The dilemma of whether Christians should study other religions is a question as old as the early days of the church, and it has come up again and again over the centuries. The gospel is, after all, the only way to salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 5:11–12). And God’s Word is truth (John 17:17).
So why should a follower of Christ study anything that is not truth? False religion is actually demonic (1 Cor. 10:21), and we approach the demonic at our peril. Should Christians seek to understand the religious convictions of non-Christians, and should that knowledge influence how we share the gospel? The answer is yes. And no.
It is yes in the sense that we want the gospel to be understood since good communication requires that we understand what the other person hears when we say what we say. It also helps to be prepared to respond to the objections or disagreements the other person is likely to have. The answer is no, however, if we mean that we change the message to make it somehow more palatable to the other person. The point is not to make the gospel easy, or tame, or comfortable. The point is to make the gospel clearly understood. Some examples may help to illustrate this.
“We do not study other worldviews to compromise with them or to seek to blend them with biblical faith.”
“Born Again” (and Again, and Again)
Hinduism has the concept of being born again, yet a Hindu thinks of that word in terms of reincarnation, not regeneration. If we simply tell a Hindu, “You must be born again,” we have told him the truth, but he hears that statement as meaning, “You must be reincarnated.” He will agree, but he will be agreeing with something we never meant. Clear communication requires that we understand his religion well enough to realize those words and concepts that need clarification.
Islam’s View of Jesus
Something similar is at work within Islam. Muslims use almost all the same theological vocabulary as Christians, but they understand different things by those words. For example, Islam agrees that Jesus is the Messiah, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, is alive in heaven today, and will come again at the end of history. However, Islam explicitly denies that Jesus was God in human flesh, that he died on the cross, that he atoned for our sins, and that he is the only Savior for sinners.
If we simply say, “Jesus is the Messiah,” Muslims will agree—but what they mean by that is very different from what the Bible means. When we say that Jesus is the Son of God, Muslims think that we mean that God the Father had sex with Mary the mother to produce Jesus the Son. It is really, really helpful to know that when we attempt to share the gospel with Muslims.
Christian Influence in North America
There was a time when North American culture was very heavily influenced by biblical teaching and values (although genuinely born-again Christians have almost certainly never been a majority of the population). Even when Christianity was culturally influential, North American Christians generally knew what non-Christians erroneously thought about salvation—usually that we somehow earn our way into God’s favor—and they used that knowledge to hone their gospel presentations. However, those days of pervasive cultural influence are now long gone.
The language that we use in articulating the gospel now, therefore, should assume that our audience lacks the biblical foundation for their understanding of reality. Knowing this, our evangelism efforts in North America necessarily include sharing what God says about himself, about the nature of the world, about humanity, about right and wrong, and a host of other things that nonbelievers do not share in common with Christians.
“If we want to communicate the gospel clearly, it is entirely necessary to study the worldviews of those we are trying to reach—and worldview includes religion.”
Avoiding the “S” Word
In other words, we study what is going on in the minds of our non-Christian neighbors so we can communicate the gospel in a way that, hopefully, makes sense to them. Otherwise, they are likely to misinterpret the gospel message on their worldview terms, which leads to syncretism—a dangerous blending of biblical Christianity with nonbiblical elements.
A Biblical Model to Follow
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul provided us with a great model to follow here. Paul knew the pagan world of the Roman Empire and quoted pagan poets. For example, in Titus 1:12, he quoted Epimenides of Crete and even called him “a prophet of their own.”
Perhaps the most remarkable example of Paul knowing and using pagan religion to help make the gospel clear to his hearers came during his stay in Athens on his second missionary journey (Acts 17). Paul walked around the city and observed the expressions of pagan religion that filled it. He referred to a pagan altar as a connection point for his sermon on the Areopagus.
He knew pagan literature well enough to quote it from memory, as he utilized both Epimenides and Aratus in his message. Paul would never say that paganism was a valid means of access to God in any way. He knew paganism quite well, however, and he used that knowledge in his evangelism.
In view of all these things, not only is it valid for us to study other religions but if we want to communicate the gospel clearly, it is entirely necessary to study the worldviews of those we are trying to reach—and worldview includes religion. We do not study it to compromise with it or to seek to blend it with biblical faith. Rather, we study it to be good evangelists and good disciple makers.
Zane Pratt serves as vice president of training at the International Mission Board.