Question: "With all of the different religions, how can I know which one is correct?"
Answer: First, let’s consider some thoughts on the overall subject and then look at how one might approach the topic in a manner that can actually get to a true and right conclusion about God. The challenge of different answers to a particular issue is not unique to the topic of religion. For example, you can sit 100 math students down, give them a complex problem to solve, and it’s a fair bet that many will get the answer wrong. But does this mean that a correct answer doesn’t exist? Not at all. Those who get the answer wrong simply need to be shown their error and given the techniques necessary to arrive at the right end result.
The world also has many different political systems, with many living under those systems believing their form of government is the right or best way for social order to be carried out. However, even those who have grown up under certain political regimes and been thoroughly indoctrinated into those belief systems still have the capability to recognize the flaws in certain forms of government (e.g. fascism) and see that other systems are ‘better’ (e.g. democracy). They do so by examining the facts and making distinctions that matter. The capability to be discerning becomes very important in the area of religion and in all facets of life, which is why Thomas Aquinas, a very skilled theologian who lived in the 1200’s, once remarked “The task of the philosopher is to make distinctions.”
There are plenty of other areas of life where different answers are given to a particular dilemma that’s been posed. But this, of course, leads to the question: “So how do we arrive at the truth about God?” We come to proper deductions about God in the same way that we do about anything else—we use a systematic methodology that is designed to separate truth from error by using various tests for truth, with the end result being a set of right conclusions. Such an approach just makes sense as it is used every day in other disciplines. Can you imagine the end results a scientist would arrive at if he went into the lab and just started mixing things together with no rhyme or reason? Or if a physician just started treating a patient with ad-hoc medicines in the hope of making them well? Neither the scientist nor the physician takes this approach; instead, they use systematic methods that are methodical, logical, evidential, and proven to yield the right end result.
This being the case, why think theology—the study of God— should be any different? Why believe it can be approached in a haphazard and undisciplined way and still yield right conclusions? But, unfortunately, this is the track many run down and this is one of the reasons why so many religions exist. That said, we now return to the question of how to reach truthful conclusions about God. What systematic approach should be used? First, we need to establish a framework for testing various truth claims, and then we need a roadmap to follow to reach a right conclusion. A good framework to use is the following:
1. Logical consistency—this refers to whether or not a belief system has claims that logically cohere to each other and do not contradict in any way. As an example, the end goal of Buddhism is to rid oneself of all desires. Yet, one must have a desire to rid oneself of all desires, which is a contradictory and illogical principle.
2. Empirical adequacy—this simply asks the question: is there evidence to support the belief system (whether the evidence be rational, externally evidential, etc.) Naturally, it is only right to want proof for important claims being made so the assertions can be verified. An example of this is found in Mormonism. Mormons teach that Jesus visited North America. Yet there is absolutely no proof, archaeological or otherwise, to support such a claim.
3. Existential relevancy—this concerns itself with whether the belief system matches up with reality as we know it and if it makes a meaningful difference in the life of the one who ascribes to it. Deism, for example, claims that God just threw the spinning world out into the universe and does not interact or care at all about those who live on it. How does such a belief impact someone in a day-to-day manner? In short, it doesn’t. [Note that care must be taken here—just because something doesn’t matter to an individual doesn’t make it necessarily false.]
The output of the above framework, when applied to the topic of religion, will help lead one to a right view of God and will answer the four big questions of life:
1. Origin – where did we come from?
2. Ethics – how should we live?
3. Meaning – what is the purpose for life?
4. Destiny – where is mankind heading?
But how does one practically go about applying this framework in the pursuit of God? There are a variety of ways to go about it, but a step-by-step question/answer approach is one of the best tactics to employ. Narrowing the list of possible questions down to the key one produces the following:
1. Does absolute truth exist?
2. Do reason and religion mix?
3. Does God exist?
4. Can God be known?
5. Is Jesus God?
6. Does God care about me?
In a short article like this, it is impossible to go into any great depth on any of the above points, but a cursory examination can be done to show how each question filters out invalid belief systems and worldviews so that the truth about God can be realized. First we need to know if absolute truth exists. If it doesn’t, then we really can’t be sure of anything (spiritual or not) and we end up either an agnostic, not knowing if you can really know anything, or as a pluralist, accepting every position because we’re really not sure which one, if any, are right.
