It is convenient, but also superficial, to say that all religions lead to God. However, this attitude is pervasive, and usually lasts only until one has had a chance to see the difference the various religions make in people’s lives.
On January 6, 2014, the beliefs of two people who professed to have the same religion and the same God fought each other in front of a school of more than 2,000 students in Hangu, Pakistan. One belief upheld suicide and the barbaric killing of hundreds of innocent students while shouting the name of God. The other professed self-sacrifice in the name of the same God, to save the lives of others.
Aitzaz Hasan is the name of the 15-year-old who became a life-saving hero after noticing the strange walk of a person entering his school and realizing they were carrying a bomb. Aitzaz ran after that person, grabbed him by his clothes and managed to stop him. A terrible explosion ensued, and the two young men lost their lives—one sowing death, the other trying to save his peers. Two young people, two opposite destinies. Two young men who were apparently followers of the same religion sacrificed their lives for radically different purposes. What can possibly explain the difference?
The truth about us
A lot of factors are responsible for what happened, but one is most prominent. All religions lead to God, but the god they lead to is not always the same god. All followers of a particular religion are directed to the same God, but the picture of that god is not always the same for all worshipers of that religion. What sets them apart is the picture they have of their god. Just as genetic inheritance dictates the course of biological life, man’s picture of his god dictates the course of his spiritual and moral life.
The alteration of the image of God in the minds of men has roots that go back in time to the beginning of history. Original sin did not simply consist in eating a fruit, but in undermining the truth about God. And when man questioned the image God had revealed of Himself, sin had already been committed. All that followed was the consequence of sin against the truth about God. However, while the devil, who falsely represented God, did nothing but project his own face upon Him, it is astonishing how man came to project upon God the image of the devil.
While the devil, who falsely represented God, did nothing but project his own face upon Him, it is astonishing how man came to project upon God the image of the devil.
Accepting an altered image of God meant sin, and sin made religion necessary. Religion comes from a Latin word meaning re-connection—that is, the restoration of the connection with the divine, in order to live in obedience to it. Depending on how the image of divinity is perceived in a certain religion, one can easily predict the quality of life of the worshipers of that religion and the society they form. Baal is the ancient Semitic god who could only be reconciled by human sacrifice: children burned on the copper grate that formed his womb; this belief shows how Baal worshipers viewed their children. Quetzalcoatl (the “feathered serpent”—the supreme god in Aztec mythology) “demanded” virgins thrown into the well or thousands of prisoners’ hearts ripped from their bodies with pliers, then offered as a sacrifice, in front of the statue, while they were still pulsating. This shows the value Aztec society placed on human life. The god of a wide range of Christians will endlessly torture those who do not choose Him, which explains the fear that shaped an entire era: the Dark Ages. Those who see the God of sacrificial love, as Jesus has shown Him to be, know the joy and security of salvation that is manifested in everything belonging to personal or social life.
The Bible says: God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them (Genesis 1:27). This shaping of man in the image of God is not just a one-time historical experience. It is a present, continuous process, an experience that leaves its mark on all the manifestations of a person’s life. Individuals will live in the image and likeness of the god they worship and will become more and more like him. This principle has general applicability, whether we are talking about tribal paganism, monotheistic religions, atheism or any other religion; even if we are talking about the modern idols of the secularized world—sex, money, power, celebrity, etc.
The truth about God
It is difficult to account for the variety and diversity of related religions and deities. Still, as hard as it is to believe that someone intentionally chooses falsehood, it is difficult for a person to admit that the true God could be outside the realm of his life; that is, more, farther and deeper than all he knows or experiences in the present.
But the thirst for the true God is what burns within man from cradle to grave. In the depths of his heart, man intuits that it is not in folk stories that the true “Youth Without Age and Life Without Death” is found, but that it comes precisely from the knowledge of the true God, from whom man feels alienated and who man seeks all his life. This is what Jesus calls eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
So there is one true God, and knowing Him is, indeed, eternal life for man. Jesus’ religion differs from anything called religion precisely in the way it presents God—as He really is, not as seen by the devil or by mankind. Jesus’ life and work reveal the image of God freed from human traditions and from the mists of history, a living and honest image, because Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”. Jesus came to incarnate God among us and call us to believe in Him. This was His work, and when He had done it, He declared, “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do”.
Jesus paid with His life to proclaim the truth that God is near and is our Father. He gave His life so that we might believe His testimony of the true God. No stronger argument could be made for such an eternal truth.
