All philosophies and all religions are concerned with one thing: how to live the good life. The difference between philosophies and religions is God. Philosophy teaches that in order to live the good life, one must do good works, have the right state of mind, improve himself or his community, et cetera. However, religion teaches that in order to live the good life, one must become reconciled with God. We will not discuss the methods of philosophy here since they ignore God. We will assume that everyone here at least believes in God, and if you believe in God then you must also believe that God is the ticket to the good life.
So, the question is how does one become reconciled with God. This is where the various religions of the world diverge. Let’s look at the larger traditions to see what they have to say about it. Please keep in mind that these are very simple and generalized explanations of these traditions. There is not enough time here to examine each one thoroughly.
Judaism – In ancient times, a man became reconciled with God by living by the Law of Moses and making sacrifices to God for forgiveness if he ever failed to live up to God’s standards. In modern times, the believer still tries to follow the Law of Moses. Forgiveness for sins can be earned through good works, keeping Jewish traditions (such as fasting on Yom Kippur), and through knowledge.
Islam – The believer achieves reconciliation through the Five Pillars of Islam: 1) Confession of faith, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohamed is His prophet.” 2) Prayer five times a day. 3) Alms giving. 4)Fasting in the month of Ramadan. 5) Pilgrimage to Mecca.
Buddhism – Buddhism does not promote a particular God, that is left up to the believer. However, Buddhism grew out of Hinduism and most believers live in the Indian subcontinent so most believers believe in the Hindu gods. Reconciliation, or Nirvana, is achieved by living the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment: right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation.
Hinduism – Hindus seek to unite the self with Brahman, the ultimate reality. This is achieved through various types of Yoga, a technique used to unite the believer with the ultimate reality. This is most commonly thought of as a technique of physical fitness, but also action, knowledge, and devotion. Each technique is valid and it is up to the believer to find which works best for him. And if it doesn’t work the first time, don’t worry, you’ll get as many chances as you need.
Gnosticism – Gnosticism is an ancient Christian heresy, however some of its ideas still pop up in modern philosophies. Gnostics believe that a divine spark exists in all humans. This spark is a part of God. Salvation is attained when that spark is released from its imprisonment withing the material body. The spark is released through knowledge gained through personal experience. The term “gnostic” comes from the Greek word gnosis which means understanding or enlightenment. Gnostics believe that salvation comes through enlightenment.
Kabbalah – Kabbalah is an emerging philosophy based on ancient Jewish mysticism. The beliefs of this philosophy are very similar to Gnosticism. Kabbalists believe that codes are hidden in the text of the Torah. These codes are revealed by assigning numerical values to the Hebrew letters. Kabbalists believe that God’s light flows downward through the Tree of Life. People can restore the Garden of Eden by doing good deeds. God’s blessings flow down when people behave ethically, evil deeds can disrupt this flow. By overcoming negative behavior, people can transform the world.
Wicca – Wicca is a modern recreation of the pagan nature worship religions. Actual practices and beliefs vary among adherents, but most Wiccans are pantheist. According to Wicca, there is a life force or energy in all of nature, and the believer can make good or bad things happen by casting spells and calling upon this life force.
Have you noticed a commonality here? Each tradition tells the believer that there is something he must do if he wishes to achieve reconciliation. You must make a sacrifice. You must pray five times a day. If you study the smaller traditions, you will find the same commonality. But there is a problem here. How is it within your power to achieve God’s level? He is God, after all. He’s way up there, and we’re way down here. We need reconciliation because we are not with God now. We are separated from Him. Reconciliation requires us to move from where we are to where God is. But how is it within our power to move there? We are only human, fallible and finite. God is infallible and infinite. While following any of these traditions can make the believer a better person, they cannot bring the believer closer to God much less unite the believer with God. Only one tradition tackles this problem head-on: Christianity.
Christianity is the only tradition that proclaims, “There is nothing in the world you can do to get closer to God. However, the good news is you don’t have to do anything. God has already done it for you.” According to Christianity, this problem is resolved through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since it is man who is separated from God, then man must move to God. But he cannot do that. God, of course, could simply move man to Himself, but that would violate God's justice. We are sinners, and we deserve death. So if man must move, but only God can make such a move, then what can be done? The solution is for God to become man. That way it is now possible for man to be moved to God. God has done this in the person of Jesus, who is the Christ, God’s redemptive action on earth. Christ is fully man and fully God. Non-Christians have problems with this. They want to know how it is possible for God to become a man and still be God. The truth is, we cannot know how it is possible. We cannot know how it is possible for God to do any of the things he does.
So, through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the gap between man and God is bridged. Through the Grace and Power of God, man can become reconciled with his Father. Unlike the other religions and philosophies discussed above, Christianity does not teach that salvation can be achieved through good works or enlightenment. Rather, good works and enlightenment can only be acheived through salvation.