Just a few days ago, I met a man who said that all religions are the same. I didn't have time to probe deeply into this claim--I hope he meant that all Christian denominations point to Jesus, but I think he was talking about religions, and not denominations. While there are similarities in all religions, there are also some important differences. While all religions have a bit of the truth, only Jesus said that He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Today, we take a look at the claims that the apostle John made about Jesus, and how these claims compare to other religions.
I confess that I'm a big fan of John's gospel, and the epistles of John as well. The authors of the three other (synoptic) gospels all take a historical look at Jesus, but nobody gets mystical like John does. I love John's other-worldly approach, that must have appealed to people of more esoteric traditions. Within John's culture of the ancient near East, Christianity had to deal with influences from Greek and Roman mystery religions and Judaism. But, because of commerce and political connections with the East, John's culture was also familiar with Babylonian and Persian religions, as well as traditions from farther east. Developing Christianity had to distinguish itself from all of these other ideas, if it was going to maintain its own identity. Let's take a look at Christianity, compared with the Chinese religion/philosophy Taoism.
My Greek professor in seminary had been a missionary to China, and told us that many Chinese concepts have a Judeo-Christian influence. (Click here to read a fascinating article, entitled "The Lamb of God Hidden in the Ancient Chinese Characters.") For example, the Greek word for "way" is hodos. Remember, Jesus said, "I am the Way" in John 14:6. Early Christians were called "Followers of the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:23; 22:4)." This Greek word hodos sounds very much like the Chinese word tao (prounounced "dow"), which also means "way." Taoism is the Chinese philosophy/religion that had its beginnings in the late fourth century B.C., with its founder, Lao Tzu. Scholars debate whether Lao Tzu was a real person or not, but the book that bears his name, the Tao Te Ching, teaches the "way" of Taoism.
Many of the teachings of Lao Tzu are completely compatible with the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they are so compatible that some see Taoism as a sort of Chinese proto-Christianity, with Jesus as a fulfillment of the Tao. However, there are also major differences between Christianity and Taoism that make it imperative that we separate the two. Christ and the Tao may share some overlapping principles, yet the two are very definitely different.
Lao Tzu taught that the ultimate principle of the universe, of life itself, was called the Tao. (If modern readers want to get a picture of what Taoism looked like, just watch Star Wars. George Lucas based his idea of "The Force" on Taoism.) The power of the Tao is called Te (pronounced "day"). It flows through everything, both governing and responding to the movements of all living things. As Star Wars puts it, "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
Of course, in all his visions and revelations, John never foresaw Star Wars. But he did know about Taoism, which portrayed ultimate reality as an impersonal force. Just as Jews in Jesus' day had encountered reincarnation through extensive trade with the East, so they were also aware of Taoism. Religious syncretism was a real danger. So in today's passage, John addresses one of the areas of possible misunderstanding, creating a distinction between Christ and the Tao. John writes:
The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:2-3 ESV).
John says that the universal principle is more than simply a great force. In verses 2-3, John says that this Eternal Life that we call Christ, "in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28 ESV)," who is the Way, who is the Truth, He is Life itself. Yet He is also a person, made manifest in Jesus Christ. In chapter 1, verse 14 of his gospel (ESV), John writes, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." We need to know that the God of the universe is more than an impersonal "Force," or Tao. God is Love...and not just a principle called love...God is love incarnate.
John 1:4-5, 9 continues to describe this Life, this Light, who came into the world:
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it... The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
In 1 John 1:5-10, John talks about Jesus the Light again:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This discussion of whether there is any light in darkness, or whether there is any darkness in light, reminds me of the Taoist symbol, the Yin-Yang. Yin is the dark principle, representing certain aspects the universe, and yang is the light principle, representing opposites. Swirling together, they do not compete or try to overcome one another. Instead, Taoism sees yin and yang in concert with one another. There's even a bit of yin in the yang, and a bit of yang in the yin. The key in Taoism is a balance between these two principles. (Here's where Star Wars gets it wrong, because as much as they talk about balance in The Force, the Jedi and Sith are in fierce competition with one another, each trying to destroy the other.)
John says that there's one more set of opposites in this light-dark dichotomy: good and evil. Contrary to the Taoist concept, John said that God is 100% light, and in Him there is no darkness. You might say that both negative and positive, female and male, night and day, passive and active, intuitive and logical, cold and hot, soft and hard are all part of God. But when you factor in good and evil (which Taoism is a bit fuzzy on), God is not a mixture of light and dark. The two are incompatible, not blended. And light is supreme.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5 ESV).
Another thing you could add to this list of dark and light is sin and righteousness. Christians do not seek a balance between these two things in our lives. Instead, we want to eradicate the darkness of sin from our hearts. We can't do this ourselves--only the true Light of Jesus can drive the darkness away. John says that if we confess our sin, our darkness, to Jesus, He will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This means that He wants to remove even the speck of darkness that may still be floating around in our lives. Just as Jesus is in the light, we should also walk in the light, without allowing ourselves to be penetrated by darkness.
So, there's our little lesson in the Tao for today--only to say that while there may be similarities between this Chinese religion/philosophy and Christianity, they are definitely not the same thing. There are differences, and those differences are pretty glaring.
When you encounter someone who says, "All religions are pretty much the same thing," don't swallow the pill that they're trying to give you. Other religions may have areas of agreement with Christianity, but they certainly are not compatible with what the entirety of what Jesus teaches. John saw the doctrinal influence of other religions creeping into Christianity in his day, and he made sure to clarify those areas of similarity and difference. Believers today need to know their Bibles, and be prepared to do the same.