A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF WORLD RELIGIONS
Few of us would question the fact that we live in a religiously
pluralistic world. In fact, the ever increasing exposure to
representatives of other faiths with their long histories, traditions,
highly developed cultures, and ancient rites has prompted many to call
for a “Copernican revolution” in our thinking about other religions.
The advocates of this view suggest that each religion be viewed as one
religion among others, no matter how different it may be from the
other religions. One group, they say, cannot simply distance itself
from the whole realm of the world’s many religions. The resurgence of
many non-Christian religions and the general tolerance of our age have
led to an uneasy coexistence between various belief systems. In some
cases the different groups are no more than consciously aware of one
another. In other cases mutual recognition and varying degrees of
respect makes a genuine exchange of ideas possible. But no matter
what the arrangement, most people would agree that no religion can
afford to ignore the fact (existence) of the other faiths, since an
arrogant, isolated, or self-sufficient attitude will yield nothing but
counterproductive antagonism and ultimately rejection.
This leads to the question of how a Christian should approach the
other religions? For the believer the answer should be obvious and
non-negotiable. Whatever the nature of our interaction with the
adherents of other faiths, the Lordship and Saviorhood of Christ are
not to be relativized in any way. We need no other justification for
this stance than that of Christ’s unique offer of salvation and our
obedience to his command to share with the world’s peoples his offer
of salvation. (John 6:69, Matthew 16:16; 28:18). Yet, in terms of
our relationship to them we do have a number of options. We can
reject them as demonic, false, deceptive, or even as forerunners of
Christianity. But, no matter what positions we have initially
(traditionally) adopted, the present situation requires fresh
theological reflection based on accurate information about the various
Before we turn to that information and a comparison between
Christianity and other faiths, several preliminary questions need to
be addressed. They include the definition, the study, and the
classification of religions.
1.1. The Definition of Religion
Defining religion is a notoriously difficult task. Generally speaking
religion has to do with the way in which man relates to and interprets
the world around him, in particular to any unseen dimensions of that
world such as spirits, demons, and gods. A second important element
is the concept of salvation. Almost all religions seek to help the
individual 1) find the meaning of his world and his own life and 2)
find a solution to his own weakness and sinfulness. In many cases
salvation is interpreted as protection from natural disasters, fear,
and hunger. In other case it is thought of in terms of forgiveness
and/or freedom from some evil. Religion, then, provides a framework
within which an individual can interpret the world around him and a
source from which he can derive hope, love, security and purpose.
1.2. The Study of Religion
The study of religion is generally divided into five major areas:
1.2.1. Philosophy of religion concentrates on the meaning and the
truth of religious experience. It is an analysis of the existence and
nature of God, the epistomological basis of religious truth, and the
logical relationship between faith and reason.
1.2.2. Psychology of religion focuses its attention on the subjective
aspects of man’s religious experience. Sigmund Freud, for example,
suggested that religion is an expression (projection) of our fears and
guilt feelings. Other studies have examined conversion, worship, and
prayer, all in an attempt to explain this subjective element of
1.2.3. Phenomenology of religion (comparative religions) is an
analysis and systematization of the objective and institutionalized
aspects of religious life. This involves anthropological and
sociological examination of the empirical state of any given religion
and provides an objective basis for comparison.
1.2.4. History of religion deals with the process that has led to the
form of each religion as we know it today. This often begins with the
question of the origin of the various religions. These theories can
be divided into several categories. First, there are evolutionary
schemes which suggest that the highly developed religions (monotheism)
have developed from primitive nature religions. One such theory
suggests that dreams about departed loved ones led to the belief in
spirits and ultimately in gods. Second, there are theories which
posit some form of original monotheism which was subjected devolution
not evolution. Man deliberately left or abandoned his loyalty to the
one God. As a result, man began to develop a myriad of religious
practices, most of them designed to manipulate and control the spirits
that man had come to fear.
Since no researcher has access to the original state of affairs, most
scholars have abandoned most attempts to find and describe man’s
original religious state.
1.2.5. Theology of religion represents an attempt by the adherents of
one religion to define their relationship to other religions.
Questions that are raised include: to what extent are the claims of
other religions valid, true, or salvific; when, if at all, does God
reveal Himself in the other religions.
1.3. Classifying Religions
Researchers have discovered many parallels between the religions of
the world. Since the concept of God is crucial to all religions, some
have suggested that this be used as the main criteria for categorizing
religions. According to that scheme the major religions fall into two
broad groups – polytheistic and monotheistic. In a polytheistic
religion the existence of more than one God or divine being is
accepted. A monotheistic religion maintains the existence of only one
God. This is the approach adopted for the following comparison.
(Buddhism and Hinduism will be used to illustrate polytheistic
religions and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the major
2.1. Historical Overview
Unlike the other religions which will be presented in this chapter
Hinduism is extremely difficult to describe. There are several
reasons for this. First, it represents a wide variety of religious
experiences and beliefs ranging from polytheism through henotheism,
monotheism, and monism. Second, Hinduism has no founder. It is the
result of a long process of development, and for that reason has no
clearly definable formative period. Third, Hinduism so thoroughly
dominates Indian society that it has become almost synonymous with
that culture. Fourth, there is no single official scripture. Fifth,
worship is not limited to either temples, specific rituals or even
gods. In light of these characteristics Hinduism is best described in
terms of four stages of development, each with its own set of beliefs.
