In some cultures and traditions questions about issues of faith are discouraged or even forbidden. While we should respect the culture of our families, we cannot deny what we do or don’t believe. Jesus welcomed questions, and even asked religious leaders questions himself. Here are some of the questions we’ve been asked:
Who is Jesus?
There is no doubt that Jesus actually lived. Josephus, a Jewish historian born in AD37, wrote about him as did other Roman historians of time. But the main source of information is found in the New Testament section of the Bible, especially the four accounts of Jesus’ life written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are called the Gospels or Injil and were based on the experiences and recollections of Jesus’ closest followers (his disciples).
The heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus is not just a great teacher or prophet, but that he is God Himself. Those who truly follow Jesus (rather than just call themselves ‘Christian’) believe that when he was conceived Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin but God miraculously put the human seed inside her. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus was both fully human and fully God and so he is called the ‘Son of God’.
But God coming down to human level may seem shocking or even impossible. Why would he choose to give up a life in Heaven and become a human?
Followers of Jesus believe that he did this for three main reasons:
He showed what God is like in a way people can understand
He suffered a sacrificial death which was the only way to rescue people from eternal death so they could go to Heaven
He understands human weaknesses and so can help people who are tempted to do wrong
Jesus’ message was authenticated by his many healing miracles as well as the power of his preaching. He spent much of his time with the poor, the marginalised, and the outcast but he also ate with the rich and educated. He mixed with young and old, men and women, rich and poor, religious and ‘sinners’.
Jesus’ actions and teaching threatened the Jewish religious leaders of his day, especially as he often said that they were false guides and hypocrites. Eventually they brought charges of blasphemy against him and, though he was innocent, he was sentenced to death. At that time the Romans occupied Israel and so the Jewish leaders persuaded Pontius Pilate – the Roman governor – to go along with their plan and Jesus was executed by crucifixion. After he had died, his body was placed in a cave tomb belonging to one of his followers and a huge rock was rolled across the entrance.
Many people saw this as the end of Jesus but, three days later, some of his women followers went to embalm the body with spices and they found the tomb open and empty. They saw angels who told them that Jesus had been raised to life again and later that morning Jesus appeared to one of them, Mary Magdalene (John 20: 10-18). In the days that followed Jesus appeared to his disciples many times – in a locked room, walking home one evening and whilst they were out fishing. On one occasion he appeared to 500 people at once. After six weeks they witnessed him ascending into heaven and returning to be with God. Before he left Jesus had told his followers to tell everyone they could about him – a command that Christians continue to obey.
Christians believe that, one day, Jesus will return to the earth and that this will signal the final judgement or ‘Armageddon’
Why is Jesus’ death so important?
If you looked at the question Who is Jesus? you read about Jesus’ life and work and about his death and resurrection from the dead. But why did he die? Was it a political murder? Or an example of the inevitable tragedy when good confronts evil? How could God have let his son be crucified? Why is his death so important?
Jesus’ death points to the central problem of human existence. The Bible says that God created humanity in his own image, perfect and sinless. But men and women turned away from God and began to live life for their own selfish ends (called ‘sin’). God is a holy and just God who cannot allow sin in his sight and so the bad news is that sin cuts people off from God. He has said that the penalty of sin is death. But God is also God of love and he longs to draw people back to himself. So what could satisfy both God’s love and his absolute justice?
In the Old Testament scriptures (the part of the Bible written before Jesus came to earth) God prescribed the sacrifice of animals to deal with sin – a practice that has remarkable parallels in Hindu scriptures and other religious writings. But the sacrifice of animals cannot actually deal with human sin. It is only symbolic, reminding one of the seriousness of sin.
The only way to deal with sin would for for a sinless person to die and so pay the ultimate penalty for all mankind. But there are no sinless human beings! And so Jesus, God’s son, became human in order to die on our behalf. His cry of desolation on the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?‘ reflected his truly awful experience of being cut off from God because of human sin. He was bearing the sins of everyone past and present.
In all cultures, martyrs are given the highest regard, like the saintly Guru Tegh Bahadur or the leader Ali Hussain. We recognise that they died for a cause. Many gave their lives for others and their example lives on and inspires others.
