The Rise of World Religions | Tomorrow's World

The Rise of World Religions

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Why is the world filled with different religions? What is the source of these divergent views that have persisted down through the ages? The Bible offers an informative perspective that is largely ignored today, providing unique answers to these puzzling questions.

God guides the course of history to accomplish His purposes. "He makes nations great, and destroys them" (Job 12:23). It was amidst the sudden end of the Bronze Age about 1200bc—one of the most cataclysmic turning points in history—that God arranged the emergence of the nation of Israel as a light to the ancient pagan world. However, the Israelites forgot God, ignored His laws and followed other gods (Jeremiah 5:19; 9:13). As a result, between 722–586bc, the  ten northern tribes were carried into captivity by Assyria and the two southern tribes by Babylon—and their "light" went out. Yet, it was no coincidence that the demise of these chosen people occurred during another major turning point in history, one which involved the rise of world religions.

The Axial Age

This turning point occurred during the middle centuries of the first millennium bc (900–200bc) and has been called by some historians "the Axial Age." This "pivotal" period witnessed a remarkable burst of intellectual activity that "became a major source of most of our present day faith traditions" (see "The Axial Age," The Axial Age saw the emergence of noted philosophers in Greece, the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Judaism in Palestine and Confucianism and Daoism in ancient China ("The Axial Age: 5 Fast Facts," These divergent belief systems that "exhibited surprising similarity with respect to their ultimate concerns" about the meaning of life, good and evil, and what happens after death, seemed to arise in separate parts of the world about the same time (ibid.). Noted British author Karen Armstrong describes this period in human history as a time when "spiritual and philosophical geniuses pioneered an entirely new kind of human existence" (The Great Transformation, p. xii).

Historians do not really know what caused the burst of spiritual activity during the Axial Age that gave birth to religious and philosophical systems still dominant in our world today. Karen Armstrong suggests it was a reaction to the unprecedented violence of the age. Others suggest the rise of similar ideas at the same time was due to the spread of commerce, urban life, global trade and increasing affluence (see "Axial Age," Still others conclude: "The closely timed changes in China, India, Palestine and Greece—countries that are widely separated from each other—seems too remarkable to be dismissed as accidental" (ibid.). In fact, some suggest this period—when men attempted to find answers to life's great questions—was actually a time of "divine intervention" and "a period during which God… revealed moral truths to humanity," which "implies a knowing directive force behind the unfolding of history" (ibid.). But, was God actually revealing spiritual truths to the world through these diverse and competing faith traditions?

Divergent Beliefs

A closer look at Axial Age thinkers is informative. Instead of being led by God to discover universal spiritual truths, each sage followed his own mind and path seeking answers to life's great questions (The Great Transformation, p. xvii)—and those answers often contradicted each other (see "Roots of Faith,", April 30, 2006). Confucius collected wise sayings from ancestors and made no mention of godly inspiration. Greek philosophers trusted the rational human mind aided by mystical insights from oracles.

While meditating under a tree, the Buddha concluded that the cause of suffering was human desire and the highest purpose was to extinguish all desire—and that failure to do so would lead to rebirth in a human, angelic or animal state depending on how one had conducted his life. Nothing like this appears in the belief systems of Confucius or the Greeks. Indeed, little religion in the Axial Age—outside of Judaism which emerged at the same time in Palestine—bears any resemblance to biblical monotheism or the meaning of life revealed in the Bible.

Karen Armstrong observes, "most of the Axial Age philosophers had no interest at all in doctrine… What mattered most was not what you believed, but how you behaved… If people behaved with kindness and generosity to their fellows, they could save the world" (The Great Transformation, pp. xiii–xiv). Sadly, the mental endeavors of "spiritual and philosophical geniuses" in the Axial Age left us a heritage of competing worldviews and a confusing array of ideas about the purpose of life. Would this be the work of an all-wise God?

Another Source

Today, many historians and theologians discount the historical relevance of the Bible. At best they see it as one more competitor to Confucius, Buddha and Greek philosophy. Yet, the Scriptures provide a theological perspective on history that is unavailable from any other source. In the Bible, key elements in history are recorded from God's perspective. In stark contrast to the spirit of the Axial Age that looked to human reason, the Bible warns us to "lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5). Scholars of comparative religion may speculate that God was revealing universal truths during the Axial Age to thinkers searching for answers within their own minds, but the Scriptures state that the Word of God is the source of truth (Psalm 119:142, 160; John 17:17).

Furthermore, in light of conflicting ideas about the purpose of life emanating from competing worldviews that arose during the Axial Age, the Bible records the principle that "God is not the author of confusion but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14:33)—which indicates that God is not behind the chaotic divergence of religious and philosophical systems dominating our world today.

The Bible reveals there is another source that is largely ignored today, stating that "the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19), a powerful spirit being called Satan, who is referred to multiple times as the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30) and the "god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4) who has blinded and deceived the peoples of this world (Revelation 12:9). The man-made religions we see around us today are the products of this same world. Israel had been an example to the world (Deuteronomy 4:6). So, looking at the grand sweep of history, it appears that Satan took advantage of the demise of ancient Israel to create and spread alternative religious and philosophical systems, pointing people away from the revealed spiritual truths in the Bible. The rise of world religions and the religious confusion we see today are the lingering gifts of the Axial Age—a major turning point in world history. Yet the Israelites—God's chosen people—would continue to play a central role in history's turning points, as we will see in this column in the next issue of this magazine.


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