Why Are There So Many Religions?

Pope´s Answers Are in «Crossing the Threshold of Hope»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 25, 2002 (Zenit.org).- If there is only one God, and he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, why has he allowed so many religions? This is one of the questions that the Day of Prayer in Assisi might posit, to which John Paul II has given his own answer.

The Holy Father was asked this question by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in the book «Crossing the Threshold of Hope» (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

In the book, John Paul II says that «instead of marvelling at the fact that Providence allows such a great variety of religions, we should be amazed at the number of common elements found within them.»

Christ came into the world for all peoples, the Pope says. «He redeemed them all and has His own ways of reaching each of them in the present eschatological phase of salvation history. In fact, in those regions, many accept Him and many more have an implicit faith in Him (cf. Hebrews II:6).»

Here are some of the ideas the Pope expressed in the book on various religions.


Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam all the richness of God´s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.

Nevertheless, the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect. It is impossible not to admire, for example, their fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.

The Council has, also called for the Church to have a dialogue with followers of the «Prophet,» and the Church has proceeded to do so. We read in Nostra Aetate: «Even if over the course of centuries Christians and Muslims have had more than a few dissensions and quarrels, this sacred Council now urges all to forget the past and to work toward mutual understanding as well as toward the preservation and promotion of social justice, moral welfare, peace, and freedom for the benefit of all mankind» (Nostra Aetate 3).


The words from the Declaration Nostra Aetate represent a turning point. The Council says: «The Church of Christ, in fact, recognizes that according to the divine mystery of salvation the origins of the Church´s faith and election are already found in the Patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets. … The Church, then, can forget neither that it received the revelation of the Old Testament through that people with whom God, in his ineffable mercy, made the Ancient Covenant, nor can the Church forget that it draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. … Therefore, since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is so great, this Sacred Council recommends and promotes a mutual understanding and respect, which can be obtained above all through biblical study and fraternal discussion» (Nostra Aetate 4).

The words of the Council´s Declaration reflect the experience of many people, both Jews and Christians. They reflect my personal experience as well, from the very first years of my life in my hometown. I remember, above all, the Wadowice elementary school, where at least a fourth of the pupils in my class were Jewish. I should mention my friendship at school with one of them, Jerzy Kluger, a friendship that has lasted from my school days to the present. I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school. Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews, were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God. Despite their different languages, prayers in the church and in the synagogue were based to a considerable degree on the same texts. […]

This extraordinary people continues to bear signs of its divine election. I said this to an Israeli politician once and he readily agreed, but was quick to add: «If only it could cost less!…» Israel has truly paid a high price for its «election.» Perhaps because of this, Israel has become more similar to the Son of man, who, according to the flesh, was also a son of Israel. […].

Thus the way two great moments of divine election the Old and the New Covenants are drawing closer together.


The Buddhist doctrine of salvation constitutes the central point, or rather the only point, of this system. Nevertheless, both the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusively negative soteriology.

The «enlightenment» experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.

Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the «enlightenment» conveyed by Buddha. Buddhism is in large measure an «atheistic» system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process.


[He begins with this quote from the Second Vatican Council:]

«In Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it through an endless bounty of myths and through penetrating philosophical insight. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition, either by way of the ascetic life, profound meditation, or by taking refuge in God with love and trust. The various schools of Buddhism recognize the radical inadequacy of this malleable world and teach a way by which men, with devout and trusting hearts, can become capable either of reaching a state of perfect liberation, or of attaining, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination» (Nostra Aetate 2).

Further along, the Council remarks that «The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. The Church has a high regard for their conduct and way of life, for those precepts and doctrines which, although differing on many points from that which the Church believes and propounds, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. However, the Church proclaims, and is bound to proclaim that Christ is ´the way and the truth and the life´ [Jn 14:6], in whom men must find the fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled everything to Himself» (Nostr
a Aetate 2).

Animist religions

At this point it would be helpful to recall all the primitive religions, the animistic religions which stress ancestor worship. It seems that those who practice them are particularly close to Christianity, and among them, the Church´s missionaries also find it easier to speak a common language. Is there, perhaps, in this veneration of ancestors a kind of preparation for the Christian faith in the Communion of Saints, in which all believers whether living or dead form a single community, a single body? And faith in the Communion of Saints is, ultimately, faith in Christ, who alone is the source of life and of holiness for all. There is nothing strange, then, that the African and Asian animists would become believers in Christ more easily than followers of the great religions of the Far East.

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