The God Jesus presented is not hidden, mysterious and isolated in His relationship with man. He did not bring us a mysterious and unspeakable name, a religious formula that can only be understood by initiates. Instead, he gave us the name Abba, meaning “Father” (or “Daddy”, the Aramaic diminutive). That is why the Incarnate Son taught us to address God with “our Father who art in heaven”.
Jesus paid with His life to proclaim the truth that God is near and is our Father. He gave His life so that we might believe His testimony of the true God. No stronger argument could be made for such an eternal truth. The main difference between the Christianity of Jesus, the Judaism in the midst of which He lived, and any other religion of time and space is, therefore, precisely the image of God.
The truth about religion
First, while in any other religion individuals try to ascend to divinity through rituals and sacrifices, Jesus is the only one who revealed to us that it is not man who ascends to God, but God who descends to man in the person of the Son. He is the first to enlighten us about the concept of grace, a concept that is unique and unheard of in any other faith.
Religion has never been able to save anyone. It has neither this purpose nor the power to implement it. All that religion can do in the field of salvation is to lead the believer to the One who can save. The message of true religion is, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”.
Every religion leads man to a god. Only the One who comes from God can lead to the true God. Only God can lead to God. Therefore, true religion cannot be like other religions—a set of precepts, doctrines and conceptions. It differs fundamentally and inimitably from anything else. True religion is a Person. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is the gospel, He is the head of the Church, and the Church is His body. That’s the big difference. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And the Father proclaimed: “With him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Religion has never been called to save anyone. It has neither this purpose nor the power to implement it.
Second, the role of true religion is not only to provide the truth about God, but also to translate that truth into action: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The religion of the martyr Aitzaz Hassan was not only to know what is good and what is evil and to warn others about it, but he had a “pure and faultless religion”, in which “the Word became flesh”, like it did in the life of Jesus. This is the highest form of religion, the one capable of manifesting supreme love: “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” Aitzaz will be surprised to see the One who taught him this truth.
A religion that merely states what is considered to be truth without making the truth bless the world is, in fact, nothing more than what Marx said—”the opium of the people”—the equivalent of the religion of demons, who “believe and shudder,” but continue to be demons. True religion, which leads to the true God, is free from racial, cultural, religious, or other prejudices, as John, the Lord’s brother, understood from his brother and Lord Jesus: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” Merely acknowledging God, without living the true religion, will finally give birth to this question coming from God: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
Third and last, true religion is not the static relation to a set of local and temporal dogmas or views, but is a dynamic, permanent experience; it is the mercy of the Lord that is “new every morning”. The God of today must be more than the God of yesterday, because today we have gained a living and fresh knowledge of the Most High. Therefore, true religion does not simply lead us to the true God, once in a lifetime, but continues to do so daily. It is the experience of growing in knowledge that is never considered sufficient. True religion, which truly leads to God, does not boast of its antiquity, but of the living and continual revelation of the One who blesses the world. Knowing God is a process that accompanies life and death, hope and despair. There will never be a day when we have the whole truth about God.
As for false religion, it doesn’t take many words to describe it. History has fully shown us that any religion diverted from what should be the true vocation of religion entails the loss of its credibility and power. What a hijacked and distorted Christianity has meant for humanity can be seen in the cases of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Nazi Germany or many other tragic instances of human history; instead of being a force for the evolution of mankind, it became an agent of destruction and did a work opposed to that to which it was called.
The truth about responsibility and choice
Although a religion can be easily evaluated based on the impact it has on the life of the individual or society, it is not as easy to judge the one who practices it. They can be the product of their own choices or a victim of the world into which they were born. Therefore, in His goodness, God does not condemn anyone who has sincerely believed a lie, but “gives light to everyone”, who “live in darkness and in the shadow of death”. Only after this enlightenment has taken place, is man faced with a choice and becomes responsible for what he decides.
It is possible that an individual can be in the dark while they are convinced they are in the light: “See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness”. It is also possible for God to enlighten man and for man to reject light: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” “The new man” (a biblical expression that has been overused) is the concept in whose name rivers of blood flow and is perhaps the source of humanity’s greatest suffering. Empires, ideologies, dictatorships and many other forms of oppression have claimed or attempted to produce this “new man”, yet have led to total and terribly costly failure.
The true “new man” (because a forgery can only confirm the existence of an original) is the man in the image and likeness of God, who Jesus incarnated here on earth. All attempts, whether past, present or future, to create the “new man” in any other way—racism, communism, materialism, paganism, atheism, Hollywood fantasy or any other model—all these attempts “give birth to death”, as Romanian poet Vasile Militaru put it. Even if humanity were to bypass the truth for thousands of years, in the end she will reach the point where Jesus is waiting for her, still confessing with His blood that God is love. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”