THE CHALLENGE OF THE WORLD RELIGIONS
or IS CHRISTIANITY UNIQUE?
from N. F. Gier. God, Reason, and the Evangelicals
(University Press of American, 1987), Chapter Five
Copyright held by author.
He who knows one religion knows none.
He who knows me as unborn, as the beginningless, as the Supreme Lord of all the lords –
he, undeluded among men, is freed from all sins.
A monk sees the Dharma and seeing the Dharma he sees me.
When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.
In its historical form, as a mode of doctrine, life and order, he Christian religion cannot be
he one to which the truth belongs, per se – not even if that form be the Reformed.
It pleased the Divine Power to reveal some of the most important articles
of our Catholic creed first to the Zoroastrians....
Max Müller, German Indologist and editor of The Sacred Books of the East, was committed to the truth of Christianity, but he and others worked all of their lives to make available vast material on non‑Christian religions. Close study of the world's scriptures has revealed fascinating parallels which have enabled us to understand the phenomenon of religion much better. In addition, these similarities constitute a challenge to those who propound truths on the basis of one special revelation. Is it now possible for devotees to claim that their religion contains unique truths? Many scholars, among them Christian theologians, give a negative answer to this question.
The impact of the study of comparative religion on 20th Century Christian theology has been great. Many liberal Christians have openly confessed that the uniqueness of Christian claims is subject to honest dispute. Paul Tillich was profoundly influenced by his encounter with the religions of the Orient; and John Hick, once the most respected defender of Christian orthodoxy and uniqueness, has now published a book entitled God Has Many Names. After learning of the Pure Land sects of Japanese Buddhism, Karl Barth, the giant of neoorthodox Christianity, had to admit that “in its historical form, as a mode of doctrine, life and order, the Christian religion cannot be the one to which the truth belongs, per se – not even if that form be the Reformed.”1 Curiously, on the next page Barth goes on to declare adherents of the Pure Land sect “heathen, poor, and utterly lost.” It is not at all clear how Barth can join these two thoughts without contradiction. Barth's ultimate answer is a forensic fideism: the objective similarities are ultimately unimportant, because the true Christian believer calls on the salvific name of Jesus.
Other attempts to secure the uniqueness of Christianity have been just as tenuous or outright incorrect. The contemporary Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx proposes that “in religion outside of Christianity man cannot normally reach to an experience of God except in a vague and often nameless way.”2 One would expect such a claim from the fundamentalists, not a highly respected thinker such as this one. Francis Schaeffer does indeed contend that only the Judeo‑Christian tradition contains worship of an “infinite personal being.”3 Schaeffer's mistake is common among evangelicals as can be seen from this claim in the The New Bible Dictionary (2nd ed.): “The Christian religion is distinctive in that it claims that God can be known as a personal God only in his self‑revelation in the Scriptures” (p. 427). There is a Bhagavata tradition that Krishna actually dictated the Vedas to five scribes, and he is also understood to be found in the Vedas. Both Schillebeeckx and Schaeffer are obviously wrong: Islam, Zoroastrianism, Bhagavatism, and Pure Land Buddhism hold to a personal theism just as profound as Christianity's.
A. Personal Theism, Grace, and Sacrifice
In his book Basic Christianity evangelical John Stott states that “Christianity is a religion of salvation, and there is nothing in the non‑Christian religions to compare with this message of a God who loved, and came after, and died for, a world of lost sinners.”4 Both evangelical Hinduism and Pure Land Buddhism are major savior religions that also have this message. Stott is wrong too in the following claim: “This self‑centeredness of the teaching of Jesus immediately sets him apart from the other great religious teachers of the world. They were self‑effacing. He was self‑advancing. They pointed men away from themselves, saying, 'That is the truth'...but Jesus said, 'I am the truth; follow me.' The founder of none of the ethnic [sic!] religions ever dared to say such a thing.”5
Stott obviously has not read the Bhagavad-Gita where Krishna self‑advancingly states: “Intelligence, knowledge, forgiveness, truthfulness...are created by Me alone” (10:5). Krishna also self‑assertively declares: “He who knows me as the unborn, as the beginningless, as the Supreme Lord of all the worlds – he, undeluded among men, is freed from all sins” (10:3). After quoting similar claims by Jesus, Michael Green asks: “What religious leader has ever spoken like that?”6 My answer to Green is Krishna. In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna even presumes to take the highest Hindu god Brahman as a subordinate part of himself (14:3). One could also use the Buddha, who in an early sutra said: “A monk sees the Dharma and seeing the Dharma he sees me”7 Here is another similar quotation: “With you, Ananda, it is a matter of faith, when you say that; but with the Tathagata, Ananda, it is a matter of knowledge”8 – the Buddhist equivalent of Jesus saying: “When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me” (Jn. 12:45).
John Stott's characterization of other religions as “ethnic” is especially unfair and crude. Such rhetoric is the unfortunate dark side of much evangelical apologetic. Stott denigrates the prima facie claims of universalism in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Indeed, it was not so much monotheism that the exilic Jews learned from Zoroastrianism (Darius' inscriptions, for example, mention other Persian gods); rather, it was the idea of the universal scope of God's salvation.
