Has God spoken to us through one of the major world religions? In this page we look at at how the various religions answer some of the most pressing questions we might want to know about God.
What the religions stand for
If we want to know the truth about the different religions, perhaps the most important questions are those relating to the purpose of life, how we know truth about God and what God requires of us. Here’s a summary.
(Please note: it is difficult for an outsider to grasp and summarise the subtleties of these religions – I have done my best to be fair, but further reading is recommended if you want to know more.)
1. The purpose of life
- In the monotheistic religions, the purpose of life is to live in order to earn God’s favour and so attain the afterlife.
- In the dharmic religions, the purpose of life is to live so that one escapes the cycle of rebirth, and so attain unity with the life force of the universe.
- In the taoic religions, the purpose of life appears to be to live according with natural law.
2. How can we know the truth about God?
All of the 12 major world religions have their sacred writings. In some cases the writings are believed to have been dictated by God (e.g. Islam) or at least originated with God (e.g. Christianity, Judaism); in others the authority of a teacher is considered sufficient (e.g. Confucianism, Baha’i, Sikhism, Buddhism). The Hindu sacred writings have many authors and were developed over more than a millenium.
The important question for us is whether we can believe these scriptures came from God or at least tell us real truths about him. This requires some assessment of the historical evidence for these writings, whether their teachings are consistent with what philosophy and science tell us about God and the world, and the credibility of the authors (a very subjective matter).
3. How can we know what God is like?
Most religions began with a prophet, teacher or leader who inspired and taught others. Leaders such as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Baha’u’llah, Guru Nanak and Confucius (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Baha’i, Sikhism and Confucianism, respectively) are believed by historians to be historical figures (whether or not all stories about them are historical is another matter). However some religions did not begin with one teacher (Hinduism, Shinto); in others the historicity of the teacher is less certain (Jainism, Zoroastrianism).
These leaders have differing status and authority within their religion:
- Mohammed, Moses, Guru Nanak, Mahavira, Zarathustra and Baha’u’llah claimed or are believed to be prophets or spokesmen for God. They each died, but their words and writings live on after them and are authoritative for believers.
- Lao-Tzu and Confucius also died and left teachings behind them, but are believed to have become gods after their deaths.
- The Buddha (“awakened one”) was a human being who achieved nirvana and whose teachings were written down after his death, but he did not teach about God.
- Christianity claims that Jesus was not merely human, but the one true God in human form. Although he was killed, he didn’t stay dead, and is thus alive today, although not in a human bodily form. Thus the Christian God differs from the other Gods in that he has given the human race a portrait of his character, and has ‘got his hands dirty’ in the world in a way which the others do not claim. Some other religions (e.g. Islam, Judaism) find this claim blasphemous.
4. How can we please God and earn his favour?
Most monotheistic religions, and Sikhism, believe that God requires a strict observance of ethical codes of behaviour, and/or the particular rituals of that religion, for example:
- a good Muslim gains paradise through loving submission to the will of Allah, expressed though practising the five pillars;
- to be approved by God, a good Jew obeys the ethical and ritual laws of the Torah;
- a good Sikh is able to leave the life cycle and be united with God by practising meditation, work, charity and service; in Jainism, the ethical and ascetic requirements are especially stringent;
- Baha’is believe if we become closer to God in this life, through obedience to him, we will be close to him in the afterlife.
These elements of rules and rituals are also found in some forms of Christianity, but at its heart, Christianity is more about receiving forgiveness than about earning merit. Thus Jesus did not just provide the teachings which started the Christian faith, but Christians believe his death was a sacrifice which provides forgiveness for those who ask for it.
In the taoic and dharmic religions (apart from Sikhism), the aim is not to please God (not all have firm beliefs in a god or gods), but rather to conform one’s behaviour to the life force of the universe (however that concept is expressed):
- Hindus escape the cycle of rebirth and return to Brahman by following the path of duties, knowledge or devotion; Buddhists by following the eightfold path,
- Confucianism and Taoism require appropriate behaviour; on its own, Confucianism says virtually nothing about gods or an afterlife, but Taoism, with which it is often combined, stresses certain rituals which align the worshipper with the spirit world,
- in Shinto, worship at shrines is important to appease the gods or spirits.
5. How do we get the strength of character to live as God wants?
Trying to live an ethical life is not easy. Obeying rules can be difficult, and maintaining a right attitude is even harder. For all believers, regardless of their religion, there is an element of us struggling ‘down here’ while God watches from “up there’.
In most world religions, believers are required to discipline themselves in order to live the life expected of them. The rituals and practices of their religion assist them to achieve this, and most religions believe God is gracious and assists those who seek to please him. However the struggle to please God is a core part of most beliefs.
Christianity differs from the other religions in its belief that God is present and active in the life of each believer, in the form of his Spirit. Jesus taught that his Spirit (not just an impersonal force, but God in a personal but non-visible form) would give his followers advice and power to overcome their tendency to fail.
When we ask these important questions, it is evident that, with two exceptions, each of the religions in the three groups (monotheistic, dharmic and taoic religions) shares many similar attributes with the others in that group. The two “exceptions” are:
- Sikhism, which shares some characteristics with the monotheistic religions (belief in one God and the importance of practical ethical behaviour) and some with the dharmic religions (the ultimate aim of attaining nirvana and release from the cycle of re-birth); and
- Christianity, which is unlike the other monotheistic religions (and the dharmic and taoic religions for that matter) in its belief that its founder was divine and not just human, its emphases on salvation through God’s grace and forgivness (rather than moral effort) and its belief in the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer.