One of the things about Christianity is that it offers hope, both for life here on this planet, but also for what happens when we die. It’s important to point out that it offers something that can legitimately help you in both areas. However, is it unique in its hope, or is just one of many options for people? For this post we’re going to examine a few of the other worldviews out there to see what they offer their adherents as far as hope is concerned. The worldviews in question are: Atheism, Agnosticism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Atheism is often presented as the most brave worldview, when it comes to hope. It scoffs at religions offering an afterlife as simply wishful thinking, whereas they take the world as it really is. For an atheist, the universe is all that there is, and we are tremendously small and insignificant in comparison with all that there is. I have seen this foster humility in atheists, but I have also seen it used as an odd platform for pride in knowing how insignificant we are. However, the point here is whether the worldview offers any hope. If the universe is all there is, we’ve eliminated the category of hope for an afterlife. Regarding the universe, particularly in contrast with religion, Richard Dawkins offers the following observation:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
While this might be looked at as brave, I don’t think it can be confused with anything resembling hope. Especially since “hope” is essentially a word that signifies only an illusion, if ultimate reality is indifference. The best we can do is to have fun on this planet. Now there are plenty of atheists who are not simply hedonists, but attempt to make the world a better place for others, both now and in the future. However, the point is not whether atheists can do good or bad, but whether their worldview offers hope. Without diving too much into ethics, the worldview itself has no preference (remember, the universe is indifferent to us, and good and evil don’t exist) to whether we “do good” in the eyes of others or “do evil”. So essentially, while people may place their hope in certain things most deem good or worthy, according to atheism, it’s ultimately an illusion and useless in any sort of permanent way.
Agnosticism is similar to Atheism, but is a bit more modest about whether their is or is not anything beyond the universe (like God). There are two main branches of Agnosticism, with the more common one being that the individual doesn’t know if God exists or not, and the stronger form being that it is impossible for anybody to know. This puts it in an awkward position in regards to hope. Agnosticism is a great place to start when launching a worldview investigation, but if the answer you currently have is “I don’t know”, then where do you get your hope? You have a lot of the same issues here that Atheism does, only with the addition of uncertainty. In other words, while agnostics can (and do) work towards doing good to others and the world, Agnosticism itself offers nothing by way of hope.
Radically different from the preceding two in almost every way, Hinduism takes a very different approach to hope. The afterlife in Hinduism is called Moksha, but it is a very different thing from, say, Heaven in Christianity. Meditation is a big deal in Hinduism, and it plays a very important role in how someone attains Moksha. There is a concept in Hinduism called Atman is Brahman. Atman is the self, while Brahman is ultimate reality. Through the practice of meditation, one is to ultimately realize that his/her self is not distinct from ultimate reality. There is no more individual, because all is swallowed up into ultimate reality. This would be characterized by perfect mental peace, and a detachment from worldly desires (which are the source of evil). As Christians, we will likely automatically import our understanding into the word “worldly”, but that would be a mistake. Worldly desires, quite literally covers all desires we have on this world.
So to summarize, you must meditate to detach yourself from worldly desires, and once you can do that completely (which, is probably not possible in this life, and will need reincarnation), you will achieve Moksha, which is the reality that you have no individual self, but rather, you are one with ultimate reality. I suppose that will hopefully bring peace, but there will be no “you” to enjoy the peace.
Buddhism and Hinduism are more closely related, and share many of the same concepts, albeit interpreted slightly differently. However, Buddhism has fairly recently been called an atheistic religion, which I suppose makes it related to all the things we’ve talked about previously. Two elements of Buddhism which are pertinent to our discussion are that of karma and reincarnation. Modern people use the word karma to essentially mean “what goes around, comes around” , which is a cheaper version of the Biblical idea of sewing and reaping. However, in Buddhism, karma isn’t exactly a great word. The fact that we are alive today means that we did something in a past life (or an incredible number of past lives) which needs to be atoned for. Basically, we start our lives in debt, and we need to pay off that debt.
