“Ask a Priest: Why Have Other Religions Been Around So Long?”

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Q: I am a young man who is interested in developing my faith. I wish nothing more than to be a devout Catholic. However, recently I have been questioning many aspects of Catholic theology and Christology. If the true Christian God has been ever-present in the world, why do other religions such as Hinduism predate Judaism and Christianity? If God is of an all-knowing nature, did he know that man would sin when he initiated creation? If so, why would God create a being that he knew would ultimately fail him? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why was there a requirement for sacrifice? In other words, if Jesus died to pay for our sins, who is getting paid? Do people who are exposed to Christianity and still reject it, go to hell? Do people who don’t encounter the word of God go to hell? Why do these people exist in the first place? – P.V.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good that you are serious about your faith. The faith is a great gift of God that we are called to nourish and deepen constantly. This includes the use of our reason. Let me try to address your questions briefly.

Leaving aside the question of whether Hinduism can be said to predate the religion of the Israelites, we could say that God, in his wisdom, revealed himself progressively.

First, he did it through the world around us. We can see the beauty of his handiwork everywhere. He started to reveal himself as a personal God, at a particular time, somewhere in the Middle East. This is when he chose to “enter history” more obviously, so to speak. It is part of his style.

At any rate, the fact that other religions might have predated Judaism simply shows that man has always had a religious impulse. He has always confronted big questions about the universe and himself and the purpose of it all. The early peoples in South Asia were searching for answers to such questions, and Hinduism, a complex phenomenon, emerged as something of an answer.

Did God know that man would sin? Yes. So why would God create a being that would ultimately reject him?

Here we could say that God gave man free will so that man could love God freely. If a person misuses his free will, that’s his fault, not God’s. Just the fact that God created this person is an objective good; indeed, everything the Almighty creates is good. If God only created people who would love him in return, that would imply that God wouldn’t have respected the free will he wanted to give people. Many people use their free will to accept God.

As to why Jesus had to die on the cross, and if he paid for our sins, “who is getting paid?” – let’s say this:

Sin is an offense against an infinitely good God. We, being finite creatures, couldn’t make up on our own for our sins.

It took God himself to make up for that. Hence, Jesus came and suffered. In one sense, it is fitting that the debt of sin was paid somehow, since God’s glory deserves as much. The alternative — to brush off sin as no big deal — wouldn’t have been just. It certainly wouldn’t have edified us, for we might have gone on sinning and not given it a second thought.

That God himself was willing to pay the price for sin is an extraordinary sign of his love for us. Jesus was willing to pay that price, in order that his heavenly Father would get the honor he deserves. There was a balance to be restored in the universe. It’s a bit mysterious, no doubt.

Will people who are exposed to Christianity and reject it, go to hell? They might, depending on their motives and a lot of other factors, some of which are known to God alone. Let’s not forget Jesus’ warning: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Then there are your last questions: Will people who do not encounter the word of God go to hell? And why do these people exist in the first place?

People who do not encounter the word of God are not damned automatically. The Church teaches that people who have never heard of Christ or the Gospel can reach heaven if they follow their conscience and try to live a good life. You could find this in part No. 16 of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium.

Whole books could be written to respond to your questions. For your own studies you might find it helpful to go through the Youth Catechism, or YouCat; the Catechism of the Catholic Church; or Frank Sheed’s “Theology for Beginners.”

In the meantime, I hope these short answers help point you in the right direction.

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