In the classic Indian Western Shalay the two heroes are fighting against a murderous gang that has terrorised the whole region. At the climax Ajay tells his friend Veeru to go back for reinforcements. Veeru refuses but Ajay insists. Ajay is killed but his death gives time for reinforcements to arrive and the village is saved.
The good news is that Jesus’ death fulfilled and went beyond all these pictures of sacrifice. It was the voluntary, willing sacrifice of a totally innocent human being in place of others. He sacrificed his life not just for his friends but also for his enemies – people who had turned against God and deserved judgement. His death was unique.
But there is more good news – Jesus did not stay dead but was resurrected three days later! The punishment for sin could not hold him because he was sinless. His resurrection was a victory over evil and a demonstration that his sacrifice was effective. This means that those who choose to follow Jesus – who admit that they are sinners and ask for God’s forgiveness – are no longer cut off from God and can experience a life in relationship with him.
And more than that, Christians believe that Jesus didn’t die again as an old man but, six weeks after his crucifixion, he ascended to heaven to be with God. That is why Christians say that Jesus is alive today and want to worship him and pray to him.
Jesus has not only given an example and direction through his life and teaching, but he died to bring mankind back into relationship with God and lives today. That really is good news.
Adapted from Looking for Directions pages 72-75
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?
If Jesus truly came into the world to die for humankind, then his great sacrifice demands a response. At the very least people should want to treasure and honour his memory. But he not only died on a cross but also rose again and returned to Heaven to be with God. Thus he is alive today. Followers of Jesus respond to this by committing themselves to live for him, acknowledging him as Lord and living in the way that he wants. That means submitting decisions, plans and ambitions to him. It mean setting ethical values and moral standards according to his way. It means reading the Bible, praying to him and worshipping him.
Sadly many South Asians associate Christians and Christianity with the permissive behaviour they see in the media and in Western society in general. At best they might see it as a series of traditions practised by well-meaning do-gooders. At worst it is linked with the perceived lack of values in Western society or with an ideology bent on domination. Others point to the behaviour of Christians in the past, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the political power of the Catholic Church, or apparently ‘forced’ conversions in South America or India. None of this really represents Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus describes himself as standing at the door of everyone’s life: ‘I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me’ (Revelation 3:20) These words are illustrated in a famous picture in St Paul’s Cathedral in London: The Light of the World by Holman Hunt. Jesus stands outside the door. Thorns and creepers show that it has not been opened for a long time – and there is no handle on the outside. Each individual has to open the door from the inside and let Jesus in.
Many people believe that everyone carries a load of karma, the sum of the good and bad deeds they have committed during their life. Others are concerned that God will weigh their good and bad deeds and judge them accordingly. But the Bible teaches that if someone chooses to let Jesus into their life they will be forgiven for their past wrongdoing, clearing their karma and enabling them to be acceptable to God. Sometimes they might do wrong but God forgives them, not for any merit they have but because of Jesus’ death in their place.
When someone is forgiven by God he promises that he will enter their life by his Holy Spirit. As he does this, he changes attitudes and habits. He guides them and teaches them how to live as God wants. One of his followers, a man called Paul, wrote a letter to Christians living in Galatia and he said this: But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
But following Jesus is not just about how one lives on earth. Jesus’ followers also have peace about dying and about the prospect of being judged by God, because they know that God has dealt with their wrongdoing. They no longer rely on their own efforts to reach God, but depend on God’s mercy. Jesus is God’s guarantee that all who trust in him will one day live with him forever.
How do I begin to follow Jesus?
If you are thinking about becoming a follower of Jesus or want to find out more about him then speaking to a follower that you already know or visiting a church would be a good way to start. You might like to buy the booklet Jesus through Asian Eyes or see if one of the discussion-based courses Discovering Jesus through Asian Eyes is happening close to where you live. There are also some video faith stories on this website which might interest you.
If you wish to explore more on your own then get hold of a Bible and begin by reading about the life of Jesus – look at the Gospels and start by reading Mark then John, Luke and Matthew. The word Gospel means good news. You can also talk to God through prayer and ask him to show you how he wants you to respond and how you can follow his ways. If you would like South Asian Concern to put you in touch with a follower of Jesus who can answer your questions then please contact us.
Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11.28-29)
Adapted from Looking for Directions pages 76-78
What do Jesus’ followers believe about life after death?
Most people fear dying and the unknown future beyond death. When a loved one dies they wonder where they have gone and what has happened to them.
Some think that they will return in another life, possibly even as an animal. Others talk about the ‘terror of the grave’, where the grave closes in to torment them for their sins (wrong doings) until the Day of Judgement. They believe that on that day their good and bad deeds will be weighed against each other to decide whether they enjoy the pleasures of Paradise or suffer in the fires of Hell.
Others think that there is no life beyond death at all, and the biggest question about the grave is ‘What is the point of anything, if I will die anyway?’
But most people believe that good is rewarded and evil is punished. Even then they are not quite sure whether they have been good enough.
It is different for followers of Jesus. They believe that Jesus Christ has died and returned from the grave. He has gone ahead and knows what death holds. He knows the way to Heaven and has prepared a place there for those who follow Him. Jesus talked about this to his disciples and said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)
Jesus describes Heaven as a mansion with many rooms. What do you imagine Heaven is like? One of Jesus’ disciples – a man called John – had a vision of heaven and the end times. He wrote down what he saw using picture language and imagery. His writings now make up the last book of the Bible and this is part of what he said.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:1-4)
A few paragraphs further on John says that ‘Nothing impure will ever enter it” If Heaven is a perfect place, how could anyone go there without spoiling it? They would bring into it all the issues, problems and sins that they face now. This is why Christians teach about the need for God’s forgiveness so that people can be put right with God. This is brought about through Jesus’ death and resurrection (see ‘Why is Jesus good news?’)
Adapted from Jesus through Asian Eyes section 7.
How do Christians pray and worship?
People from every religion pray. They call upon their deity to remember them, bless them and do things for them. Sometimes they are required to perform certain actions – such as lighting a candle, offering food to idols or performing a purification ceremony – in order for God to listen to them and look favourably upon them.
But prayer is far more than getting God – or some supreme power – to do what you want. It is the chief way in which followers of Jesus develop a relationship with Him. Imagine meeting someone for the first time and simply giving them a list of your needs and wants and expecting them to sort everything out – it wouldn’t be much of a relationship! So prayer includes praise and thanksgiving for who God is and for what he has done as well as saying ‘sorry’ for sins committed in the recent past (even though a follower of Jesus will ask for forgiveness that does not make them perfect and so they need to ask for forgiveness regularly). A follower of Jesus will also pray for those who are unwell or going through a difficult time as well as for situations in their community and across the world. Part of prayer will include silence and spending time just ‘being’ with God.
Most people will close their eyes when they pray as this helps them concentrate on what they are saying rather than on what they can see around them. Sometimes they will kneel down as a mark of respect – either in church or at home. They can pray anywhere at any time of day (or night!). They can talk to God aloud so that others can hear or they speak to him in their head.
As well as praying, followers of Jesus will also sing as part of their worship at church or at home (perhaps whilst listening to a CD). Songs may be about God as creator, thanking him for his blessings and for faith in Jesus. They might be about about intimacy and dependence on Jesus or could be more prayer-like asking for help or seeking forgiveness.
If you are visiting a church in the West then everyone sits on chairs or benches (called pews) and will stand up to sing. They will either have the words displayed on a screen at the front or you will be given a song book. Sometimes people might clap or lift their hands in praise as they worship God. The instruments used will range from an organ or piano through flutes and violins to drums and guitar. If you visit a church which in a South Asian area (perhaps one with a Tamil or Hindi congregation) then the music, instruments and songs will reflect that culture.
During a meeting (usually called a ‘service’) there will also be a time when someone reads out part of the Bible which another person has prepared a talk about (usually called a ‘sermon’). This sermon could last between 10 and 40 minutes depending on the custom in that church. It might be about who God is or some aspect of Jesus’ life or teaching or about how to live as a follower of Jesus and changes in attitude or behaviour. There might also an ‘offering’ or ‘collection’ when a money bag is passed around for people’s contributions. People give money to the church out of their love for God and not because they are told they must. Some give through their bank accounts. There is no obligation for any visitor to contribute.