2.1.1. Vedic Hinduism (ca. 2000-600 B.C.)
The earliest form of Hinduism developed in pre-Aryan India. Between
B.C. 3200 and 2500 a vibrant culture had developed among the ancestors
of the Dravidians in the Indus valley. These people had developed a
highly advanced civilization which may have included cultural exchange
with the Sumerians. Both the content and the practice of Dravidian
religion was taken from sacred writings known as the Veda. Completed
some time before 1500 B.C. the Veda contain a collection of hymns and
ritual instruction which represents the religious seedbed for
Between 2000 and 1500 B.C., a central Asian people known as Aryans
invaded India from the north driving the Dravidians south. The
religious ideas and practices introduced by these light-skinned
conquerors altered the face of Dravidian Hinduism. The Aryans
worshiped the powers of nature rather than images. The most important
of their gods were Indra, a god of the atmosphere and stars, Varuna, a
sky god, and Agni, the god of fire. Because the Dravidian gods were
assimilated rather than displaced the emerging religion developed a
complicated array of gods and goddesses.
The Aryans also developed an elaborate system of rituals and
sacrifices, which were seen as a defense against ravages of war and
natural disasters. That led in turn to the need for priesthood (the
Brahmins) – powerful positions which the Aryans eagerly assumed. This
was, in all likelihood, the beginning of the Caste system. According
to this pattern social structure is organized around five classes: a)
the Brahmin (priests), b) the Kshatriya (warriors), c) Vaishya
(professionals and skilled workers), d) the Shudra (slaves), and
Panchama or Harijen (the untouchables).
The source of these religious beliefs and practices is the Upanishads.
These writings, philosophical commentaries on the Veda, reinterpreted
the Vedic texts and reduce the various ideas of god to a single
principle or absolute universal soul called Brahman or Paramatman.
This monistic or pantheistic viewpoint held that the universe is God,
and God is the universe. As a result the real world was considered to
be an illusion (maya) and man a part of the Paramatman, who’s destiny
was to be freed from earthly life by the knowledge that he and the
world soul are identical. Short of attaining that knowledge man’s
only hope of salvation was the faithful pursuit of the four
permissible goals of life: duty (dharma) as prescribed by one’s
particular caste; material gain (artha); love, pleasure and esthetic
enjoyment (kama); and finally spiritual victory over life (moksha).
Each Hindu was also expected to work his way through four stages of
life: student, householder with family, a hermit seeking enlightenment
after renouncing all family ties, and finally a homeless but holy
2.1.2. The Period of Traditional Hinduism (600 B.C. – A.D. 300)
This period was characterized by several revolutionary changes:
220.127.116.11. A reaction against the dominance of the Brahmin led to
Hinduism being divided into a popular religion of the masses and a
more philosophical religion. This dissatisfaction with ritualistic
development also led to the formation of several other religions
including Buddhism and Jainism.
18.104.22.168. Worship was concentrated on one god – Vishnu and his many
incarnations. These incarnations, called Avatars generally involve
some kind of divine intervention in order to save the world from grave
peril. The form of the incarnation was not limited to that of man.
Vishnu also appeared as a fish, an amphibian, a boar, a man-lion, and
a dwarf. The seventh and eighth incarnations of Vishnu, Rama and
Krishna, are the most important and are worshiped more than Vishnu
22.214.171.124. A new class of religious literature was introduced. Whereas
the Vedas were referred to as shruti, these later writings were called
smriti. They included: a) The Laws of Manu, a collection of social
and religions laws from about the time of Christ; b) the Puranas
(ancient tales) which contain stories about the gods; and c) epic
Poems. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama and his wife Sita and
provided teaching on the marriage and the family. The Mahabharata
describes Krishna’s involvement in a war between two families. It
offers instruction on man’s duty, something which is seen as more
important than asceticism, sacrifice, or even philosophical
speculation. The most popular part of this work is the Bagavad-Gita.
126.96.36.199. During this period, the concept of salvation shifted from an
emphasis on fulfillment of duty to an emphasis on release and escape
from life. Life on earth began to be viewed quite pessimistically in
terms of karma and samsara.
The law of karma was a moral law of cause and effect. According to
this idea an individual could build up either good or evil karma
depending on his or her deeds.
According to the idea of samsara all life goes through an endless
succession of rebirths. Every living thing is on the wheel of life,
and the status of each new rebirth is determined by the karma
accumulated in the previous life. Salvation is defined as the
“breaking out of this endless cycle.” This release is know as Moksha.
It occurs when a person extends his being (sat) awareness (chit), and
bliss (ananda) to an infinite level. Since Brahman, the impersonal
absolute, is infinite being, awareness, and bliss, the only way a man
can obtain Moksha is to come to the realization that his own self
(atman) is actually part of Brahman (Paramatman). This can be
summarized in the phrase “Tat Twam Asi” (used today in TM) which means
“You are that.” Salvation, then, is achieved by detachment from the
finite self and attachment to reality as a whole. If and when this is
achieved, the individual has reached Nirvana, the “State of
2.1.3. Philosophical Hinduism (A.D. 300 – 1750)
There are six schools (Darsanas) of Orthodox Hindu Philosophy. Common
to each school is the assumed authority of the Vedas. Although the
actual ideas can be traced back to the ninth century B.C., the systems
were not developed until between the fifth B.C. and the third century
A.D. and assumed final form during the following 1000 years.
1) Sankhya was founded by Kapila (ca. 7th century B.C.), focuses on
the two eternal categories of being – Purusha (soul) and Prakriti
(matter), and is dualistic and atheistic.
2) Yoga, developed by Pantanjali (second century A.D.) as a practical
means (physical control and meditation) of attaining enlightenment.
3) Vedanta emerged about the time of Christ and is divided into three
schools: a) Sankara (A.D. 800) teaches a non-dual (advita) position
which maintains that everything is Brahman; b) Ramanuja (A.D. 1000)
teaches a modified non-dualism in which the physical world, individual
souls, and ultimate reality are each real and yet one; c) Madhva (A.D.
