What is true religion, according to the Bible?

Q. What does the Bible say about true religion, and how are we to identify it today?

Let me respond to your question about “true religion” in a couple of senses.

In terms of true religion, we might ask when religion is truly what it should be. James, a brother of Jesus who was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem, spoke directly to this question in his New Testament epistle: “Religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, the Bible says that religion is truly what it should be when it leads people to help others who are in need and to live in an honorable and morally pure way. Another way to put this would be to say that people are truly living out their religion when they do these things. The Bible suggests that this is a legitimate expectation that others can have of people who claim to be religious.

We might also ask what makes religion “true” in the sense of genuinely teaching what God is like and how people can know God. You asked specifically what the Bible says about this, and the Bible says that in Jesus, God came to earth and revealed to us what God is like. As the apostle John wrote in his gospel, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [God the Heavenly Father] except through me.” So according to the Bible, true religion is that which points people to Jesus as the way to God.

The Bible indeed identifies Jesus as the way to God, but it also demonstrates that God will take any way necessary to get to us. It illustrates, for example, how Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, an elderly Jewish leader, about being born again, but to a Samaritan woman whom he met at a well about living water. Jesus introduced himself as the light of the world to a blind man he healed. The apostle Paul preached from the Hebrew Scriptures when he spoke to Jews in the synagogues, but he quoted from Greek philosophers when he spoke in the Areopagus in Athens. So we can expect, on the Bible’s own testimony, that God will reach through the whole range of human cultures and languages to help people find the truth that the Bible says is uniquely in Jesus.

Do I not truly believe if I have not done things such as handling deadly snakes or drinking poison unharmed?

Q. I am perplexed by Mark 16:15-18, “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”  Is Jesus saying that in order to have eternal life, we must exhibit the signs he has outlined? While I  believe and have been baptized, I do not speak in tongues and have not cast out demons.  In all fairness, I have not tested the snake theory or tried to drink any deadly thing, but I am not sure that would be wise.

Jesus is not saying that in order to have eternal life, we must exhibit the signs he is describing. He says quite clearly just before outlining these signs, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” (And baptism itself is an expression of saving belief, not a further requirement for salvation.) Then he adds, about those who have shown that they believe this way, that these signs will accompany them. But the signs accompany the whole community of believers, so it is not the case that each individual believer needs to have every sign in order to be sure that they are saved. So, put that snake back in its cage, put down that deadly drink, and rest assured in your salvation!

Why did Jesus explain his parables only to his disciples and not to others who may have had open hearts?

Q. In response to a previous question, you said, “Parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart. They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.”

The disciples’ hearts were obviously open to Jesus’ teachings, and Jesus definitely knew that, and he explained the parables to them in private. However, there could also have been people in the crowd who had open hearts, i.e. their state of mind was open, and they were willing to listen. Nevertheless, because they were not Jesus’ disciples, they didn’t have the chance to hear Jesus’ elaboration.

I have been thinking about this for a while now … is it because Jesus “had plans” for those non-disciples to understand the same truth some other time via some other means? Would appreciate if you could help me understand. Thanks.

Let me say two things in response to your question.

First, when we see the expression “the disciples,” we shouldn’t necessarily understand that to mean only the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose to be apostles. That is the meaning in some places in the gospels, but in other places the word “disciples” refers to anyone who was following Jesus closely in order to understand his message and live by it. For example, when Luke introduces what is known as the Sermon on the Plain, he says, “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” So Luke distinguishes between “his disciples” and the others who came to hear on this occasion, and the disciples were a “large crowd.”

The word “disciples” also means more than just the twelve apostles in the episode you are asking about, in which Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower. Matthew says that after Jesus told this parable, “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?'” Luke says similarly, “His disciples asked him what this parable meant.” But Mark elaborates a bit more about who these “disciples” were: “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.” So I think we should understand that in this case, as likely in other cases, anyone with an open heart could remain after the teaching and listen in on the explanation.

The second thing I would say in response to your question is that the people who heard these explanations and elaborations from Jesus did not treat them as something they were supposed to keep to themselves. They shared them with others. That is how the explanations got to be included in the gospels: They became part of the oral tradition that was handed down to later generations from those who saw and heard Jesus, which provided the content of the gospels. And I would say that the “disciples” (probably a large number) who heard these explanations got the impression from Jesus himself that they were supposed to share them with anyone who had an open heart and mind.

So even in Jesus’ own time, the explanations would have fanned out by word of mouth into the crowds for open-hearted people to hear, and down through the years they would have circulated ever more widely. Now that they are part of the Bible, they have gone around the world. So Jesus himself set in motion the process that has made these explanations available to anyone, anywhere who truly wants to understand and obey.

