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What You Need to Know About World Religions

Billions of people on this planet don't share your Christian faith.

It used to take weeks of travel by boat to see the world. Then came the invention of the plane, cutting those trips down to hours. These days, it might only take a walk around the block. In many neighborhoods, it's not unlikely to run into people from another country at the supermarket or find them living next door. In the Uptown area of Chicago alone, there are 50 different languages spoken.

The world is here.

As a Christian, you might feel a little intimidated and confused by beliefs that seem so different from your own. We'd like to help calm your fears and clear up the confusion with this special section on non-Christian religions.

This article looks at Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. We hope you'll learn more about these religions and see what makes Christianity unique. And we hope you'll build friendships with people of other faiths, if you haven't already. As you do, you'll have many opportunities to show your friends—through your words and your actions—what being a Christian is all about.


What's the main idea?

"Hinduism" is a Western term (meaning "religion of the Indians") for a religious culture that includes almost as many beliefs as gods. And some Hindu groups claim to have 330 million gods! What unites Hindus is a common adherence to the caste system—an arrangement that determines a person's social status—and devotion to any number of deities and scriptures. Probably the most significant gods (who are often viewed as three parts of one whole) are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver of that creation; and Shiva, known mainly as the destroyer. The important texts in Hinduism include the Vedas (the earliest writings) and the Bhagavad Gita (an epic poem).

The overriding concept in Hinduism is the unity of all life. In Hinduism there is really only one divine essence or soul which encompasses the entire universe—people, gods, nature and so on. A Hindu is trapped at a certain level in the caste system in an endless process of life, death and rebirth (reincarnation) called samsara. The sum of that person's good and bad deeds is known as karma. The goal of life is to accumulate enough good karma to climb the rungs of the caste system, escape samsara, and be absorbed into the divine essence. This is a long process, typically taking several lifetimes of good living. If a person has enough good karma at the end of his life, he may be reincarnated in a higher caste level. And if someone's life is marked by bad deeds, he may be reincarnated in a lower caste, or even as an animal.

Any common ground?

Hindus claim Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are three gods sharing the same substance. This three-in-one idea isn't a foreign one to Christians, since we understand God in terms of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And like Hindus, Christians believe practicing goodness is vital.

What sets us apart?

Hindus and Christians differ on many points. As Christians, we believe in only one God—not 330 million. We see this earthly life as a prelude to a heavenly existence, rather than one life in a cycle of many others. While Hindus think each person is a part of one great soul or deity, Christians affirm the identity of an individual soul in each person. Though Hindus tend to see deity and the natural world as one and the same (pantheism), Christians make a strong distinction between God and his creation. Finally, Christians view good works as a result of salvation, not a karma-like road to salvation.


What's the main idea?

About five centuries before Jesus' birth, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama got sick of his cushy life, left his family, and went out to seek enlightenment. After about seven years of searching, meditating and self-denial, he decided he'd found it. Gautama took the name Buddha, meaning "awakened one," and began to teach followers how to become enlightened. Today, those followers number more than 300 million.

The main belief in Buddhism is that everybody suffers. Everyone is trapped in a life of physical and emotional pain, attached to material goods, and consumed by unimportant things like entertainment or food. According to Buddhism, this sort of existence is unavoidable unless one understands the Four Noble Truths, which explain why people suffer, and the Eightfold Path, a more practical set of guidelines for living. Only a person who accepts the Four Noble Truths and follows the Eightfold Path can hope to achieve a state of non-existence called nirvana. Since Gautama was a practicing Hindu before becoming Buddha, the concepts of karma and samsara are important in Buddhism, as well. Although there are a variety of texts in Buddhism, the Tripitaka is the oldest and historically the most important. It includes the teachings of Buddha, oral traditions and the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism comes in several different forms. Some Buddhists, for instance, have never heard of the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, nor have any concept of nirvana. And aside from these core values, Buddhists have many other different beliefs. For example, some Buddhists offer prayers and sacrifices to Buddha, hoping for his favor. Others think that with concentrated effort, anyone can become a buddha. And while many Buddhists are actually atheists, some are looking forward to a new Buddha, a kind of messiah, who will bring enlightenment to the earth.

Any common ground?

When Buddhists talk about suffering, Christians know where they're coming from. Jesus suffered one of the cruelest deaths imaginable. And as Christ's followers, the apostle Peter tells us we should expect to suffer as well (1 Peter 4:12-13).

What sets us apart?

Buddhists have little in common with Christians. While members of both faiths agree there's real suffering in life, Buddhists believe they can end it through the elimination of desire. Christians attempt to alleviate suffering where we can, but we know we can't completely prevent it as long as there's sin in the world. Suffering began when Adam and Eve sinned, and it won't end until Jesus comes back. Also, as Christians, our ultimate goal isn't nirvana. It's a relationship with a personal God and eventually a real existence with him in heaven.


