This is the fourth study on the Explore God Chicago 2019 series. The Explore God Chicago 2019 is a Community Outreach Initiative that seeks to answer seven important questions about God, faith, and purpose. You can find these seven important questions here. Previous studies on this series dealt with the following questions:
Today I address the fourth question in this series: “Is Christianity Too Narrow?”
The People of God in the Old Testament
Israel lived in a world in which people believed in many gods. The Hittites, a people who lived in ancient Anatolia, today’s Turkey, called themselves “a nation of a thousand gods.” However, the Hittites were not the only nation that believed in many gods. The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and many other nations of the ancient Near East believed in a multitude of gods.
The people who lived in these nations were polytheist. According to the Wikipedia, polytheism “is the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals. In most religions which accept polytheism, the different gods and goddesses are representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles.”
The Old Testament preserves vestiges of this polytheistic world. Several gods are mentioned in the Old Testament. These gods were worshiped by Israel’s neighbors. Many times in its history, the people of Israel allowed themselves to be influenced by their neighbors and they too, worshiped other gods in addition to Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Below are the names of four of the many gods mentioned in the Old Testament:
Baal (Numbers 25:3). Baal was the Canaanite storm god. Baal was also associated with the fertility of the land. The word “Baal” means “lord,” “husband.” Many people in Israel worshiped Baal in his different manifestations. The earliest mention of Baal in the Old Testament is in Numbers 25:3 when the people of Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.
Ashtoreth (1 Kings 11:5). Ashtoreth was the goddess of the Sidonians. Ashtoreth is the name by which the Canaanite goddess Astarte is called in the Old Testament. She was the consort of Baal, the Canaanite storm god.
Dagon (Judges 16:23). Dagon appears in the Old Testament as the god of the Philistines. The nature and characteristics of Dagon are not very clear. Some scholars have identified Dagon as a “grain” god while others have identified him as a “fish” god. It seems that the Philistines adopted the cult of Dagon after they settled in the land of Canaan.
The Queen of Heaven (Jeremiah 7:18). The name of an unidentified goddess worshiped by the people of Judah in the days of the prophet Jeremiah (7th and 6th centuries B.C.). The Queen of Heaven appears only in the book of Jeremiah (7:18; 44:17, 18, 19, 25). This goddess has been identified with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and with the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth, also known as Astarte.
The Challenge to Polytheism
Polytheism is a human creation that is a corruption of the view that there is only one God. The apostle Paul explains how this corruption took place:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles (Romans 1:19-23).
The God of Israel declares several times to his people that he is the only true God:
“Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other [God]” (Isaiah 44:8).
“And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (Isaiah 45:21).
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me” (Isaiah 46:9).
In order to proclaim to the nations that there is only one, true God, God called Abraham, a man who worshiped other gods (Joshua 24:2) to establish a nation who would become “a kingdom of priests” to the nations (Exodus 19:6). Abraham is the beginning of a religious movement which was known by its strict monotheism, the worship of one God.
When God established a covenant with Israel, one item in this covenant, the second commandment, declared that in Israel no other god should be worshiped in addition to Yahweh. The intent of the commandment was to establish monotheism in Israel. The truth of monotheism, that there was no other God besides Yahweh, eventually became the hallmark of the faith of Israel.
The Particularity of Christianity
The Bible teaches that God’s desire was to establish his kingdom throughout the earth and, through the prophets, God invited all the nations of the earth to participate in his kingdom. God’s invitation was to all nations: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (Isaiah 45:22-23). God invites all nations to worship him: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).
It is well documented that most religions of antiquity rejected the invitation to worship the true God. The nations were hostile to the message Israel proclaimed to the world. One reason for this hostility was because Israel failed in its mission to become a light to the world: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). In fact, as John Bright (1981:161) wrote, “Judaism “never became a missionary religion.”
Since it has been God’s desire to bring the nation unto himself and since Israel failed to accomplish its mission in the world, God took matters into his own hands and did what many have called “the scandal of Christianity.” Christianity claims that the God of Israel, the true and only God became a human being and lived among us. The gospel of John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we saw his glory” (John 1:1, 14).
The concept of God becoming human and living among us is unique to Christianity. As the incarnate God, Jesus came to announce the good news of eternal life and salvation to all who believe. Jesus said: “I have come so that [human beings] may have life, life in its fullest measure” (John 10:10). He also said: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
But the message of Jesus also came with challenges. Jesus told the crowds: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus came proclaiming a message of hope and comfort but the message that his followers must take up the cross was not perceived as a message of comfort. By challenging his disciples to take up the cross, Jesus was inviting his followers to become part of his mission and share in his redemptive purpose.
Another factor that marks the uniqueness of Christianity is the fact that Jesus came as the promised Messiah of Israel. He also claimed to be the son of God. To the people of his day, the fact that the Messiah suffered and died the death of a common criminal on a Roman cross was unacceptable. But the cross is the focal point of Christianity. Christianity declares that through his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus Christ became the only hope for human beings to establish a personal relationship with God.
One issue that leads some people to say that Christianity is too narrow is what has been called “the scandal of particularity,” that is, the fact that Christianity declares that salvation is found only in Christ: “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Act 4:12 NLT).
This verse has been misunderstood because some people believe that those who have never heard about Christ have no opportunity to be saved. But this is not what the Bible teaches. When God appeared to Abraham, when Abraham was still living in Mesopotamia, Abraham was serving other gods (Joshua 24:2). No one knows how Abraham came to know God, but God is at work in the world, then and now, to bring people who never heard about Christ into a personal relationship with him.
The truth of Christianity is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This good news of reconciliation is being proclaimed around the world. Christianity affirms that those who believe in Jesus shall be saved, but those who reject him will not be saved. This is what Jesus himself said: “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18 NLT).
So, is Christianity too narrow? Some people say so, but this view is a misconception of Christianity. On the cross, Christ died with his arms spread wide open, desiring to embrace the world unto himself. Christianity has a vision that is worldwide: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). That there is only one God and only one savior can be narrow to some people. But the universality of the gospel and the fact that God has such love for the world that he died on the cross to save the world, denies the idea that Christianity is too narrow.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
John Bright, The Kingdom of God. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981.