There are so many different religions; how do I know which one is right?
Our world includes many religions. Is there one that stands out among all of the others, or are they all equally valid paths of spirituality? Considering the crucial questions that religion purports to answer—questions of life and death and eternity, finding the correct religion is of the utmost importance.
First, we must recognize that claims of truth from various religions can be evaluated. In other words, if a religion claims that it began at a certain time and place, historical investigation can be used to determine whether the claim is accurate.
Second, we must be open to where the evidence leads, even when it leads to a place that does not fit our preconceived bias. For example, some people say they do not believe in the supernatural, but what happens when a miracle emerges as the best solution to the evidence? Unless we are open to where the evidence leads, our decisions will be determined by our bias rather than what is true.
Third, religions are evaluated based on cumulative evidence. In technical terms, this means religious ideas are evaluated inductively rather than deductively. Simply put, belief in God is not decided in the same way as a math equation. Instead, the evidence is compiled and a decision is made regarding which religion is the most likely. In the end, faith is always a component, though the evidence is of great importance.
In the case of religions, evaluating truth claims quickly limits the number of religions that could possibly be truth. Why? All of the scientific evidence points to a single origin of all matter, space, and time (some call this the Big Bang). Based on this information, a single Intelligent Designer is the most likely explanation for the scientific evidence. Religions that claim this world is an illusion, or that there are multiple gods or goddesses, or that we are each a god, or that there is no god can all be quickly eliminated from consideration.
The three major monotheistic religions that accept a single, monotheistic god as their worldview are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism accepts the teachings of the 39 books of the Old Testament (also called the Hebrew Bible) built on the foundation of Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Christianity accepts this view as well, adding that Jesus is God's Son and was also part of this divine act of creation (John 1:1). Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, likewise accepts a Creator God named Allah (Surah 59:24).
In addition to an Intelligent Designer involving a single god, we must look at the holy writings of these three religions to determine which message is most accurate in communicating ideas that can be evaluated. This includes both the content of the writing and the transmission of the writing.
Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, is described as a revelation from Allah to his prophet, Muhammad. Written over an approximately 23-year period beginning in 610, these writings were later compiled and declared to be the authoritative book of Islam. Two key criticisms, however, are generally pointed out regarding its accuracy and authority.
First, many passages in the Qur'an contradict other passages in the Qur'an. To handle these differences, Muslim scholars appeal to the later writings as the final word in the matter. In other words, anytime two teachings do not appear consistent, the one that was written later is the one to follow. However, the flaw in this claim is that inspired writing would be wrong at all. In other words, how can the Qur'an claim to be the inspired, perfect word of Allah and yet have inconsistencies that had to be corrected or updated by later revelation?
Second, the Qur'an uses many names and accounts from the Old and New Testament and changes details to fit its system of beliefs. To justify these changes, the claim is made that the Old and New Testament writings were "corrupted" and the Qur'an interprets these historical events properly. However, the fact that biblical writings are highly accurate in their transmission throughout history and verified by external history discredits this accusation. For example, Muslims claim Abraham's "blessed" son was Ishmael rather than Isaac. Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God and did not resurrect from the dead. What historical evidence is used to make these monumental changes?
What about Judaism? Both Judaism and Christianity accept the Old Testament as God's Word, with Christianity also including the 27 books of the New Testament as revelation from God. The key difference between the two is that Judaism rejects Jesus as the predicted Messiah, also called the Son of God.
Externally, the accuracy for both Old and New Testament writings is strong, with over 25,000 points of archaeology affirmed in its pages. Key biblical figures are repeatedly found in other historical sources, affirming the general accuracy of the writing. Further, thousands of early copies of the biblical documents exist, with great consistency between them, illustrating that the content has been transmitted over the centuries with a high degree of accuracy.
Let's now take a look specifically at claims of Christianity. A major question of those who research the New Testament focuses on the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. Essentially, if Jesus did die and return from the dead, then He fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament and is God. If not, Christianity cannot be a true religion.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul laid down four facts he declared were of "first importance" regarding the good news that Jesus is God's Son and proved Himself as God (part of the Trinity consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; not "three gods" as Muslims generally argue). These included:
-Jesus died (v. 3)
-Jesus was buried (v. 4)
-Jesus returned to life (v. 4)
-Jesus appeared to many eyewitnesses (vv. 5-8)
Historians outside of the New Testament writings have verified the death of Jesus on a cross. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, mentioned His death as a matter of historical fact. Even today, nearly every scholar on the first century time period affirms that Jesus lived and was documented as dying on a cross outside of Jerusalem approximately AD 30—33.