Hebrew universalism does not explicitly appear until Second Isaiah, which by all scholarly accounts – except of course for some evangelical ones – was written during and/or after the Babylonian exile. The Babylonian captivity was a great blow to many Jews because they were taken out of Yahweh's divine jurisdiction and they believed that a Hebrew prayer could not be answered in a foreign land. There is a good possibility that Zoroastrian priests taught the Jews that God was not limited geographically.
As we have already seen, Michael Green is no better than Stott or Schaeffer when it comes to dealing with non‑Christian faiths. For example, he states that “no man‑made religious system...can bring a finite sinful man into lasting relation with an infinite personal God.”9 Can Green truly prove to us, without resorting to a fideism which he usually rejects, that his evangelical Christianity is not a man‑made religion and that it can actually do what he claims it can? Green assumes that only the Christian God offers universal and unconditional grace. This claim, however, runs into two immediate difficulties. First, except for a small number of sectarians, orthodox Christianity has never supported universal and unconditional grace. Many Christians take Jesus at his word when he said that those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit will not be saved (Mk. 3:29); and most Christians do place some minimal conditions on the bestowal of God's grace. Second, two Oriental savior religions, Pure Land Buddhism and Bhagavatism, are much more radical religions of faith and grace than Christianity. One is reminded of the young Krishna's unconditional salvation of demons who sought to destroy him.
One is also inspired by the image of the grace of the Heavenly Buddha which falls gently, equally, and unconditionally on all the world; and the Bodhisattva who patiently stands at the edge of Nirvana until all the world's sentient beings are saved. Donald Bloesch is therefore wrong when be claims that the “doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith is both the basic and the distinctive article of Christianity, by which it is distinguished from all man‑made [sic] religions as the only true and divine religion.”10
Christian apologists frequently claim that the uniqueness of Christianity lies in the claim that Jesus is the only savior who redeems by a real blood sacrifice. It is true that none of the major world religions bases redemption on a sacrifice of human blood. This includes Judaism whose Old Testament rules allowed animal sacrifice but explicitly disallowed human sacrifice. I contend other religions are far superior in not incorporating blood sacrifice of any kind in their doctrines. Insofar as Christianity is interpreted in terms of a literal blood sacrifice, it remains among the most primitive of religions.
Furthermore, it is odd that this would be a Christian doctrine in the first place: the Crucifixion was a bloodless form of execution. In fact, in Roman crucifixions the spikes were driven to avoid major arteries. Death, then, came from severe torture, exposure, exhaustion, and finally asphyxiation. The crown of thorns would have drawn very little blood; and the spear thrust in the side brought forth water and other bodily fluids, not blood.
There were mystery religions contemporaneous with Christianity which did embody the idea of blood sacrifice. The sacred rites of Tammuz were celebrated every spring when the Syrian rivers ran red with the “blood of Tammuz,” probably the fallen blooms of the red anemone.11 Devotees of Attis made an effigy of their dead god, tied it to a pine log, offered their own blood in imitation, placed the effigy in a tomb, and sang resurrection hymns such as this one: “Be of good courage, oh ye of our mystery, for our God is saved, for us there shall be salvation after our sorrows.”12 The bull sacrifice of Mithraism required that the rich initiate be bathed (“reborn”) in bull's blood, while the poor people had to be content with being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” There is also a Mithraic parallel to John 6:53‑58: “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.”13
Some scholars have seriously doubted whether these accounts are actually pre‑Christian; therefore, the possibility of borrowing from Christianity on blood sacrifice and resurrection cannot be ruled out. This, however, cannot be the case for Osiris, the dying and rising god of the Egyptians. In a brilliant article S. G. F. Brandon argues that Paul's formulation of the meaning of Jesus' sacrifice followed the “principle of ritual assimilation, which in its practice constituted a remarkable parallel to the ritual pattern so long observed in Osirianism.”14 Brandon does not argue for religious syncretism, but simply points out an important phenomenological coincidence.
Although it is not a blood sacrifice, there is also vicarious atonement in the East, especially in the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. The Bodhisattva is a savior who “will give up his body and his life” for the deliverance of humankind. Much like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52‑3, the Bodhisattva of the Siksasamuccaya declares that “I have taken upon myself, by my own will, the whole of the pain of all things living. Thus I dare try every abode of pain, in...every part of the universe, for I must not defraud the world of the root of good. I resolve to dwell in each state of misfortune through countless ages...for the salvation of all beings...for it is better that I alone suffer than that all beings sink to the worlds of misfortune. There I shall give myself into bondage, to redeem all the world from the forest of purgatory, from rebirth as beasts, from the realm of death. I shall bear all grief and pain in my own body, for the good of all things living.”15
Similar to central New Testament themes the view of salvation in Mahayana Buddhism is corporate. In the Bodhicharyavatara Shantideva describes the Bodhisattva as a sinless being who nonetheless will take on the sins of the whole universe: “I will think of myself as a sinner, of others as oceans of virtue; I will cease to live as self, and will take as my self my fellow‑creatures. We love our hands and other limbs, as members of the body; then why not love other living beings, as members of the universe?”16 One is reminded of Paul's organic analogy to explain the body of Christ: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body...” (1 Cor. 12:12).
