Savannah McPhail, BJU Student
Savannah is a senior communication major at Bob Jones University. Having lived in Cambodia most of her life as an MK, she has interacted with many Buddhists.
The first time I had to make a stand for Christ against Buddhism was when I was nine years old. I stood with hundreds of students on a dusty Cambodian school yard as orange-robed Buddhist monks took the stage to begin the dedication ceremony for the school year. As the chanting began, students of all ages around me raised their hands to their noses in a gesture of respect, and heat rushed to my face. It came to me in a flash. I was a Christian. I could not honor the monks. I dropped my hands to my sides and clenched my fists, half turning to one side. Someone gasped and said, “raise your hands!” A boy nearby said, “No, she’s a Christian,” and I was left alone.
Buddhism is a religion that dominates entire countries and cultures and is quickly spreading to the West. It can look different depending on where it is found, but its core beliefs are the same—and they are very attractive to a Western mindset. Realize that a Buddhist will understand life in a fundamentally alien way from a Christian. Definitions of words will not even be the same. If you want to have a conversation about Jesus with a Buddhist, you must understand where they are coming from.
In Buddhism there is no god, no sin, and no forgiveness. The world is redefined as an endless cycle of suffering without beginning or end. The root of suffering is in human desire, and the elimination of desire will result in losing your sense of self—enlightenment—which will result in nirvana, the cessation of existence and escape from the cycle of suffering.
“Sin,” a Buddhist monastic here in Greenville told me, “is not a word.” You cannot break commandments, because there is no one giving commands. There is no responsibility to a higher power or relationship to a creator. There is only good and bad karma, which affects only yourself. How do you know right from wrong? The monastic sat cross-legged on a cushion, wrapped in her orange robes. She bowed her shaved head and told a story about the Buddha. Nobles once asked the Buddha how to tell which religious teachers were right and which were wrong. The Buddha told them to consider whether or not it was right to kill. They said no. This showed that they already knew what was right or wrong in themselves. Though the Buddha did give certain precepts and truths to help guide people, right and wrong are things we know if we search our own hearts.
Can you see why this would be attractive to Westerners?
“Salvation,” or escape from suffering, is attained through self-effort. Good karma will bring good results for you, in this life or the next. If you do exceptionally well, you might make a hiatus in your own personal heaven, but the highest goal is nirvana. Bad karma cannot be forgiven, because there is no one to forgive it. The only way to erase bad karma is by doing a greater amount of good deeds. Hopefully, your good karma will overwhelm your bad. If not, bad things are ahead for you, possibly even a sojourn in a hell. Generally being a good person is the goal, and you are in control of your own karma.
“Tolerance” in Buddhism is a key point of persuasion for many Westerners. “Buddhism is peaceful,” the monastic emphasized. You can be of any religion and be a Buddhist. You can believe anything you desire as long as you follow the precepts of Buddha and try to have good karma. Buddhism is accepting. You can practice it in any nation. Buddhism is just about becoming a beautiful mind. How kind and accepting it sounds!
How do these beliefs affect how you share Jesus with a Buddhist?
Jerry Hickey, Missionary to Brazil
When acceptance before God is based on human merit (i.e. good works), the best efforts to explain otherwise will be filtered through this deeply rooted mindset. What is said and what is actually understood may be completely opposite.
Raised in a practicing Roman Catholic family and having been a missionary to Brazil, my experience since my conversion in 1973 has been that Catholics, as a general rule, find it very difficult to grasp the truth of “being justified freely” by God’s grace. One reason has to do with the Catholic doctrine of salvation. Catholic theologians will argue that they believe in salvation by grace. However, you have to earn this grace by previously practiced good works or behavior, even though that is a direct contradiction of the very definition of grace.
It Takes Time.
Usually, just as the longstanding popular expression in Brazil, “once the token goes into the slot, it takes a while to fall.” Repeated explanations of true grace is required in most cases. Over the years, there have been ex-Catholics who have said to me that they got saved the first time they heard the gospel preached. Upon further inquiry, it became apparent that someone, usually a relative or close acquaintance, planted and watered the seed years before. The concept is too foreign to be assimilated the first time in most instances. Of course, this is added to the universal hindrance of the prideful motivation to justify himself before God through his own self-effort. Cain’s offering and Satan’s blinding come to mind. For this reason, Paul goes to great lengths in his epistles to stress that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done,” “lest any man should boast,” as man most certainly would!