1200) developed a dualism which envisioned enlightened souls
consciously enjoying the presence of one supreme God (monotheistic!).
All others will spend eternity locked into the cycle of
4) Nyaya (1200 A.D) is a positivitic school based on the third century
(A.D.) writings of Gautama (not the founder of Buddhism) which teaches
that misery follows from false notions which in turn allow for
activities which have bad consequences in successive rebirths.
5) Purva-Mimamsa (400 B.C.) teaches the literal inspiration of four
Veda and expounds on the practical aspects of man’s duty.
6) Vaisheshika (400 B.C) teaches that the world is a self-existent
reality formed of eternal and indivisible atoms combining and
2.1.4. Sectarian Hinduism (900 A.D. – )
Beginning around the 10th century a number of sects sprang up and
flourished in Hinduism. They differed from the followers of the
smriti in that they worshiped only one God such as Vishnu, Siva, Kali,
etc. On the basis of their devotion to that god they expected some
favor in return and thus tended to emphasize grace rather than works
as a means of salvation. In contrast to the non-dualist Vedanta they
held that the one God was personal. Of particular importance to this
discussion are the various paths (marga) to salvation offered by
1) Karma-Marga, the way of works, advocates following the ancient
vedic rituals and teachings.
2) Jnana-Marga, the way of knowledge (Vedanta), confirms with the way
of life taught in the Upanishads. Knowledge becomes the source of
peace and security in a transitory world.
3) Bhakti-Marga, the way of devotion, which hopes that the gods turned
to in devotion will respond by helping man in his present life.
2.2. Basic Teaching
2.2.1. Creation and the World. According to Hindu teaching the world
was created from that which already existed. Since the creator and
the creation are one and the same, creation (including man) has no
real or separate existence. This tends to downplay the value of the
individual and seems to leave creation without a clearly defined
2.2.2. Deity. In philosophical Hinduism, God is generally an
impersonal force as opposed to the personal God of Christianity. In
popular Hinduism, there are great multitudes of gods (3 Million by one
count!) and goddesses.
2.2.3. Man. In Hindu teaching man’s primary problems are caused by
the effects of maya. In light of the illusory nature of both man and
his actions there can be no recognition of sin in the sense of moral
guilt. Sin itself becomes an illusion. Since man is at the same time
part of the world soul, he cannot be separated from God by his sin.
2.2.4. Salvation. In spite of its philosophical orientation
Hinduism’s offer of salvation is made on the basis of good works or
duty (dharma). Unmerited mercy and the forgiveness of sins find no
place in a system dominated by the idea of karma. As has already been
pointed out, each person has many lives in which his own deeds
determine the amount of karma and whether or not the slow progress
toward reunification with or absorption into the world soul is being
made. Salvation, then, is the ultimate dissolution of the individual.
2.3. Present Strength and Distribution
The total number of Hindus is approximately 655,695,200. They are
distributed as follows: North America (810,000), South America
(660,000) Europe (591,200), Asia (651,929,000), Africa (1,410,000),
3.1. Historical Overview
The founder of Buddhism Siddhartha Gautama was born about 567 B.C. in
Southern Nepal near Kapilavastu (about 130 miles north of the modern
city of Benares). According to tradition, his father (Suddhodana), a
petty ruler of the Kshatriya class, was informed by a Seer at the
birth of his son, that Gautama was destined to become a great ruler.
However, if he were to see four things – disease, old age, death, and
a monk who had renounced the world – then the boy would abandon his
earthly destiny in order to become the founder of a new way of
salvation for all of the world. As a result, Gautama’s father sought
to keep him from these experiences. He built a palace in the midst of
a sheltered park and ordered that neither the sick nor the aged nor
the dead nor the monk should be allowed near the palace. So it was
that the boy grew up shielded from the world.
Tradition goes on to report that gods intervened and on successive
days that as Gautama was being driven through his park, he saw a man
covered with sores, a very old man, a corpse, and finally a monk. As
Gautama was told what each one of these things were, he began to
meditate on the meaning of these new experiences recognizing that all
must grow old, perhaps become sick, and eventually die. However, it
was the peaceful appearance of the monk which convinced him to abandon
his family and seek salvation as a monk (compare this with the four
phases of life in Hindu teaching). So we are told that one night he
went to the door of his bed chamber, looked once upon his sleeping
wife and son, and left never to return. Gautama shaved off his hair,
put on a yellow robe, and went on his great quest for enlightenment.
This path took him through several stages: discussions with a Brahmin
master (study of Upanishads) followed extreme asceticism which left
him near starvation. Having found no satisfaction, he abandoned the
latter course by accepting food offered by a young maiden. Still
intent on finding enlightenment he seated himself under a tree and
vowed not to move until he had achieved what he was looking for. For
forty nights and forty days the evil one, Mara, fought to dissuade.
But finally he experienced the bliss of Nirvana and ultimate
salvation. This experience is best described as having become awake
(Bodhi). In that moment, Gautama became the Buddha – the fully
awakened or enlightened one.