Absolute truth is defined as that which matches reality; that which corresponds to its object; telling it like it is. Some say there is no such thing as absolute truth, but taking such a position becomes self-defeating. For example, the relativist says, “All truth is relative”, yet one must ask: is that statement absolutely true? If so, then absolute truth exists; if not, then why consider it? Postmodernism affirms no truth, yet it affirms at least one absolute truth: postmodernism is true. We can see how they all betray their own position. In the end, absolute truth becomes undeniable.
Further—and this is important to understand—absolute truth is naturally narrow and excludes its opposite. Two plus two equals four and only four, with no other answer being possible. This point becomes critical as different belief systems and worldviews are compared. If one belief system has components that are proven true, then any competing belief system with contrary claims must be false. Also, we must keep in mind that absolute truth is not impacted by sincerity and desire. No matter how sincerely someone embraces a lie, it is still a lie. And no desire in the world can make something true that is false. Someone can revel in the worship of a deity they call the ‘rose petal goddess’ and sincerely believe such a being exists, but when the existence of the deity is investigated and proven to be false, it would be folly to continue to worship such a thing. As harsh as it may sound, one of the definitions of ‘crazy’ is losing touch with reality. And the reality is that the ‘rose petal goddess’ does not exist.
The conclusion to reach from question one is that absolute truth exists. This being the case, agnosticism (the form that says you don’t know truth), postmodernism, relativism, and skepticism are all false positions to hold.
This leads us to the next question of whether reason/logic can be used in matters of religion. Some say this isn’t possible, but the question is—why not? The truth is, logic is vital when examining spiritual claims because it helps you understand why some claims should be excluded and others embraced. Logic is absolutely critical in dismantling pluralism (which says that all truth claims, even those that oppose each other, are equal and valid).
For example, Islam and Judaism claim that Jesus is not God, whereas Christianity claims He is. One of the core laws of logic is the law of non-contradiction, which says something cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same sense. So applying this law to the claims Judaism, Islam, and Christianity means that one is right and the other two are wrong. Jesus can’t be both God and not God. Used properly, logic is a potent weapon against pluralism because it clearly demonstrates contrary truth claims cannot both be true. This understanding topples the whole “true for you but not for me” mindset; for example, Jesus can’t be God to one person and not God to another—He either is God or He is not, period.
Logic also dispels the whole “all roads lead to the top of the mountain” analogy that pluralists use. Logic shows that each belief system has its own set of signs that point to radically different locations in the end. Rather than the “mountain” analogy, logic shows that the proper illustration of a search for spiritual truth is that it’s more like a maze—one path makes it through to truth, while all others arrive at dead ends. All faiths may have some surface similarities, but they differ in major ways in their core doctrines. As poet Steve Turner writes in part of his poem entitled “Creed”:
“We believe that all religions are basically the same.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”
The conclusion is that you can use reason and logic in matters of religion. That being the case, pluralism (the belief that all truth claims are equally true and valid) is ruled out because it is illogical and contradictory to believe that diametrically opposing truth claims can both be right.
Next comes the big question: does God exist or not? If not, then you end up an atheist and a naturalist (someone who does not embrace anything supernatural or beyond this physical world and universe). While volumes have been written and debates have raged throughout history on this question, it is actually not difficult to answer. To give it proper attention, you must first ask the question: Why do we have something rather than nothing at all? In other words, how did you and everything around you get here? Jonathan Edwards, one of the great preachers of the Great Awakening, posed the answer in this way:
You don’t get something from nothing.
Therefore, a necessary and eternal Being exists.
You can’t deny you exist because you have to exist to deny your own existence (which is self-defeating), so the first premise above is true. No one believes you can get something from nothing (i.e. that ‘nothing’ produced the universe), so the second premise is true. Therefore, the third premise must be true—an eternal Being responsible for everything must exist.
This is a position no thinking atheist denies; they just claim that the universe is that eternal being. However, the problem with that stance is that all scientific evidence points to the conclusion that the universe had a beginning (the ‘big bang’). And everything that has a beginning must have a cause; therefore the universe had a cause and is not eternal. Now, because the only two sources of eternality are an eternal universe (which has been proven to not be true) and an eternal Creator, the only logical conclusion to reach is that God exists. And note that answering the question of God’s existence in the affirmative rules out atheism as a valid belief system.
Now this conclusion says nothing about what kind of God exists, but amazingly enough, it does do one sweeping thing—it rules out all pantheistic religions. All pantheistic worldviews say that the universe is God and is eternal. And this assertion is false. So although it sounds dismissive, it really is true that faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism are all ruled out as valid belief systems.