After the service people are often invited to stay for a drink and to chat to others and get to know them.
Where did the Bible come from?
The Bible is by far the most widely distributed and read book in human history. It is God’s word to humanity and talks of his amazing love for humankind – shown most of all by Jesus coming to the world to live, die and rise to life again so that people can have a restored relationship with God.
In 1947 a boy looking after sheep on the hill slopes above the Dead Sea in Israel found a collection of scrolls hidden in caves. They dated from about 100 BC and included copies of all the Old Testament books except one. These scrolls came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and existed around 900 years earlier than any other standard Hebrew manuscript contained in the Bible. Remarkably they confirm, in almost every case, the later texts that were used by scholars. The few differences (about 5 per cent) are mainly obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. No essential truth was corrupted or distorted. This shows how carefully the manuscripts had been handed down.
The books of the Old Testament were written over a period of about 1,000 years, from around 1,300 to 200 years before the birth of Jesus. They were originally written in Hebrew and contains the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nebi’im), historical books and the poetic Writings (Kethubim or Zabur), and are authoritative for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The names of some of the writers are well known including the lawgiver Moses, King David and some of the prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It is about Jesus and his followers. The life of Jesus is found in the Gospels (Injil) – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the work of his disciples is in the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples spread the news about Jesus and some of their letters, written to individuals or to early churches, are also in the Bible. The final book is the ‘Revelation to John’ which talks in picture language about Heaven and the end times.
There are several thousand manuscripts, both in the original Greek and in early translations, to support the New Testament. In the days before printing, all documents were copied by hand. Each copy would be made, as far as possible, from an original, and it is therefore possible to work out how the different copies relate to each other and to the originals. There are more manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other ancient text of any culture or period. As with the Hebrew manuscripts, there are minor differences but no major truth or belief is affected.
What about other writings?
The collection of writing or ‘books’ that make up the Bible were regarded as authentic very early and by the second century after Jesus were virtually agreed. There were careful criteria for selection, which linked writings with the original disciples of Jesus. There are other earlier writings which claim to be the work of early Christian teachers, but these were never regarded as authentic and were not included by the early followers of Jesus.
Don’t all religions lead to God?
We live in a world of different religious beliefs. Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other… the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people.’ His view was that different parts of the world will follow the religious paths which are most suitable to them. So the West is ‘Christian’ while South Asia is Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim, the Middle East is Muslim, and so on.
Underlying this is the idea that the different religions are simply different outward expressions of one underlying spiritual reality. It may be called by different names, but it is the ultimate source of all spiritual energy. Each region, culture, or group has its own way to God, and they are all valid. Thus truth depends on where you are and who you are. There is no point arguing over belief, as the differences are not important. Religions are temporary, related to our personal, social and cultural circumstances.
But religions are flawed by our human drives for power and control. They can easily become systems which control and manipulate others, through priest craft, magic or superstition. Additionally it’s common for people to recast God according to how they think things should be or how God should act. Thus they can end up picking and choosing what to believe and what to practise according to their own personal preferences.
Another view is that expressed by Paul, the first-century follower of Jesus, speaking to the elders of Athens, the cultural capital of the Mediterranean world (Acts 17:22–34). He acknowledged that people had been seeking God in their different ways but said that, at a certain point in history, God intervened and actually became part of the world, as a human being. This view is radically different. It distinguishes spiritual reality from culture, community, and geography. It was not about men trying to be good enough to please God but about God sending his son to the world as a human being. While Paul did not mention Jesus by name, he clearly identified him by referring to his resurrection.
The message about following Jesus is not just human beings seeking God (religion) but God seeking us.
Isn’t it better to follow the religion of my family?
Everyone is born into a family which forms part of a community that has a distinctive culture. For South Asians their culture includes festivals celebrated at the temple or gurdwara and rituals surrounding life events such as birth, marriage and death. Religious disciplines are so ingrained in South Asian culture that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between what is religious and what is cultural. Thus to change one’s religion is seen as rejecting one’s culture, community and even one’s family.
