- Part 1 – Motivation and structure
- Part 2 – Is Christianity unique?
- Part 3 – Are we radically sinful?
- Part 4 – Do we need rescue?
- Part 5 – Conclusions
Is Christianity unique in its conception of sin and salvation?
Before I address this question, let me clear away a major obstacle to this discussion. People often get nervous when you compare religions. The suggestion that one religion is unique in any way sounds horrifically bigoted to many people. To defuse this objection, I’d like to point out that this premise doesn’t argue for the superiority of Christianity or even for its truth. It’s only trying to establish that its teachings on sin and salvation are unique among world religions. That enterprise does not have to be intolerant or bigoted in any way.
For example, if I ask “Which religion teaches that Mohammad was God’s greatest and final prophet?” The answer is “Islam.” Islam is unique in teaching that Mohammad was God’s greatest and final prophet. In making this statement, I’m not arguing that Islam is good or bad. I’m just stating an empirical fact about Muslim teaching.
In the same way, when I ask: “Is Christianity unique in teaching that we’re radically sinful and in radical need of a Savior?” I’m not asking “Is Christianity better than other religions?” or even “Is Christianity true?” I am asking an empirical question about its teachings.
In fact, we could answer “yes” to this question and take that answer as evidence against the truth of Christianity. We could say “Yes, Christianity’s doctrines of sin and salvation are unique, but I reject these doctrines. Therefore, I think Christianity is uniquely false among world religions.”
Having addressed the charge of religious intolerance, let me turn to the purely empirical question of whether Christianity is unique in its understanding of sin and salvation by examining –first- what the three major Christian traditions teach and -second- what four other major world religions teach.
To be fair, I will only be able to look at the historic teachings of the major world faiths. Consequently, I can’t rule out the possibility that there are smaller religions or certain sects within these religions that overlap with Christianity on these issues. If we want to make the argument completely robust, we’d have to argue that either Christianity is true, or one of these smaller religious sects is true. However, the argument as I’ve presented it will allow us to draw conclusions about the contours of the world’s major religions.
Let’s start with Christianity, which is expressed in three major traditions: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Does Catholicism affirm that we are radically sinful and in need of a Savior? Yes. If we look at the Catholic Catechism, it teaches that we are all born afflicted by a sin which is ‘death to the soul’ and teaches that Jesus came “to save us by reconciling us with God.”
Does Eastern Orthodoxy teach that we are radically sinful and in need of a Savior? Here is Anathansius of Alexandria, who is known as ‘the Father of Orthodoxy’. He writes that because we have despised and rejected God, we have been “corrupted according to [our] devices; and death had the mastery over [us] as king.” But God send Jesus to sacrifice himself for us because in no other way “could the corruption of men be undone.”
Finally, Protestantism affirms our radical sinfulness and our radical needs for salvation. The Heidelberg catechism puts it succinctly: we have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor. But God sent Jesus to take the punishment due to us to satisfy the justice of God, and reconcile us to God. Clearly, all three major traditions within Christianity affirm that human beings are radically sinful and in need of a Savior. What about other major world religions?
Buddhism teaches that our fundamental problem as human beings is not sin, but suffering. Our problem is not that we have rebelled against a holy God, but that we desire transient things. The goal of Buddhism is not reconciliation with God, but the attainment of nirvana, a state of bliss in which we are freed from desire and suffering. The oldest Buddhist writings taught that nirvana could be attained through following the Eightfold Path, which professor Huston Smith writes is a “course of treatment” that overcomes self-seeking “not by pills or rituals or grace, but by training.” Mahayana Buddhism, which emerged later, does include the concept of a savior. But the key question is: a savior from what? Not from sin, but from suffering. Buddhists disagree with Christians about the radical nature of sin and about our need for a savior from sin.
Hinduism sees our fundamental problem as samsara, the cycle of reincarnation. We are trapped in this cycle because of bad karma, which we have accumulated from pervious lives. We can achieve liberation (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation through several paths: the way of knowledge, the way of works, or the way of devotion. The way of devotion shares some similarities with Christianity, as the bhakti devotes himself to one of Hinduism’s many deities and the deity rewards his devotion with moksha. But again, the nature of the gift is important. Hindus are seeking liberation from reincarnation, not recsue from sin. Moreover, the way of devotion is only one path among many. It is also possible to achieve moksha through attaining philosophical knowledge or performing one’s duties.
Islam is much closer to Christianity in its conception of sin as rebellion against a holy God, but it differs from Christianity in its understanding of the nature of sin. Islam denies that we are tainted by sin or that it radically infects all our thoughts, words, and deeds. Scholar John Esposito writes that according to Islam: “Sin is not a state of being; it is the result of an act of disobedience… Human beings are not sinful by nature.” The solution to disobedience is simple: obedience. Stop sinning and do what God commands. Muslim Suzanne Haneef writes explicitly that, according to Islam, “there is no need for a Savior.”
Because modern Judaism shares the Old Testament in common with Christianity, its conception of sin as an offense against God is very similar. However, modern Jews reject the idea that we are tainted by sin or inherently corrupted by it. We begin our life as morally neutral and are made good or evil by our actions. They also insist that it’s possible to achieve a right standing before God by following the commandments revealed in the Torah.
Here’s a helpful table that summarizes the conclusions of Prof. Stephen Prothero, the chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. In his excellent book God is Not One, he argues that each world religion posits a fundamental human problem and offers a solution to that problem. I was very happy to see that he reached the same basic conclusions that I did. Buddhism sees our fundamental problem as suffering and the solution as awakening. For Hinduism, it’s samsara and moksha. For Islam, pride and submission. For Judaism, exile and return. For Christianity, sin and salvation.
Listen to Prothero in his introduction, talking about the fundamental differences between world religions. He writes:
[W]hile it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation. Only Christians seek salvation…A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following –baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf- is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals… To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball… [J]ust as hitting home runs is the monopoly of one sport, salvation is the monopoly of one religion. If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ.
Keep in mind that Prothero is not a Christian apologist trying to win converts. He describes himself as ‘religiously confused.’ But he makes precisely the same point that I make in premise 2: Christianity is unique in seeing radical sinfulness as our fundamental problem and seeing salvation or ‘rescue’ as the only solution. If we realize that we are radically sinful and that we do need a Savior, it is rational for us to believe that Christianity is true because Christianity is unique among the world religions in identifying this problem and this solution.
But are we radically sinful? Do we really need a Savior? Let’s address those questions next.
Previous: Part 1 – Motivation and structure
Next: Part 3 – Are we radically sinful?