Which Belief System Is True?
As one studies comparative theology and looks at the myriad belief systems and religions that have sprung up throughout history and across cultures, one finds themselves taking up an observer’s position outside those belief systems. A question naturally arises: Which of these belief systems is true? However, on closer inspection, this initial question is revealed as too binary, too simple. First, because no belief system is absolutely and entirely false, they all contain some true claims. Secondly, every major belief system makes exclusive truth claims. Even the remarkably inclusive Bahá’i faith is, at bottom, exclusionary. It’s seemingly all-encompassing belief that every prophet and sacred text from every major religion is valid contradicts the exclusive teachings of the very faiths Bahá’i accepts as true.
In addition, comparative theology reveals that the world’s sundry belief systems are not in all cases wholly independent from one another. To use a visual analogy, belief systems do not correspond to discrete blocks of color but rather a rainbow. In a rainbow, red flows into orange, orange flows into yellow, yellow flows into green, and so on. (Where does one draw the line between red and orange in a rainbow?) Likewise, there are areas of overlap and blending between various belief systems: Hinduism flows into Buddhism, Judaism flows into Christianity, Taoism blends with Confucianism, and so on. To press the rainbow analogy further, in the same way that not all of the colors in a rainbow touch (i.e., red does not directly blend with green), some systems of belief also remain disparate. Thus, prudence requires us to approach our query with more nuance.
Let us then settle on the following question as the object of this study: Which belief system corresponds most closely to the true state of reality? Because we are attempting to answer what is undoubtedly an insoluble philosophical question, our approach will take the form of a thought experiment whose goal is merely to provide a level of distinction between the primary belief systems held by today’s global population.
(Watch the video version of this thought experiment below. Otherwise, keep reading for the full study.)
To answer this question will require both philosophical and theological analysis. Because the criteria “corresponds most closely” introduces a level of ambiguity, our effort could readily devolve into a question of subjective preference if we are not circumspect in our approach. Indeed, the assessment of correspondence is (at least partly) in the eye of the beholder, and, thus, we will need to take steps to avoid our question inadvertently reducing to Which belief system do I prefer? Our methodology must be crafted in such a way that it describes as objective a study as possible. Thus, we will employ a four-part approach:
- Determine which belief systems will be included
- Identify a single truth claim against which the various systems of belief can be measured
- Assess the veracity of the truth claim
- Evaluate each belief system’s position on the truth claim.
1. The Belief Systems
Because we will be including both religious and non-religious systems of belief in this study, we will use the term belief system (or beliefs, or system) rather than religion or faith. Our definition of a belief system is as follows: a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. One could perhaps argue that there are as many belief systems as there are people in the world. However, this study will be scoped to a broad survey of the major systems of belief held by human beings in 2021. We will target the top fourteen belief systems by estimated number of adherents.
In order of size,1 the belief systems included in this study are as follows:
- Christianity (2.2B)
- Islam (1.6B)
- Hinduism (1B)
- Atheism (500-750M)2
- Buddhism (500M)
- Sikhism (25M)
- Judaism (16M)
- Mormonism (16M)
- Taoism (8-20M)
- Jehovah’s Witnesses (8M)
- Confucianism (6M)
- Baha’i (5M)
- Shinto (3-4M)
- Jainism (4M)
2. Identifying a Truth Claim
Because it is problematic to prove (or disapprove) propositions concerning metaphysics or the supernatural realm, our goal is to identify a truth claim that corresponds to a physical or historical fact or event. Moreover, we would do well to avoid facts or events so buried in the mists of ancient history that it is impossible to find evidence for or against them, such as the origins of the universe or life. Identifying a fact/event that falls within these parameters will greatly help us assess the belief systems under consideration. If the fact/event is discovered to be true—or at least highly plausible based on supporting evidence—those belief systems that affirm that fact/event can then be appropriately judged as corresponding more closely with the true state of reality than those systems which deny the fact/event.
Thus, we set out the following four criteria as our parameters in seeking a suitable truth claim for our thought experiment:
- Universality: A claim universal enough that all systems in our study either (a.) have an official position regarding the claim or (b) have tenets clear enough to allow us to reasonably infer a position.
- Uniqueness: A claim affirmed by the fewest number of belief systems will aid in our assessment.
- Exclusivity: The more exclusive the claim, the more effective in paring down the list of belief systems under consideration.
- Objectivity: The more demonstrable, binary, and empirical the claim, the greater the level of certainty of our conclusion.3
Searching for the Truth Claim
We start our search for a proper truth claim with a brief survey of the Eastern religions on our list. Hinduism is practiced by over one billion people today, yet, it lays claim to no historical or physical facts/events that satisfy our criteria. Perhaps Hinduism’s most unique truth claim is karma, “the sum of a person’s actions throughout samsara, or the cycle of birth and rebirth” (Boyett, 2017, p. 104). However, karma lacks the support of empirical evidence and, thus, is not a suitable candidate for this study. The two primary belief systems which evolved out of Hinduism—Buddhism and Jainism—also lack physical or historical foundations for their principal truth claims. Indeed, the foundational religious tenets of all three of these faiths are largely detached from both the timeline of human history and the physical world. In fact, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, taught that “depriving the body was the shortest path toward moksha” and thus, his followers “sought complete detachment from worldly things like clothing, food, and even shelter” (Boyett, 2017, p. 251). This does not necessarily indicate these are untrue belief systems, only that they lack appropriate truth claims for this study.
