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Why Should Christians Learn World Religions?

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He has his bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), his master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and his PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His master’s thesis was on apologetics to atheists, and his doctoral dissertation was on apologetics to Buddhists. In 2014, he co-authored The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw with Norman Geisler. Daniel works as editorial director for the Renew Network. His passion is to help people understand that they can totally trust Jesus. He plays guitar and piano and occasionally enjoys writing songs. daniel@renew.org

Why should everyday Christians bother to learn the basics about other religions? Here are three reasons you should consider.

Clarify the Facts

It’s too easy to misunderstand other religions. On the one hand, some writers will make religions seem more similar than they really are. Such authors fudge the facts in order to bring about peace between the religions. On the other hand, some writers will make other religions seem worse than they really are. They exaggerate the embarrassing features of the religion, since a “straw man” is easier to knock down than the real thing.

Christians should seek truth. This means learning and growing. This means being able to recognize phoniness on either side and steering between it.

It means hunting for answers, not settling for stereotypes. It means being able to enter discussions on other religions and offer light, not merely adding to the heat.

So what is the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism? Do Christians and Muslims and Jews worship the same God? What was Siddhartha Gautama’s fundamental insight? Are Hindus pantheist (all is god), or polytheist (there are many gods)? Is Islam a peaceful religion? What has changed in Judaism since the writing of the New Testament? What did Confucius teach? Is a Sikh basically a Muslim, or a Hindu, or something else? Do African traditionalists worship their ancestors as gods? What religion does the yin-yang symbol come from?

Clarifying such facts is part of seeking truth and understanding the world.

Love Your Neighbor

Followers of Jesus already know that we can’t compartmentalize the command to love. Jesus taught us in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) that it’s not enough to love the next-door neighbor; we are to be a neighbor, showing love to whoever is in need. The way of Jesus is to be a neighbor to Buddhists and Hindus, Jews and Muslims.

Just as the victim’s Jewishness didn’t stop the Samaritan from showing love, another person’s religious identity should never stop us from loving.

This opportunity to be a neighbor to people of other religions is no longer theoretical. This is because “neighbor” is no longer merely metaphorical. You have people of other religions as your coworkers, your clients, your classmates, your neighbors. Part of learning to love is getting to know. And part of getting to know is learning the religion.

So invite your “neighbor” over. Ask questions. Offer help. Share a meal. Appreciate the culture. Learn the holidays. Understand the taboos to avoid offense. Do your homework.

It was after dinner at the McCoy household. YouTube was on autoplay, and it had started playing a song by a choir in an old, darkly lit church. I didn’t pay attention to the video until my five-year-old daughter who was watching the video from across the room said, “Ooh—creepy people.” I said, “Creepy people? What do you mean?”

So she got closer to the screen, and suddenly she said, “Oh, not creepy people. Just people.”

That’s the invitation to you and to me: Move in. Get closer. Get to know people of other religions. Learn to love them as precious people for whom Jesus left heaven to die. Part of this is learning their religion.

Preach the Gospel

It’s one thing to teach your kid about Jesus or to remind your uncle that he ought to get back in church. It seems like quite another to evangelize someone of a different religion. Your family has a religion; his or her family follows another religion. Why feel compelled to preach the gospel to someone of a different religion, especially when the person already seems culturally established, basically content, and adequately virtuous?

This was the dilemma the Catholic priest Thomas Merton wrestled with concerning his friendship with the Buddhist D.T. Suzuki. He could try to convert Suzuki to accepting the truths of Christianity, but he was afraid this would “simply confuse and (in a cultural sense) degrade him.” Besides, Merton mused, “Who says that Suzuki is not already a saint?” Merton concluded that he would concentrate on “the most important thing”: cultivating the friendship.1

Is it safe to assume that a person’s saintliness equals the person’s salvation? Are we to see friendship with us as a more important end result than the person’s friendship with God? The only way these can be safe bets is if we fundamentally change the message of the New Testament. Either we feel compelled to convert the person, or we have to convert Christianity.2

It’s entrancing to consider the heavenly vision of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). In the meantime, there is work to do.

There is every reason to connect that future vision with our current orders: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

When the Apostle Paul preached the gospel to the Jews, he taught the Law and Prophets. When he preached to pantheists, he quoted their poets. When he preached to pagans, he spoke of rains from heaven and fruitful seasons. Part of preaching the gospel to people of other religions is to learn their religions.

Just as the victim’s Jewishness didn’t stop the Samaritan from showing love, another person’s religious identity should never stop us from loving.

*Adapted from: The Popular Handbook of World Religions, Copyright (C) 2021 by Daniel J. McCoy. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. www.harvesthousepublishers.com

[1] Christopher Pramuk, “‘Something Breaks Through a Little’: The Marriage of Zen and Sophia in the Life of Thomas Merton,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 (2008): 67–89, 81.

[2] Interfaith scholar John Cobb taught that rather than trying to convert people to our religion, we ought to convert the religions to the point that they no longer contradict one another at core. He writes, “But more important than the conversion of individual Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims is the conversion of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.” See John B. Cobb, Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 142.

Are you curious to learn more about the world religions? Download Renew.org’s free learning guides On World Religions: A 10-Lesson Learning Guide to Islam, Judaism, and More (Volume 1) and On World Religions: A 10-Lesson Learning Guide to Buddhism, Hinduism, and More (Volume 2)