What do people around the world believe? Keeping a few basic principles in mind will help us better understand the major world religions that appear in this brief overview.
First, let’s temporarily suspend judgment as we seek to understand what others believe. If we judge too quickly, we may be judging a perversion of that religion rather than fundamentals of that religion. Second, try not to compare the ideal best of your faith with the historical worst of theirs. Next, let’s remember that religions are big and complex. Even within systems that identify as Christian there are numerous differences. For example, your local congregation and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church are considered Christian but vary in Scripture, beliefs, and practices. Finally, we generally focus on beliefs, but apart from a few beliefs people hold dearly, most people are united by the things they do in their religion.
Addressing Life’s Big Problems
I would like for us to look at how each of the major religious traditions of the world addresses the big problems of life. Every religion is a religion of salvation. Religions assume that something is terribly wrong and that we need to be saved from a fundamental problem. On this all religions agree.
Traditional religions (such as those found among tribal groups in Africa) see the big problem of life as bad luck. They focus on the here and now, not what will happen in the afterlife. They want power to protect against harm. The supreme God is not the primary focus; he is benign. But the closer spirits can harm or help. These religions seek protection from harm when traveling, protection from curses by enemies, protection from difficult childbirth or barrenness, and help for good rain and crops. They seek salvation from bad luck.
Hinduism focuses on salvation from the cycle of reincarnation. Hindus believe that the atman (the unchanging soul) goes through numerous rebirths, and each rebirth is determined by the type of life they lived previously. Were they good in a previous life? Then their karma assures them a good life when reborn. If they were evil, they could come back as a poor person with many problems or even a lower life form. Since Hinduism has no founder and a multitude of scriptures, Hindus have multiple ideas about how to eventually escape the cycle of birth and death. (Some Hindus believe in only one God, but it is common for them to believe in a multitude of deities who might help them.) In the West, some have glorified the concept of reincarnation, but within Hinduism this is an enemy to be defeated.
Buddhism grew out of a Hindu culture. There are many similarities between the two but also major differences. Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul that needs to be saved from anything. They believe we are made up of skandhas (impermanent heaps of form, sensations, and other factors that lead to self-awareness and strong desires.) What we need to be saved from is suffering. Humans suffer because they desire. They desire what they cannot get. If they get rid of these desires, this will ultimately lead to the end of suffering. The skandhas will then dissolve. What lies beyond that is unclear, but Nirvana means to “blow out.” Harmful desires are extinguished. Suffering is over. (Theravada Buddhists believe that gods, if there are any, cannot help. Mahayana Buddhists believe great souls called bodhisattvas help others on the path to enlightenment.)
There are three major monotheistic religions (religions that believe there is only one God): Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Let’s look at how they view the big problem of life.
Judaism is the smallest of the world religions under consideration, but its influence has far surpassed its size. Modern rabbinic Judaism is substantially different from what Christians imagine from their reading of the Bible. In a 2010 report from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, secular (non-religious, sometimes even atheistic) Jews make up 42 percent of Israeli Jews. Israeli Jews are generally more religious than American Jews. Even secular Jews may believe in God and practice certain Jewish rituals, but they are not aligned with traditional religious groups. What do all Jews, both secular and religious, have in common when they view the big problem of life? They see an attempt by enemies to destroy them as a people. Salvation, even for the atheistic Jew, is salvation from extermination as a people. They must preserve their identity as a people. This is one reason why the State of Israel is so important for Jewish identity.
Islam is the youngest of the major monotheistic religions. A person who follows the religion of Islam is called a Muslim. What is the big problem of life from a Muslim perspective? It is associating partners with God, worshiping God plus something else, or worshiping something else in place of God. In Arabic this is called shirk and is considered to be the greatest of all sins. The most basic message of Muhammad (who died in 632) was that we should worship only God who created Heaven and earth because we will stand before him on the Day of Judgment. (Jews most usually say they worship the same God as Muslims. This was the position of Maimonides and other great Jewish rabbis, and it is the position of most Jews today. Christians are divided on the subject. If a Christian says he worships the same God as Jews but not the same God as Muslims, this may cause a Jew to chuckle.) For a Muslim, salvation from shirk is the most important goal. Whether God sends us to Heaven or hell, we should worship only God, because God deserves that. In fact, most Muslims believe they will never be good enough to enter Heaven, and so they often think they will go to hell for a period of time before God in his mercy brings them to Heaven.
Now we come to the largest of the world religions, Christianity in all of its Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant forms. What do we believe is the big problem of life, the problem we must be saved from? It is the problem of sin. In Matthew 1:21, an angel told Joseph that Mary his wife would give birth to a son, and they should call him Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.” The gospel message focuses on the problem of sin and its removal, so that we may live a righteous life in the kingdom of God. We believe that sin is the root problem that leads to all the other problems world religions focus on. Removal of sin through Christ (whether sin causes guilt, shame, or fear) is at the heart of the gospel. It should be good news for all within religions of the world as they face the big problems of life.
Perhaps you have friends or neighbors who belong to one of the major religions and you want to talk with them. Here are a few suggestions:
- Feel free to ask questions about what they believe and do. As long as you are respectful and truly listen they will probably be happy to answer your questions.
- Treat others the way you want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
- Read good books on other religious traditions, not just books written by Christians about them. I would recommend three books: The illustrated World Religions by Huston Smith; Our Religions, by Arvind Sharma, ed.; and Christian Barriers to Jesus, by J. Paul Pennington.
Donald S. Tingle is the executive director of COMENSERV, a ministry that focuses on the Muslim world. He lives much of the time in Kenya. The author welcomes questions and will be glad to provide additional guidance on the topic of world religions. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.