In ‘69 The Byrds recorded “Jesus is just alright with me.” I’ve always liked the song but its lyrical content is remarkably shallow so I doubt I’ll be hearing it in church any time soon. However, it does an excellent job of describing a lot of people’s view of the Son of God. They don’t have anything against our Savior per se, but they consider Christianity in general to have the same merits as any spiritual movement so why favor one over another? In fact, to be labeled “religious” in the 21st century is to risk being ostracized by one’s peers and dubbed a closed-minded moron. That’s because the term has earned a dubious reputation. Misguided folks who sequester themselves in a compound and practice polygamy because they’ve put their faith in a self-proclaimed, egotistical “messiah” are justly referred to as religious wackos. Then you got your maniacal Islamic Jihadist thugs who’ve done a bang-up job of giving religion a bad name by gleefully slaughtering thousands of innocent people in the name of Allah. On the other hand, the rah-rah “name-it-and-claim-it” expounders that saturate Christian television programming haven’t done our Lord any favors, either. Small wonder hordes of humans, when filling out questionnaires that ask their religious affiliation, simply jot down “none.” Webster’s defines religion thusly: “The belief in a god or in a group of gods: an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” In other words, it’s a no-holds-barred free-for-all. Religion, according to that definition, gives us license to elevate anything to deity status! The Homo sapiens species has never shied away from taking religion to extremes. We’ll worship whatever piques our interest.
The Bible says when God’s beautiful experiment in the Garden of Eden went south mankind eventually went so berserk God hit the reset button. He drowned every living thing that didn’t have a bunk in the ark and started the whole shebang over. Yet as soon as Noah raised a crop of something fermentable he proceeded to get stinkin’ drunk and God’s new and improved enterprise began to flounder once again. Since a reboot of the system didn’t work God went to plan B. He picked out a decent guy and gal (Abraham and Sarah) to start a special race that would quarantine themselves from the rabble running around worshipping everything from cows to volcanos. This worked better. Back then everyone on the planet understood by age 6 what a covenant was. It was the only thing that kept the populace from descending into utter anarchy. The solemn deal of “since you promise to do this I promise to do that” was usually notarized by an exchange of blood and the resulting treaty helped establish and maintain a modicum of cooperation between peoples. So God employed the covenant concept to give the Israelites assurances plus a set of moral/ethical standards as the focus of their religion instead of imaginary monsters or lightning bolts. In doing this God created a race of humans civilized enough that His Son could later be born and raised among them to an age where He could not only save them from their sins but reveal to everyone the loving, merciful and forgiving nature of their Father in heaven. It took generations of preparation but, when the time was right, God Himself introduced to the world a religion worthy of our respect based solely on Jesus Christ. God implanted a universal yearning for religion in our DNA code on purpose. He wants us to want Him.
Some wear their “I ain’t religious” tee shirt like a badge of honor but they do so in spite of the fundamental fact that men and women are, at heart, religion-seeking mammals. The sciences of anthropology, sociology and psychology all concur. People long to have some kind of religious experience. There’s not a single age, culture or civilization in our past that didn’t practice or profess some brand of religion. In an ironic way, atheism itself is a religion because its converts hold their anti-God beliefs to be sacred and unassailable. Therefore an atheist can be deemed just as “religious” as a rattlesnake-handling Pentecostal! In essence, we’re all born with the religion gene. Billy Graham wrote, “Religion can be defined as having two magnetic poles, the biblical and the naturalistic. The biblical pole is described in the teachings of the Bible. The naturalistic pole is explained in all the man-made religions. In humanistic systems there are always certain elements of truth. Many of these faiths have borrowed from Judeo-Christianity; many use portions and incorporate their own fables. Other religions or faiths have in fragments what Christianity has as a whole.” That’s what the Apostle Paul was referring to when he wrote that foolish men nevertheless thought themselves wise when they “…exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:23). All false religions carefully cherry-pick principles from God’s revelation, stir in loads of their own inventions and end up preaching a confusing conglomerate of second-hand and often downright weird dogma. “Natural” religions don’t come down from the Heavenly Father. Rather they spring up from the world that He not only created but the same one that callously turned its back on Him. It’s fair to say false religions are counterfeit versions of the real thing and their very presence proves the existence of God’s unabridged truth. There’d be no fakes without the genuine article to imitate.