In his Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, a text once used at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, J. O. Buswell states: “The concept of the Triune God is found only in the Judeo‑Christian tradition. Just as there is only one doctrine of omnipotence, so there is only one Triune God among all the religions of the world.”17 Buswell appears unaware of the possibility that the monotheism of Zoroaster, especially if early dates for his life (ca. 1000 B.C.E.) gain wide acceptance, antedates Jewish monotheism. Zoroastrian scholar Mary Boyce claims that Zoroaster had a “strict monotheism – stricter even than that of the Hebrew prophets.”18
There is of course a long‑standing tradition that Moses was a monotheist; but most scholars agree that the development toward monotheism occurred during the monarchy through to the Babylonian exile. Close scrutiny of the earliest strata of the Hebrew Bible shows polytheistic remnants as well as a fairly strong henotheism, i.e., Yahweh as the chief God of a divine council. This henotheism is especially evident in the psalms (e.g., 29:1, 68, 82, and 89), Job (1‑2), and Deuteronomy 32:8. Attempts by conservative commentators to explain the Hebrew phrases bene 'elohim, and bene 'elim as angels or judges have been singularly unsuccessful. For more see www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/henotheism.htm.
Buswell's claim about creatio ex nihilo is riddled with difficulties. First, there is shaky biblical foundation for such a doctrine. Even though the priestly writers demythologized and historicized inherited Near Eastern cosmologies, it is clear that the idea of a preexisting watery chaos remained a part of the Hebrew adaptation of these prototypes. (See www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/gre13.htm.) I am convinced that creatio ex nihilo came into being as a result of the philosophical reflections of late Jewish and Christian thinkers. It was Philo and the early Christian theologians who explicitly argued that God's omnipotence and perfection demanded that no other being could be equiprimordial with God, for such a being would compromise God's absolute sovereign power. Even if creation out of nothing were a biblical idea, it would still not be unique among the world religions. The Egyptian Ptah of Memphis created the world by his thought and word; the Babylonian Marduk, who first fashions the world from the body of Tiamat, must prove that he can also create by “word” alone; and Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian “Wise Lord,” creates a material universe out of nothing.19
Buswell simply cannot be serious about his contention that only Christianity has a doctrine of an omnipotent God. Although Zoroastrian theologians, especially the ones during the Sassanian period, had serious difficulties reconciling omnipotence with a separate evil principle, they nonetheless held that Ahura Mazda was omnipotent. The Bhagavad-Gita is replete with references to Krishna's unlimited power, with explicit claims that Krishna does everything, including evil.
Therefore, Christians are certainly not alone in claiming divine omnipotence, but they are usually the only ones – except for the inimitable Luther – who refuse to acknowledge the implications that this doctrine has for moral responsibility and evil. We have seen that the prophet Isaiah admits that Yahweh creates both good and evil (45:7, AB), but the Zoroastrians were firm in their resolve that all evil was the result of a separate metaphysical principle. One might conclude that the Zoroastrians traded true omnipotence for a clean solution to theodicy. As R. C. Zaehner once said: “According to the Zoroastrian, the Moslem God is not good, neither does Allah pretend to be, while the Christian God advertises himself as good, and plainly is not.”20
Finally, Buswell's claims about the Christian Trinity are just as tenuous, because both Hinduism and Buddhism have triune concepts of deity. The relation of the persons is obviously different, but who can claim with confidence that the Christian Trinity is formulated correctly? Indeed, is the Trinity actually a biblical concept? There are also some logical problems that generate tension between the Trinity and the Incarnation. If Jesus is truly identical with the Father, then this appears to undermine the divine status and equal relation of the Spirit. For more comparative Trinitarian theology see www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/trinity.htm.
Contrary to popular conceptions, the Hindu and Buddhist trinities are not simple triads or tritheisms, but complex triune deities comparable to the sophisticated Christian Trinity. D. T. Suzuki describes the Buddhist Trinity: “Though they are conceived as three, they are in fact all the manifestation of one Dharmakaya – the Dharmakaya that revealed itself in the historical Sakyamuni Buddha as the Body of Transformation, and in the Mahayana Buddha as the Body of Bliss. However differently they appear from the human point of view, they are nothing but the expression of one eternal truth....”21 Finally, few commentators have discovered that the Zoroastrian heptad is actually two sets of trinities under Ahura Mazda – a set of three masculine attributes and a set of three feminine ones.
It is common to hear the claim that only Christianity offers bodily resurrection and personal immortality. Such claims are also incorrect and again show a lack of knowledge about the world's religions. Zoroastrianism most likely antedates Judaism in the belief of the resurrection of the body and an eternal life with God in such a spiritual body; indeed, as these concepts are not found explicitly in the preexilic books of the Hebrew Bible, these doctrines might have been borrowed from Zoroastrianism.
I call the eschatology of the preexilic Hebrews a “bare‑bones‑and‑dust” view of death. This eschatology even continues in some postexilic works, like Ecclesiastes: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same.... They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts....All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to the dust again” (3:19‑20). Even writers for the evangelical New Bible Dictionary have to concede that, except for a few obscure indications otherwise, the preexilic Hebrews did not believe in the resurrection of the body nor in eternal bliss for the righteous and eternal suffering for the wicked. As G. E. Ladd states: “Sheol is not nonexistence; but it is not life, for life can be enjoyed only in the presence of God.”22 Isaiah says that the kings of the earth – along with all other creatures (even aborted fetuses) – will be made low and they will all end in Sheol (14:9ff). There is no hint of either resurrection or a separation of the righteous and the wicked.
