Since 1971, John Lennon has been telling us to imagine a world without religion. It’s easy if you try, he claims, but history tells a different story. Every tribe, people group, and nation has practiced one form of religion or another. Even today, as postmodern secularism does its best to persuade us that science and human reasoning have replaced any need for faith, billions of people are still religious.
Humanity instinctively knows we are not the highest power in the universe. Not only are we prone to think there is someone greater than us, and rightfully so, but we also realize we do not live up to his standard. We fall short of the glory of God, as the Bible expresses it (Ro 3:23). Therefore, we practice religion. We pray, worship, sacrifice, and serve to appease God and perhaps assuage his wrath before the day of judgment.
Some Christians would remind me that unregenerate people cannot believe in God. “There is no one who seeks God,” they’d say, “not apart from divine intervention” (Ro 3:11).
True, but notice I did not claim they seek Yahweh, the I AM WHO I AM (Ex 3:14). Even unregenerate sinners can be religious. When Paul visited Athens, Greece, he discovered the city was full of idols, telling its citizens, “I see that you are extremely religious in every respect” (Ac 17:16, 22). They even erected an altar to an Unknown God, if by chance, they missed any deities whom they feared displeasing. Despite their religious fervor, Paul had to introduce them to the God who made the world and everything in it, Lord of heaven and earth, because they did not know him (Ac 17:24).
You’ll also notice I did not say the world genuinely seeks God. By all appearances, first-century Jews worshiped and served Yahweh, but their zeal for God was vain (Ro 10:2). “Snakes! Brood of vipers!” accused Jesus (Mt 23:33). “How can you escape being condemned to hell?” Appearances can be deceiving. “You are of your father the devil,” Christ says to them elsewhere (Jn 8:44).
Many people are religious, but salvation and religion, including aberrant forms of Christianity, are not synonymous. Humanity’s pursuit of eternal life is, for the most part, futile. There is salvation in no one other than Jesus Christ, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved (Ac 4:12). Anything other than justification by faith in Christ alone cannot save despite our best efforts to the contrary.
I attend enough funerals these days—hundreds in the last year alone—to surmise that most people believe heaven is our default destination. If nothing else, so-called good people will enter the eternal kingdom by virtue of their goodness. When a family asks me to officiate their loved one’s service, they quickly list the deceased’s most positive attributes. Daddy was generous. Mom was kind. Grandpa had a big heart. They believe these characteristics will convince me or perhaps themselves that their loved one earned a place in heaven.
This doctrine of justification by personal merit has existed since nearly the beginning. As soon as the eyes of the first sinners were opened, and they knew they were naked, they attempted to conceal their shame with crudely made coverings of fig leaves (Ge 3:7). Adam and Eve’s immediate impulse was to do something, anything about their guilt before God—to make atonement no matter how insufficient their efforts. It was the birth of a new religion—the world’s first, not to mention the most popular ever since.
Meanwhile, God was preparing another kind of religion to which he only alludes in Genesis 3. “The LORD God,” Moses writes, “made clothing from skins for the man and his wife, and he clothed them” (Ge 3:21). Why does he bother to re-clothe Adam and Eve? First, God puts the inadequacy of their efforts on display. Second, he demonstrates humanity’s need for his intervention. Third and perhaps most important, he reveals the wages of sin is death by requiring the sacrifice of an animal to clothe them (Ro 6:23). Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (Heb 9:22).
Two competing religions striving for the same goal came into existence that day. Only one can accomplish its mission. The former system will always fail for reasons I’ll address later, yet it remains the most popular alternative to God’s true religion because it’s the only alternative. According to Christ, we have no other options.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.” (Matthew 7:13, 14)
The broad road has many names—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and so on—but it is a single religion based on the false notion one can justify himself before God by works and human achievement. Biblical Christianity, with its central doctrine of justification by faith, is the sole exception. It alone is the road that leads to life (Mt 7:14).