As a new missionary four decades ago, I was under the illusion that, the most effective evangelistic strategy would be the presentation of the “Romans Road” in polished Portuguese (usually on the first encounter), and then add the personal testimony of being raised in a strict Roman Catholic home. I was almost expecting a response similar to the Philippian jailor after the earthquake. In “going door to door” with a Brazilian pastor on a weekly basis, we saw many “decisions” but no conversions (“new creatures in Christ”)… for the aforementioned reasons. Catholic tendency is to trust in the “sinner’s prayer” rather than the One supposedly being prayed to. In this mindset, prayer is a “good work.” As a child, when I made confession to a priest, I was instructed to go to the altar and “say” a certain number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” as penance for my sins, paying for them with these “prayers.”
We also need to understand that in the case of practicing Catholics, their religion is a part of their cultural identity. When Christ and His redemptive work, as presented in the New Testament, are shared, it is viewed as a threat to that identity. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, it becomes a question of which religion is right—not a question of a right relationship with the Water of Life. After my conversion and initial attempts to communicate Christ to my parents, and having left home years before, I was labeled to my face--not a heretic, interestingly enough, but a “traitor”.
Fear & Superstition
Fear is another impediment that enters the conversation. Ever since Emperor Constantine’s legalization of “Christianity” and Theodosius’s declaration of it as the official state religion some 70 years later, the Catholic church began to incorporate some practices of pagan religions which existed in Rome centuries before the arrival of “Christianity.” The strategy has continued to modern times and blurred doctrinal distinctives clearly taught in the Scriptures, especially concerning the person and work of the Way, the Truth, the Life and the only Mediator between God and Man (Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). In early 1500`s, Jesuit missionaries “converted” the natives of Brazil and the imported slaves by replacing the names of the spirits they feared with the names of saints. For example, Ogun became St. Anthony, Iemanja the Virgin Mary, and Exu Satan and Oxala, Jesus Christ. As a result, at least half of those who call themselves Catholics also practice some form of Spiritism. This is true, not only in Brazil, but also in other countries where Catholicism predominates cultures previously given to animism. This is also evident by the fact that the image of Semiramis, Nimrod`s high priestess wife, is stamped on all Brazilian currency.
What does this have to do with fear? Fear is the force behind superstition which is powerfully at work as you converse with practicing Catholics about Christ. This explains the nightly bedside ritual of being sprinkled with “holy water from Lourdes” (the location of one of Mary`s supposed apparitions) by my mother. It was a protection against evil spirits. Fear is a tool of Satan to blind the mind from seeing the “perfect love that casts out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:18)—the same love expressed in John 3:16.
Common Grounds & Divergences
In communicating Christ, common grounds are usually the best way to lead/open the conversation. Catholicism gives at least lip service to cardinal biblical doctrines such as Creation, the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Heaven and Hell etc. The problem is the additional infusion of pagan religions couched in Christian terminology or so-called Christian traditions, resulting in the adulteration and corruption of the pure gospel. One of these pollutions is the teaching that Mary is a co-redemptress with Christ and that she herself was born without sin. This perversion and others serve as a
vaccine in reverse, almost immunizing the person against the pure gospel of Christ.
I do not advise to initiate the conversation calling attention to these divergences. Rather, ask questions that would reveal what they really believe about the person and work of Christ, eventually aiming for them to discover what they are really trusting in to be accepted by God the Father. When I asked my father if he was trusting in what Christ has done for him or what he himself was doing for salvation, he responded without hesitation: “Of course, I am trusting in those things (i.e., rituals, good works). Why do you think I do them?” I think his answer surprised himself, as his conversion almost 20 years later would tend to support.
