How Orthodoxy Understands Non-Christian Religions
Non-Christian religions are quite varied, so one must have varied approaches to them. Here we discuss Judaism, the various polytheistic faiths (such as Hinduism), and Islam. What all these faiths share in common is that the Church calls them all to join in the saving worship of the Trinity, to accept Christian baptism, and to live as part of the Church.
Regarding Judaism, Israel was called by God to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and to welcome the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that “all nations” would be blessed through that Messiah. Without such acceptance of Jesus as the Christ, as St Paul says, the natural Jewish branches of the tree of Israel “will be cut off,” even while Gentile “wild branches” are “grafted in” (Romans 11:16-24). Instead, most Jews in the first and second centuries rejected Jesus as a deceiver, and opposed the movement that He began, regarding it as heretical, dangerous, and blasphemous. The Jewish people continued in this unfortunate trajectory for centuries afterward.
Today, some Jews regard Jesus as a good Jew whom his followers misunderstood and deified in a way that He never intended. However, the classic and more negative assessment of Jesus may be found in the Talmud and in the polemical recounting of his life, the Toledoth Yeshu (The “Stories of Jesus”). It was this older, anti-Christian Judaism that the Church Fathers knew, including Judaizing and proselytization of Christians, and against which they reacted.
Here we must admit that, in the past, those who named themselves Christian committed terrible atrocities against Jewish people, most recently in the Holocaust during the Second World War. The Church teaches that such actions against Jewish people, or any non-Christians, is immoral, sinful, and wrong, and has no place among those who claim to follow Christ.
Instead, Christians believe that God called Israel to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and the Church continues to urge the Jewish people to convert to Christ, thereby fulfilling their ancient ancestral destiny. Some Jewish people who have converted to Christ refer to themselves not as “converted Jews”, but as “completed Jews”, since they believe that Judaism is completed and fulfilled in Christianity. The Church continues to invite their Jewish neighbours to accept Jesus as their Messiah and come to faith in him, remembering St Paul’s assurance that “the natural branches… if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).
In the first century (and from time immemorial), all men outside of Israel worshipped a multiplicity of gods, usually using images of them in their cult. This situation continues to the present day in places that were not integrated into the emerging Christendom of the Roman empire, places such as India and the far east. These religions are often grouped together under the name of “paganism”, though the term is too generalized to be helpful. The polytheistic religions have their own histories, developments, permutations, and complexities.
What they have in common is a belief that many gods and powers exist and that these powers are to be offered worship and sacrifice. The biblical name for this is “idolatry”, which is the substitution of the one, living, and true God with other lesser beings who do not share the divine nature. St. Paul was clear that the power animating these spurious forces falsely claiming divinity was demonic, “What the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20).
St. Paul intimated that eternal life may be given to those who had never heard of God’s revelation and Law, but who still, by perseverance in doing good, seek for glory, honor, and immortality (Rom 2:7). Our merciful God will rightly judge those in this circumstance. However, it remains true that forgiveness of sins, adoption to sonship, the assurance of salvation, the gift of joy, and transformation only come through faith in Jesus Christ. That is why the Church preaches the Gospel to everyone, calling them to repent and be baptized.
This was the approach of St. Paul when he preached to the pagans of his day. He acknowledged that the pagans of Athens had certain elements of truth, found in their poetry (Acts 17:28). Yet, he still called them to find the true God in Jesus.
In the same way today, in the Church’s approach to those of “pagan” religions, Christians should take care to treat those with whom they are speaking with respect, to affirm what commonalities can be found, and to present the Christian faith as the correction and the fulfillment of the truth that God has already revealed to them through their religion. This was the approach of the missionaries preaching to the Native American (First Nations) peoples of Alaska, men such as Sts. Herman and Innocent of Alaska. Effective mission work thus involves respectful listening before it involves persuasive speaking.
Islam, like the Gnostic systems of the early Christian centuries, is a religion that seeks to incorporate Jesus and biblical stories within its system of thought and worship in a way that is alien and inimical to the original truths of the Christian Faith. Islam regards the seventh-century warlord Muhammad as a prophet who cleansed and corrected the religions of Judaism and Christianity that came before him, since the thought that those religions had badly distorted God’s original message to them. Islam presents itself as the true and corrected version of Judaism and Christianity, and as the sole true monotheistic faith on earth, and as such it aggressively seeks to convert all the earth to Islam. Though hostile to polytheistic pagan religions, it respects Judaism and Christianity as “peoples of the Book.” They are allowed to coexist with Islam, provided they accept a socially diminished and subservient role. This role is part of a comprehensive social structure known as sharia.
Christians reject Islam’s claim that Muhammad was a true prophet and that he had been sent by God. The Church rejects the Qur’an1 and does not accept it as the Word of God. It is apparent from the contents of the Qur’an that its author had heard many stories from heretical Christians. It is also just as clear that the author rewrote much of what he heard: Miriam the sister of Moses is conflated with Miriam the Mother of Jesus, and Ishmael is substituted for Isaac as the son whom Abraham was commanded to sacrifice.
Islam’s emphatic and decisive rejection of Jesus as divine and its rejection of a belief that he died on the cross mark it as a heresy, as recognized by early Christian writers, such as St. John of Damascus. Like those in other non-Christian religions, Christians therefore invite Muslims to renounce Islam and find their true submission to the one true God in the Christian faith.
Arabic for “recitation." It consists of 114 thematically disjointed surahs, or chapters, each purporting to be the actual words of God to Muhammad, collected after his brief career. ↩