with God.

What do you think of Jesus Christ?  According to your tradition, who was Jesus of Nazareth?

Hindu: This world is God’s drama.  He created so many religions, and he wanted variety for his own pleasure.  When Jesus Christ came and Christianity came about, this was God manifesting himself in Jesus Christ.  We have tolerance for all the gods, and we tell everyone you go pray to your god, if you have that belief, and continue what you are doing.


Buddhist: Jesus was a human being, a wise and compassionate human being who was concerned for the suffering of humanity.  And the Buddhist tradition would also recognize the perspective that Jesus is the son of God, though not the only way to God.

Muslim: We believe in the prophets of God, which include Jesus, peace be upon him.  But we do not believe he died on the cross.  The Koran says he was not killed or crucified.  He has been lifted by God and will be coming back to guide all mankind according to Islam.

Jew: As for the preeminence of Jesus over any other religion’s central figure, we leave that up to anybody to decide for themselves; we have our Bible and our prophets, and they have their Bible and their prophets, and we let it go at that.

Christian: Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God, fully human and fully God, without sin, the only one worthy or qualified to forgive sin.  He proved he was God when he was resurrected, and he also proved that he could defeat death and forgive sin.

One final question: What about the life after this life?  If you were to die after this service, what would happen?

Hindu: The Hindus believe in reincarnation, a continuation of life.  Before my birth, there must have been thousands of births before.  Based on my actions and my next birth, I might go into a lower creature, or I might elevate myself, at least until I reach the state of full consciousness.

Buddhist: Afterlife is problematic.  If enlightenment has occurred before death then there is complete liberation, or complete nirvana, which cannot be described or explained.  It is neither eternal consciousness or annihilation.  It is not in our intellectual capacity to comprehend it.

Muslim: Every human being has a reserved seat in heaven and in hell.  The angels will ask you what happened in your life, who was your God, who was your prophet, what was your religion, what was your book.  So at the moment of death, those who are going to heaven will be shown their reserved place in hell—and what happened by the grace of God that they were saved from going to that hell—then they will be sent to heaven.  Otherwise, people will be shown the other way.  We all have to be prepared.

Jew: Rabbis have said that the quality of your life after death depends on the character of your life on earth.  “The righteous among all the nations of the world have a share in the world to come.”

Christian: The soul will live forever in eternity, and the choices that we make here and now will determine our eternal destiny.  If we choose to ignore God or reject God, or to ignore the separation [sin] problem, we will spend an eternity separated from God, and that place is called hell.  On the other hand, if we choose to solve the separation problem God’s way by receiving Jesus Christ into our lives, and allowing him to forgive our sins and bridge the gap, we will spend an eternity with God in heaven.

bigstock-Dictionary-Series--Attributes-3554568Bill Hybels concluded by challenging the congregation to become diligent seekers of the truth, doing the hard work of deciding what to believe and why.  Clearly, not all religions teach the same answers to ultimate questions.

“We live in a very diverse world, and we have to learn to get along with and respect and show deference and kindness to people who represent different religions,” he said.  “I hope, as we leave, you will leave with the words of Jesus on your mind: the highest kingdom law or value is the law of love.  And while we may disagree about where we drive our stake of conviction and belief, we are called to be compassionate, understanding, and respectful of those who believe differently.”

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11 Responses to Who Believes What?

  1. Iris L. Trujillo says:

    What intrigues me is the time and energy people have spent trying to show otherwise. Just why would they want to do that? There has long been a movement to show that fundamentally all the world’s religions are the same, that at heart they all teach the same lessons. Unitarian-Universalists have played no small part in all this. Recognizing the imperative of religion as both a motivating and dividing force in human history it has been a dream to harness that power in the cause of unity. To show that fundamentally our religions are all the same would go a long way to showing that fundamentally we are all the same. However it just does not work out that, does it?

  2. david decker says:

    hello Philip: I want to thank you for your honest, insightful, self-revealing Books. I have been Blessed by your work and I hope to meet you someday when you are in the Chicago area. I would love to have you as a Guest Speaker at my Church! if you have a monthly Internet News Letter, please add my Email Address to your mailings. thank you Brother and GOD Bless you and your Family!

  3. Tim Chesterton says:

    Fascinating. I wonder about varieties of belief within the different religions. I notice that the Christian representative gave answers taken straight out of a popular evangelical view; different Christian traditions might answer some of these questions very differently (my own view, for instance, would focus far more on the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting than ‘spending eternity in heaven’). I suspect the same is true of different groupings within the other religions, too.

