In Daniel chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar receives a dream and Daniel explains it to him and gives its interpretation. Relieved to know the mystery that had troubled his psyche, Neb then begins to give props to Daniel and unexpectedly mad props to Daniel's God. In verse 47 he makes the remarkable statement:
47The king answered and said to Daniel, "Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery."
All religious traditions on the earth that are theistic in orientation have always believed in a most high God.1 Whether it was Zeus of the Greeks, Odin of the Norse, RA of the Egyptians, Baal of the Philistines, the Great Spirit of Native Americans thinking that there is a "God of gods" is quite common in the earth. The difference between these beliefs and that of Jews, Christians and Muslims is that they are all polytheistic-believing in a myriad of "gods." However, Daniel is monotheistic and the Babylonians were aware of the Jewish religion and its belief in one, true creator God. Nebuchadnezzar's exclamation is that Daniel's God is both preeminent and sovereign. He is above the other gods and rules above earthly kings.
In every age there has been a plurality of "gods" and I do not imagine this will ever really change. One Bible teacher during the Protestant reformation declared that the human heart is like an "idol factory" always cranking out little gods for us to worship out of our own imaginations.2 So plurality in religions is simply a fact of human experience. The truth of all of these crafted and created deities is another matter all together.
Pluralism(s) and Universalism(s)
In our day we have moved beyond the belief in the simple fact of plurality in religious ideas, we have embraced a pluralism in their truth. Each faith tradition believes in various Gods and nobody is to question their existence or reality. If someone believes in pink bunny rabbits who rule the world, or little white mice for that matter, we should just all smile.
There are actually several flavors of pluralism today, some religious, some very much opposed to religious ideas. The religious version of pluralism would say that all gods are equally valued expressions of the human attempt to reach the divine or ultimate reality. This is a friendly bunch and tends to see contradictory ideas about God as a fun little game of no real consequence to our lives. Important, yes, but not dealing with truth. The question of God to the religious pluralist is one that is unknowable; so they see all religious talk as ways of groping towards an unknown, ineffable "real."3
A classic illustration of this is the parable of the blind men and an elephant. The story traces back to an ancient Indian folk tale where several blind men are examining and elephant when the King asks them what they think an elephant is. One who is holding on to its tail, confidently exclaims "An elephant is like a rope!" Another blind man pushing on the body of the elephant proclaims with equal confidence "An elephant is like a wall!" Still another holding its trunk snottily weighs in "No, an elephant is like a wet hose!" The moral of the story is supposed to illustrate the reality of religious pluralism. Not the fact that different religious ideas teach different things about deities, but rather they are all just talking about the same thing in different ways.4
The religious pluralist in the west is typically a universalist in that he believes that all people, everywhere will ultimately end up in heaven. Let's call them optimistic. All will end up in a blessed state of heaven even if they don't believe in such places at all. Religious pluralists love to make statements on the behalf of all religious people. They say things like "All religions teach the same things on the big issues, they just differ on the details." Of course no Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist who understands his philosophy would agree to this. After all, the phenomena is quite the opposite. We all agree on things like "be nice and good" but we disagree on God, heaven, hell, salvation, our problem as humans and what nice and good really mean. Religious pluralists are nice people-I think they just want to give the world a coke and a smile. I like that. They are just profoundly mistaken and then they seek to impose their beliefs about everyone's faith on everyone else....which maybe isn't so nice and respectful after all.
There is another form of pluralism that is very similar that emerges from our secular minded friends. While they see a plurality in religious ideas, they think they are somehow immune from such silly talk. They see no truth in religion and feel it all a big chasing down a metaphysical rabbit hole as it were. The bold and obnoxious ones revel in telling the big wide religious world that they all are, well... "stupid." Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and their tribe come to mind5. They are universalists too, only of course they think we are all heading for a long dirt nap rather than heaven, paradise or nirvana. We will be ultimately gone from existence once our fragile bodies fade away. Let's call them pessimistic. Here is the catch. They are very religious, very dogmatic people when it comes to their own ideas. They hold to fundamental truths and claim that everyone is blind and that they see the truth about "religions." They worship their own minds and technological abilities and are not really a fun bunch. After all, this sort of folk have this life changing message to bring to the world "There probably isn't a god...get over it..." Cool. They probably are wrong.
Let us revisit the story of the elephant and the blind men one more time. There is a fatal problem with the whole story in my mind. How do we even know we are talking about "an elephant"? Obviously, someone in this story can see very well and not everyone is blind. Behind the reality of the groping men grasping trunk and tail is a King who can see. There is someone who knows what an elephant is and could tell all the blind men they are not touching rope, hose and wall. What if the King, the one being spoken about, could tell us and show us who he really is? What if blind eyes can be opened and elephants could be seen? In simpler terms, what if God chose to actually speak to us? Furthermore, the problem of pluralism is that we are not all talking about elephants-some religions believe God is one and others think there are millions of Gods. We need God to define himself for us and this is in fact what Jesus came to do...to reveal to us our creator.