It should be noted that to most Buddhists it makes no difference at
all how much of the above is actually historical. As one writer put
it, “to the extent that Buddhism is true it is, like the essence of
Christianity, beyond the accidents of time and place, of fact and
history. To the extent that it is untrue, it does not become more
true by being pinned to a set of words produced by a certain man on
such and such a day.” (Humphreys, ‘Buddhism’, 25-26) That this is
true for Buddhism is beyond question. As for Christianity; here lies
a major difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
As Buddhism developed, it split into two major groupings. One called
Hinayana, the doctrine of the lesser way, or Theravada Buddhism. This
movement does not view Gautama as a god but rather as one who has
shown the way. That way involves rigorous monastic life, and
therefore limits salvation to a relatively small number of
individuals. It is most common in Southeast Asia, in particular Burma
The other major grouping, Mahayana Buddhism, whereas as Theravada
Buddhism offers salvation into Nirvana only to those who renounce this
world, Hinayana, the great vehicle, seeks to overcome this restriction
by offering hope to anyone. This form of Buddhism developed about the
time of Christ. One of the major characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism
is the concept of Bodhisattva, a being whose essence is enlightenment.
This is a person who like Gautama, achieved enlightenment but did not
pass immediately into Nirvana. These beings have taken a vow not to
enter Nirvana and thus can serve as helpers for those who call upon
them in faith. In light of this kind of mediating help, an individual
can lead a normal life and on the basis of his devotion to
Bodhisattva, can continue on the path to Nirvana. This, of course,
leads to a modification of the idea of Nirvana. Autonomous, agnostic
position was not very appealing, and Mahayana sects have introduced a
whole series of heavens and hells in which the promise of paradise is
made for the faithful.
3.2. Basic Teaching
3.2.1. The teachings of the Buddha.
It is difficult to be precise about the written sources for the
Buddha’s teachings since there is no closed cannon of scripture in
Buddhism. Although hundreds of works could be included, there is a
body of scripture which is held to be basic by most Buddhists. The
Tripitaka (the three baskets) are the result of a long oral tradition
which was not recorded until about the first century B.C. The
Tripitaka is made up of three major divisions: a) the Vinaya Tripitaka
which is a collection of disciplines, rules of order, b) the Sutta
Tripitaka, the basket of discourses – dialogues between Buddha and his
disciples on the teachings of religion, and c) the Abhidhamma
Tripitaka – collection of teaching on metaphysics.
The teachings of Gautama can be summarized in terms of the four noble
188.8.131.52. The fact of Suffering. According to this principle, the
very fact or act of existing necessarily involves suffering.
Suffering is associated with five factors of existence. They are:
man’s physical existence, man’s feeling and emotions, imagination and
perception, will and activity, and consciousness. From this it can be
seen that anything from birth to death, both waking and sleeping,
dreaming and desiring, all involve suffering.
184.108.40.206. The cause of suffering. The ultimate source of suffering is
man’s desire (tanha). It’s man’s desire for pleasure, security and
life itself which causes him to cling to the wheel of life which in
turn causes an endless cycle of rebirth.
220.127.116.11. Overcoming suffering. Since existence itself is suffering,
and suffering is caused by desire, the ultimate solution is overcoming
that desire. By eliminating all desire, all craving, and thus
bringing unending cycle of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth,
suffering can be brought to an end.
18.104.22.168. The way to overcoming suffering. In order to overcome
suffering, an individual must follow the noble eightfold path. These
are usually translated as: l) right views, 2) right aims or intent,
3) right speech, 4) right conduct or action, 5) right means of
livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and right
meditation or contemplation. This is the path that leads to the
cessation of desire and finally to Nirvana cessation of the cycle of
Another important aspect of this teaching involves the “Three
refuges.” Those who would follow the path of Buddha and seek
salvation Nirvana renounce the world and make the following
declaration of faith: “I go to the Buddha for refuge; I go to the
Dhamma for refuge; I go to the Sangha for refuge.” In this way the
prospective Buddhist declares his intention to learn and follow the
four noble truths and the eightfold path. The Dhamma refers to cultic
practices which involve three separate exercises described as
honorable living (eightfold path), concentrated meditation, and
grasping the transcendental. This was the religious law which
determined the unity and fellowship of the Sangha. This amounted to a
religious order. Those entering were required to make the above
mentioned confession of faith, and submit to the order (Dhamma).
3.3. Present Strength and Distribution
The total number of Buddhists is approximately 309,626,1000. They are
distributed roughly as follows: North America (190,000), South America
(490,000) Europe (536,000), Asia (308,381,300), Africa (12,800),
4.1. Historical Overview
4.1.1. Although Judaism is the smallest of the three monotheistic
religions, it antedates both Islam and Christianity. Abraham,
regarded as the founding patriarch, migrated from Ur of the Chaldees
to Palestine around 2100 B.C. Under the leadership of one of his
descendants, Jacob, also called Israel, this semitic people moved to
the upper Nile delta region of Egypt (ca. 1870 B.C.) in order to
escape famine. During the course of several hundred years, these
people proliferated and were organized into tribes each associated
with one of the twelve sons of Jacob. After having suffered much
abuse at the hands of Egyptian task masters, these tribes were led out
of Egypt by Moses (ca. 1500 B.C.). At the end of a forty year sojourn
in the desert, leadership was passed to Joshua who led the twelve
tribes into Palestine where they subdued its Canaanite inhabitants.
Under the judges (leaders who were divinely appointed to deliver and
maintain Israel) the twelve tribes organized a loose federation
(anphictyonic covenant). Around l050 B.C. Saul established the Jewish
monarchy. Saul and his successors, David and Solomon, led the Jewish
nation to a golden age of economic, military, and cultural success
which reached its highpoint around 960 B.C.
In 930 B.C. the kingdom was divided into a northern (Israel) and
a southern (Judah) kingdom. In 722 B.C. Israel was defeated by the
Assyrians. In 586 B.C. Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and
many Jews were exiled to Babylon. Some of the exiled Jews were
allowed to return in 537 B.C. but a series of conquests prevented
them from regaining and maintaining full control.
