In his comparative study of major religions, Huston Smith lists some crucial differences among them. Buddhism does not have a concept of the afterlife or God. There is only one other religion that Christianity entirely embraces as divine revelation: Judaism. Christianity views itself as superseding Judaism, Islam views itself as superseding both Judaism and Christianity. Islam considers Moses and Jesus prophets, and Muslims even endorse the concept of Christ’s virgin birth, but they do not regard Christ as the messiah, and they do not believe he was crucified or resurrected into heaven.

In this chapter, I am not trying to prove that Christianity is the best religion, but I am trying to show in what respect Christianity differs from all other religions and is, in this sense, unique. All religions are an attempt to solve the dilemma Pascal outlined in the Pensees. Pascal notes that for thousands of years man employed great intelligence and effort to solve certain basic problems. We want to have peace in the world. We want to live in harmony with one another. We want to raise our children well. We want our lives to matter. Pascal says we have been at this for a very long time, so why haven’t we solved any of these problems? Why does the pursuit of happiness remain largely a pursuit? For leading atheists like Dawkins and Harris, the simple answer is that man is ignorant, and science is the way to dispel that ignorance. The religious person knows that this is a half- truth. Ignorance is only half the problem; the other half is the problem of good and evil. Moreover, science is only one way to achieve knowledge, and it is a certain kind ofknowledge. Science provides no answer to the questions raised above. To reduce all knowledge to scientific knowledge is to condemn man to ignorance about the things that matter most in life.

How, then, can we understand the problem of good and evil that is such an obstacle to our happiness? Pascal noted that man is simultaneously heroic and wretched. He is capable of noble and wonderful thoughts and deeds, yet he also plots and performs horrible actions that are unworthy of even the lowest animals. Indeed, part of man’s greatness is that he can use his faculty of reason to recognize his baseness.

The situation can be described another way. Man has very high standards, but he is constantly falling short of them. He knows what is good, but he will not do it. He is captive to selfish and evil desires, and he gives in to those desires because his will is weak. All religions seem to agree in diagnosing the problem in this manner. And just about every religion agrees that the solution is to give man codes, commandments, and instructions for how to raise himself above his inclinations so that he can come within the reach of God. Religion in general is man’s strategic manual for how to reach God.

But Christianity is not a religion in this sense. Christianity holds that man, no matter how hard he tries, cannot reach God. Man cannot ascend to God’s level because God’s level is too high. Therefore there is only one remedy: God must come down to man’s level. Scandalous though it may seem, God must, quite literally, become man and assume the burden of man’s sins. Christians believe that this was the great sacrifice performed by Christ. If we accept Christ’s sacrifice on the basis of faith, we will inherit God’s gift of salvation. That’s it. That is the essence of Christianity. To some it may seem ridiculously simple. In this simplicity, however, there is considerable depth and richness. We can appreciate all this better if we put it into slow motion, so to speak, and examine each of its central tenets more closely.