Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

“Whom Say Men That I, the Son of Man, Am?”

One could hardly avoid the extensive coverage of the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land. Television presented its live reports. Newspapers provided almost minute-by-minute accounts of his activities. Many admired his skillful attempts to reconcile those of different religions.

There was one purpose that his visit to the Holy Land served. The question was raised again: Who is Jesus who was born, suffered, died there and arose again? It was Newsweek, March 27, 2000, that presented the question in its cover story. The article points out that most major world religions recognize Jesus. It reflects first on the position of Judaism. It recounts some of the history of the conflict between Judaism and Christianity. Its attitude is summarized thus:

That Jesus was a Jew would seem to be self-evident from Gospels. But before the first Christian century was out, faith in Jesus as universal Lord and Savior eclipsed his early identity as a Jewish prophet and wonder worker. For long stretches of Western history, Jesus was pictured as a Greek, a Roman, a Dutchman—even, in the Germany of the 1930s, as a blond and burly Aryan made in the image of Nazi anti-Semitism. But for most of Jewish history as well, Jesus was also a deracinated figure: he was the apostate, whose name a pious Jew should never utter.

(But the article concludes: ) Today, the Jewishness of Jesus is no longer a question among scholars. That much of what he taught can be found in the Jewish Scriptures is widely accepted by Christian as well as Jewish students of the Bible. At some seminaries, like Hebrew Union, a course in the New Testament is now required of rabinical candidates. Outside scholarly circles, there is less focus on Jesus, and most Jews will never read the Christian Bible. And, of course, Jews do not accept the Christ of faith. “They see Jesus as an admirable Jew,” says theologian John Cobb, “but they don’t believe that any Jew could be God.”

Another religion, Islam, also recognizes Jesus. He is recognized in their “bible,” the Qur’an. Newsweek presents the following summary of their teachings concerning the Christ:

At the onset of Ramadan last year, Vatican officials sent greetings to the world’s Muslims, inviting them to reflect on Jesus as “a model and permanent message for humanity.” But for Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is the perfect model for humankind and in the Qur’an (in Arabic only), they believe, the very Word of God dwells among us. Even so, Muslims recognize Jesus as a great prophet and revere him as Isa ibn Maryam—Jesus, the son of Mary, the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an. At a time when many Christians deny Jesus’ birth to a virgin, Muslims find the story in the Qur’an and affirm that it is true. “It’s a very strange situation, where Muslims are defending the miraculous birth of Jesus against Western deniers,” says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. “Many Westerners also do not believe that Jesus ascended into heaven. Muslims do.” Indeed, many Muslims see themselves as Christ’s true followers.

What Muslims believe about Jesus comes from the Qur’an—not the New Testament, which they consider tainted by human error. They also draw upon their own oral traditions, called hadith, and on experts’ commentaries. In these sources, Jesus is born of Mary under a palm tree by a direct act of God. From the cradle, the infant Jesus announces that he is God’s prophet, though not God’s son, since Allah is “above having a son” according to the Qur’an.

Nonetheless, the Muslim Jesus enjoys unique spiritual prerogatives that other prophets, including Muhammad, lack. Only Jesus, and his mother were born untouched by Satan. Even Muhammad had to be purified by angels before receiving prophethood. Again, in the Qur’an Muhammad is not presented as a miracle worker, but Jesus miraculously heals the blind, cures lepers and “brings forth the dead by [Allah’s] leave.” In this way Jesus manifests himself as the Messiah, or “the anointed one.” Muslims are not supposed to pray to anyone but Allah. But in popular devotions many ask Jesus or Mary or John the Baptist for favors. (According to one recent estimate, visions of Jesus or Mary have occurred some 70 times in Muslim countries since 1985.)

Although Muhammad supersedes Jesus as the last and greatest of the prophets, he still must die. But in the Qur’an, Jesus does not die, nor is he resurrected. Muslims believe that Jesus asked God to save him from crucifixion, as the Gospels record, and that God answered his prayer by taking him directly up to heaven. “God would not allow one of his prophets to be killed,” says Martin Palmer, director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture in Manchester, England. “If Jesus had been crucified, it would have meant that God had failed his prophet.”

When the end of the world approaches, Muslims believe that Jesus will descend to defeat the antichrist—and, incidentally, to set the record straight. His presence will prove the Crucifixion

was a myth and eventually he will die a natural death. “Jesus will return as a Muslim,” says Nasr, “in the sense that he will unite all believers in total submission to the one God.”

What does Hinduism say?

As Gandhi was, many Hindus are drawn to the figure of Jesus by his compassion and nonviolence—virtues taught in their own sacred Scriptures. But also like Gandhi, Hindus find the notion of a single god unnecessarily restrictive. In their perspective, all human beings are sons of God with the innate ability to become divine themselves. Those Hindus who read the Gospels are drawn to the passage in John in which Jesus proclaims that “the Father and I are one.” This confirms the basic Hindu belief that everyone is capable through rigorous spiritual practice of realizing his or her own universal “god-consciousness.” The great modern Hindu saint Ramakrishna recorded that he meditated on a picture of the Madonna with child and was transported into a state of samadhi, a consciousness in which the divine is all that really exists. For that kind of spiritual experience, appeal to any god will do. “Christ-consciousness, God-consciousness, Krishna-consciousness, Buddha-consciousness—it’s all the same thing,” says Deepak Chopra, an Indian popularizer of Hindu philosophy for New Age Westerners. “Rather than ‘love thy neighbor,’ this consciousness says, ‘You and I are the same beings.'”

