What should our attitude as Christians be toward other religions?
I have been doing a study in the book of Acts with international students, many of whom are not Christians and who come from cultures where either Islam or Buddhism is the dominate religion. They have been at times confused and troubled by what they hear from Christians in American about their religions. So I was particularly interested in what Paul's approach to the religions he encountered was.
The first encounter with a non-Jewish religion recorded in Acts is in Lystra. There, because of a miracle Paul performed, the populace jumped to the conclusion that Paul and Barnabas were Zeus and Hermes. The local priests of the Greek gods wanted to bring a sacrifice to them. Of course, Paul was adamant that they should not be regarded as gods.
However, what Paul went on to say is perhaps surprising to us. He said that God in the past allowed all nations to choose their own way, though God left them with sufficient evidence that they might know that there was a God in heaven.
What does Paul mean - allowed the nations to choose their own way? Does that mean God allowed the religions that developed among the nations? It sounds like it.
He also said that he was telling them the good news that they should turn away from the empty things (literally) to the living God who created all things.
Is he saying that religions such as this one the people of Lystra followed were not evil, just incomplete? Paul definitely did not condemn the people or the religion. (He simply calls it empty.) Nor does he condemn the religion so evident in Athens in Acts 17. In fact, he recognized the seriousness of the Athenians' religious quest. He even recognized the truth expressed by some of their poets. Then in Athens, as he did in Lystra, Paul leads them to see that God now desires them to go to the end of their search and repent and receive the Savior now preached unto them. Was the religious quest evident in these people actually a good thing? I think Paul is implying that.
If so, what might that mean for us in a religiously pluralistic world? I wonder if we need to recognize the real and serious spiritual need that many people who are Muslims or Buddhist or Hindus feel - that just happens to be expressed in their religious lives as Muslims, etc. - and see our role as completers as we lead these people to see that the real and living God is the goal they seek and that Jesus is God's Savior reaching out to them.
That would seriously change the attitude many Christians in America have toward people of other religions. It would result in our honoring their quest rather than condemning them as absolutely in error and in opposition to God. It would change the missionary enterprise, if it hasn't already for those who do see people the way God sees them.
It would change our attitude toward those in our culture who, though not religious, are on a similar spiritual quest.
Now, I do not mean to say that Satan has not hijacked the religions of the world for many people. He has. He has turned them toward evil rather than good. But that does not change the fact that many who are Muslims, etc, are seriously seeking spiritual reality. Shall we not like Paul respond by leading them, without condemnation, to the true and living God?