But the Bible does not say that to become one of Jesus’ followers a person must reject his background and cultural heritage. God is not concerned with how people dress or behave as long as it is not dishonouring to him or offensive to others. If someone has been used to praying 5 times a day, or following a particular diet, there is no reason why they should not continue to do so and attitudes like hospitality and respect for one’s elders are part of the Bible’s teaching. Choosing to follow Jesus is not a matter of external changes. It’s not even about keeping certain rules or practising particular rituals and disciplines. It is about having a relationship with God.
Another reason for hostility towards those who wish to change their religion is that people see the immoral behaviour portrayed in the media and the conduct of Western society in general and do not want these attitudes or this lifestyle for their friends or family members. Nor do followers of Jesus! Western culture is not the same as living as a Christian.
Changes in people’s thinking and attitudes are taking place all the time. Few now believe that women are incapable of making political decisions or casting their vote – although that was the majority view just 100 years ago. People are constantly being urged to change their views and exercise choice on everything from fashions in clothes to the way they treat the planet.
Although changing religion can be unsettling and disruptive, faith must be a matter of inner belief rather than external practices. The right to religious freedom should be upheld and nobody should be put under pressure in any way. The basic question to ask is not ‘Should a person remain in the religion of their birth out of loyalty?’ but ‘How does one find God?’
Stories from South Asian followers of Jesus
You can watch more faith stories here.
Santosh, a young executive at a large charity, reflects on his life…
I’ve always been driven to achieve – whether with exams, becoming head student at school or even scoring the most goals in a football season… But I knew all was not well with my life – I had a temper that was completely out of control and would be too willing to get into shouting matches with my family or friends. I was addicted to watching late night films that I knew I shouldn’t have been watching.
I remember reading a part of the Bible – Matthew chapter 7 – on judging others: ‘Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’
I remember reading those verses and thinking all was not well and that I was going to be in really deep trouble. For the first time in my life I think I realised that I was dealing with a God who was in complete control, there was nothing that could surprise this God. Nothing that I could go through that he didn’t know about and, even more important, that he cared about the most intimate details of what I was going through.
God was in charge, even when I thought the foundations of my life were being wiped out, but they were being replaced by something far more durable, that I could really depend on. I think God was chasing me for a long while (and still is) and I’d been running in the other direction as fast as I could. It took me a very long time to admit to myself that I wanted to follow Jesus – I was scared; above all, despite the support of my brother, it meant telling the rest of my family. I was probably secretly reading the Bible and praying for over a year before I told anyone.
I want to leave behind my anger, anxiety, depression, lust and despair and I know that in myself I could never hope to change, but that I have a God who is committed to doing just that.
Ram Gidoomal, a businessman, tells his story…
My family had been twice forced into homelessness and migration – first from newly-created Pakistan in 1947, then from newly-independent East Africa. Now we were refugees in Shepherds Bush, West London. We had just enough money to buy a corner shop, with a flat above it where 16 of us lived. We prospered and were eventually running a chain of shops in West London. The work ethic directed our lives.
I was reading physics at Imperial College in London. It was during my final year as an undergraduate, when I had to stay on campus, that I realised how difficult it was to live away from the security of the extended family. I was attempting to drown my sorrows in the pub when I heard a group of rock musicians called The Forerunners playing in the background. They interspersed their music with stories of how each of them had met Jesus, and how their lives had been transformed as a result. I was intrigued.
They talked about a God who loved the world so much that he sent his one and only son as a once and for all sacrifice for sin. Sin for me was my karmic debt: the difference between my bad karma and my good karma not only from this life but from my previous incarnations. The principle of karma, ‘what you sow you reap’, was a fundamental teaching that was part of my Hindu and Sikh upbringing. And sitting in the pub that evening I realised that Jesus was offering a way out of my karmic debt.
By my own reckoning I was spiritually bankrupt. My bad karma far outweighed any good that I had done. I decided to conduct my own research around the claims of Jesus. As I studied the events, people and places recorded in the Bible, I found my prejudices against Christ being exposed. For a start, Jesus was a Middle Easterner, not a white man with blue eyes and blond hair, not an Englishman with a bowler hat and pinstripe suit.
Ram Gidoomal pictured with his wife and family
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