Is God’s “wrath” toward people who reject Jesus consistent with God’s love?

Q. It says in the Gospel of John, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” Some argue that this is not consistent with the message of love that God has has toward all his creation.

Actually, it is rejecting Jesus that is not consistent with God’s message of love for his whole creation. Jesus came bringing a message of love and reconciliation between people and between people and God. To reject that message is to go contrary to God’s intentions as announced by his Son Jesus.

How should God respond to people who do that? The term “wrath” certainly does indicate divine displeasure and even anger. We can understand why God would feel that way towards people who do not want love and reconciliation. But “wrath” also refers to God enforcing the consequences of the choices that people make. If people persist in rejecting Jesus and his message, then we can see how God would ultimately give them what they are insisting on and leave them in a place of alienation from God and others. This is not inconsistent with God’s purposes. It is God upholding his purposes by making sure that those who reject them do not interfere with them.

But I think we always need to keep in mind that in such cases, the choice to reject Jesus and remain alienated from God and others is one that people make themselves. The Bible tells us that God is very patient with people because he does not want anyone to perish. Instead, he wants everyone to come to repentance.

So we should not read the statement you’re asking about and think that it means God is just waiting for people to say one thing against Jesus so that he can pour out his wrath on them. God gives people every opportunity, right up to the last moment, to believe in Jesus rather than reject him. (Consider, for example, how God used Saul of Tarsus, a former bitter enemy of Jesus and his followers, to spread the message of Jesus as the apostle Paul.) So I would say that everything in the statement you’re asking about depicts God upholding his loving purposes, not working against them.

Was Jesus born again?

Q. How would you respond to someone who asked whether Jesus was born again? If he wasn’t, what about his statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”?

(What does it mean to be born again? And what is “circumcision of the heart,” which Paul speaks of in Romans? How would you respond to someone who asked whether Jesus was circumcised of the heart?)

If we think of being “born again” as having a certain experience, then Jesus was not “born again” in that sense, but that is only because he did not need to have that experience. We should think instead of being “born again” as entering into a certain kind of relationship with God, and Jesus was always in that kind of relationship with God throughout his life.

Specifically, when people realize that they have sinned against God and that this has made them alienated from God, and when they are sorry for their sins and ask forgiveness, God not only forgives them but also gives them a new life. The Holy Spirit comes to live inside of them and gives them the power to resist sin and live in the way that God wants. They are no longer in a situation where they are powerless to keep from sinning. (See this post for a fuller discussion.) This is what it means to be “born again.”

But Jesus did not sin, and he was not alienated from God, so he did not have to go through that process in order to be in the kind of relationship with God that results from the process. So he was not “born again” in the sense of the process, but he was “born again” in the sense of the result. In addition, that Greek expression can also be translated “born from above” (perhaps it is even meant to have both meanings). And Jesus certainly was “born from above.” In a mysterious way that we do not understand, which the Bible itself describes in figurative language, Jesus’ mother Mary was enable to conceive as a virgin and the true father of Jesus was God. So Jesus was indeed “born from above,” and the Greek phrase that is also translated “born again” definitely applies to him.

When Paul speaks in Romans of “circumcision of the heart,” he is describing the same process and result that Jesus was describing when he spoke of being “born again” or “born from above.” Paul says that “circumcision of the heart” is “by the Spirit, not by the written code.” In other words, it is not physical circumcision as prescribed by the law of Moses. It is something that the Holy Spirit brings about inside of us. Just as physical circumcision indicated membership in the covenant community under the law of Moses, so this spiritual circumcision shows that a person belongs to the new covenant community that God inaugurated with the coming of Jesus.

In other words, a person who has been “born again” has also experienced “circumcision of the heart.” So the same things I said about Jesus in the first case would apply in the second case. He was always in the relationship with God that would result from the process that can be described with either phrase.

How do Christian people trace their heritage from Abraham?

Q. Hello, thanks for this blog, I am still confused about the genealogy in the Bible,
we know that Jewish people are linked with Judah (Yahuda)
and Israelis (the twelve sons) are linked with Israel (Jacob)
and Ishmaelites (the Arabs) linked with Ishmael (Ismail)
all those are the sons of Abraham biologically
How do Christian people link themselves with the Abrahamic heritage?

Thank you for your question. Christians do not trace their lineage from Abraham through physical descent, but rather through faith. As the New Testament says, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.'” Paul says a little bit later in that letter, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Paul says similarly in his letter to the Romans that Abraham is “the ancestor of all who … follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had.”