Gotta admit the subject of religion has spawned some great quips. James M. Barrie observed, “One’s religion is whatever he’s most interested in.” Charles Colton wrote, “Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it, anything but live for it” while Ben Franklin opined, “If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it?” So when did all this arguing about religion start in the first place? You can’t get far into Genesis without discovering the answer. After the first couple begat two sons you’d think they would’ve instilled in their boys the vital importance of staying on God’s good side. As parents Adam and Eve probably tried their best but Cain wanted his will to be done. He ignored God’s instructions and brought a wagonload of fruits and vegetables to the altar. Figuratively, he offered the Lord the distinctive elements of his own culture topped off with a smug “See what I did?” attitude. Nowadays we’d call Cain’s scheme trying to achieve salvation via one’s works but, since God is absolute holiness, that endeavor will always be a wild goose chase. Abel, on the other hand, was obedient. He humbly gave to God the first and finest of his flock. Abel understood sin to be a capital crime and could only be atoned for through the substitutionary death of a guiltless sacrifice. God hates sin so much lifeblood had to be shed to cover its stain. Just “any old thing” wouldn’t do. In Leviticus 17:11 God told Moses, “…the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life.” It’s implied that Cain was aware of that stipulation but opted to see if he could squeak by with giving up less.
The Bible makes it clear that blood is the only thing that can wash away sin. Hebrews 9:22 states, “Indeed according to the law almost everything was purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Many don’t want to talk about “the shedding of blood” but it’s the only thing that drives home to people of all walks in life just how seriously the Creator takes our sin. Sin’s a life-and-death matter. That’s why God incarnate, Jesus Christ, had to bleed in order to spare us from the consequences of our sins. Nothing but the blood of the Son of God could fully atone for the acts of our inherently wicked hearts. Christ’s crucifixion also underscored the principle of substitution that Cain failed to grasp. In the Old Testament an animal without any defects took the place of the guilty person but when Jesus came He became the sacrifice, paying the ultimate price for us once and for all. He was the most pure and innocent person who ever graced this planet and, because of His unfathomable love for every one of us, He willingly suffered and died in our place. Now there’s no more need for bloodshed. Our debt has been permanently purged from the books. 1 Peter 1:18-21 explains: “You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed – not by perishable things like silver or gold, but by precious blood like that on an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake. Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”
When Cain did things his way instead of God’s way his heart soured. Hate took over. Just as a Christian will frequently be despised by adherents of man-made religions, Abel became the focus of Cain’s resentment and his anger festered until he brutally murdered his brother. Things haven’t changed all that much. Billions of people in this world have swallowed hook, line and sinker the malicious “death to the infidels” teachings of a charismatic 7th century false prophet. They don’t care to acknowledge the Cain-logic flaw in their religion that grants them license to kill not only those who follow the King of kings (who instructed His disciples to love everyone) but any man, woman or child that doesn’t bow down to their all-too-human and very dead master.
Here’s a news flash for non-believers: Christianity isn’t a religion. Religion can be defined as man’s effort to reach up to God whereas Christianity is the Father descending to man and establishing a personal, eternal relationship with him. The ongoing interest in the occult and in Eastern religions is indicative of man’s search for God. Whether we want to admit it or not, we human beings are instinctively religious and to deny it is akin to deliberately cutting off a limb or two from our bodies. But God’s not hiding from us. He reveals Himself to us four ways: in nature, our conscience, the Scriptures and through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. (See my previous essay.) Thus nobody has a legitimate excuse for not knowing God.