Both Taoism and Confucianism are believed to have begun in the sixth century BC. “According to Chinese lore, the lives of the sages Confucius and Laozi [founder of Taoism] overlapped, their rival philosophies developing side by side in China” (Boyett, 2017, p. 165). Taoism and Confucianism then entered Japan in the early fifth century, followed by Buddhism in 522 BC. The combination of these belief systems along with Japanese folk religion became what is known today as the Shinto faith. Like their Hindu-based cousins, the truth claims of Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto are not grounded in the timeline of human history and, thus, lack ideal physical or historical facts/events for our study.
Islam is a belief system with more of a historical foundation for its teachings. It is a faith based on the claim that beginning in A.D. 610, Allah began giving divine revelations to an Arabian man named Mohammed. Indeed, the physical location of these revelations—a cave on the mountain Jabal al-Nour near Mecca— is part of Islam’s theology. However, these revelations happened in isolation and were experienced by Mohammed alone. Being unwitnessed by others and spiritual in nature, the revelations lack substantive physical or historical evidence, making them marginal candidates for the truth claim to be used in this study.
On the other hand, Judaism boasts abundant historical evidence for many of the figures and cultures mentioned in the Tanakh.4 Indeed, the historicity of the Jewish faith is well-documented in the archaeological record, and the creation of a people (the nation of Israel) and the giving of a specific land factor into Judaism’s theology. Perhaps the ancient flood recorded in Genesis chapters 6-9 would make a good candidate for our study. A growing number of scientists have examined geological evidence they say supports (some even say indicates) the reality of a rapid flood event in antiquity,5 making this historical claim a compelling contender on the basis of its objectivity. Where this event falls short, however, is its lack of uniqueness and exclusivity. Genesis 6-9 are also part of the Christian Bible, and the same flood event is mentioned in the Quran, Sura 71. Thus, the historical flood event is not a claim that could help us distinguish between the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Let us then turn to the largest belief system, Christianity, and its central, defining truth claim: the resurrection of Jesus. Christian sacred texts acknowledge that the Resurrection is an exclusive issue on which the validity of the faith rests (1 Cor 15:14-19). Moreover, while the Resurrection contains both theological and supernatural implications, it is, at its core, an event in history, making it a strong candidate for our study. Moreover, this claim meets our criteria for both uniqueness and exclusivity since Christianity alone affirms this fact. The Resurrection also meets our criteria for universality: the other belief systems under consideration either (a.) have an official position regarding the claim or (b.) have tenets clear enough to allow us to reasonably infer a position. Therefore, the resurrection of Jesus will be selected as the truth claim for our study because it best satisfies the established criteria.
3. Examining the Claim
Christianity maintains that the Resurrection is an actual historical event comprised of six facts: (1.) A Jewish man named Jesus was crucified and killed (2.) by the Romans (3.) outside the city of Jerusalem (4.) in the first century, and (5.) was physically resurrected (6.) by God. This claim is historical in that it involves particular persons, a specific time, a geographic location, and an unambiguous set of alleged events.
Before examining the Resurrection, a brief comment must be made on the methodology employed by professional historians when examining the veracity of past events. Historical interpretation is the process by which historical events are described, analyzed, and evaluated. Historians base their interpretation on primary and secondary historical sources. A primary source refers to material “that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness” (Robyns, 2001, p. 368). A secondary source refers to a work that is “not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject, but instead relies on sources of information” (Society of American Archivists, n.d.). Historians use these sources as they “explore causality (what made something happen), processes (revolutions, econo mic depressions), conflicts (social class, race, gender), historical outcomes (effects of past events)” (NC State University, n.d.) to interpret the nature and validity of historical events.
When it comes to the Resurrection, no archeological evidence exists. Professor and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, Ph.D. explains,
The reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually anyone who lived in Jesus’s time and place . . . The lack of evidence does not mean a person at the time didn’t exist. It means that she or he, like 99.99% of the rest of the world at the time, made no impact on the archaeological record (Klein, 2019).-Bart Ehrman
Thus, a historical investigation of the Resurrection must rely on the written record where both primary and secondary historical sources are abundant.
