Recently, I wrote an opinion piece outlining six lessons I have learned on my interfaith journey. I concluded by stating it was really the way Jesus treated those who were different, the “outsiders,” that prompted my acceptance and celebration of people in my life who follow other spiritual paths.
But because I am a Baptist Christian, Scripture also plays a pivotal role in shaping my attitude toward other faiths and those who are devoted to them.
What biblical passages, then, guide my attitude toward other religions and the ones who follow their teachings?
“God saw everything that (God) had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
While this verse does not say God created religions, by implication it can be deduced that God is neither surprised nor troubled by the diverse, creative ways human beings seek a higher power.
Eugene March, emeritus professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, writes: “The diversity within our world is something most of us take for granted. There are (about) 50 million species of plants and animal life currently to be found, and it is estimated that perhaps as many as 50 billion have existed at one time or another across the long lifespan of our world. Difference is simply obvious: different flowers, different animals, different languages, different people. …
“So why should there not be different religions? Why should we be surprised or troubled by the reality of different ways to express spirituality? Since diversity seems to be the norm in creation, by analogy a pluralism of religious responses among the people of the world is reasonable to expect.”
“I do not think God fears or rejects the different ways human beings seriously seek to encounter the divine.”
It seems evident God celebrates diversity in the world; thus, I do not think God fears or rejects the different ways human beings seriously seek to encounter the divine. By extension, I believe we also should not fear and reject but rather celebrate and accept people who follow other spiritual paths as we share life together.
The account of the Syro-Phoenician mother who asked Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter is found in this earliest of the four canonical Gospels, whose authorship — probably between 66-70 C.E. — implies this incident likely was an important story shared freely in the early church.
Although Jesus’ question about the fairness of taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs is puzzling — and perhaps reveals how cultural values had influenced his human nature — the conclusion of the story reveals he determined to act counterculturally and to give compassionate attention to the needs of those unlike himself.
According to New Zealand missionary and Anglican scholar Bob Robinson, Jesus’ healing of the child was completely consistent with the way he announced his missional intentions in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4:18-19. In that dramatic announcement, Jesus said the Spirit of the Lord had appointed him to bring good news to the poor and he recalled two Gentiles — the widow of Zaraphath and Naaman the Syrian — to illustrate how his mission would reach Gentiles as well as Jews.
Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of Gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounters with persons of other faiths, primarily due to the attention he gave to fellow Jews prior to his resurrection.
But Robinson reminds his readers that in addition to healing the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, Jesus cured the servant of the Roman soldier in Capernaum, showed compassion for the woman at the well of Sychar and chose a Samaritan to be the hero of one of his most famous parables. These stories demonstrate that Jesus treated people of other faiths as his neighbors.
“Jesus treated people of other faiths as his neighbors.”
Therefore, since imago Christi (“the imitation of Christ”) is such an important moral imperative in Christian history, I want to love the “Gentiles” and “Samaritans” in my contemporary world.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about trees that produce good or bad fruit. He explains: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will know them by their fruits.”
And, immediately after declaring the fate of those who produce bad fruit in their lives, Jesus says not everyone who claims to know him will enter the kingdom.
This teaching causes me to think: What about those people I knew in Java, those who were not confessing Christians yet were living according to the Jesus Way of compassion, forgiveness, humility, kindness, generosity and self-sacrifice? Weren’t they producing good fruit in their lives? Will they be “cut down” for not naming Jesus as their Savior?
In the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus talks about the final judgment, when people will be divided like sheep and goats. The goats will be those who did not perform acts of kindness toward the least of God’s little ones, while the sheep will be those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked and visited the sick or imprisoned.
There is nothing in this parable about the sheep being those persons who self-identified as Jesus followers, nor is there any indication that the criterion for entering the kingdom is what a person believes, but rather how he or she acts.
“There is nothing in this parable about the sheep being those persons who self-identified as Jesus followers.”
So, once again, I am compelled to think about the eternal destiny of those good persons who conscientiously follow other faiths yet act toward others in the ways Jesus taught and demonstrated. How will God respond to these people who live the ethical way of Jesus?
This may seem an odd choice of Scriptures to support an accepting attitude toward the religious identity of some of the people who follow other faiths. In fact, it is the very first Scripture that others usually cite when they wish to question or challenge my view.
According to John’s Gospel, written some six or seven decades after the resurrection, Jesus claimed: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I understand this statement to mean that those who walk in the way of Jesus, the path of living as he lived, will be acceptable to God. That doesn’t mean every adherent of a different faith is automatically received into God’s reward, but that those who build their lives on the truth of this ethical way will indeed be welcomed by God
Finally, the account of Peter at the home of Cornelius in Acts 10 is a remarkable one for me and is perhaps my favorite Scripture. The context is Peter’s visit with a Gentile, Cornelius, after a vision on the rooftop in Joppa when Peter saw a blanket, laden with food, that descended in front of him. He heard God speaking to him, giving instructions to eat the non-kosher, culturally forbidden foods.
Then, after this vision, Peter was guided by Gentile servants to the home of Cornelius, where he was startled to see the Holy Spirit fall upon Cornelius and his family. This prompted Peter to exclaim: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears (God) and does what is right is acceptable to (God).”
While I realize this aha! moment for Peter, the Jewish disciple of Jesus, concerns his surprise that even Gentiles are acceptable to God, if I place his surprising revelation in the context of today — and allow it to refer to people of other religious traditions — I am fascinated. Perhaps even divinely surprised.
What, indeed, does it mean that in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God?
I realize some will say I am simply cherry-picking passages of Scripture that support my view of other faiths. They may argue that I am placing the Great Commandment above the Great Commission. They perhaps will wonder why I was a missionary for a quarter century if I questioned whether all the people I met were destined for an eternity in hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus.
Sadly, a few of these might question the genuineness of my faith because of my unorthodox views, or even strike my name from their list of friends.
It is risky to take a stand that goes against the norm. But it is the right thing for me to do. My friends who are followers of other faiths deserve a Christian voice that affirms and celebrates their good lives. God loves them, and so do I.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.
Six lessons learned on my interfaith journey | Opinion by Robert Sellers
Lessons learned on a journey of interfaith friendship | Opinion by Rob Sellers