Written by Derek Cooper
Friday, 08 March 2013 00:00
In my recently published book, Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths, I discuss the six major non-Christian stories of the world. As I teach these different religions in classrooms and churches and discuss them with friends and neighbors, I have consistently uncovered several myths Christians believe about each of these religions, including Christianity. In this and my next couple of blogs, I will concentrate on three common myths about different world religions.
The first myth concerns Christianity. The myth goes something like this: Christianity is the only religion with a Savior. I consistently hear Christians say that Christianity is the only faith where God comes to humankind in contrast to every other religion of the world where humans are trying to go to God. Yet the truth is that many world religions, including religions that were dominant when Christianity emerged as well as contemporary religions such as Shia Islam, assume a Savior figure.
According to Hinduism, for instance, Vishnu, the God who preserves the world, regularly visits humankind to maintain order and peace. When the world is particularly in straits, Vishnu incarnates himself to save the righteous. In the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved of the Hindu religious scriptures, the God Vishnu, who has incarnated himself as Lord Krishna, speaks with a valiant human warrior named Arjuna:
Whenever spirituality decays and materialism is rampant, I (re-) incarnate Myself. I am reborn from age to age to save the righteous, destroy the wicked, and establish the kingdom of God. The one who realizes this divine truth concerning my incarnation and sacrifice is not born again [in this life], but when he leaves his body, he becomes one with Me.
As these verses state, the God Vishnu incarnated himself as Krishna in order to save righteous, punish the wicked, and establish God’s kingdom. This is an example of one of Vishnu’s avatars, a Hindu word that can be translated as “incarnation,” “manifestation,” or “revelation.” There is no precise agreement on how many avatars Vishnu has had, but according to one long tradition, Vishnu’s incarnation as Krishna was his eighth of ten incarnations.
Another example of a God incarnating himself and saving humankind appears in Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, the largest of the two major Buddhist denominations, practitioners revere a Savior figure called the Bodhisattva (“enlightened being”). Bodhisattvas are Buddhas in the making, who have made a vow to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of all others. In one Buddhist religious writing called the Shurangama Sutra the Buddha encourages all holy men to deny nirvana in order to save all other beings: “I [Buddha] urge all saints and holy men to choose to be reborn in order to deliver all living beings.”
As this brief passage illustrates, these Bodhisattvas—whether Siddhartha Gautama or the Dalai Lama—travel to earth in order to save people from the constant cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. These Bodhisattvas have made a vow that their life mission is not complete until all living beings have been liberated.
As Christians, we need not fear the similarities between the Christian faith and other religions. As one ancient Christian expression goes, “All truth is God’s truth.” The notion that God saves people is apparently a common belief throughout the world, which does negate or call into question the Christian belief that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Rather than fearing this commonality, we should allow it to be a bridge from which we more naturally share our faith in Jesus with Hindus or Buddhists, for instance, who already believe—perhaps because God intended it—in a Savior figure. After all, when God became a man, he not only did so at a particular time and in a particular place, but he did so in a way that was understandable to the many cultures and religions at the time.
In the next blog, I will discuss one common myth about Hinduism. You will not want to miss it!
Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical Seminary, where he also serves as the associate director of the Doctor of Ministry program. Derek’s most recent book, which was written for classroom use, church groups, and for lay readers, is titled Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths. His faculty page can be found here.