Sometimes passages like 1 Samuel 2:6 are cited as evidence of a promise of resurrection: “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” But Norman K. Gottwald is convinced that this “raising up” probably refers to the fact that God can create other creatures from the dust.23 This must be the preferred reading in the absence of an explicit concept of a bodily resurrection, which appears first in Zoroastrianism. Job 19:26 is another passage used to support resurrection. This is a very obscure verse in a text which is one of the most corrupt in the entire Hebrew Scripture. Even if this passage did indicate some sort of resurrection and meeting with God, this is incompatible with the standard Hebrew view which is also expressed explicitly in Job: "And a man lies down and never rises/ They wake not until the heavens decay/They rouse not from their sleep” (14:12, AB). Job would really like something more than this dreary end, and he discusses that possibility. But his speculation is in vain, because “You Yahweh destroy man's hope, you overwhelm him forever and he passes dies” (14:19‑20, AB). Traditional Christian eschatology does start to appear in postexilic works, most explicitly in Daniel, a work which is pervaded with Persian allusions and ideas.
Contrary to popular conceptions, there is a doctrine of individual, personal immortality in Hinduism. Too many laypeople, as well as knowledgeable commentators, tend to interpret Hinduism in terms of the absolute monism of Advaita Vedanta, which holds that all distinctions will dissolve into a divine unity upon liberation. Such a view overlooks the original metaphysics of the yogis: the amazingly sophisticated Sankhya‑Yoga dualism of purusha and prakriti. Individual souls (purushas) are eternally plural and individual and through yogic practices can liberate themselves from the material trap of prakriti. This dualism is securely implanted in the Bhagavad-Gita, and we may safely interpret Krishna's promises of personal immortality within this framework. As Krishna states: “Never was there a time when I was not, nor thou, nor yet these lords of men; nor will there be a time when we shall cease to be – all of us hereafter” (2:12; cf. 2:15; 13:12). Therefore, Christian apologists are incorrect when they claim the Oriental soteriologies are all “transpersonal.”
A standard objection to all of the foregoing may already be present in the minds of some critical readers: Christianity is unique because of its activist God of history and this God's incarnation in a real historical person. Michael Green phrases it well: “There is, therefore, no compelling reason in the multiplicity of faiths and the number of their adherents to abandon, as Hick does, the finality of Jesus and reduce him to the level of one of the mythical avatars of Vishnu.”24 First, there is one small correction: no one denies the historicity of Gautama Buddha, who is taken by Hindus to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Second, there is serious scholarly effort, still controversial of course, to establish grounds for a historical Krishna.25 Third, in terms of my Savior Archetype – in which I show that the great world saviors take on common attributes and have similar feats attributed to them – the principal features of the Archetype are formal and ahistorical. For more on the Savior Archetype see www.uidaho.edu/ngier/307/archetype.htm.
The psychological effect of the Archetype is the same whether the figures are historical or mythical, or whether time is cyclical or linear. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians historicized mythological motifs, but this in no way eliminates the possibility that the motif had ahistorical origins. For example, the tendency toward a triune deity appears to be at least a sociopsychological fact, and whether a historical person happens to be part of such a view of God is irrelevant. Furthermore, there is probably just as little history in the temptation of Jesus as there is the temptation of the Buddha during his time under the Bo Tree.
In establishing the Savior Archetype I used a strictly descriptive method, similar to the one used in most comparative religion work. In my presentation of the accounts of the world's saviors I simply let the devotees speak for themselves; I let the accounts stand as prima facie evidence about how people viewed these great individuals. By using this method I do not need to make any judgments about the historicity of the events reported or the truth of the various attributes assigned to the saviors. Even if I wanted to make such judgments, I would be prevented from doing so in most instances. For example, no one can prove to anyone's satisfaction that either Gautama Buddha or Jesus Christ had the miraculous conceptions attributed to them. On the other hand, I have made the provisional judgment that because of similar accounts for both Krishna and Zoroaster, and because of negative inferences from a detailed history of Herod, this king's alleged slaughter of the infants probably represents a mythical pattern from the Savior Archetype – viz., the savior is threatened in infancy.
Although the Indian tradition as a whole does not have any strong historical sense, it is incorrect to say that it is deficient altogether. The Buddhists had a clear grasp of the historical development of their religion. For example, each of the Pali Sutras begin with the phrase "Thus I heard the Buddha say," the historical and geographical setting is given in great detail. The "I" in the phrase is Ananda, the one disciple who was with the Buddha for most of his 45 years of preaching and teaching. Furthermore, the Buddha, after reluctantly giving in to Ananda and others who wanted women in the Sangha, predicted that Buddhism would decline after 500 years because of this compromise.
