The Good in Heathen Religion?

Much is being said and written by many liberal ministers and a few missionaries about the “good in heathen religions”—the inspiration of their religious books; “that all are seeking God”; and that the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of all in their search for truth. Some men who have visited India will even speak approvingly of the shrines crowded with devout worshipers, but these travelers never dare mention in a mixed audience what these Hindus are worshiping. First, let us remember that no missionary intentionally antagonizes people whom he wishes to convert, though the critics of the orthodox missionary would imply that this is a customary procedure. We should also remember that those who have the most to say about the “inspiration of other sacred books” have the lowest ideas of the inspiration of the Word of God. Second, it is well to inquire whether the “liberal” missionary believes that the heathen are in danger of eternal perdition. Intelligent heathen may be quite willing to become Christians if that means simply accepting the ethics of Christianity. But have they been “born from above?” Without this new birth, Christ said no one can see the kingdom of God; and He said this to a gentleman, a scholar and a devout teacher of ethics who thought Christ to be, as many think today, only a great teacher. To tell the heathen, as one writer on “Modern Missions” suggests, that they are pretty good already, and that Christianity can make them still better, will produce only proud Pharisees.

What was the attitude of St. Paul, the most successful foreign missionary? We read that when in Athens “his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols.” He told as intelligent a heathen audience as was ever gathered that man’s attempt to seek after God was an utter failure and that God now “commanded men everywhere to repent.” He told these cultured Athenians that they were “very demon-fearing” (“very religious”), but when he wrote to the Greeks of Corinth, he declared that “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons”; and Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 that demons are evil spirits and in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 contrasts the worship of Christ and Belial as utterly incompatible. It is useless to deny that most heathen worship is acknowledged devil worship (the propitiation of evil spirits).

Even the philosophical beliefs of the natural man may be just as man-made as any “heathen idol made of mud.” As in ancient Greece, so now in Buddhist countries, with their philosophical religions, the people nevertheless worship idols. The heathen do not worship God. They do not know the God of the Bible; they must be as Paul wrote, “turned from idols to serve the living and true God.” Again, the religious books of the heathen are full of untranslatable corruption, and their private life and public worship are in harmony with such writings. In the presence of like idolatry, the inspired writers of the Old Testament used every word of scorn and derision to rouse men out of their idolatry, and the history of the national life even of God’s chosen people teaches with sad repetition that man’s idolatry is the result of his depravity and preference for evil. “They loved darkness rather than light.”

Also the truths that may be found in any heresy or heathen religion make it all the harder for its adherents to accept Christianity. The Koran is a greater obstacle to Christianity than cannibalism. We must, with Paul in Romans 1:18-2:16, distinguish between the work of reason and conscience in the natural man and the work of the Holy Spirit in the regenerate. No amount of sentimental talk about “the good in heathen religions” can convert sinners or stir up selfish Christians to do their duty in sending the Gospel to idolatrous peoples. — by Frederick Erdman, 1915