4.1.2. Several centuries later Jews, under the leadership of the
Maccabees revolted against hellenistic kings who gave them a degree of
independence in l28 B.C. which lasted only until the Romans conquered
the country. During the Maccabean era and the ensuing Roman
occupation, several important religio-political parties emerged. The
Sadducees (priests in the temple) the Pharisees (teachers of the law
and the synagogues) the Essenes (a religious order associated with the
Dead Sea scrolls discovered in l947) and the Zealots, a para-military
organization prepared to fight for independence. In 68, the Zealots
led a revolt against Roman occupiers which was suppressed in A.D. 70
resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The Jews
were scattered into what is called the Diaspora.
4.1.3. The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. introduced a number
of significant changes. Meeting places known as synagogues, which
were first organized during the exile, became the focal point of
Jewish life. For example, the sacrificial system lost with the
destruction of the temple was replaced by the ritual, prayer, and the
study of the Law provided in the synagogues. The Levitical
priesthood, which was also tied to the temple, was replaced by
teachers of the Law, many of whom were Pharisees who had developed an
elaborate oral tradition based on their interpretation of the Mosaic
Law. In that tradition the Law was applied to every detail of life.
External observance of the Sabbath, dietary rules and holy days were
stressed. These Pharisaic teachers were known as rabbis (teachers).
With the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system gone,
Judaism began to stress the idea that every Jew had an immediate
access to God. As a Jew he needed no conversion or redemption.
Instead, a Jew could reach salvation by obedience to the Torah. The
rabbis broke the Law down into 613 precepts – 365 negative precepts
and 248 positive precepts which govern every detail of religious life.
In the 12th century, a Jewish philosopher named Maimonides produced a
creed which is still the generally accepted standard of Orthodoxy. He
considered Moses to be the greatest of the prophets and the Law to be
the highest form of revelation. This creed emphasized the
omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and oneness of God. As the only
creator and source of life, he alone should be worshiped. Maimonides
also taught a system of rewards and punishments, the coming of the
Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead.
4.1.4. One of the most important facets of Judaism are its festivals
and holy days. Rosh Hashanah, the new year celebration, is marked by
10 days of penitence and solemnity. The 10th day of penitence is the
Day of Atonement, when Jews acknowledge their sins and pray for
forgiveness. Other important festivals include: the Feast of
Tabernacles (Succoth or Booths), Passover (Commemoration of the Exodus
from Egypt), the Feast of Weeks (Shabuoth or Pentecost), and Hanukkah
(Festival of Light). These special days commemorate the joys and
sorrows of Jewish history and serve as a conscious reminder of the
past. They also illustrate Judaism’s concept of history as the
meaningful product of God’s activity.
4.1.5. Today Judaism is divided into three main branches. Orthodox,
Reform, and Conservative. Orthodox Judaism has changed little in the
last 20 centuries. It follows the talmudic teachings and precepts
about Sabbath observance, kosher dietary rules and religious
isolation. One reason for the absence of change over the centuries is
the introspective tendency in Judaism. This may have been caused by
the oppression which Jews have had to endure in many countries.
Recently the Jewish people have shown increasing desire to adapt
themselves to modern society. This has led to Reform Judaism, in
which many of the talmudic practices and precepts have been put aside.
Having abandoned basic concepts such as the expectation of a Messiah,
Reformed Judaism has become little more than an ethical system based
on a monotheistic philosophy.
The third branch of Judaism is an intermediate position between the
Orthodox and Reform extremes. Conservative Judaism retains the feasts
and many of the Jewish traditions in an attempt to hold to the
essentials of Judaism. At the same time it cautiously reinterprets
the Law in an attempt to make it relevant to modern thought and
4.2. Jewish Teaching
4.2.1. Scriptures. Jewish teaching is based on the threefold
Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Law (Torah)
consists of the first five books of the Old Testament. Although there
has been considerable discussion as to the authorship, tradition
ascribes it to Moses. The Torah describes the early history of
classical Hebrew religion and contains the ethical and ceremonial
commandments which define Jewish religious life. Prophets, the second
division of Scripture, contain both books of history, as well as the
actual teachings of the Hebrew prophets. The Writings include wisdom
literature, much of which is in poetic form.
4.2.2. Deity. Although many gods were known to the various peoples in
the Middle East, for the true Jewish believer there was only one God,
Yahweh, who must be worshiped and obeyed to the exclusion of all other
gods. Yahweh’s three basic characteristics – He is the creator, all-
powerful controller and sustainer of creation, and He is viewed as the
judge of all those who oppose His will. (Creator, Savior, and Judge)
Many modern writers have speculated that early Jewish religion was
polytheistic, idolatrous and primitive. However, there is no evidence
that can support these theories. These theories are built on anti-
supernatural evolutionary presuppositions rather than solid factual
data. Actually, the earliest books of the Old Testament reveal an
advanced ethical monotheism without parallel in ancient literature.
From the very beginning the God of the Old Testament is seen as a God
of unlimited power, love, goodness, and justice. He is the infinite
and personal Creator of all creation.
4.2.3. Man. Man has been placed in the world by Yahweh and his
primary duty is to obey the creator. The first book of Moses
describes God’s creating man out of the dust of the earth and
breathing into him life. Man is also described as having a free will
and can therefore choose to obey or disobey. That becomes the basis
upon which man will be judged.
Judaism rejects the doctrine of original sin, saying that sin is an
act, not a state. Thus, man has the ability to live according to the
Law. If he fails, he only needs to come to God in repentance. With
this view of sin, Judaism has eliminated the need for a Savior. Many
Jews do not anticipate the coming of a personal Messiah at all, but a
messianic age. Those Jews who do expect a Messiah usually think of
Him as a political and social deliverer, not a Savior from sins.