At the beginning of the Common Era, Mahayana Buddhists used the prophecy above as an apologetic for the major innovations they proposed. The Buddhist sense for history is most keenly manifest in the phenomenon of the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the Future. D. Howard Smith describes this most important figure of Buddhist “millenialism”: “There was a period, during the fourth and early fifth centuries C.E., when Maitreya occupied an even more prominent place than Amitabha. The ardent hopes and expectations which were aroused by the thought that on the completion of a thousand years after Gautama's enlightenment some new revelation would appear on earth, coupled with a belief that human society was rapidly deteriorating, no doubt stimulated faith in Maitreya, the Coming One, who, at the command of Buddha, would descend from...Heaven...and establish a great millennial kingdom.”26
The critic might still persist: Christianity is unique not only in the sense that its savior was a historical figure, but also in the sense that the divine purpose is worked out in decisive acts in history: e.g., the Exodus, the return from Babylonian exile, the Incarnation, etc. As evangelical Christopher Butler phrases it: “The Greek philosopher looked upwards towards a timeless deity above the cosmic spheres. The Jewish believers looked forwards to a God who would ultimately reveal his power in an act that would end all mundane history, the eschaton or final divine triumph.”27 While there is no event equivalent to the Exodus in Zoroastrian theology, Ahura Mazda did, according to the Gathas, take a historical Zoroaster up into heaven for a divine revelation and will bring final judgment on humankind at the end of history. As we have already mentioned, there is a good possibility that the Hebrew religion, once without concepts of Heaven, Hell, and Last Judgment, borrowed from Zoroastrian eschatology. But it is not necessary to go as far as Persia to counter this common misconception. James Barr maintains that the Moabite god Chemosh behaved “in a manner remarkably similar to that of the God of Israel”; and Bertil Albrektson states that “historical events as a medium of revelation is a general Near Eastern conception.”28
Some Christian apologists claim that Jesus Christ is the only savior who was anticipated in texts that were definitely written before the scriptures which witness to the saving acts themselves. But this contention is clearly wrong. A personal, cosmic savior (purusha) is in the earliest Vedas (Rig‑veda 10.90, written ca. 1,000 B.C.E.); it is reiterated in the Upanishads (Svetasvatara 3.7‑30; Katha 2.21; Mundaka 3.1.3,8) and there is explicit reference to Krishna as the saving purusha in the Bhagavad-gita.
Christianity is fortunate to have New Testament manuscripts which in some cases date less than 300 years from the alleged events, but apologists who use this fact do not realize that they invest the Hebrew Bible with equal authority. The Masoretic text, however, is over two millenia distant from the earliest Hebrew histories. What the Dead Sea Scrolls have proved once again is that the Masoretic text is to be trusted in the main because of the care and caution that priests and scribes used to preserve their scripture. But intellectual honesty requires us to acknowledge the same textual preservation in the East as well as incredible feats of memory in maintaining scripture in oral form.
In his work for the book The Saviour God, S. C. F. Brandon maintains that Attis and Tammuz are not real saviors, because they do not offer postmortem salvation; rather, these rites appear to focus exclusively on this‑worldly concerns, like the return of the seasons and relief from suffering.29 In other words, the blood of Attis redeems this life only and does not, like the blood of Christ, secure a supranatural life after the grave. But why should we restrict the definition of a savior so severely? Such strictures would eliminate all talk of the preexilic Yahweh as savior as well as any of the Chinese saviors.
Other critics might continue with Brandon's examples of Attis and Tammuz to claim that Christianity cannot be compared to the mystery religions at all. The latter have a cyclical view of time connected with the seasons, while Judeo‑Christian history is linear, and God acts providentially at specific points in time in a unique way. Mythical figures such as Attis and Adonis save the world every year in an unending cycle of death and rebirth, but an historical Jesus saves humankind once and for all in one unique redemptive act. This distinction is correctly drawn, but the Christian view is still not unique. We have already seen that Zoroastrianism has a linear view of time and that a savior born of Zoroaster's seed will come at the end of history to redeem all humankind. Furthermore, how can we be sure that a linear view of time is soteriologically superior? In Cosmos and History and other works, Mircea Eliade has argued that those religions which affirm linear history will ultimately desacralize all experience. According to Eliade, the truly religious person recognizes the “terror” of history and is led to recapture the sacred time of primordial beginnings through annual rituals.
With regard to claims of unique ethics in the Judeo‑Christian tradition, the following quotations from evangelicals are typical. James Orr states that “this is precisely where Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions – it does contain doctrine. It comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge, through knowledge which is attainable under moral conditions.”30 Michael Green claims that “no ethical insight has emerged in the two thousand years since his day which cannot be derived from the teaching of the man of Nazareth....It is peerless stuff, quite literally incomparable.”31 Finally we have Dewey M. Beegle who declares that “it is indisputable that Israel came to a level of moral, ethical insight that none of her neighbors achieved.”32 Dewey goes on to say that only Yahweh acts in history in a moral way. Again, any beginning student of the history of religions should be easily able to show such claims to be exaggerated and incorrect. Many commentators have hailed Zoroastrianism as the world's first religion of ethical individualism with universal scope. Insofar as many scholars view the original Decalogue as a tribal ethic which assumed a corporate personality (in which, for example, the sins of the fathers could be visited upon the sons), Zoroaster's ethics in the Gathas are far superior.
