Why has God allowed different religions to exist? This is one of those questions that inquisitive Christians can get stuck on, along with why does evil exist? Or why do bad things happen to good people? While many people shy away from responding to questions such as these, on occasion bold thinkers pull out of the avoidant crowd and do their best to shed light on some of the world’s mysteries. That is just what Gerald R. McDermott does in his book God’s Rivals, answering the question of why God has permitted the rise and flourishing of other religions.
McDermott makes his argument on the premise that not much wisdom can be gained without first understanding the context that surrounds God’s allowance of other religions. In this case he begins from the beginning: the Old Testament’s understanding of other religions.
The Israelites, and indeed even the writers of the New Testament, believed that there were unseen spiritual forces at work behind everything in the world. They believed that other nations were ruled by angels that were at one time created and commissioned by God but had since fallen and turned hostile to him, in turn leading those nations away from God as well. The Israelites beliefs laid the foundation for the New Testament’s authors’ interpretations of other people’s religion. For instance, Paul’s strong Jewish background dictated his understanding of the world, and he says in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
McDermott explains Paul’s view by saying, “while the religions originated in rebellion and deception, their origins are supernatural, not natural; they teach some truth about God; and they are used by God to advance his own plan of redemption.”
It is important to note that in Paul’s approach, some truth does exist in other religions. Throughout the rest of the book McDermott stresses that other religions are not devoid of all truth – they are simply not truth’s full expression. McDermott says of Justin Martyr that he believed “the word of Christ, speaking to non-Christians, explains whatever truth there is in other religions. It also explains why there is error in the religions. ‘Because [says Martyr] they did not know the whole Logos, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.’ With only part of the Logos, they could not see the whole picture” (94).
In the chapters afterwards, as McDermott turns to the wisdom of Christianity’s church fathers, the theme to be taken away from each of them is that some truth exists in other religions, and God uses that truth for his own purpose. McDermott points out that Clement of Alexandria believed “Philosophy [Greek religion] . . . was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ” (123). Truth cannot be found apart from God, and if a truth, however small, exists in religions apart from Christianity then it is God’s Truth.
Based on his examination of history, McDermott concludes that God’s first intention was for him to be worshiped alone. Because of his love, God gave us free will with which to worship him. It was not God that abandoned his intention to be solely worshiped by humankind; it was humankind who abandoned its desire to worship God. McDermott explains, “God permits what is less than the best because his creatures refuse to accept the best” (160). In our free will, we chose to follow partial truths over the full Truth. Everyone, McDermott says, has turned away from God’s truth; it is only through the redemptive work of Christ that we have been given the opportunity to turn back and worship God.
McDermott’s book is a well-written, well-thought-out discussion about why God gives permission for the existence of other religions; why these other religions exist; and how Christians should respond to the theological differences among world religions. When we realize our own fallen nature and inclination to turn away from the truth, we can find commonalities with our non-Christian friends. No one has possession of the full truth, for no one is without sin. Only through Christ’s redemptive work can we draw closer to God—who is Truth eternal.