Religion: What Is It, Where Did It Come from and How Does the Bible View It?by Simon Turpin on May 3, 2017
It is particularly difficult to define religion since there is no one universally accepted definition. The Oxford English dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”1 Under this definition, Buddhism and atheism would not be viewed as religions. Nevertheless, the dictionary also defines religion as “a particular system of faith and worship” and “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.” Under this definition of religion, however, atheism is religious. Many atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) spend much of their time railing against the Creator that they believe doesn’t exist, and hold their cause with great devotion and faith. Furthermore, atheists themselves have a worldview based upon certain beliefs, such as the belief that the universe, including life, came about by natural processes. This is a belief based upon faith-blind faith!
A more biblical view of the definition is “a system of belief that is a person’s ultimate standard for reality—their worldview.”
While there may be a number of ways to define religion, I believe a more biblical view of the definition is “a system of belief that is a person’s ultimate standard for reality—their worldview.” A worldview is basically a perspective by which someone sees and interprets the world around them. One is revealed in God’s Word and the other is based upon man’s opinion in its many variations. For example, in his own lifetime, Jesus contrasted those who lived their lives based upon the traditions of men over against the Word of God (Mark 7:1–13).
Because God has clearly revealed himself in creation, religion is first of all a response to God’s revelation—either in faith or rebellion. It is either based on God’s Word or man’s word. God’s image bearers have suppressed his revelation in creation; therefore, other religions are an idolatrous response to God’s revelation, which are subversively fulfilled in the gospel.
As we share the gospel with those from other religions, it is important to remember that they are made in the image of God and therefore have dignity and value. So we should reach out to them not in fear or hate but with love and grace, since this is what we have been shown by our Savior (Titus 3:5).
Where Does Religion Come From?
You may have heard the saying “God didn’t invent man, man invented God.” Evolutionists often argue that religion is part of an evolutionary accident. Richard Dawkins states this in his book The God Delusion:
religious behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful.2
For the evolutionist, religion evolved in the mind of man early on in human history. It went through a developmental process, beginning in its most simple form before becoming more developed: animism, polytheism, henotheism, and then monotheism emerged.3 The obvious problem with this suggestion is its basis in an evolutionary view of history. The Bible, however, reverses this idea and gives us the true explanation of how religion originated.
If we want to know the meaning of anything, we have to understand its origin. Genesis is often known as the book of beginnings. It is in these pages that we learn the origin of time, space, matter, mankind, marriage, sin, civilization, and much more. But it also speaks about the origin of religion and its diversity.
The origin of religion began in the garden when God clearly revealed himself to Adam. However, Adam and Eve rejected that revelation and instead chose to believe a falsehood about him. Their sin was that they wanted to be gods themselves (Genesis 3:4–5). In this act of disobedience, Adam believed Satan and adopted his own worldview over God’s worldview. Adam’s disobedience had consequences for the rest of his descendants since it affected how they viewed God and creation (Romans 1:21, 28). The event of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 was a triggering point to explain the explosive diversity of religion, not through developmental stages but through an act of rebellion and separation.
The event of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 was a triggering point to explain the explosive diversity of religion.
While the account of the Tower of Babel has to do with the origin of different people groups, it also gives us a historical and theological account of the modern origin of false religion. The events at Babel occur roughly 100 years after the global flood in Genesis 6–8. At the beginning of the Babel account, the whole earth had one language and one speech (Genesis 11:1), which meant that mankind was united in both its language and habitation. After the people journeyed from the east, they settled on a plain in the land of Shinar, the region of Babylon.
It is here that they decide to build “a city and a tower whose top is in the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). But why did the people choose to build a tower, and what was the tower and its purpose? The text gives two reasons for the people’s desire to build the tower: to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered (Genesis 11:4). The builders’ desire to make a “name” for themselves also reveals mankind’s common ideological purpose: usurping God.
The building of the city and tower was also rebellion against God as the people were resisting His command to “increase” and “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1, cf.1:28). Mankind’s disobedience by staying in one place rather than spreading out across the earth led to their devolution into demonically influenced idolatry (see Deuteronomy 32:8, 16–17, 21; c.f. 1 Corinthians 10:19-20).
At the Tower of Babel, the concept of the unity and absoluteness of God had begun to be lost. When the people were dispersed at Babel, they would have taken with them a hybrid truth of the living God mixed with the twisted and distorted truth of that revelation about him. The loss of a unified language led to the loss of unified religion; every people and nation now deviated to worship its own national god. At Babel monotheism degenerated into animism, sorcery, magic, and polytheism—though some still retained it (e.g., Melchizedek, Genesis 14, Noah—who lived for another 350 years or so after the flood). The pure revelation of God had been generally lost, corrupted, and perverted by sin, leading to religious idolatry and giving rise to religious pluralism (Joshua 24:2).
How Does the Bible View Other Religions?
This is an important question, since our answer will determine how we engage other religions with the gospel. We need to keep in mind the theological reality that God is our Creator, and man is in rebellion against him. The Apostle Paul tells us:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18–20)
From Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:18–20, we can understand that religious consciousness is a product of two things: God’s revelation and suppression of that revelation. Because God has clearly revealed himself in creation, there is no one excused from believing in His existence. However, because of mankind’s fallen nature, the truth of God’s revelation is suppressed. The suppression of that revelation ultimately expresses itself in idolatry. Idolatry is not just the carving of something out of wood or stone, but it is also the pursuit of anything in this world other than the glory of the one true and living God (see Philippians 3:19; Colossians 3:5).
The Bible views the pagan worship of idols as a grave error and foolish vanity (Acts 14:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10; 1 John 5:21). The Bible describes idolatry in such terms because it declares that there is only one God and beside him there is no other god; therefore it is foolish to trust in other deities (Isaiah 43:11, 44:6, 45:5). More to the point, there are no other gods because the attribute that separates God from all other so-called deities is that of creating (Isaiah 40:28, 42:5). Idols are counterfeit gods that are parasitic on the truth.
In an attempt to capture the essence human fallenness, the reformer John Calvin said that man, in his mind, is a “maker of idols.”4 Idolatry is exchanging the glory of God for worship of the creature. As theologian D.A. Carson says, “[It is] the de-godding of God.”5 In exchanging the truth of God’s revelation for a lie, that revelation is transformed into idolatry; religion, therefore, is a subjective response to objective divine revelation which only has negative consequences: sin → suppression of the truth → exchange for idolatry → darkness → guilt = God’s wrath (Romans 1:18–32).
The origin of idolatry then begins in the human mind. We must remember that even as Christians, we still have the capacity to commit idolatry if we do not allow Scripture to renew our minds (Romans 12:2).
The gospel is subversive because it stands as the contradiction and confrontation to all manifestations of world religions.
Because the gods of the nations are idols (Jeremiah 10:1–11; Acts 19:26) only God’s special revelation in the gospel can turn people from their idolatry to trust in the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:5, 9). The gospel, therefore, can be seen as subversively fulfilling world religions. The gospel is subversive because it stands as the contradiction and confrontation to all manifestations of world religions. It makes a call for repentance from idolatry to the true and living God (Acts 17:30, 14:15). But it is also the fulfilment of what these false religions seek. Since idols are counterfeits of the one true God, the philosophical, ethical, and epistemological questions that other religions ask (but ultimately cannot answer) are answered by the triune God alone.6
World religions are a rebellious, idolatrous response to God’s revelation of himself in creation. The good news is that God redeems people from false religions and unites them into one people of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.