  4. Jeff says:

    Wow. I live near Willow (but don’t attend) and after reading this summary I am not sure what I would have done after listening to these folks – my initial reaction is that I would have walked out and said thanks but no thanks to all of them. The Hindu comes off sounding silly. The Buddhist wants his cake and eat it too (I can’t get you to God but I can get you to Nirvana). The Jew was well, an almost stereotypical modern reformed Jew; and The Christian just repeated a lot of dogma that didn’t make much sense without a context (of course that could apply to all of them, right?). The funny thing was that they all lost me when they got to heaven and hell, including the Christian.

    I love Jesus. I do my best to serve Jesus every day. And I actually like Willow (some of my best friends go there, really), but I wonder if this sort of stuff really does anything to bring people closer to Jesus.

  5. Ramey Zamora says:

    The thinking soul seeks to find knowledge and enlightenment in every expression of human spirituality. It does not cleave to any hardened statement, but lives always in the exhilaration of the spirit that dwells within all things. No god created us, but there is a godhead of spirit that is forever available to anyone for redemption, protection and guidance.

    This is why an imperfect world does not have to be assumed to be the creation of a perfect god…there is no conflict between the love that the universal Sacred Source epitomizes and the reality of our still evolving world.

    The Sacred Source is available to all to seek it/him/her. Everything that Philip Yancey espouses is as perfectly attainable as our mindfulness of the blessings of the Now. There is no “other world” in my belief system. The “rumors” we hear are echoes from a perfectly attainable present heaven/paradise/eden one need not die to enter and enjoy.

  6. Greg Denholm says:

    A thought-provoking article, Philip—thanks. It shows clearly that not all religions are the same, for they have not all been conceived for the same reason; they are not all trying to answer the same question or solve the same problem. Pluralism runs into trouble because it insists that diversity is an end in itself; it doesn’t need to be balanced by unity. And fundamentalism runs into trouble partially because it dispenses with diversity altogether—a mistake that creates uniformity, not unity. Only in the God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit do we see diversity and unity held in perfect balance. He is One, and he has become one of us. Only he can unite us to God and to one another without snuffing out our God-ordained diversity.

  7. Janice Cartwright says:

    I have to admit to being a little, or a lot, worried that the North American Christian churches may be in danger of blurring the lines between our own faith and that of what we have always considered to be the pagan religions of this world. I do believe we should show grace and acceptance in our personal relationships with those of different a different faith, or no faith at all, else how could we ever win anyone to Christ and His way of sacrificial love. But I guess I’m concerned we could become, bit by bit, a little too open-minded and cross the lines into acceptance of doctrinal error along with our receiving, as individuals, those of different faith. I want to be respectful, loving, but not gullible. My nature, apart from Christ, is to be easily swayed, so maybe this is reaction, a fear of becoming too cozy with anything less than pure unaltered truth.

  8. Michael Pedicini says:

    So much to learn from each world religion without compromising our own beliefs when our heart is filled with love you can always find so much in common. As a follower of Christ I find in him the humbleness, love, mercy and compassion of God and this has changed my life. I do not claim to understand totally the mystery of what God accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus but i do know it was for all of mankind and how each person responds is in Gods and their hands I have no desire to speculate.

  9. D.MarieProkop says:

    Very interesting to read, though I have one bone to pick, most likely an unintended error, with my “representative” of Christianity. It is not our “choices” plural that determine our eternal home- it is a choice- singular. The use of the plural “choices” delegates Christianity into the same category as all the other religions represented, the category being “works-based.” Isn’t the beauty and wonder of Jesus that he gave us a choice. Believe and be saved…
    I wonder if other tiny slips of the tongue were made by the other religions’ representatives and lead to misunderstanding of their doctrine here also. There are so many ways to say the same things, after all.
    Further study is necessary, of course. This is a great jumping off point. “Diligent seekers of the truth” will be set free, the Bible promises. And love, love is never against the law. Beloved, let us love one another.

  10. Karleen Kubat says:

    Excellent! Thank you for posting this!

  11. Rico says:

    This is a very important blog post, Philip. Thank you for sharing. That conference must have been monumental.

    I’m a Christian, attracted often to the attitudes and beliefs of Buddhism. This post enlightened me–pun unintended–to see that flirting with other beliefs is not trifle, that I should be careful where I stand.

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