What will the religious landscape of the 21st century look like? Will another major new religion arise? The Bible talks of a major religious force to arise in the time prior to Christ's return. What can be discerned about this new world religion from today's religious landscape?
When it comes to predicting the "next new thing" in religion, most experts miss the mark. No one foresaw the force with which Islamic fundamentalism would hit the modern world during the last 30 years. That's why today many are scrambling to understand Islamic culture and religion. Books and videos on the subject are in major demand as the Western world seeks better understanding of this globe-girdling religion.
Most people are familiar with their own faith but don't always study other religions, particularly non-Western faiths such as Islam or Hinduism. That ignorance leaves out a majority of the world's faiths and creates a knowledge vacuum about forces shaping many parts of the world. Not understanding the ferment in the world of faith and religion can leave one unprepared for future developments on the world scene.
A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, an American opinion magazine, tells of the new religious movements that are growing at phenomenal rates. Quoting David B. Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, "There is enormous religious change going on across the world, all the time. It's massive, it's complex, and it's continual. We have identified nine thousand and nine hundred distinct and separate religions in the world, increasing by two or three new religions every day" ("Oh, Gods!," February 2002, p. 38, emphasis theirs).
These new religious movements are diverse and larger than one might imagine. Among the many are: The Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist sect with 18 million members in 115 countries; the Cao Dai, a 3 million-strong Vietnamese-based group found in 50 countries (a blend of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and a bit of Judaism and Christianity); and Umbanda, a spiritist movement based in Brazil with 20 million members which blends traditional African, South American and Catholic religious teachings.
These groups have two things in common. They all formed during the 20th century and have grown rapidly, going largely unrecognized in the West. New religious groups are studied closely by those in the field of religious studies. In 1991 the Vatican convened a gathering of cardinals to discuss, among other matters, the burgeoning success of these diverse religious movements. The Catholic Church wanted to understand the reasons and methods for the success of these groups.
All these movements have the ability to meet basic needs for people where larger, mainstream forms of religion have failed. People adopt a faith to find meaning and an identity in life. In many third world countries, religion helps people to survive socially and culturally. When the social fabric or traditional customs of a nation change or break down, people find their needs can be met by joining a group based on religious faith.
These new faiths give structure and substance to an otherwise precarious existence. The community thus created supports and sustains its citizens when there is a crisis. Along with meeting physical needs, these new movements often offer entrancing revelations or new ideas. They offer new insight into the mysteries of life for those disillusioned by traditional religions.
The Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, both of which started as small "new religious movements," have been successful at forming close communities of believers who are sincerely dedicated to one another and their faith. This has in turn fostered growth in the organizations.
Shift to North/South axis
This Atlantic Monthly article made another interesting observation while speculating on the 21st century landscape.
"One of the most remarkable changes already taking place because of the new religious movements is the underreported shift in the center of gravity in the Christian world. There has been a dramatic move from North to South. Christianity is most vital now in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where independent churches, Pentecostalism and even major Catholic Charismatic movements are expanding rapidly. The story of Christianity in twentieth-century Africa is particularly noteworthy. There were fewer than 10 million Christians in Africa in 1900; by 2000 there were more than 360 million. And something very interesting is happening; ancient Christian practices such as exorcism, spirit healing, and speaking in tongues-all of which are documented in the Book of Acts-are back in force" (ibid., p. 44).
The article goes on to show that many new religious movements from Asia, Latin America and Africa are successful in evangelizing the northern secular nations of America and Europe. Converts range not only from immigrants from these nations seeking something of "home," but also include whites who are looking for something more substantial and meaningful in their worship. A concluding thought in the article indicates the future potential influence of these groups. "The present rate of growth of the new Christian movements and their geographical range suggest that they will become a major social and political force in the coming century" (ibid., p. 45).
Last month Pope John Paul II convened another ecumenical gathering of religious leaders from around the world (see page 13). Meeting in Assisi, Italy, the more than 200 religious leaders representing such diverse faiths as Hinduism, Islam and African traditional religions prayed for peace and made pledges of support for the pontiff's goal that religion would not be the cause of strife in this century. Unfortunately, history runs against this desire, since religious differences have been the cause of much strife throughout human history. Such a gathering, along with the information presented in the Atlantic Monthly article, emphasizes the fact that religion will play a significant role in the future.
This corresponds with what Bible prophecy says will shape the world in the end time prior to Christ's return. One key event is Daniel's prophecy of the conflict between the king of the North and the king of the South. "At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through" (Daniel 11:40).
