“What kind of man is this?” asked Jesus' disciples after seeing the wind and waves obey his voice (Matthew 8:27). That question first uttered on the Sea of Galilee is particularly relevant at Christmas as we reflect on the incarnation of the Son of God. It’s also a question that every religion must answer.
A previous post explained how the title Immanuel (God with us) speaks to the uniqueness of Jesus among the religions of the world. In this post I’ll consider other aspects of how Christ is perceived in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. The identity of the babe in Bethlehem is the dividing line among all belief systems.
While most Hindus attribute divinity to Jesus, they mean something considerably different than what Scripture teaches. The traditional Indian greeting “Namaste” helps us understand this distinction. The greeting is often translated “I bow to the divine in you.” In many forms of Hinduism, everyone has the divine in them. Some Hindus claim Jesus’ divinity was so clearly recognized because Jesus figured out how to empty himself of everything but the divine. This view rejects Jesus’ unique nature and message.
For other Hindus, Jesus may be a guru or teacher who brings the message of the ultimate reality. However, what he means when he says he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6) is simply that we need others to show us the path. It is not a statement about Jesus’ uniqueness, but about humanity’s reliance on those who successfully traverse life and now serve as guides.
Jesus is often portrayed in Buddhism as a teacher like the Buddha. Many see Jesus and Buddha using common images to communicate truth, emphasizing the heart over ritual. Buddhists (especially Mahayana Buddhists) find Jesus’ teachings on compassion, patience, and giving as points of connection.
Most Buddhists, however, have problems with Jesus’ claim to be divine, specifically his claim to be the God of the Old Testament. Buddhists struggle with this claim for two reasons. First, Buddhists steer clear of a divine being in general. Second, the God of the Old Testament is viewed as inconsistent with ideas like compassion and humility. For many Buddhists, Jesus is simply a teacher who can show us how to overcome suffering, but overcoming suffering is still up to us.
Most Muslims view Jesus as an honored prophet, specifically the last prophet of Israel. The Qur’an stresses Jesus’ humanity, while rejecting his divinity. For example, the phrase “son of Mary” occurs only once in the New Testament, but in the Qur’an it appears twenty-three times.
Because the Qur’an focuses on Jesus’ humanity, many Muslims believe Paul changed Christianity. They see Paul’s emphasis on the atonement as unnecessary because Islam rejects original sin. Without original sin, there is no need for a “once for all” sacrifice (Hebrews 10:14). Furthermore, Muslims frequently cite liberal scholarship (which questions Jesus and the four Gospels) as support for their beliefs about Jesus. While Jesus stands as a somewhat controversial figure in Islam, there are those who look to him as a model. They see a life of compassion, tolerance, and humility worth emulating.
In answer to the original question, “What kind of man is this?” the most telling reality is not what Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims accept about Jesus, but rather what they reject. All three religions reject the Bible’s teaching on the incarnation, the truth that God the Son took on flesh and came to dwell among us (John 1:14). Was Jesus a great teacher? Yes. Was he a prophet? Yes. But as Christians we know that he was and is so much more.
Jesus is the God-man and therefore the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). Therefore, if you have the opportunity to interact with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or those from other faiths this Christmas season, look for ways to initiate conversations about who Jesus is. And as you do, lovingly share the good news about the true identity of the child who was born in a manger two thousand years ago.
Stephen Lewis is a Ph.D. student in World Religions at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife attend Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he serves on the small groups team.