John the Baptist said similarly that what mattered was faith, expressed through repentance and confession. He told some people who thought they didn’t need to be baptized, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, it was not physical descent that mattered, but genuine faith.

So Christians understand from the New Testament that if they trust in God for forgiveness and new life, they are spiritual descendants of Abraham, who set the example of that kind of trust in God.

What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?

Q. The Bible says no one can get to the Father except through the Son. Does this mean if someone living say in some remote place in the Himalayas, never met missionaries; dies they will be sent to hell?

The possibility you’re asking about—that someone who would have received Christ if they had heard the good news might be lost if they never heard—underscores the importance of making sure that everyone in the world is able to hear about Christ, in terms and language that they can understand. We need to make every effort towards that end.

But the possibility you’re asking about also raises questions about the character of God. Would it really be fair for God to condemn someone to hell simply because they did not get a chance to hear about Christ, if they would have accepted him if they had gotten the chance? Knowing what we do about the character God from the Bible, it is hard to believe that this would be the case. The Bible itself says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the answer is, of course he will.

So while the Bible does not give us a direct answer to your question, my personal feeling is that in a case such as you describe, God would judge a person based on what they had done with the light they had. The apostle Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that every person has at least two witnesses to the reality and goodness of God: nature and conscience. He says about nature, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” And about conscience he says, “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

This does not mean, however, that anyone could follow their conscience and the light of nature sufficiently to earn God’s approval and acceptance. Rather, nature and conscience would lead them to recognize that they could never be good enough to do that, and that they needed to trust in God ‘s love and forgiveness as the basis of their acceptance.

This also does not mean that they would be saved by any other means than the death of Jesus Christ for them on the cross. Never having heard the gospel, they would not realize in this life that this was the expression of God’s love and the basis for God’s forgiveness that saved them, but nevertheless it would be. And they would make the glorious discovery, once they did come into the presence of God, whom they had dimly but genuinely trusted for salvation, that God had sent his own Son to be their Savior and the sacrifice for their sin.

Let me say again that this is my own personal belief about something that the Bible does not spell out for us clearly. What the Bible does spell out clearly is the loving, forgiving, and just character of God, and I have tried to suggest something that would be consistent with that. Nevertheless, it would likely be difficult for someone to do even what I have tentatively described, and so, as I said earlier, we need to make every effort to reach everyone in the world with the good news about Jesus.

What is the Abrahamic covenant from Genesis?

Q. What is the Abrahamic covenant mentioned in Genesis 17:7, 17:13 and 17:19? What aspect of the Abrahamic covenant is everlasting? Why don’t Christians practice circumcision if the Abrahamic covenant is everlasting?

Here’s what I say about that passage in my study guide to Genesis. I believe these observations address your concerns. Basically, God is not making a new covenant with Abraham here. Rather, God is ratifying the covenant that he made with him earlier. (You can read or download the whole study guide for free at this link.)


God speaks to Abram to renew and extend his covenant with him. God introduces himself by a new name, El Shaddai (“God Almighty”). This name expresses his strength and power to fulfill his promises.

God also gives Abram and Sarai new names. Abram means “exalted father.” God changes this to Abraham, “father of a multitude,” to express his purpose to make Abraham “very fruitful,” the “father of many nations.” And God changes the name Sarai to Sarah, a more recognizable form of the word meaning “princess,” since “kings of peoples will come from her.” Through these new names, God expresses and guarantees the purposes that he will fulfill in their lives. The names are, in effect, miniature covenant vows.

In addition to guaranteeing his covenant with new names, God also guarantees it with a sign, just as he gave the sign of the rainbow for his covenant with Noah. God uses the sign of circumcision to guarantee his covenant with Abraham, to symbolize how this covenant will not be just with Abraham, but also with his son and with all of their descendants, perpetually. [That is what “everlasting” means here.] The sign would be replicated in the bodies of all future generations: “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.”

Descendants of Abraham who practiced circumcision were showing that they belonged to the community that was created by God’s covenant with their ancestor. But a new kind of community has now been created by God’s covenant with Jesus. It has a new sign of its own. Baptism is the sign of belonging to the community of Jesus’ followers.

Baptism symbolizes God’s covenant obligations to us by illustrating his promise to raise us from the dead, both physically (when we die) and spiritually (as we experience new life in Christ). Baptism symbolizes our covenant obligations to God by illustrating the way followers of Jesus are supposed to die to sin and rise to a new life of faith and obedience.

Was Adam immortal on earth before the Fall? After death, in light of the sacrifice?