However, having said all that, it’s no shock that so many take a gander at religion and declare, “I don’t want any part of that nonsense.” Religion doesn’t sport an impressive track record, for sure. History reveals extreme cruelties and despicable injustices perpetrated in the name of religion. A comprehensive list of those awful atrocities would stretch from here to Borneo. Not to mention the strange, self-mutilating rituals individuals voluntarily subject themselves to in order to please their god or to prove their allegiance to it. It’s no secret that human beings, including infants and toddlers, have been killed as sacrifices in the name of religion. And there’s no limit as to what can be idolized. In the Pacific islands some people worship trees. They’ve come to believe the souls of their ancestors now reside in them so they make offerings to the trees. They’re sure that if the tree suffers any damage whatsoever catastrophe will visit their village. Heaven forbid the tree should be cut down because everybody on the island would get cut down, too. These aren’t stupid folks; they just accept what’s been handed down to them for centuries without reservation. Personally, I’d rather pay homage to a plant than to a mortal any day of the week. Thank God I don’t have to do that. But I digress.
Kings, queens, emperors and tyrants have all been worshiped as gods in the name of religion even though they stubbed their toe on a door frame from time to time just like everybody else. Sir James Frazer wrote, “At a certain stage of early society the king or priest is often thought to be endowed with supernatural powers or to be an incarnation of a deity; …he’s held responsible for bad weather, failure of the crops and similar calamities.” So, while being revered as a god has its perks, it also brings along the burden of shouldering the blame when disasters happen. The Mikado belonged to the class of elite Japanese monarchs and was looked up to as the spiritual emperor of the country. He actually held the official title of “manifest or incarnate deity.” One account reports it was considered a shameful degradation for him to even touch the ground with his foot! Furthermore his hair, beard and nails were never to be trimmed. Yikes! Today these eccentricities come off as ridiculousness and provide ammunition to those who regard religion to be nothing more than primitive superstitions borne of sheer ignorance. Walter Kaufmann, a professor of philosophy, stated in the ‘50s: “The term ‘religion’ has come into use as a label for referring all at once to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism as well as a great many other siblings, some of whom have proper names and some of whom do not, but all of whom are taken to be sufficiently similar to the seven mentioned here to make it useful to lump them together.” He, like too many skeptics, didn’t investigate enough about Jesus Christ to recognize that the differences between the movement bearing our Savior’s precious name and all the others are numerous and profoundly striking. It’s more imperative than ever before that Christians make sure everyone we share the good news with understands what those differences are.
What are they? Jesus professed to be God and proved it by a convergence of three unprecedented sets of miracles: (1) fulfillment of centuries of prophecy, (2) His miracle-filled life and (3) His resurrection from the dead. This unique coming together of supernatural events confirms His claims to be God in human flesh and they’re backed by verified accounts preserved in writing by first-hand witnesses. Norman L. Geisler stated, “Jesus Christ was unique in that He alone, of all who ever lived, was both God and man. Only Christ is miraculously confirmed to be God and, by virtue of that, to be believed in whatever He teaches as true.” Never forget that Jesus matter-of-factly separated Himself from all other pretenders when he avowed, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father too” (John 14:6-7). Notice in particular His bold claim that there’s only one way to God. Both Hinduism and Baha’ism disagree with Him. Buddhism, a nontheistic if not atheistic religion, categorically denies there’s any truth to that statement whatsoever. Islam considers it criminally blasphemous. No, Christianity stands quite alone. Jefferson Bethke highlighted another distinction when he wrote, “All the other religions center on people’s righteousness – what we do and how good we are. Real Christianity centers on Jesus’ righteousness – what He has done and how good He is.”
Inevitably, though, rational comparisons usually aren’t enough to change a mind closed to all intrusions by the truth. That’s when personal experience and testimony of a changed life is the best evidence to bring into the discussion. Ravi Zacharias, who was raised as a Hindu, stated: “I came to Jesus because I didn’t know which way to turn. I’ve remained with Him because there’s no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I didn’t have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has three hundred and thirty million deities. I remain with Him knowing that truth cannot be all-inclusive. Truth by definition excludes.” I can relate to Ravi’s conviction. I was once so deeply imbedded in sin I felt doomed to despair. No one but God Almighty could’ve rescued me and transformed me into a new creation. He did. I’m living proof that Christ is, indeed, the way, the truth and the life.