Another possible approach would be to ask if your friend considers herself a practicing Roman Apostolic Catholic. Having started our first church in a “bairro” nicknamed “Little Italy” (containing dozens of Italian restaurants, one of which can seat over four thousand at one time), I learned this is a good way, at least, to insert the token. If the answer is yes, as in most cases it was, I would then ask if they had ever read the letter written by Apostle Paul to the very first church in Rome, from which they considered themselves a spiritual descendent. In those early days most Catholics were unaware of the letter`s existence in the Bible. My parents were part of a generation that were actually told there was no use in reading the Bible because laypeople did not have the capacity to understand or interpret it. Their parents were practically forbidden to read it for themselves. But due to the emergence of the prosperity gospel in Brazil, the Catholic church has reversed its course and began to encourage the attendance in “Bible Study” groups. Of course, as with the prosperity movement, the same old doctrinal definitions regarding salvation are only dressed up in texts taken out of context. If you spark a curiosity of your Catholic friend to read the Bible for himself, especially Romans, it will go a long way in helping the token to fall. It almost goes without saying that whatever questions you ask, friendly relationship building moved by kindness must be the bridge you take to get to those questions.
Some think, given my background, that I must have greater success in convincing Catholics for Christ. No, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit does the convincing; not my background or upbringing. What I mentioned above are not intended to make us more “effective” in convincing Catholics for Christ—just more patient. And loving patience pays off. My father came to Christ just a few weeks before he died at the age of 83. Time does not permit, nor is it in the scope of this blog, to share the multiple expressions of his new standing in Christ during those short few weeks. Suffice it to say that it is the gospel of Christ that is “the power of God unto salvation” as Paul wrote to the very first church in Rome.
Eric Newton, BJU Seminary Faculty
Several years ago, I had the privilege of taking a mission trip to Singapore and Indonesia. On the 12-hour flight from Detroit to Tokyo I sat next to a quiet Filipino who was returning from an international psychiatry conference in Toronto. With her occupation in mind, I explained that I mentored students, attempting to steer the conversation to the true needs of every human heart and the centrality of Jesus Christ. She politely dialogued for a while then found the first of several movies to watch during the long journey across North America and the Pacific Ocean. I confess, our interaction didn’t seem to amount to much. Unlike on some other flights, this seatmate and I didn’t share much in common.
For us who follow Jesus Christ, the term atheist provokes a range of thought and feeling. Contemporary atheism may frustrate us, because it won’t go away and sometimes swallows up those whom we know and love. Perhaps it intimidates us with its seemingly sophisticated arguments. Hopefully atheism stirs up our zeal. As Romans 1 clearly teaches, the glory of God is at stake in every individual’s acceptance or rejection of God’s self-revelation. But I wonder if, more often than not, atheism numbs us. We don’t share in common the most basic of beliefs, that there is a God. And therefore, conversation with an atheist seems senseless.
But that would be to discount God ourselves. Recently I attended a seminar presented by an atheist-turned-Christian. His personal story was sobering, instructive, but ultimately thrilling. He grew up in a Christian home, had doubts about the goodness of God, attended a Christian university, started reading unbelieving philosophers, and became an avowed atheist. He plunged himself into liberal social causes, seeking to fill the void in his soul by helping change the planet. But he found the lives of his cohorts to be in disarray and the purposes for which he lived dissatisfying. Then his seemingly hopeless journey took a significant turn when he attended a Bible-believing church with a relative and was confronted by genuine Christian love and, subsequently, earnest prayer on his behalf. Eventually, this intelligent prodigal came to the end of himself and was graciously rescued by the Lover of souls.
So, if we’re asking the question of whether we should have a conversation with an atheist about Jesus Christ, the answer is yes. But how? Like anything else, we have to start by adopting God’s revealed perspective. Scripture speaks straightforwardly about atheists. God calls them fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 53:1). The designation fool isn’t referring to someone’s intelligence. It’s a moral description. It focuses on the inclination of a person’s soul. In other words, the heart of atheism isn’t heady arguments but an emotional commitment.
That means that conversations with atheists rarely succeed through intricate debate. Yes, there are good explanations for why we believe and what we do. And yes, we should always be ready to commend and defend our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet, an atheist isn’t lacking a good reason to believe in God’s existence. Like all of us who were once outside of Christ, he needs a new heart and eyes to understand that true freedom is confessing Jesus as Lord. Peace is found, not in skepticism awaiting satisfactory proof but believing in order that we may know (as Augustine put it).
An atheist may initially frustrate or confuse or intimidate us, but we can be confident that he has an innate knowledge of God, the true God of the Bible whose very nature is mercy. And we should remember that, like in the example above, love often cuts a path for truth. It may not be a theistic proof but rather otherworldly kindness and intercessory prayer that set the table for our gospel conversation to begin or continue.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.