4.2.4. Salvation. Yahweh chose the Israelites from among all nations
as that group with which he was to make a covenant. That agreement or
covenant defines and controls the life of the nation. Man’s basic
problem was the sin of disobedience which occurred either by following
one’s own selfish interests rather than the revealed will of God, or
serving some God other than Yahweh. Salvation is closely linked to
obedience. If the individual served Yahweh to the exclusion of other
gods and maintained the ethical and religious stipulations of the
covenant, he could expect peace, prosperity, health and happiness.
Ritual provision for the forgiveness of sins was provided by daily
temple sacrifices and the yearly Day of Atonement in which one animal
was sacrificed on behalf of sins of the nations ceremoniously put on
the other animal which was sent into the desert. A symbolic way of
representing the carrying away of the peoples’ sins.
4.3.Present Strength and Distribution. The total number of Jews is
approximately 18,075,400. They are distributed as follows: North
America (8,084,000), South America (990,000) Europe (4,606,600), Asia
(4,051,800) Africa (257,000), Oceania (86,000).
5.1. Historical Overview
Christianity was founded upon the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus, a
Jew, was born about 7 B.C. and was involved in a short public career
which ended in his crucifixion. The event and words of Christ are
recorded in the first four books of the New Testament. In addition to
many extraordinary deeds, including healings and raising the dead, he
proclaimed a message which was nothing short of revolutionary. At the
heart of that message was the concept of the Kingdom of God, the
realization of which he had come to announce and inaugurate. This
special mission was possible because of his unique nature. On
numerous occasions he referred to himself as the Son of Man. Against
the backdrop of Jewish messianic expectations, this title was
understood as a claim to be that Messiah, to share in the divinity of
God, and be able to forgive sins.
Jesus’ ultimate destiny was fulfilled when he died on a cross,
executed as a common criminal. At the Last Supper (a celebration of
the Jewish Passover) he taught that his impending death was a
sacrifice in which he would bear the sins of the world, inaugurate a
new covenant, by which many would be saved.
According to Christian teaching Jesus rose from the dead after three
days. This has been interpreted as God’s vindication of his message,
proof of his divinity, and legal basis for God’s offer of forgiveness.
After the resurrection Jesus is reported to have appeared repeatedly
to his disciples. Forty days later he ascended into heaven and was
enthroned next to God, the Father. From there he continues to lead
and support his followers.
Just before his ascension he gave his disciples explicit instructions
to carry this new teaching to all nations. This command, known as the
“Great Commission” helps explain the missionary orientation of
Christianity. So it is, that after an initial phase of transition,
Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Samaria, Asia Minor, and most of
the Mediterranean Basin. By the end of the 3th century Christianity
was firmly established in countries stretching from Spain in the West
and Persia and India in the East. After repeatedly being subjected to
persecution, the Roman government, under Constantine, granted
Christianity official recognition in A.D. 313. Since that time,
Christianity has been the predominant religion in much of the Middle
East and Europe where it continued to spread throughout the Middle
Much of Christianity’s recent advance has been generated by the modern
missionary movements. Beginning with early German Pietists and
Moravians around the beginning of the 18th century many Christians
began to reevaluate their responsibility to aggressively promote the
spread of Christianity in all parts of the world. This conviction led
to the so-called “Great Century.” During the 19th century
Christianity enjoyed its greatest geographic expansion, establishing
daughter churches in virtually every nation.
The unity of Christianity had been impaired by several important
rivalries which divided Christianity into three major branches, each
with its distinctive form of organizational structure, worship styles,
and theological emphases. In 1054 the Church was split by a rivalry
between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) churches. In 1517 a
separation occurred within the Latin church. That schism, which is
known as the Reformation, was led by the Catholic Monk Martin Luther
and led to the formation of the major Protestant churches.
Christianity has also spawned a number of sects including the Mormons
and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the origin of these groups can
be traced to Christianity, most Christians consider these groups to be
aberrations or distortions of true Christianity.
5.2. Basic Teachings
5.2.1. Scriptures. Like Judaism, out of which it arose, Christianity
is a revealed religion. That is, it is a system of belief which is
based on teachings which were used by God through human spokesmen.
These prophets often wrote down the messages, leaving a permanent
record which was viewed as Scripture. Although Christians maintain a
continuity between the Old and the New Testaments, the writings of the
New Testament have become the predominant factor in the formulation of
their teaching. The New Testament contains several major divisions:
The Gospels, which describe the life and work of Christ; Acts, which
describes the early church; The Letters of Paul, a series of letters
written to the churches he founded; The Catholic Letters written by
Peter, James, John, and Jude; The Revelation of John, an apocalyptic
writing thought to have been written to encourage Christians suffering
persecution. These writings are considered inspired and therefore
completely authoritative in all matters of life and faith.
5.2.2. Creation and the World. According to Christian teaching the
God of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets is the Creator, Judge, and
Savior of the Universe.
5.2.3. Deity. Christianity maintains belief in one Triune God: God
the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. All
three share in the same divine nature, but exist as separate persons,
each with a specific set of responsibilities.
5.2.4. Man. Man was created to enjoy the world in which he was
placed. He is free to obey or disobey his creator, but has only one
life in which to make his final decision, the effects of which are
eternal. However, this does not imply the present reality of the
negative effects of that decision. Man’s sin objectively affects his
relationship to God, his fellow men and the world. Ultimately sin is
a violation of God’s clearly stated law and therefore an act of
rebellion which separates man from God. Thus, it is his own
disobedience to God and his own selfishness and lust and not the world
which hold him in bondage.
5.2.5. Salvation. The message of salvation offered by Christianity is
based on God’s offer of free grace and an appropriate response by man.