L. H. Mills once said: “It pleased the Divine Power to reveal some of the most important articles of our Catholic creed first to the Zoroastrians, and through their literature to the Jews and ourselves.”33 Recall that the first Hebrew prophet to speak explicitly of individual moral responsibility was Ezekiel, a prophet of the Zoroastrian‑influenced Babylonian exile. In response to an early date for Zoroaster – which now is supported by a growing consensus – F. C. Whitley argues that for his advanced doctrines of a righteous God, his frank admission of the problem of evil, his emphasis on moral living, and, above all, the prominence he attached to the belief in a life after death so supremely surpass even the beliefs which the Israelites held one thousand years before Christ, that, if it be conceived that Zoroaster belonged to that period 1,000 B.C.E., then he was one 'born out of time' and was unquestionably a prophet in advance of his age.... His profound ethical and universal conception of God cannot be products of the virtually dark age of 1,000 B.C.E....34
In matching the details of Orr's claim, one can use the example of Buddhist ethics very profitably. In the Deer Park sermon at Benares, Guatama presented the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths which contained “definite, positive teaching,” and which Gautama claimed to be the truth. In later Sutras Gautama laid out a detailed and sophisticated epistemology which allowed him to verify each of the Four Noble Truths. Finally, there is no question that the knowledge the Buddhist requires for salvation is “attainable under moral conditions.” Contemporary life in the Orient is evidence to demonstrate that Buddhist morality is not just empty preaching but an actual practice which has produced good results for over two thousand years. If only Christian America could match Buddhist Japan in terms of a nonadversarial and self‑sacrificial ethics. Christopher Butler implies that only Christianity offers a religion of “heart,”35 but he need only read a couple of sutras or chat with a Buddhist monk to see how wrong he is.
Bishop Stephen Neil claims that he cannot find any ethical dimension in saviors outside the Bible. He even admits that there is a gap between Old and New Testament on this point: Yahweh as savior meant only that God would deliver Israel from captivity. Neil simply needs to read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Sutras of Pure Land Buddhism. These are definitely pre‑Christian movements and they contain answers to Neil's question “Where can I find a parallel to 'he shall save his people from their sins'?” (Matt. 1:21).36 The Amitabha Buddha is such a savior: “And it matters not how great a sinner a man may be, he should not give way to doubts; for, as it says, Amitabha does not hate a man, however deeply stained with sin he may be.”37 The Amitabha Buddha bestows his grace on the lowest of human beings so that they may live sin‑free in the blissful Pure Land.
Some apologists also claim that Jesus' ethics of self‑sacrificial love and embracing one's enemies is not found in other religions. Again this cannot be supported. The basic concept of not returning evil for evil is found in Confucius, the Buddha, Laozi, and Socrates, all pre‑Christian figures. Jesus' form of this ethics of complete compassion and nonviolence is radicalized primarily because of his belief in the imminent coming of the end of the world. It really does not matter what your enemy or the state do to you if this world is quickly passing away.
John B. Cobb makes the best case for the uniqueness of Christian love in his book The Structure of Christian Existence. Cobb, however, makes no attempt to argue that Christianity is a superior religion. In fact, he is one of the principal participants in a liberal Christian‑Buddhist dialogue. In his Beyond Dialogue Cobb proposes that Buddhists should not be allowed to convert to Christianity unless they promise to preserve their non‑Christian wisdom in their new Christian lives.38
F. Religion and Incarnation
Some Christians might concede the logical incoherence of the Incarnation but insist that this is not important because of the superior religious advantages of such a doctrine. One of the most novel arguments for the religious necessity of the Incarnation is found in Carl Jung's Answer to Job. At odds with most interpretations of the Book of Job, Jung claims that Job is the victor and Yahweh the vanquished. Jung contends that the “God‑image” has been severely tarnished by Yahweh's mistreatment of Job, a charge in which I concur. (See www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/job.htm.) The divine reputation can only be restored by a supreme act on the part of God: a divine incarnation as a human being and a promise that ultimately all humans would be raised to sonship and man‑Godhood. Jung has of course turned Christianity on its head: the necessity of redemption is not due to human sin but a divine offense to a human being.
Many Christian commentators on the John's Logos doctrine have correctly located the essential difference between the Christian Logos and its non‑Christian predecessors: only the New Testament claims that the logos became a man and lived in the flesh on earth. Pagans who used the Greek logos would have found such a claim incomprehensible. Indeed, as Green states, “no Hebrew prophet would ever have dared to say this about anyone – that the Word...became flesh and lived among us.”39 One cannot deny that this Christian adaptation of the Greek logos is unique, but one can question the alleged religious advantage that such a doctrine has. If there is a religious advantage to the Hebrew's strict separation between God and humanity, let us called this the "Hebraic principle," and if the orthodox incarnationists violate this principle, then an indubitable religious advantage has been traded for a very dubious one. The theological genius of the Hebrews protects religion from the worst forms of mythology, and the Incarnation, I contend, is one of the main vehicles in remythologizing biblical religion.
In his Anchor commentary on John, Raymond Brown suggests that a fundamental difference in world‑view – the Greek search for salvation outside of the body and history versus the Christian view of God as active in the base materials of the world – brought about the distinctive Christian Logos. Unlike the Greek philosophical gods, the biblical God is a providential deity, a loving creator who cares deeply for every single part of his creation. The famous message from John 3:16 – for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son – definitely implies that the Incarnation is the necessary outcome of the supreme God of providence.
The argument is religiously persuasive, but I detect some fundamental problems. The New Testament makes it clear that God cares not only for human persons but also lower creatures like the flowers and the birds. There appears to be an implicit anthropomorphic twist to the claim that divine providence requires a human incarnation. The implication of a supremely providential deity in the orthodox incarnational sense would be a God who somehow becomes like everything that he cares for. In another work, I have argued that there is something radically humanistic - even “Titanistic” – about a theology which would declare, like Athanasius once did, that the Logos “became man so that we might become God.”40
In his attack on the incarnational revisionists, Michael Green argues that a literal Incarnation is necessary in order to prove that God is a personal, loving Father. Green boldly asks: “If there is no incarnation, how can I know that God is Love?”41 Indeed, Green claims that without Incarnation, we could not know God at all; the biblical God would remain indistinguishable from the unknowable gods of the pagans. A literal incarnation, however, would make God not only knowable but directly known.