Jesus' Teaching-Inclusive and Particular
The person of Jesus and his followers had something more interesting to say; something that was both inclusive of all human beings and calls us particularly to the creator God. The Christian message is clear that God made all things and placed people in time and history so that they might reconnect in relationship with God (See Genesis 1-3; Acts 17). Furthermore, God has kindly given all of us evidence that he exists and has certain attributes. Psalm 19 of the Hebrew bible (what we call the Old Testament) teaches us that God is speaking to us through creation and that this witness is available to all peoples. Romans 1 teaches us that what can be known about God is clear to us from what has been created. We can see from looking at the stars, the vast oceans, high mountains, and the intricacies of RNA and DNA that there is indeed a powerful intelligence behind the universe. Acts 14 of the New Testament also teaches us that God kindly provides for creation and Jesus taught the same in declaring that he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). So God gives to all people a universal display of his existence and common grace. The Christian message is inclusive in this way.
Yet at the same time people have rejected God, desire to live without him both in their attitudes and actions on the earth (Read Romans 1-3). We want to do things our way and deny that we were created by God for God. We worship ourselves rather than the maker of all things. Scripture calls this sin-and it is universal. So God in his kindness reveals to us in Jesus Christ that he is "God of gods and Lord of Kings." All who come to him in repentance (turning from sin/self to God) and faith (trusting him fully) he will not turn away. The gospel is particular in this way. We must come to God as God, not make him up in our minds and then come to the alter of an imaginary deity.
God shows something to us all by placing us in creation to see that there is a God to whom we give an account. Inclusive. Yet humanity in sin will resist his kindness so he enters the world in order to save some who will believe. The Bible does not teach that every person from every nation will be rescued from sin, death and hell. Nor does God favor any group of people in that all from only some nations will be saved. The Scriptures are clear that there will be some from every people, tribe and language in the Kingdom of heaven (Revelation 7:9-12). In a unique way, Jesus' message was as open as can be imagined yet only some respond. His open call is clear:
- All who are weary and heavy burdened...come to Jesus (Matthew 11:25-30)
- All who are thirsty...drink (Revelation 22:17)
- All who are in darkness...he is light (Matthew 4:12-17; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6)
- All who are hungry...come eat and be satisfied (John 6:35-40)
Yet his message is also a call, a summons, to those who have "ears to hear." All that have been given to Jesus he calls. Those who "hear him" do come to him. This is the mystery of grace; God saves, we respond. He calls to all, yet all do not respond. As followers of Jesus it is not our goal to prove everyone is wrong or dispute with deities. Yet we are called to present the truth-that there is one God and one mediator between God and people-the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5,6). This Jesus is no normal man nor simple prophet; he is God of gods and Lord of Kings and his Kingdom will last forever.
God of gods and Lord of Kings?
The most controversial figure in the New Testament is Jesus. Yes, sweet, nice Jesus. The fact of the matter is that he made such radical claims about himself that he has always been a fork in the road for many. Some would peddle him off as being a nice moral teacher, but this begs the question as to why he was unjustly murdered as a criminal. He did seem to hack people off a bit no? Jesus was utterly compelling to some while utterly repelling to others. Part of the reason for this is that he claimed to be God incarnate (become human). This is not what you hear people saying about themselves at Starbucks...
Followers of Jesus have been clear for centuries about the identity of Jesus. He was not "a god of gods" he is the God of gods and Lord of Kings. If you look at what some of his earliest followers said about him it becomes quite clear. This is necessarily a small sampling and I recommend further reading in this area for those who are interested.6
- He claimed to forgive sin, only what God could do (Mark 2:1-12)
- He claimed to be the divine "Son of Man" (Daniel 7:13, 14; Mark 13:24-27)
- He claimed to exist before Abraham was born as the "I AM" - the unique name of God in the Old Testament (John 8:48-59)
- He claimed that he was "one" with the Father (John 10)
- He claimed that if you saw him, you saw the Father (John 14)
- He was called "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" superseding the grandeur and authority of all earthly kings and rulers (Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Revelation 9:11-16)
Scripture teaches us that God became a human being to reveal to us his nature and his ways. Furthermore, God then died the death that we deserved on the cross-a death for sin. He then gives to us forgiveness, grace and peace based upon his own merit. This person, Jesus of Nazareth, is the one who is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is the God of gods revealed to us in living flesh so that we might follow and worship him.
We proclaim him and him alone in our world,
1 Huston Smith, The World's Religions : Our Great Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 378.
2 Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. Jean Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translation of: Institutio Christianae Religionis.; Reprint, With New Introd. Originally Published: Edinburgh : Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), I, xi, 8.
3 John Hick A Pluralist View in Dennis Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? : Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995) 47-51.
4 The Blind Men and the Elephant is a very old Indian folk tale. John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) wrote a poem based on the story which you can read at http://www.wordinfo.info/Blind-Men-and-Elephant-crop.html
5 See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion and Sam Harris Letter to a Christian Nation as exhibits A and B.
6 See Robert M. Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski Putting Jesus in His Place-The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2007) and Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears Vintage Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007) 11-31.