Since man cannot escape the results of his own rebellion on his own,
he is dependent upon supernatural help. The basis for this has been
provided by the substitutionary death of Christ. However, this offer
has to be appropriated by faith, i.e., accepting God’s offer of
redemption based on Christ’s sacrifice. In other words, man does not
have to DO anything but believe. The result of this faith is not only
a changed status before God (forgiveness and justification) but also
new life. Having been freed from the negative effects of sin man is
able to develop toward full humanity. As a result, the effects of
salvation will be obvious in the behavior, life style, and thought of
5.3. Present Strength and Distribution.
Christians number about 1,644,396,500 and are distributed as follows:
North America (232,554,500), South America (395,554,500) Europe
(517,294,100), Asia (207,176,700), Africa (271,035,700), Oceania
6.1. Historical Overview
6.1.1. Islam was founded by the prophet Mohammed, who was born in
Mecca around 570 A.D. After his mother died, he was cared for by his
mother’s brother, Abu Talib. As a young man he traveled with caravans
as far as Syria and even Egypt. Having established himself in this
tradeinalle married a wealthy widow, Khadijah. He was twenty-five.
Having thus achieved material wealth and family stability, Mohammed
took up the practice of meditation, common in Arabia at that time. On
one occasion after he had retired to a cave in the mountains east of
Mecca, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mohammed and commanded him to
recite in the name of the Lord who had created man from the clots of
blood. This was the first of many revelations received by the
prophet. Mohammed’s reaction to that first revelation was not
particularly positive. He feared that he had become a hanif, a kind
of religious fanatic despised by most people because they were assumed
to have been possessed by evil spirits. However, after being
prevented from taking his own life by the angel Gabriel, Mohammed
returned to his wife, found confirmation, and soon began to realize
that he had been appointed by Allah to be a messenger to the world.
Mohammed’s initial message of monotheism and coming judgment was met
by opposition which became so intense that in the year 620, the Mecca
Muslims retreated to the nearby city of Yathrib. They were followed
by the prophet himself in 622. This flight, called Hijra, marks the
beginning of Islam as a religion. All Muslim dates are calculated
from this date with the designation A.H., meaning the year of the
Khadijah. It was during the time in Yathrib that many of the major
social and religious practices were developed. These include the
Mosque, and the practice of praying five times a day towards Mecca.
Yathrib was renamed Medina which means City of the Prophet. During
this time the Muslims also increased their military strength and began
attacking the Meccan caravans. Their military might enabled them to
recapture Mecca in the year 627. The prophet died in the year 632.
6.1.2. Mohammed’s entire work could have easily disintegrated after
his death, since he had done almost nothing to prepare his followers.
However, it seems that they quickly reached a consensus and without
too much difficulty appointed Abu Bakr and `Omar to leadership
positions. Although the decision was probably based on their
longstanding relationship (familial and professional) with the
prophet, both men had proven themselves to be capable political
leaders. But theirs was an authority quite different than that
enjoyed by Muhammad himself. They were halifa, i.e., Caliphs,
followers or representatives rather than Prophets and sources of
The term Caliph means “to leave behind” or “a successor”. In the
Quran the word is used for a Vice-regent of the Almighty on earth,
e.g., Adam 2:28, David 38:25. It is the title given to the successor
of Mohammed, who is vested with absolute authority in all matters of
state, both civil and religious, as long as he rules in conformity
with the law and the Hadith. There is to be only one Caliph at the
same time. Muhammad is reported to have said: “When two Caliphs have
been set up, put the last to death and preserve the other, for the
last is a rebel.” It was a dispute about this very issue which led to
the first major break in Islamic unity, a schism which gave rise to
the various Islamic sub-groups known to us today.
Under the leadership of the first three Caliphs (Abu Bakr 632-634,
`Omar 634-644 `Otman 644-656) Islam enjoyed a period of remarkable
unity and expansion. By 642 most of Palestine, the Syrian heartland
and Iraq, and Egypt had been conquered. During the same time period
the organizational structures required to maintain order in the
conquered areas was also put into place. This structure was built
around on three offices or functions: i) Governor (War and Religion),
ii) `Urafa – experts or judges, and iii) Quran readers.
The murder of `Othman 656 precipitated a crisis the effects of which
are still felt. Following the assassination, Ali, cousin and son-in-
law of the Prophet Mohammed, was elected Caliph. The basis for that
choice was not so much his family ties but rather the fact that he
vowed to keep the “Traditions” (Sunna) of Mohammed. However, because
he was elected by only one of several parties, Islam experienced a
series of (fitna) civil wars. The most significant of these wars was
initiated by Mu`awiya, Isalmic governor of Syria, who called for
revenge against Ali, who he considered responsible for `Otman’s
murder. In a battle near Siffin (657) the Syrians put Quran verses on
the ends of their lances. Some of Ali’s fighters withdrew (Hawarij)
and with that three parties had been formed. The entire matter was
given over to a commission which decided against Ali (658). As a
result, Mu`awiya’s followers declared him to be Caliph. Ali’s forces
crushed the Hawarij party in a blood bath near Nahrawan but he
continued to lose ground to Mu`awiya and was murdered in 661.
The three Parties that emerged each emphasized a different set of
criteria for the selection of a Caliph. The Hawarij (the withdrawers)
emphasized sinlessness character and religious piety of the Caliph.
The Shiites, followers of Ali, emphasized direct descendency from the
Prophet. The Shiites make up about 10% of Islam today and are
concentrated in Iran, Iraq and Yemen. The third party, the Sunnies
emphasized correct teaching and tradition. Today they make up
approximately 90% of Islam.
