Re. Evangelization and Tolerating other Religions
- Mr. Paul Varghese has asked a question which I also had been
plagued with for many years of my youth. I had many non-Christian
friends who were/are very pious and who lead model lives
(in the sense their religions taught them - which is to be good).
Recently out of the blue my eight year old asked me an urgent
question if her friend (whom she loved) is going to go to hell
just because she is not a Christian, and "should I talk to her
about Jesus"? I could not answer her question immediately - so
I decided to look up some literature to see what Christian scriptures/theologians have to say about this issue.----
Orthodox Christianity holds that someone's eternal resting place,
that is, heaven or hell, is determined by faith in Jesus. To that
end, missionaries were sent worldwide to "convert" the heathens
(meaning anyone who didn't believe like they did). Paul's journeys
were for the distinct purpose of spreading the gospel to all
people. The early church presented the gospel wherever it could
get a hearing. Acts 2 records Peter sharing the gospel with a
crowd who'd gathered outside the house the disciples were staying
in. In Acts 8 we read of Philip teaching a traveling Ethiopian who
had asked about the meaning of scripture. In Athens, Paul addressed
a crowd at a temple and shared the gospel by comparing
God to one of the Athenian gods (Acts 17). On another occasion,
Paul was imprisoned and had the opportunity to share the gospel
with King Agrippa (Acts 26). But in each case, the gospel story
was this: Jesus is the messiah, the son of God, and people should
repent of the sin in their lives and do good deeds.
It wasn't: Believe or else. . .
However, the methods used to share the gospel changed dramatically
by the Middle Ages, the church had sent pilgrims to Jerusalem to
slaughter the Muslims, thus beginning the Crusades. In the twelfth
century the inquisition began and over the next 700 years the
church killed thousands who didn't believe "correctly." All this in
the name of conversion to orthodox Christianity. Since then, human
rights have come to outweigh the demands of orthodoxy and conversion
methods changed. However, the motivation to convert people to orthodox Christianity remains the same: without belief in Jesus there can be no
eternal life. This doctrine provides the drive to challenge the belief
systems of others "for their own good". There are others who are
uncomfortable with the Orthodox Church's belief. They look at scripture through different eyes and with a different interpretation.
They take the words of Paul to heart when he says,
"For what can be known about God is plain to
(those who have not heard/accepted the gospel], because God has shown it
to them. Ever since the creation of the world God's eternal power and
divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen
through the things God has made" (Romans 1.19-20). In other words, we can
and do know God apart from the scriptures. Further,Paul wrote in
Romans 11 that all those of the Jewish faith shall be saved, for
"as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their ancestors;
because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable"(Romans 11.28b-29). Thus, there is more than a single way to be faithful to God.
Those who look at these and other passages, at the content of the ancient church's preaching, and at the teachings of Jesus himself, conclude that we cannot know everything there is to know about God or about "salvation."
And so they share the gospel with those who are interested and/or with
those who are receptive.
Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and make more disciples.
It is a mandate all Christians carry. How can we fulfill that commission
if we don't know anyone who's interested in Christianity, let alone the
Church? It's a sad fact that many Christians don't have any friends
who aren't already Christians. It has long been a custom of Christians
to associate only with other Christians
(sectarian too- Indian Orthodox with Indian Orthodox,Syrian Orthodox
with Syrian Orthodox, Marthomites with Marthomites, Pentecostals with
strictly Pentecostals) .
But clearly, that was neither the instruction nor the example of Jesus.
Jesus told his followers they were to make a difference in the world:
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste,how can
its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything,but is
thrown out and trampled under foot. No one after lighting a lamp puts
it under the bushel but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all
in the house"
(Matthew 5.13-15). If non-Christians are to see that "light" then
Christians have to be out where they can do the most good. In the
same manner, salt is only useful if it's mixed in with food . Salt in
the salt shaker is worthless. Jesus was trying to get across that his followers were to get out and mingle. By his example, Jesus showed his disciples exactly what he meant. Jesus took his followers with him to
parties where prostitutes hung out. He visited in non-Jewish homes.
Similarly Christians should take the initiative to go meet the
outcasts of the society.Just by saying Hello! To one of them we are
sharing our faith.
High morality is advocated by almost all religions on the earth, they
teach people to be good, to be gentle, kind, ecologically-minded, and tolerant/protectors of all life. The philosophy of being good and "doing no
harm to others" is very different from the teachings Jesus taught of
"love God" and "love your neighbor." Doing no harm to another is a
passive act while loving another is active. Indeed, Jesus told a story
that lambasted those who did no harm, but did no good either
(Luke 10.30-37). Jesus was very specific that those who chose to follow
him were to be active in the world-and ecological conservation, or being
kind to "mother earth," wasn't on his agenda, though appropriate
stewardship of resources is a by-product of loving and honoring God.
Jesus told his followers to get busy "making disciples, baptizing them,
and teaching them to obey all of His commandments" (Matthew 28.19-20,)
Jesus, was very specific in naming God as a "personality." Jesus taught
that God was the God who created the universe, not the God who is a
part of the universe (eg. god of rain, god of wealth, god of sun and son,
god of "good hair days" etc.) Paul wrote "God gave them up . . . because
they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served [creation] rather than the Creator . . . " (Romans 1.24-25).
Yet many of the finer points of the teachings of the denominations are
focused on obscure, relatively unimportant ritualistic points. Churches
wanting their Head in Antioch or Head in India may be important, but surely they should not be the primary focus of the church - should they? And yet, whole denominations have been created and others divided based on these very issues. Is sprinkling water atop the head of someone being baptized really worth fighting about? But the church/denominations has fought over these and still continue to fight over many of these trivial pursuits rather than spreading the gospel to the ends of the world.
"One who is united to God by faith and recognizes Him by action is indeed enabled to see Him by contemplation. He sees things of which I am not able to write. His mind sees visions and is wholly illuminated and becomes like Light, yet he is unable to conceive of them or describe them. His mind is itself Light and sees all things as Light, and the Light has Life and imparts Light to him who sees it. He sees himself wholly united to the Light, and as he sees he concentrates on the vision and is as he was. He perceives the Light in his soul and is in ecstasy."
St. Symeon the New Theologian.
"I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land." Psalm 143:6