There are 6 realms of existence which need to be gone through, and there is such a thing as going backwards. The human realm is the only realm we have access to, and so the other realms are largely speculation, based on how well we lived our current life. The nice thing about the human realm is that it’s the best place to practice the dharma (meditation), as the highest realms are preoccupied with pleasure and the lower realms are preoccupied with pain. The whole point of karma, and the subsequent reincarnation that we need to have to get rid of our bad karma, is to escape the wheel of samsara. Basically, the goal is to be able to escape the cycle of reincarnation. Following the eightfold path is the best way to escape the cycle, and there are various interpretation of what that is in different branches of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama explains it this way:
To attain liberation from samsara one must perfect the three higher trainings: self-discipline, meditative concentration, and the wisdom of emptiness. In a sense, the most important of these is the wisdom of emptiness; for when we understand the empty, non-inherent nature of the self and phenomena, the endless forms of delusion that arise from grasping at true existence are directly eliminated. However, in order for the training in wisdom to mature and become strong, one must first develop meditative concentration; and in order to develop and support concentration one should cultivate the training in self-discipline, which calms the mind and provides an atmosphere conducive to meditation. When one practices all three of these higher trainings and takes them to perfection, liberation from samsara is definite.
If that sounds difficult, and a bit tenuous (perfection?), that’s because it is. Few can achieve any measure of certainty in this life, but the good news (good?) is that the better you are at it in this life, the better start you will have in the next. However, there’s no telling whether the “you” in the next life will do well or not. However, the problems don’t end there. While Hinduism’s version of “salvation” is realizing that you are one with the ultimate reality, Buddhism is much more plain about it. Nirvana is a cessation from being, you are extinguished. It’s popular in the west to call it “enlightenment” or “awakening” but that is simply putting a word with good connotation onto a concept that we are uncomfortable with. If you have escaped the wheel of samsara, then you have managed to perfectly repay your karma, and you have ceased to have desires, and ultimately, you have ceased to be.
It can be tricky navigating this topic though the divisions between Sunni and Shia, but actually the ideas are relatively the same while the names for things or the divisions are different. Following the five pillars is essential to salvation, and there is a large emphasis on working and sincerity. Allah gives grace to his people, but that grace is largely dependent on the actions of the people. There is a particular passage relating specifically to repentance that illustrates this idea clearly.
O ye who believe! Turn to Allah with sincere repentance: In the hope that your Lord will remove from you your ills and admit you to Gardens beneath which Rivers flow – Surah At-Tahrim
One cannot help but wonder the torment that Muslims must go through, trying to determine if their repentance was sincere enough. Islam does have an afterlife for the faithful, in paradise, but the issue is getting there. Have you followed the pillars closely enough? Have you repented sincerely enough? Have you believed truthfully enough? Have you done enough works to get Allah to give you grace? Even the much touted suicide-bombing guarantee isn’t actually a guarantee. Allah always has the prerogative to change his mind, for any reason, and there are actually verses in the Qur’an which contradict other ones, explained by the principle of abrogation. Confusing, isn’t it?
In summary, there is no ultimate guarantee of salvation, and your level of assurance will always have to be gauged by how much you did, and how sincere you were while doing
At first glance, Judaism has a lot going for it in the hope department. They have things to do on this earth, trying to live the life that God has told them to live, and they await a messiah who will usher them into eternity. However, there is one glaring question facing all Jews; was Jesus the messiah? If He was, as Christians believe, then all their waiting is for nothing, and their hope of salvation is as vapor. This article does a good job at showing that Jesus fulfilled a number of the prophecies about the messiah from the Old Testament. It’s an interesting and important thing to think through when it comes to Judaism. If Jesus (or anyone else so far) was not the messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, then they must keep looking, waiting, and hoping. However, if Jesus was the messiah, then they need to follow Him. It all hinges on Jesus, and if you’re tempted to think that Christians and Jews worship the same God, I offer you this webcomic as an easy intro to start thinking through that.
I will let you weigh all that in the scales, but if you ask me, I find the assurance of salvation in Christianity (in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone) to be infinitely more hopeful than the alternatives offered by the world.