Q. I have a couple of questions to ask, if I may. (1) If, pre-Fall, Adam had say fallen from a tree he was climbing, would he have bounced, or might he have been killed or badly injured? After all, gravity and the earth’s hardness then were presumably as now. (2) Does Genesis 3 (in the original Hebrew) in any way indicate that post-mortem eternal life is being offered to Adam and Eve through the institution of sacrifice to cover sins? Thank you for any light on this.

(1) In response to you first question, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs in which I take up the very thing that you are wondering about: “Do we suppose that if Adam, when innocent, had fallen forty feet out of tree and broken his neck, he would not have died?” This is the post:

44 Was there death before the fall of humanity? (Part 1)

However, I would caution you, and ask you to respect the fact, that as you can see, not only is this post the first half of a two-part discussion, both parts will also only make sense within the context of this entire blog, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, of which they are posts 44 and 45 of a total of 53. So you may also wish to read the introduction to the blog, at least, which will explain the background to the entire blog and help you see where I’m coming from as I offer the observations in this post.

(2) In response to your second question, I can assure you that there is nothing latent in the original Hebrew that does not come out in the typical English translation of the account of the fall in Genesis. The statements that might point to a substitutionary sacrificial atonement are straightforward in Hebrew, and they come out that way in English. Perhaps most relevantly, “The Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them,” and then also, spoken to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.”

The first statement indicates only by implication that animals at least died, and more likely were sacrificed, to provide the “garments of skins” with which God “clothed” the man and woman. I would personally say that we can only appreciate the implications of this action by situating it in light of the Scriptures as a whole, where we learn about the function of animal sacrifices in God’s redemptive purposes and the notion of “clothing” someone, giving them garments or new garments, as a metaphor for salvation. (For example, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”)

Similarly it is only in the context of the Scriptures as a whole that we can appreciate the meaning of the statement “he will bruise your head,” that is, the seed of the woman will bruise the head of the serpent. If Keith Green could sing in his song “The Victor,” “See Him bruise the serpent’s head,
the prisoners of hell he’s redeeming, all the power of death is dead,” this is only because centuries of Scriptural development, interpretation, and understanding have enabled us to connect this promise with the work of Christ on the cross.

Nevertheless, I would commend you for wanting to go deeper into the biblical text to get the answer to your questions. In this case, it is just a matter of going broader rather than deeper, of catching the sweep of the whole story of Scripture, rather than understanding a specific Hebrew expression. So … read on!

How can heaven be perfect if my loved ones aren’t there?

Q. I keep worrying that I committed the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because one time I was mad and said that I didn’t want to go to heaven if my family wasn’t there. I didn’t really mean it. Of course I want salvation and to go to heaven. Is this the unpardonable sin? Also how do I reconcile the fact that heaven is supposed to be perfect if my loved ones who aren’t saved won’t be there?

Thank you for your thoughtful questions. Regarding your first one, I would invite you to read this post:

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

The bottom line in that post is basically that if you are concerned that you have committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t, because you are still under conviction of sin and thus under the recognizable influence of the Holy Spirit. That means you are not beyond salvation. If you actually had committed the unpardonable sin, you would be indifferent to the Spirit’s influence, and so you wouldn’t be concerned about whether you had committed it.

Regarding your second question, I would say first, on the authority of the word of God, that God is “not willing for anyone to perish, but wants everyone to come to repentance.” So if anyone is not in heaven, that will not be because God did not want them there. Rather, it will be because God gave them a choice and is respecting their choice.

A person might consciously and deliberately choose their own way rather than God’s way, even if that meant not being in heaven (since heaven, by definition, is the place where God’s will is done joyfully and without resistance).

In other words, there actually are people who will want to be in hell if that means they can maintain self-determination rather than obeying God.  They will take the same attitude as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”  To give another example, in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character, Stephen Dedalus, after explaining that he has “lost the faith,” continues:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.  … I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

William Ernest Henley wrote similarly at the end of his poem Invictus, using biblical imagery to show that he was referring to a choice of hell as a way of maintaining self-determination:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

So there are some people who will chose self-determination above God’s gracious offer of salvation, because they want to run their own lives, no matter where that leads. (These are all examples from literature, but they capture an attitude that can be found in life as well.) And because God has given human beings genuine freedom to choose for or against him—which is the only basis on which we can truly love him—God will respect those choices.

But I hope and pray that those people do not include your family members. I hope that instead your concern for them—which certainly reflects God’s concern for them—will lead you to pray for them and demonstrate your faith to them in loving ways, and that those influences, among others, will one day lead them to choose to love and serve God as you have.