Green's religious gnosticism is not only at odds with the biblical record, but as we shall see, with himself as well. In his famous passage on natural theology, Paul states that “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Ro. 1:19‑20). Later in the same epistle Paul makes it clear that even the moral law is written on the pagan's heart (2:15ff.)
Green might have countered by saying that knowledge of God in nature and even as the author of the moral law is not saving knowledge; he would most certainly claim that personal knowledge of God‑made‑flesh is required for salvation. Strangely enough, Green does not really say this; rather, he states that “the Christian Church has never maintained that overt knowledge of the person and work of Jesus was essential for salvation. How could Abraham and the Old Testament saints have been reconciled with God?...Abraham knew nothing of the Incarnation or the Cross. But he knew that God had set his love upon him and called him: he responded in obedient faith....”42 To be fair, Green does add one important theological proviso, namely, that Abraham “was accepted because of what God in Christ was going to do for him on Calvary.” This traditional Christian doctrine with regard to the Israelite saints does not convince either skeptics or Jews. But most importantly, it does not mitigate the fact that Green has conceded that Abraham could know Yahweh as a personal, loving father without any knowledge of the incarnate Christ or the Crucifixion.
There is nothing logically incorrect about requiring that one's ultimate salvation depends upon some future christological event, but Green's argument that intimate knowledge of God is directly contingent upon the Incarnation is refuted by his own admissions. Abraham is a knight of faith before and without the Incarnation. Green might hold that Judaism is incomplete without Jesus of Nazareth, but even he cannot pretend to divorce Jews from their God. Only a demagogue like Jerry Falwell has dared to suggest such nonsense.
What then about Green's contention that final atonement is impossible without the literal Incarnation? First, Green can only hold this view fideistically, not philosophically. Second, Green risks the dangers of remythologizing primitive notions of religious sacrifice. Insofar as Christians insist that they are saved by Jesus' literal blood, they are clinging to an unsophisticated mythological relic of the past. Green does not choose to describe Jesus' sacrifice in these terms, but his depiction is just as figurative and just as unsatisfactory: “It was on the Cross that God took personal responsibility for our wickedness and let our sins crush him.”43 As one committed to ordinary language, I want to know the meaning of these phrases. I want to know how it is possible for God to take responsibility for our sins without completely destroying human autonomy; or how it is possible for such an act to “crush” God, who is presumably by definition uncrushable?
Thus far I have just dealt with the question: “Does religious salvation require incarnation?” I shall now address the Christian claim that among incarnational religions, Christianity is superior. There are at least three claims that apologists make: (1) Christianity is the only religion to attribute divinity to a historical person; (2) incarnation in these other religions cannot be the same because Hinduism and Buddhism do not hold to the full reality of the body; and (3) religions which speak of many incarnations are inferior. Objections (1) and (2) have actually already been answered.
While a historical Krishna is still a controversial figure, there is no question about the existence of both a real Guatama Buddha and a pre‑Christian belief that he was indeed devatideva – God beyond the gods. In addition, pre‑Christian figures like the Jain Mahavira and Zoroaster were either deified or given divine attributes. With regard to the nature of the body, I have already indicated that the Sankhya‑Yoga dualism underlies the Bhagavad-Gita and this metaphysics assumes the full reality of matter. I have already noted that the notion of God becoming flesh was just as scandalous to some Hindus as it was to the Jews. Otherwise, Krishna would not have had to say that “fools scorn me” in the “human form I have assumed” (9:11).
With the above in mind, Brian Hebblethwaite is incorrect in claiming that Christianity, while sharing the Hebraic principle with other religions (presumably Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam), is nonetheless unique in claiming that “God has made himself known fully, specifically and personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.”44 As we have seen, Krishna makes this claim for himself and many Buddhists maintain the same about Gautama. Both of these religions, especially Bhagavatism, also teach, as Hebblethwaite claims only for Christianity, “a God who is Love and an internally differentiated and relational deity.”45 Hebblethwaite goes on to argue that the Incarnation cannot be repeatable: “If God is one, only one man can be God incarnate.... The doctrine of the Incarnation is emptied of its point and value in referring to a real person‑to‑person encounter if we suppose that a series of human beings from different times, places and cultures were all God incarnate. On such a view, God at once resumes the characteristics of vagueness and dread that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation teaches us to overcome.”46 I simply fail to see the force of this argument. I believe that a man‑god is a logical impossibility, but for the sake of discussion let us assume the possibility of such an entity. If the divine can actually incarnate itself once, then there seems to be no reason that it cannot do it repeatedly. It seems reasonable that we should exclude the possibility of God being Buddha and Jesus at the same time; and fortunately, the chronology of the world's saviors is such that we are not faced with the problem of contemporaneous incarnations.
