The following post is pulled from the lectures Introduction to Worldviews and The Deadliest Monster, given by Jeff Baldwin at the conference last week.
There are so many different religions today, that to be prepared to make a defense for the hope that is in us seems like a daunting task. We could go literally insane if we tried to be well-versed in the distinctions of every single major and minor religion under the sun. Of course, it's very good to be aware of some of these distinctives; I've found apologetics classes on Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons to be very helpful, for example. But realistically, we're just not going to be up on every distinctive of every organized (and unorganized) religion that exists. And that's ok.
The best defense is a good offense, so one excellent way to converse with non-Christians is to use the Four Deadly Questions to ask them about their beliefs. In addition, one of the best things we can do as Christians is know the distinctives of our faith. There are really four basic views of God, and it is helpful to categorize the major religions under these four headings:
Atheism - No God
(Jeff Baldwin argued that deisms actually fits into atheism, not monotheism, since the deist believes God is now inactive and has no power over men)
Monotheism - One God
Polytheism - Many Gods
Pantheism - Everything is God
Right away we can see that Christianity is already pretty distinctive in that she claims there is only one God. We only share this category with Judaism (our "mother" religion, so to speak) and Islam, another offshoot of Judaism. A religion's distinctives are more than just a view of God, though. There are two questions whose answers form the foundation for any worldview: (1) What is the nature of God? and What is the nature of man? (Adrian wrote a good post on this subject a while back.) Christianity answers the two above questions differently than any other religion on the planet.
Jeff Baldwin used the example of two infamous monsters in fiction to explain Christianity's distinction in answering the second question. (I added Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to my already-lengthy to-read list after his lecture.) The two monsters Jeff Baldwin contrasted are Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein's monster. I haven't read either pertinent book, so I'm basing my knowledge of the stories off of Jeff Baldwin's lectures and the Wishbone versions I've seen :). Please correct me if I don't get the stories quite right.
The tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde chronicles one scientist's attempt to separate his good side from his bad side, so he can indulge in his evil side (Mr. Hyde) for a time, then laying it aside to become good as Dr. Jekyll. The problem is that the scientist discovers that, while Mr. Hyde is wholly bad, he cannot fully lay aside his evil in the form of Dr. Jekyll because it is too all-encompassing. As the story progresses Mr. Hyde becomes more and more controlling, and the more Dr. Jekyll indulges his evil side, the worse it becomes not the better. The corrupted nature of the scientist grows more and more unmanageable, eventually consuming him.
The tale of Frankenstein chronicles another scientist and his attempt to create a monster from dead bodies. When first created, Frankenstein's monster is so innocent and good that he sees no need for government to restrain people. He begins as a benevolent monster that seeks to do good for people, but even with his acts of kindness, people continually recoil in his presence and abuse him because he is so frightening. By the end of the story he has been changed from a monster who once saw no need of government because he believed in the goodness of humankind, into a vengeful monster, going on a rampage and killing people. At the end of the story, when Frankenstein asks his monster what happened to him, and why he is now evil, the monster replies (paraphrasing): Am I thought to be the only criminal when all humankind has sinned against me?
The two stories give two very different depictions of the nature of man:
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
man is inherently sinful
the individual is responsible
man does nothing to save himself
man is inherently good
society is responsible
man can save himself
So the question is, which monster are you? Or, what monster represents the human race? Christianity is distinct in that she claims that humans are inherently sinful, like the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have no hope of saving ourself, but rest solely in the mercies of God. All other religions view men as some form of Frankenstein's monster, if not completely good at birth, at least neutral or incorrupt enough to in some way help to effect their own salvation. A non-Christian says that ultimately man's problems are external, the fault of society. A Christian says that man's problems are internal, the result of a depraved nature. Even after our hearts are regenerated, a Christian's sanctification is still through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, not merely a work of man. The message of Christianity is the message of the massive gap between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of man.
So, it seems that as a Christian, I should be a rather depressed being given my view of my own nature. I'm inherently sinful and have no help of saving myself from my worst enemy - me. Hmm, I feel all warm and fuzzy now. Of course, that is not the whole message of Christianity. Christianity tells the bad news of the nature of man, but she doesn't stop there. The good news is the nature of God, who is almighty and merciful. We cannot save ourselves, but our Creator can also become our Redeemer.
John 3:16 (ESV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
And that is good news.