The source of this conflict can arise from a combination of economic, political and even religious sources. Given the volatility of Islamic fundamentalism today, it is reasonable to imagine religion being a part of this rapid chain of events that will culminate in Jerusalem (verse 45).
A coming man of sin
What else does the Bible indicate will be shaping the end time stage? One major prophecy, uttered by the apostle Paul, is found in 2 Thessalonians 2. It foretells a time of religious deception to come, which will be unlike any previous period. The deception comes from the actions of a notable person called "the man of sin."
Notice what it says: "Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (verses 1-4).
The actions of this "man of sin" will go beyond the actions of any previous prophetic figure when he proclaims "he is God." Note that he does not claim merely to represent God or to be as God, but rather he claims he is God. To pull this unprecedented work of deception off will require the behind-the-scenes help of the arch-deceiver of mankind, Satan the devil, who will provide "signs, and lying wonders" (verse 9) to accomplish the job.
Revelation 13:11-14 describes a "beast" who looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon, who will perform great signs such as calling fire from heaven. This beast causes the world to worship another beast (verses 1-9). The deception that these two men bring on all the earth's inhabitants mirrors the description we read from 2 Thessalonians. These two figures are called "the beast and the false prophet" (Revelation 16:13). Together they preside over a powerful religious and political system called "Babylon" which dominates the world order and marshals the nations of the world to fight Jesus Christ at His second coming (Revelation 16:14).
Here is a system, a new religious movement, that arises very suddenly. The world will marvel (Revelation 17:8) at what is promised and accomplished by this system. Revelation 18 indicates the world will seem to prosper and a global image of peace and unity, unlike any previous period in history, will be created. In the minds of the masses this coming world religion will offer the solution to human survival. With all faiths seeming to work together, there will be cause to think that religious strife can be eliminated. Any who resist this philosophy, or refuse its "mark," will be persecuted. They will be denied access to the spoils of the new world system (Revelation 13:15-17).
Christ foretold the rise of religious confusion in the time prior to His return (Matthew 24:4, 24). Today's religious scene is a multiplex of deception and confusion. Are we observing the mix that sets the stage for the final masterstroke Satan will lay before the world?
Many times over the centuries, both religion and God have been pronounced dead. But to paraphrase the famous saying of Mark Twain, the announcement of their death has always been exaggerated. Religion will continue to be a fundamental force among the families of the earth. The Bible shows a world religion will arise that will be both old and new. It will combine the age-old deceptions that hide the true God and His eternal plan from man. It will promise peace and prosperity, but in reality it will spiritually enslave those who are willing to trade the truth for a lie.
How will you escape?
How will you tell the difference between this new world religion with all its clever deceptions, and the faith of those "who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17)? When a charismatic leader performs spiritual signs and miracles before the public, he will attract tremendous attention and allegiance. Global technology will magnify the impact of such a figure, overnight creating a "religious superstar." It will seem right and good and be very hard to resist when the mass culture moves to support the hope and promise of this new religion. For the remnant of God's faithful, it will be a time of great testing.
Let's go back to Paul's prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2. After describing the signs and lying wonders of the lawless one, he shows the work will be ".with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (verses 10-12).
Paul speaks of having a "love of the truth." Here is a key to avoiding religious deception. God's Word is truth (Psalm 119:160). God has revealed the answers to life's big questions from His Word, the Bible. Philosophers and theologians have attempted to explain the purpose of man's existence and why the universe exists. The revealed answers from the Bible form a grid-work of truth which overlays a world of understanding for those whom God calls.
But to know the truth and even to obey the truth is only part of the answer to our question. We must also come to a point where we love the truth. To be willing to hold on to true doctrines and teaching in the face of universal opposing opinions will be extremely challenging. It will take a mind that has been convinced through the crucible of obedience to cling firmly to the teachings of Christ during a storm of heresy and doubt.
Paul wrote about the impact that obedience to the truth has on a Christian. "For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). When you prove God's Word through obedience, you will come to love the truth. Holding fast to the truth enables one to clearly hear the voice of Christ (John 18:37).
Despite the massive deception wrought by this end-time religious movement, the prophecies show that the remnant of God's faithful will hold to the biblical truths. The marriage scene between the Lamb and His wife who "has made herself ready" shows that the people of God, the Church, have been prepared for this royal marriage. Righteous acts clothe God's elect in the clean and bright linen garments (Revelation 19:7-8).
Take heart that God will help you endure to the end and survive any deception Satan casts upon the world. "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work" (2 Thessalonians 2:15-17). WNP