This is the only sense that I can make of Hebblethwaite's claim that “if God is one, only one man can be God incarnate.” I find it impossible to conceive of God as a man in the first place, and I fully appreciate the added difficulty of conceiving of God being more than one person at once. If Hebblethwaite means that the nature of monotheism itself prevents God from repeated nonsimultaneous incarnations, then I am at a loss why this follows logically from the concept of one God. Likewise, I see no reason whatever in Hebblethwaite's claim that God, through a series of incarnations, will become vague and dreadful. It would seem to me that of all the major deities Yahweh is the most vague and dreadful, and that several more incarnations of the loving Christian God could have consoled someone like Martin Luther, who was so tormented by the wrath of God.
With the preceding “logic” of incarnation, there seems to be a prima facie case for preferring periodic incarnations. If “God so loved the world” that God came once, it would seem plausible that a combination of God's unbounded love for creatures together with their penchant for sin and forgetfulness might very well require many incarnations. In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna gives this very rationale: “For whenever the law of righteousness withers away, and lawlessness raises its head, then do I generate Myself on earth. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evildoers, for the setting up of righteousness, I come into being, age after age” (4:7‑8). If I were shopping for a savior religion, I would choose one which promises that the savior personally bestows his or her saving grace in every age. The logic of divine providence would seem to require this. Hebblethwaite lays great emphasis on face‑to‑face encounter and personal knowledge, something which both Bhagavatism and Buddhism provide, and again he misunderstands Oriental incarnation when he implies that other saviors only express general divine characteristics. To the contrary, the evangelical scriptures of Asia East teach that both Krishna and Buddha were the fullness of divinity.47
1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I‑2, p. 342.
2. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament, cited in A Reader in Contemporary Theology, eds. Bowden and Richmond (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), p. 76.
3. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, p. 94.
4. John Stott, Basic Christianity, p. 1.
5. Ibid., p. 23.
6. Michael Green, The Truth of God Incarnate, p. 27.
7. Quoted in David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 116. These passages from early Pali texts show that Gautama took on divine characteristics early in the development of Buddhism. The earliest Buddhist texts refer to him as mahapurisa, (i.e., super‑person), as one who is omniscient and higher than the gods (see the Dhammapada).
8. Quoted in Sacred Texts of the World, eds. Smart and Hecht (New York: Crossroads, 1982), p. 238.
9. Green, op. cit., p. 118.
10. Bloesch, Essentials..., vol. 1, p. xiv.
11. See James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, condensed version, 1960), p. 382.
12. The source, the Christian father Firmicus Maternus, does not actually identify the god in question. Several scholars have attributed this hymn to Osiris. See F. Maternus, The Errors of the Pagan Religions (New York: Newman Press, 1970), p. 207.
13. See Joscelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 28.
14. Brandon, “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the Ancient Near East” in The Saviour God, ed. Brandon (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980), pp. 32‑33.
15. Cited from The World of the Buddha ed. Lucien Stryk (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969), p. 292.
16. Cited from The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, ed. E.A. Burtt (New York: Mentor Books, 1966), p. 140.
17. J. O. Buswell, Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), p. 102.
18. Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), vol. 1, p. ix.
19. For Ptah see The Anchor Bible Proverbs, p. 70; for Marduk, see Ancient Near Eastern Texts ed. J.B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2nd ed., 1955), p. 66, 1st col.
20. R. C. Zaehner, The Teachings of the Magi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 55.
21. D. T. Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), pp. 245‑6.
22. The New Bible Dictionary (1st. ed.), p. 383.
23. Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (New York: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 681.
24. Michael Green, op. cit., p. 119.
25. See B. Majumdar, Krishna in History and Legend (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1969).
26. D. Howard Smith, “Saviour Gods in Chinese Religion” in The Saviour God, p. 224.
26. Christopher Butler, “Jesus and Later Orthodoxy” in The Truth of God Incarnate, p. 92.
27. James Barr, Old and New in Interpretation (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 72; and Bertil Albrektson, History and the Gods (Lund: Gleerup, 1964), p. 114.
28. Brandon, op. cit., p. 29.
29. Quoted in Ronald Nash, The Word of God..., p. 48.
30. Green, op. cit., p. 42.
31. Dewey M. Beegle, Scripture, Tradition..., p. 35.
32. Quoted in Rustom Masani, Zoroastrianism (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 19.
33. F.C. Whitley, “The Dating and Teaching of Zarathustra,” in Numeirn 4 (1957),p. 220.
34. Christopher Butler, op. cit., p. 100.
35. Stephen Neil, “Jesus and Myth” in The Truth of God Incarnate, p. 63.
36. Cited from The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, p. 213.
37. Cobb, Beyond Dialogue (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 51.
38. Green, op. cit., p. 26.
39. Athanasius, De Incarnationae, 54.3.
40. Green, op. cit., p. 135.
41. Ibid., p. 118.
42. Ibid., p. 136.
43. Brian Hebblethwaite, “Jesus, God Incarnate” in The Truth of God Incarnate, p. 101.
44. Ibid., p. 102.
45. Ibid., pp. 103‑4.
46. Carl Henry contends that Bhagavatism teaches that Krishna is subordinate to Vishnu or nirguna Brahman (op. cit., vol. 5, p. 328). But there are passages in the Upanishads which clearly indicate that the personal manifestation (purusha) is the highest reality (cf. Katha III, v. 11; Mudaka II, i, v. 2). Many passages in the Gita emphasize this point; indeed, in one, Brahman is called Krishna's womb (14:12).