Further, we learn some interesting things about this God who created the universe. We learn that He is:
• Supernatural in nature (as He exists outside of His creation)
• Incredibly powerful (to have created all that is known)
• Eternal (self-existent as He exists outside of time and space)
• Omnipresent (He created space and is not limited by it)
• Timeless and changeless (He created time)
• Immaterial (because He transcends space/physical)
• Personal (the impersonal can’t create personality)
• Necessary (as everything else depends on Him)
• Infinite and singular (as you cannot have two infinites)
• Diverse yet has unity (as nature exhibits diversity)
• Intelligent (supremely, to create everything)
• Purposeful (as He deliberately created everything)
• Moral (no moral law like the world has can be had without a giver)
• Caring (or no moral laws would have been given)
This Being exhibits very similar characteristics to the God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, which interestingly enough, are the only core faiths left standing once atheism and pantheism have been eliminated. Note also that one of the big questions in life (origins) is now answered: we know where we came from.
This then leads to the next question: can we know God? At this point, the need for religion is replaced by something more important—the need for revelation. If mankind is to know this God well, it is up to God to reveal Himself to His creation. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all claim to have a book that is God’s revelation to man, but the question is: which (if any) is actually true? Pushing aside minor differences, the two core areas of dispute are (1) the New Testament of the Bible (2) the person of Jesus Christ. Islam and Judaism both claim the New Testament of the Bible is untrue in what it claims, and both deny that Jesus is God incarnate, while Christianity affirms both to be true.
Again, space prohibits an exhaustive defense of the New Testament and the identity of Christ, but here are some points to think about. It is not a hollow boast to say that there is no faith on the planet that can match the mountains of evidence that exist for Christianity. From the voluminous number of ancient manuscripts (5,000+), to the very early dating of the historical documents that were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses (some only 15 years after Christ’s death), to the multiplicity of the accounts that were recorded (nine authors in 27 books of the New Testament), to the archaeological evidence that’s been found—none of which has ever contradicted a single claim the New Testament had made—to the fact that the apostles went to their deaths claiming they had seen Jesus in action and that He came back from the dead; Christianity sets the bar in terms of providing the evidence and proof to back up its claims. The New Testament’s historical authenticity—the claim that it conveys a truthful account of the actual events as they occurred—is the only right conclusion to reach once all the evidence has been examined.
When it comes to Jesus, one finds a very curious thing about Him—He claimed to be God in the flesh. Jesus own words (e.g. “Before Abraham was born I AM”), His actions (e.g. forgiving sins, accepting worship nine times), His sinless and miraculous life (which He used to prove His truth claims over opposing claims), and His resurrection all back up His claims to be God. The New Testament writers also affirm this fact over and over again in their writings.
Now here is something to consider—if Jesus is God, then what He says must be true. And if Jesus said that the Bible is inerrant and true in everything it says (which He did), this must mean that the Bible is true in what it proclaims. And as we’ve already learned, two competing truth claims can’t both be right. So anything in the Islamic Koran or writings of Judaism that contradict the Bible can’t be true. In fact, both Islam and Judaism fall down as they both say that Jesus is not God incarnate, but the evidence says otherwise. And because we can indeed know God (because He has revealed Himself to man, both in His written Word and in Christ), all forms of agnosticism are refuted. Lastly, another big question of life is answered—that of ethics—as the Bible contains clear instructions on how mankind ought to live.
Finally, this same Bible proclaims that God cares deeply for mankind and wishes all to know Him intimately. In fact, He cares so much that He became a man to show His creation exactly what God is like. There are many men who have sought to be God, but only one God who sought to be man so He could save those He deeply loves from an eternity of separation from Him. This fact demonstrates the existential relevancy of Christianity and also answers that last two big questions of life—meaning and destiny. Each person has been designed by God for a purpose and each has a destiny that awaits them—one of eternal life with God or eternal separation from Him. Also note that this conclusion (and the point of God becoming a man in Christ) refutes Deism, which says God is not interested in the affairs of mankind.
In the end, we see that ultimate truth about God can be found and the worldview maze successfully navigated when one adheres to a framework for testing various truth claims and systematically works through a method to push aside falsehoods so that only the truth remains. Using the tests of logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and existential relevancy coupled with asking the right questions yields truthful and reasonable conclusions about religion and God. In the end, everyone should agree that the only reason to believe something is because it’s true—nothing more. But sadly, true belief is a matter of the will and no matter how much logical evidence is presented, some will still choose to deny the God who is there.