Is there only one way to God? (Acts 17:16-34)

Text of a sermon preached by Andrew Kirk, 20th Nov 2016

This Sunday we arrive at the 5th of the series on ‘Pressing Issues’.  The title of today’s address is the question: Is there only one way to God?

Now, I have a theory about mountains: I don’t think that God would have created them, unless he expected us to climb them. Probably does not represent very good theology, although I think there are hints in the Bible that mountains play an important role in God’s dealings with the human race – think, for example, of Moses and Mount Sinai or Jesus and the Mount of Transfiguration. Incidentally, mountains are formed by the movement of tectonic plates pushing the earth’s crust upwards; so, no earthquakes, no mountains!

However, the connection between mountains and the theme of whether there are many ways to reach God does not seem, at first sight, to be particularly obvious. I wonder how many of you have climbed at least one mountain – let’s say a Munro (anything over 3,000ft.) (Snowdon by means of the railway doesn’t count!). Well, when you were preparing for the trip, you may well have consulted maps to decide which path you were going to choose to reach the top, because often there are a number that get you there; some quite easy, others very challenging. Well, that’s the clue.

The figure of a mountain is often used to state that there are many paths that reach the same goal, namely God. If you are climbing up one side of the mountain, you will probably not notice others who have taken a different route; that is, until you reach the summit. Therefore, so the illustration suggests, it would be arrogant in the extreme to claim that there is only one way. In an after life, we may be surprised to discover that all sorts of people have come to be in the presence of God, even though they have achieved the goal by taking alternative tracks to the one’s we have adopted. Now do you think this an apt picture of the relationship of different religions to one another?

Consider another frequently used illustration, that of a group of blind people trying to fathom out what kind of an animal an elephant is. Each one is assigned one part of the animal to touch– a trunk, a tail, a leg or the ears, and all they can do is feel it. Now the point of the picture is that each of the blind persons thinks that their bit of the elephant amounts to the whole animal. Likewise, some religions believe that they have the whole truth, whereas, in fact, they are unaware of other aspects of the truth that are represented by the other people who have, as it were, touched other parts of who God is. No one religion, it is argued, can possibly fathom the depth of the reality of God.

These are pictures that illustrate the two arguments most often used to counter the idea that there could be only one way to God: the notions of arrogance and injustice. On the one hand, it is deemed the height of arrogance to claim an exclusive knowledge of God; on the other, for God to make himself known personally to only a limited number of people would be wholly unjust. It is calculated that at least 90% of people on earth will die in the religion into which they were born, because God has not revealed himself in a special way to them. So, if one claims that Jesus is the only revelation of the one true God, a person born in Pakistan (a largely Muslim nation) or a person born in Sri Lanka (a largely Buddhist nation), would not have the same opportunities to know the true God, as someone living in a nation strongly influenced by the Christian faith. So, it would be only fair (wouldn’t it?), if God allowed them to reach him through their own religion.

So much for the main objections to the idea of only one way. The subject is very broad, so that in one sermon alone it is quite impossible to touch on all the issues. I am very happy to follow up this presentation with anyone who wishes to delve a bit deeper into the questions raised and the answers given in this short space of time, or to disagree with any points made. The task today is to seek some understanding by studying the Bible, and in particular one passage. Paul’s encounter with philosophers and religious adherents in the allegedly most intellectually sophisticated city of the ancient world, Athens, is a magnificent passage to get to grips with this problem. So, I invite you to turn to Acts 17: 16 ( p. 134) and see how Paul addressed the issue.

On entering Athens, presumably for the first time, Paul’s main concern was seeing all the idols and images dotted around the city in prominent places (v. 16). He didn’t speak to his audiences about slavery or poverty, the magnificent architecture of the Acropolis and other buildings or the Greek traditions of philosophy, but “ how extremely religious they were in every way” (v.22). The images and idols showed their religiosity, but in particular Paul draws their attention to “an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God’ (v.23). No doubt, some Athenians would have been sceptical about the idols and images. However, they clearly took precautions not to offend the gods. They had religious duties to fulfil, and in the case of the “unknown god”, they hedged their bets, in case some unheard of god got left out.