And what about Buddhism?

The life stories of Jesus and the Buddha are strikingly similar. Both are conceived without sexual intercourse and born to chaste women. Both leave home for the wilderness where each is tempted by a Satan figure. Both return enlightened, work miracles and challenge the religious establishment by their teachings. Both attract disciples and both are betrayed by one of them. Both preach compassion, unselfishness and altruism and each creates a movement that bears the founder’s name. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk with a large Western following, sees Jesus and Buddha as “brothers” who taught that the highest form of human understanding is “universal love.” But there is at least one unbridgeable difference: a Christian can never become Christ, while the aim of every serious Buddhist is to achieve Buddhahood himself.

After examining the various answers given to the question, “Whom do men say that Jesus is?”, the article comes to the remarkable conclusion:

Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. In Islam, the story of Jesus’ death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus can accept only a Jesus who passes into peaceful samadhi, a yogi who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, “is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus.” There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence—and hence there is no reason to believe in him as the divine Son whom the Father resurrects from the dead.

Even so, there are lessons all believers can savor by observing Jesus in the mirrors of Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. That the image of a benign Jesus has universal appeal should come as no surprise. That most of the world cannot accept the Jesus of the Cross should not surprise, either. Thus the idea that Jesus can serve as a bridge uniting the world’s religions is inviting but may be ultimately impossible. A mystery to Christians themselves, Jesus remains what he has always been, a sign of contradiction

Several remarkable facts stand out. First, most religions are ready to recognize and embrace Jesus, though true Christians do not reciprocate. They cannot acknowledge that any of the “prophets” of other religions present some aspects of truth. Nor can they acknowledge that these represent the true God.

Secondly, one sees the workings of Satan in all of this too. Each of these “religions” will present Jesus in its own way and with its own unique twist. It is deceptive: Which religion truly presents the real Jesus? Satan would deliberately confuse people. In the wilderness temptations, Satan sought to persuade Jesus that if He listened to Satan, He would rule the kingdoms of the earth—without crucifixion. Though Christ rejected these temptations, Satan now will present the Christ as though in fact He did what Satan presented. He has become the good teacher, honored by most religions for His Word and miracles. Satan seems to understand that he cannot deny the existence of Jesus—but he can portray Him contrary to the testimony of Scripture. And many will not know what to believe.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the article emphasizes what is the real truth: only the Jesus of the Bible is presented as the divine Son of God, second person of the Trinity, who must suffer and die on the cross to pay for the sins of His people. All other religions reject that. Only the faithful Christian confesses and rejoices in that fact. There can be no synthesis of religions, no agreement concerning the Christ. Christ asked His disciples, “But whom say ye that I am?” Peter’s answer resounds through the ages and from the lips of every faithful Christian, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And when, shortly after, Christ tells of impending suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter denounced the very thought. Then it was that Christ said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan. Thou art an offence unto me. Thou savorest not the things that be of God but those that be of men.” That judgment of Christ remains emphatically true still today.

Prayer via Internet?

Faithful readers in Colorado continue to provide interesting articles from Denver newspapers. Therefore, although I no longer get those newspapers, the articles of interest still appear in this column.

One of interest and concern appeared in the Rocky Mountain News, March 13, 2000. The article speaks of “Tapping into God—Web sites put prayers into space, e-mail God and split theologians.”

Time was when those who wanted to communicate with a higher power clasped their hands, perhaps kneeling in a hallowed sanctuary, and fervently appealed for divine aid.

Now they can sit at their computer screens, tap out keyboard prayers, and, in at least some cases, genuinely feel they are reaching their Maker online.

…Today, there are e-mail addresses for “God,” and many home pages devoted to God. Also, several Web sites claim they can link the computer user directly to God. Sometimes, this God even responds.

“Simply click on the PRAY button and transmit your prayer to the only known location of GOD,” says one of the most audacious Web sites….

…Newprayer.com makes an even bolder claim—that it can send prayers via a radio transmitter to God’s last known location, a star cluster called M13 believed to be one of the oldest in the universe.

…Crandall Stone, 50, a Cambridge, Massachusetts Engineer and freelance consultant, set up the site last winter after a night of sipping brandy and philosophizing with friends in Vermont. The conversation turned to Big Bang theories of creation, and someone suggested that if everything was in place at the time of the explosion, then God must have been there, too.

“It’s the one place where we could be sure He was,” Stone said. “Then we thought that if we could find that location and had a radio transmitter, we could send a message to God.”

After consulting with NASA scientists, the friends settled on M13 as the likely location. They chipped in about $20,000, and built a radio-wave-transmitting Web site.

The absurdity of this all should be obvious. Again, several things become clear. The Internet and e-mail are inventions which can be used mightily to spread the Word and contact many peoples in many nations. The Internet has been used mightily by Satan to send out all manner of vile corruptions which can flow into the home of the Christian as well.

But Satan would duplicate the “religious.” Not only are false religions presented also via the Internet, but distorted and confusing presentations of “Christianity” appear. All of this is surely designed to confuse and deceive. Scripture speaks of our approach unto God. We need no intermediaries to approach to God, nor do we need modern inventions to convey “prayers” to Him. The everywhere-present God hears the prayers of His people whether uttered in the closet or in the unity of the saints in His house of prayer. But, contact God via the Internet? This makes of prayer to God a matter of joke. Or, worse, it makes one think of God as limited, bound by space, and unhearing unless aided by man’s inventions. It is further reflection of the sin of this age in which we live.