Thinking Straight About Tolerance
The Kingdom of God commands our full allegiance (Matthew 6:33), but the world, the flesh, and the devil nip at our souls and entice us to defect (1 John 2:15-17). Today, many insist that good people never assert that “their religion” is the only way. Rather, we must accept all religions. Such “tolerance” is deemed mandatory in our pluralistic nation. But when the pressure is on, Kingdom people need to be able to think straight about religious tolerance.
A recent cover story in US News and World Report, titled “Faith in America,” reported that 69% of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them. Over half attend religious services at least once a week. Eighty-four percent claim to be Christians, although the numbers of adherents of other religions is rapidly growing. Eighty-six percent of non-Christians say that all religions “have elements of truth.” Only 19% of self-described Christians claim that Christianity is “the only true religion,” while 77% reject the exclusivity of Christianity and instead believe that all religions have some truth. Although Christ is the only way of salvation (Acts 4:12), other religions (especially Judaism) do express some truths, even if they cannot deliver the saving gospel itself. Nevertheless, these statistics reveal a failure of nerve on the part of many Christians.
The US News article mentions that many who claim that all religions have elements of truth also admit that they know little about other religions. This brand of tolerance is based on ignorance rather than on fact. Religions differ radically on significant beliefs, such as ultimate reality, the human condition, and salvation. When one religion teaches what another denies, both cannot be true. Islam denies that Jesus is divine and the Bible repeatedly affirms it (John 1:1-3; Col. 2:9). Both cannot be true. This is reality, not intolerance. When I give lecture called “Are All Religions One?” at secular college campuses, and the students hear an explanation of the differences between religions, many respond thoughtfully and some show an interest in Christ.
What should Christians think about tolerance? First, we need to develop a tenacious commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17). When our worldview is defined by biblical truth and not opinion polls, we do not become narrow-minded; rather, we find freedom in explaining and defending our beliefs (John 8:31-32; 1 Peter 3:15-17). Ravi Zacharias defends Christianity in many public forums and also shows the willingness to discuss any objections to it during a question-answer time. While not all Christians share his intellectual ability, every Christian can combine strong faith and an openness to dialogue. This often disarms non-Christians who suspect that Christians are unthinking dogmatists.
Second, like Paul, we need to be passionate about people’s salvation (Romans 9:1-3). We cannot pretend that all religions are pleasing to God (Matthew 7:13). However, we can offer people the promise of redemption because the gospel of grace is open to everyone (Acts 17:30).
Third, while we cannot endorse or overlook religious falsity, we can love those of other faiths. Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and this includes non-Christians. The gospel never coerces anyone to accept Christ. The prophets and apostles presented God’s truth with integrity and trusted their sovereign God for the results.
Fourth, when people talk of “my God” and “my spirituality” we should emphasize that Christianity is not a designer religion, custom-fit for our tastes. We bear witness to God’s gracious revelation of truth. As G.K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy: “I won’t call Christianity my religion, because I didn’t make it up. God and humanity made it, and it made me.” This emphasis helps defuse the objection that Christians are trying to “ram their religion down other people’s throats.” No. We are more like the physician who prescribes a cure for an otherwise terminal disease. The sick need to know the truth about what will save them, not their choice of “religious preferences.”
How should Christians tolerate members of other religions? We should do so by loving them and bringing the truth to them. We endorse their religious freedom, but the gospel never allows us to be indifferent to their eternal destinies.