6.2. Basic Teaching
Muslim doctrine can be summarized in terms of five teachings and five
6.2.1. Five basic doctrines.
22.214.171.124. There is only one true god, Allah. Here the emphasis is on
an almost radical form of monotheism. The absolute unity of Allah is
emphasized in such a way as to eliminate the possibility sharing in
that divinity with any other being. Allah is all seeing, all-hearing,
all-speaking, all-knowing, all-willing, and all-powerful.
126.96.36.199. There are angels, chief of whom is Gabriel. Gabriel first
appeared to Mohammed in order to offer to him the Quran. Islam also
believes in a fallen angel, Iblis, and a whole series of satanic
servants or spirits who seek to prevent men from submitting to and
188.8.131.52. Teaching of the inspired books. According to Muslim
doctrine, there are four inspired books: The Torah of Moses, the
Zabur of David, the Ingil of Jesus, and the Quran. Although all four
contain Allah’s truth, his final message is addressed to all mankind
in the Quran, thus the Quran supersedes all previous revelations and
abrogates any conflicting claims to truth. Because Jews and
Christians have already received messages from Allah, they are
referred to as the people of the book and therefore treated with more
tolerance than pagans.
The Quran is said to contain only (but all of) the words of Allah as
spoken to Mohammed by Gabriel. It is composed of ll4 suras or
chapters which have been arranged by length with the longer suras
coming first and the shorter ones near the end. According to Muslim
doctrine, the Quran is an exact copy of an original in heaven. This
means that no translations can adequately substitute for the original
Another set of writings referred to as Hadith (tradition) serve as a
source of many teachings, rulings, and sayings of the prophet. In
contrast to the Quran, Hadith do not contain the words of Allah, but
rather the deeds and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. They are
considered inspired, not as authoritative as the Quran itself.
184.108.40.206. There are twenty-eight prophets of Allah. Many of them are
well-know biblical characters such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, David,
Moses and Jesus, but the greatest of the prophets and their seal of
prophecy is Mohammed, the messenger of Allah.
220.127.116.11. Teaching of the last things. The eschatalogical teachings of
the Quran are very dramatic and have great importance in Muslim
theology. Muslims believe in the resurrection of the body, a final
judgment, and a final destiny in heaven or hell. Whether or not man
achieves heaven is dependent in part on his adherence to the five
6.2.2. The five pillars (duties) of the faith.
18.104.22.168. Confession of faith. To recite the Shahadah (there is no
God but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet. This confession must be
made with conviction to make one a Muslim believer.
22.214.171.124. Prayer. (Salat) These prayers must be recited five times a
day toward the holy city of Mecca. The teaching of proper direction
is called kibla. The faithful are summoned to prayer by the call of
the Muezzin who stands in Minaret.
126.96.36.199. Alms giving. (Zakat) This is the equivalent of a tax. The
money is used for practical needs within the Muslim community.
188.8.131.52. Fasting. During the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of
the Muslim Lunar year, all Muslins are required to fast between sun up
and sun down.
184.108.40.206. Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). An official pilgrimage to Mecca
is expected of all Muslims who are in a position either physically or
financially to make the trip.
6.3. Present Strength and Distribution
The total number of Muslims today is approximately 860,388,300. They
are distributed as follows: North America (2,682,600), South America
(645,000) Europe (40,708,700), Asia (571,145,500), Africa
(245,110,500), Oceania (96,000).
Our survey of the history and the teaching of five major religions
established a minimal basis upon which to compare these belief
systems. This type of comparison is both interesting and useful
because it focuses our attention on certain basic religions issues and
the way in which others have sought to resolve them. Ultimately,
however, such a comparison challenges each one of us to interact with
the issues, evaluate options and make choices.
As stated at the outset, a religion can be expected to provide a frame
work within which the individual can a) understand and come to know
God, b) interpret the world around him, c) evaluate his own need, and
d) derive hope, love, security and purpose.
A comparison is only valuable if it helps the individual make the
choices required by life. Those choices seem to fall into several
1. A choice between meaning and meaninglessness. Only those belief
systems which regard the world, man and the cosmos as real both in
their existence and purpose can provide meaning for man. This, it
seems, reduces the field to three.
2. A choice between real guilt and illusion. Only those belief
systems which take man’s sinfulness seriously can hope to provide a
satisfying answer. Again we are left with the same three religions.
3. A choice between self-help and salvation. Only one of the
religions surveyed above offers that which man cannot hope to achieve
for himself, namely forgiveness.
A story is told of a man who fell into a pit. He cried out for help
for a long time before noticing a figure standing above him. It was
Confucius. With an aire of profound wisdom the victim was instructed
in the ways of right living only to be told that he could have avoided
this calamity. After his discourse, the would-be savior left.
After a little while another figure appeared. This time it was
Buddha. Upon analyzing the situation this religious leader also
concluded that the man’s dilemma was of his own making. It was the
result of a hectic non-reflective life devoid of meditation. At that
point Buddha began to instruct the captive in the ways of yoga and
meditation. At the close of the “lesson” he too disappeared.
A short while passed and another savior appeared. This time it was
Jesus. Seeing the man’s predicament, his guilt and his complete
inability to do anything about it he jumped into the pit and helped
the unfortunate man out.
Sources for Further Reading
For the latest statistics see: “The World Almanac and Book of Facts”
New York: World Almanac, 1989.
Brow, Robert. “Religion: Origins and Ideas” Chicago: Inter-Varsity
Press, 1966. This book provides detailed descriptions of major
religions and has an extensive bibliography.
Noss, David S. “Man’s Religions” New York: Macmillian Publishing
Company, 1984. This is a thought provoking Christian perspective on
the issues and options.
Computers for Christ – Chicago