The evidence for the burial of Jesus also includes ample support, both in the New Testament and in external history. His body was buried in a cave tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a well-known Jewish leader who was a member of the Jewish council (John 19:38). A second witness, Nicodemus, also a reputable member of Jewish religious culture, joined him (John 19:39). Historically, the tomb's location was known to the disciples, the women who approached the tomb on the third day, to the Jewish and Roman leaders involved in the plot to kill Jesus, and to early Christians who traveled to visit the tomb. In fact, the location of the tomb was never disputed. The controversy was whether Jesus had resurrected as the disciples and early eyewitnesses taught.
Third, the resurrection of Jesus on the Sunday following His death is the most controversial of these four essentials taught by Paul. For one thing, it was a supernatural act. Those biases against miracles generally rule out this possibility based on this preconceived bias. Also, if true, the conclusion was that Jesus is God, something many choose not to believe, again due to personal bias. However, a look at the evidence points toward the likely scenario that Jesus did return to life.
Major lines of evidence include: the location of the tomb was known, meaning there was no dispute as to where the body of Jesus had been placed. In addition, the guards and Jewish leaders circulated a story that the followers of Jesus had stolen the body rather than finding the body to disprove the account. Those who guarded the tomb (most likely 16 guards based on the description) would not have jeopardized their own lives to allow the body of Jesus to be taken by Christ's followers. Further, the disciples were surprised at the empty tomb, meaning they had not been involved in plans to steal the body. Additionally, a large stone had been rolled away from the door of the tomb, something that would have required several strong individuals to accomplish apart from a supernatural resurrection. The body of a dead Jesus never surfaced, offering no specific evidence to the contrary. Again, today's scholars on ancient Near Eastern history generally affirm the tomb was empty. The question is, "What happened to Jesus?"
Finally, we consider the eyewitnesses. Jesus appeared after His resurrection on several occasions, beginning with Mary outside of the tomb. Jesus also appeared to His half-brother James, a man who had formerly been a skeptic (John 7:5), yet James later served as a key leader in the early Christian movement. What changed? He claimed he had seen the risen Jesus, calling Him the "glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (James 2:1 NIV). Perhaps most importantly, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that Jesus, "… appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep." The term "fallen asleep" refers to some people who had died since that time.
Could Paul refer to over 500 people who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus when writing only about 25 years later to readers who could have easily discredited this message if it had been inaccurate? Not likely. He could write these words with confidence because of his firm belief that the words were true.
A final note that affirms the power of Christ's resurrection is the dedication of His early followers. Tradition tells that all but one of the twelve apostles died for their faith. The apostle Paul was beheaded in Rome for his belief that Jesus was alive and that Jesus was God. People may die for any number of causes they believe in, but people would hardly die for something they know is not true. These early Christians believed in the risen Jesus enough to follow their beliefs all the way to death.
If Jesus is risen, then Jesus is God. If He is God, the Creator of all things, then what He says about religion is true, regardless of what others may say. He declared in John 14:6, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." In other words, Jesus claims to be the only way to know God. While some would argue that such a claim is arrogant, the truth is that it is not arrogant if it is true. It is not arrogant to claim two plus two equals four because it is a true statement. If what Jesus says about Himself is true, then it is important to know it and to accept it.
To summarize, we began by asking, "With all the different religions, how can I know which one is correct?" By evaluating truth claims, we can determine which claims are most likely. Based on the observable evidence, a religion based on a single, creator God is the most compelling option. Of the three major one-God religions, only Christianity presents compelling eyewitness testimony in both its holy writings and external historical evidence to claim that Jesus is God. If the resurrection of Jesus is true, then the result would be that Christianity is the correct religion. Jesus Himself claimed to be the way, not a way, and He challenges those who seek the truth to look to Him.
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