What's the main idea?

Maybe you've heard the verse, "Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." That's Deuteronomy 6:4, and it's part of the Shema, a series of verses (verses 4-9) that Orthodox Jews say every morning and evening. The Shema reminds Jews to keep God's laws and pass them on from generation to generation. It's an example of why Jews believe they are God's chosen people.

Jews believe God, who alone is to be worshiped, revealed himself in history through prophets and promises a future messiah who will bring a reign of peace and righteousness to the earth. They follow the sacred texts of the Tanakh and the Talmud. The Tanakh is what we call the Old Testament. The Talmud is a huge collection of laws, stories and commentary that guides Jews as they live out their beliefs.

But not all Jews still follow the traditional texts and beliefs. One of the most popular kinds of Judaism today is called Reform Judaism. Reformed Jews stick to the ethics of traditional Judaism but no longer strictly follow the Scriptures. They leave many of the laws up to personal interpretation. Conservative Judaism is closer to traditional or Orthodox Judaism. This branch upholds most of the Jewish law but also leaves room for current clothing and modern styles of worship.

Any common ground?

Both Jews and Christians believe in one God (monotheism), and since we both say that the Old Testament is true, it makes a good starting point for conversation. People like Abraham, Moses and David are key figures for both faiths; the stories of the Old Testament heroes are part of our common heritage. And, of course, Jews and Christians share belief in a messiah.

What sets us apart?

Both Jews and Christians use the Old Testament, but Jews have a different take on some of the same events. For instance, Adam's fall isn't so important to Jews. And though we both look to a messiah, practicing Jews believe the Messiah is still to come. As Christians, we believe the Messiah is Jesus Christ. Our messiahs have different purposes, too. While the Jews believe the Messiah will set up a kingly reign on earth and reunite Israel, we know Jesus as both the king and the suffering servant (see Isaiah 53) who died on the cross. As Christians, our hope is not just in this world, but in a future heaven with Jesus.


What's the main idea?

On his many caravan rides along the trading route between Syria and Arabia, a merchant named Muhammad observed people of all kinds of faiths. He became increasingly concerned that people were straying from ethical and moral responsibility. In A.D. 610, when Muhammed was 40 years old, the angel Gabriel allegedly commanded him to become a prophet, calling people back to the truth. The foundation of Islam was laid.

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world (after Christianity), claiming one billion followers, called Muslims. The religion hangs on the phrase, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet." Allah (Arabic for "God") is alone to be worshiped. So it's a big mistake to think Muslims view Muhammad the same way Christians view Jesus. Muhammad was not a deity to be worshiped, but the last and greatest prophet—someone who brought a perfect message from God.

Muslims aren't concerned as much about the right beliefs as they are about the right actions. In "submitting to the will of God" (that's the meaning of the word "Islam"), they stick to the Five Pillars, a set of important requirements that includes regular charity, praying five times a day, and making at least one hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca (Islam's holy city). In addition to this, most Muslims devoutly refrain from alcohol, drugs, gambling and certain foods such as pork. The Qur'an (or Koran), which Muslims believe is the written recollection of the visions Muhammad received, is the most important text, although our Old and New Testaments are also significant in Islam.

Any common ground?

Christians and Muslims share a lot of similar beliefs. For instance, Moses, Jacob and David are influential in both faiths. And Muslims have enormous respect for Jesus, seeing him as the second-greatest prophet. Muslims also believe in Jesus' virgin birth and his miracles, even saying he's the Messiah.

What sets us apart?

Muslims don't believe in Jesus' death and resurrection, and they consider the Christian claim of Jesus' divinity blasphemous. In Islam, Muhammad is the greatest and most authentic prophet. While they think highly of the Bible, Muslims think the Qur'an is the true Word of God. Most significantly, the Christian concept of grace is completely absent in Islam. Allah is relatively cold and removed, and the principles of right and wrong, do's and don'ts, form the foundation of the faith.


Now that you know something about world religions, you might think you're ready to convince others to follow Jesus. But people rarely make life-changing decisions based on facts alone. If Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims are looking for spiritual truth, they won't be satisfied with polished "right answers."

Think about your own faith. When you first became a Christian, you didn't have every fact straight and every doubt figured out. If you're honest with yourself, you probably still don't. And that's OK! Being a Christian isn't just about having all the right answers. It's about having a relationship with Jesus and lovingly inviting others to join in.

The best way to tell people of other religions about your faith isn't to blast them with airtight proofs or tell them they're wrong. Instead, by showing them long-lasting love—no strings attached—you'll prove you're more interested in being friends than winning arguments. And you'll earn the right to be heard.

My Friends Showed Me God's Love

Thanks to Dr. James Lewis, Associate Professor of World Religions at Wheaton College (IL), who helped with this article.

For a more in-depth look at these and other religions, we recommend Neighboring Faiths by Winfried Corduan, published by InterVarsity Press.