The Second Myth Christians Have about World Religions

Today is part two in our series on Christian myths about world religions by my friend Derek Cooper:

In my recently published book, Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths, I discuss the six major non-Christian “stories” of the world. As I teach these different religions in classrooms and churches and discuss them with friends and neighbors, I have consistently uncovered several myths many Christians believe about each of these religions, including Christianity.

In the first post of this series, I wrote about the false notion that Christianity is the only religion with a Savior. We saw how Hinduism and Buddhism, among others, demonstrate this to be a myth.

In this post, I will discuss another myth many people believe about world religions: Hindus believe in many gods. According to many calculations I have seen, there are 330 million Hindu gods. This clearly gives the impression that Hinduism affirms many deities! Yet the truth is that Hindus are more monistic (believing that all existence comes from one God) than they are pantheistic (believing that there are many gods).

A few years ago, I distinctly remember having a conversation with a group of Hindu believers at a Hindu temple when I asked how many gods there are. Without blinking, they responded in unity: “We believe in one God!”

“Then how,” I rejoined, “are there so many different gods in Hinduism?”

Again in unity, they replied: “There is one supreme God that cannot be fully known or understood. The gods we talk about on earth and give devotion to are simply manifestations of that one supreme God.”

This gets to the core of a common misconception about Hinduism. Although there are countless “gods”—whether Shiva or Vishnu or Ganesha or Parvati or Hanuman—they are commonly understood by Hindus to be representations of (the) God, whom or which we cannot fathom. This is why one Hindu can worship Shiva, while another worships Kali or Ganesha. Although each person seems to be worshiping different gods, the person is really only worshiping the one God who is manifest through Shiva or Kali or whomever.

How do you decide which “god” to worship? It depends. Some people worship specific gods due to the town or village in which they live or due to their family or place within society.

More pragmatically, some worship a particular god because of that god’s association with something specific. I once had a conversation with a Hindu priest about this very topic. He said that perhaps the most popular deity in his temple was the goddess Lakshmi. I asked him why, and he was quick to reply: “Because most of the people in our temple would like more money, so it’s natural to worship her, who has cascades of gold coins rushing down from her hands!”

In the temple he presided over, he said, it is not that some people prefer Shiva or some people prefer Vishnu—two of the most common gods in the Hindu pantheon. Instead, people worship this or that manifestation of god based on present circumstance. Are you about to go on a business trip? Then ask Ganesha for guidance, the divine incarnation of venture and journey. Are you in need of money? Then ask Lakshmi!

Although Hinduism thinks very differently than Christianity in many ways, the two religions align in their common conviction that only one God exists who can be manifested in different ways. While for Christians this means that God reveals himself most fully through Jesus Christ, for Hindus God reveals himself in countless ways through divine incarnations and other living beings.

So, the next time you see a picture or statue of a Hindu god, it’s best to begin thinking of this or that as one representation of (the) God, commonly called Brahman, rather than a distinct entity that is separate from other Hindu gods. For, as we have discussed, the actual picture or statue is the equivalent of a drop of water coming from the one eternal ocean (God).

In the final post of this series, I will discuss one common myth about Islam.

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Derek Cooper PictureDr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical Seminary, where he also serves as the associate director of the Doctor of Ministry program. Derek’s most recent book, which was written for classroom use, church groups, and for lay readers, is titled Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths. His faculty page can be found here.

6 thoughts on “The Second Myth Christians Have about World Religions

  1. Marcia Janson

    Dr. Cooper, thank you for clarifying some misconceptions about other religions. Today’s post was informative and helpful concerning what Hindus believe about their “gods” vis a vis the one true God. Quite recently, I read a book written by a scholar who grew up as a Hindu and he explained some of the differences between Hinduism and Christianity as well. Having read what both of you have written, I was struck by one thing you said:

    “While for Christians this means that God reveals himself most fully through Jesus Christ, for Hindus God reveals himself in countless ways through divine incarnations and other living beings.”

    Maybe I’m understanding you incorrectly, but I don’t think Christianity sees Jesus as the way God reveals himself “most fully”. Jesus himself said that one can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate [himself]. All other ways lead to some form of destruction. Christians believe that Jesus is the only way, the only truth and the only life, not the best among many options. He certainly isn’t one among many manifestations of God – not according to the Bible.

    I felt the need to clarify that. If I’ve misinterpreted what you said, please correct me and forgive my mistake.

    1. Derek

      Hi Marcia,

      Thanks for the note. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. As for your question, I was summarizing a number of biblical passages. For instance, Colossians 1:19 reads, “For God in all his fullness was pleased to dwell in Christ.” Hebrews 1 and John 1 say similar things, namely, that Jesus is the perfect embodiment and fullest revelation of God. That is the classic Christian understanding of incarnation.

      So, my statement in the post stands true: Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God while Hindus believe that Krishna, or some other god, is an incarnation of God.

      To read more about the question you have, I’d encourage you to read chapter 7 in my book.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Marcia Janson

        Hi Derek,

        Thanks for replying and clarifying what you meant. I can get on board with “Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of god and Hindus believe Krishna, or some other god, is an incarnation of God”. The Christian belief about this is a lot more exclusive than what the Hindus believe.

        I haven’t read your book, but will check it out!

  2. Harriet Congdon

    Thank you, Dr. Cooper, for this post. I did not know this about Hinduism.

    “While for Christians this means that God reveals himself most fully through Jesus Christ, for Hindus God reveals himself in countless ways through divine incarnations and other living beings.”

    When I read this, I recalled a time in my study of Genesis 1 in which I pondered God’s command to multiply and fill the earth. It suddenly struck me that perhaps there was another reason to fill the earth than just having babies and filling space.

    It follows the great statement that he created male and female in his image. Up to then my understanding of that verse had evolved from each person imaging God to male and female in relationship imaging God to men and women in community imaging God. With the command to multiply and fill, I began to wonder if this imaging thing was even bigger, even global. This is what I concluded: God is so big that it takes all the people in the world in all its diversity to get even close to imaging God.

    I do not believe people to be little “gods” but when we go into the world and make disciples of Christ who are in loving community and being transformed into the image of Christ, we get closer to more fully expressing the character and life of God to others.

    In that sense perhaps we are in agreement with Hinduism.

  3. JeanELane

    This was very interesting to me. Perhaps Christians are not as far from Hindus as we think. Everyone has a different view of God even though he has shown himself through Jesus Christ. One person may think of God as a fearsome judge, another thinks he is like a kindly grandfather, still another acts as though God is like a watchmaker who wound up his creation but then just steps back and watches it run. Or perhaps another thinks of God as a giant vending machine – pray for whatever you want. These are not my thoughts, but read them in a book by Larry Crabb. I’m not trying to be flip, but I am just pointing out that even we Christians are not on the same page when it comes to our view of God. For who can really understand with our puny minds? And we may have different views based on our life at the time.

    I used to think I wanted to learn what other religions were about. I’ve been too busy learning about God and Jesus Christ through the Bible. But this little series has piqued my interest. I just may have to read your book! Thank you and Ed for this!

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