The paradox, or contradiction, is that they worshipped an entity that was unknown. One cannot know of the existence of a being without knowing what it is like. The unknown remains totally obscure until revealed. The famous Austrian philosopher, Wittgenstein, once remarked that “a (nobody) would serve just as well as a (somebody) about which nothing could be revealed.” If God is unidentified, nameless, undisclosed, to say that he exists does not convey anything about him. This is one of the main problems about affirming that all religions lead to God. God, as a matter of fact, is largely unknown in most religions: Buddhism, for example, is more a philosophy than a religion, in the sense that it has no concept of a personal God. Even in Islam, God cannot be known intimately, only his will has been revealed. It is a religion of submission to the commands of God, not a faith that puts one in touch with God himself.

Paul, then, makes it his task to tell them about the God who has revealed himself both in the natural world and in the history of Jesus:

“What you worship as an unknown, this I proclaim to you” (v. 23).  

His core message was “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (v.18). This message was received by the Athenians as a new teaching, something unusual, a new intellectual fad:

“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means “ (v.21).

There is a sense in which philosophy is always on the outlook for new ideas, at least it was in Athens at that time; Luke, who was probably a Greek citizen, sums up the mood, no doubt from his own experience :

“All the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (v. 21).

In his address, no doubt Paul would have stressed, in this city full of images, that there is only one true image of God, Jesus. So, he writes to the Colossian church,

“He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1: 15).

But to the religiously inclined locals Jesus was a scandal; this for three reasons:

  • He had a foreign Hebrew name, not a good Greek one;
  • He was an historical person, not a mythological one like the Greek pantheon of gods, who were supposed to have inhabited Mount Olympus;
  • Salvation from sin and death could only be accomplished through the death of God’s only Son through crucifixion. Paul tells the Corinthian church that this is foolishness. One can imagine the hearers saying among themselves,what worldly-wise person could possibly believe that?

So, in spite of difficulties, Paul did not compromise the message that there is only one God. It included the startling news that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe (vv. 24-26); idolatry is sin, which needs to be repented of (v.30); the resurrection is the confirmation that sin has been overcome, and final judgement (v.31). The message was, to the Gentile world, ludicrous.   

True religion, in the light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, is not about seeking enlightenment for oneself, either through intellectual struggles, spiritual disciplines or mystical experiences, nor is it about striving after a morally good life nor undertaking some kind of depth psychoanalysis. It begins, as Paul says, with any person, “seeking the one, true, living supreme being, reaching out for him and finding him” (v. 27), with the promise that a genuinely sincere desire to meet him will be rewarded.

If it is claimed that all religions lead to God, there must be at least one exception, and that is Christianity. This is because, quite simply, the God whom Christians confess and profess every day of the week is not a God who can be interpreted in a multitude of contradictory ways. If all religions lead to God, Christians have clearly got it wrong. The Athenians were very religious, yet they only referred to God as completely unknown. As already affirmed, there is only one true image of God, Jesus, as presented through the revelation given to the apostles. Any and every other image is either defective or false; two incompatible views of God cannot both be true (though they could, of course, both be false). The resurrection as a past event is, indeed, a new teaching for all other faiths. It promises new life and an abiding hope and also implies the absolute particularity of the Christian Gospel: God has only once raised one person within human history.

One other crucial point: the truth of the Gospel is demonstrated not only in its intellectual persuasiveness, but in its practical demonstration. At the end of Paul’s address to the Areopagus (a kind of religious and moral tribunal which guarded the official religion of the city), Luke names two people, among others, who became believers in “Jesus and the resurrection”: Dionysius (one of the members of the Areopagus) and a woman named Damaris. Luke, in particular, takes great pains to emphasise the importance of women in the early church (see how many he mentions in the Acts of the Apostles). The way that Jesus and the early church treated women was quite unique in the societies of the time. Although the church disgracefully reneged in subsequent centuries on its own teaching and practice, the NT text has born witness to the equal esteem and standing of men and women in the purposes of God.

Here, in this passage, which is only one among many that could be chosen, with essentially the same message, we have some key considerations about how to answer, from a Christian perspective, the question: Is there only one way to God? Paul would have said yes. We have no good reason to disagree.