The Minimal Facts Argument
Here we turn to scholar Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D., and his “Minimal Facts Argument” (MFA), which was developed as part of his Ph.D. dissertation. The MFA sets out two requirements for the historical facts it affirms:
- There must be multiple strong and independent arguments that confirm each asserted fact. In other words, the vast majority of even critical scholars must recognize the historicity of the occurrence;
- The critical scholars can be liberal, skeptical, agnostic, or even atheist, as long as they are specialists in a relevant field of study, such as the New Testament. (Habermas, 2016)
The MFA was able to establish twelve historical facts about the Resurrection of Jesus, which the majority of scholars accept as historical. Space prohibits a complete examination of Habermas’ argument, so we will limit our survey to a list of six facts established by the MFA that collectively present a strong case for the historical authenticity of the Resurrection of Jesus. These facts, which even critical scholars affirm, are:
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- Very soon afterward, his followers had real experiences that they thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus
- The lives of Jesus’ followers were transformed as a result, even to the point of being willing to die specifically for their belief in the resurrection
- These things were taught very early, soon after the crucifixion
- James, Jesus’ unbelieving brother, became a Christian due to his experience with what he believed was the resurrected Jesus
- Christian persecutor Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) became a believer after a similar experience (Habermas, 2016)
The Empty Tomb
According to scholar William Lane Craig, Ph. D., the empty tomb of Jesus is another source of evidence supporting the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. In his book Reasonable Faith (Craig, 2008), Craig provides six lines of evidence for the fact that “the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers on the first day of the week following his crucifixion” (p. 361). Craig’s arguments are as follows:
- The tomb’s location was publicly known, and the disciples’ preaching of Jesus’ resurrection would not have been believed if there was still a body in it. Indeed, the “early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection . . . flourished in the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified” (Craig, 2008, p. 361);
- The discovery of Jesus’s empty tomb is attested to by multiple early, independent historical sources;
- The phrase “the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition;
- The Markan story is simple and lacks legendary development;
- The fact that women, whose testimony was not considered credible in first-century Jewish society, “were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb can only be plausibly explained if . . . they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb” (Craig, 2008, p. 368);
- The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.6
Additional lines of evidence supporting the historicity of the Resurrection are offered by philosopher and professor J. P. Moreland, Ph. D., who posits three additional facts that support the veracity of the Resurrection. Namely,
- within weeks of Jesus’s crucifixion, over 10,000 Jews were following Him and “willing to give up or alter all five of the [Jewish] social institutions that they had been taught since childhood” (Strobel & Vogel, 2017, p. 338);
- the very earliest Christian communities
- celebrated communion, commemorating Jesus’ death because they were convinced He had been seen alive afterward, and
- baptized followers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which celebrated a “rising to new life” and afforded Jesus full status as God (Strobel & Vogel, 2017, p. 341-343);
- the Christian church arose directly out of first-century Jewish culture, the sheer unlikelihood of which suggests the Resurrection was widely accepted as true.
Theologian and pastor Timothy Keller, drawing on the work of scholar N.T. Wright expounds on Moreland’s third point:
In every other instance that we know of, such a massive shift in thinking at the worldview level only happens to a group of people over a period of time . . . [but] the Christian view of resurrection, absolutely unprecedented in history, sprung up full-blown immediately after the death of Jesus (Keller, 2016, p. 217).-Timothy Keller
The scientific discipline of interpreting ancient history does not deal with “proofs” to the degree we find in mathematics or the physical sciences. However, the combined weight of the historical evidence above—plus the fact that more than 2,000 years after the alleged historical event, over 2 billion people still believe it is true—leads us to reasonably conclude that the resurrection of Jesus is, at a minimum, more plausibly true than not. This is enough certainty to continue to the final step in our study.
4. Examining the Belief Systems
The question before us is: Which belief system corresponds most closely to the true state of reality? Accepting the Resurrection as real, we now turn to an examination of the responses provided to this question by each belief system in our study.
Belief Systems That Affirm the Resurrection
The two belief systems on our list that affirm the Resurrection are Christianity and Mormonism. The Christian sect Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Bahá’i faith both accept a spiritual resurrection of Jesus, but not the physical revivification claimed by Christianity.
Belief Systems That Reject the Resurrection
The following belief systems directly reject the resurrection of Jesus by denying one or more of the six facts that constitute the historical claim.
|Belief System||Position on the Resurrection|
|Islam||Jesus did not die by crucifixion and was not resurrected, but was bodily raised up to heaven by God|
|Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahá’i||Deny the physical nature of the claim, teaching instead it a spiritual resurrection|
|Atheism||Rejects all supernatural claims as well as the possibility that an entirely dead body could come back to life|
|Judaism||Teaches a resurrection of the dead in the future Messianic Age but flatly denies the specific resurrection of Jesus|
Belief Systems Incompatible with the Resurrection
Following are belief systems that do not have an official position on the Resurrection. While they do not deny the event outright, based on their known tenets, these systems do not appear compatible with the Christian claim and all it entails.
|Belief System||Position on the Resurrection|
|Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Jainism||Do not recognize a creator deity or supreme God, thus would reject the claim that God bodily resurrected anyone|
|Hinduism, Sikhism||Teach the reincarnation of the soul, which is markedly different and incompatible with the physical resurrection taught in Judaism and Christianity7|
|Taoism||In its modern form, Taoism is highly influenced by Buddhism and contains an understanding of reincarnation of the soul, but not the body|
The multiplicity of belief systems held globally today—and the diversity of cultures from which they arose—make a fair and equitable comparison between them difficult. By choosing a specific truth claim, we have introduced at least a rudimentary level of categorization that can be used to examine the perhaps insuperable question: Which belief system corresponds most closely to the true state of reality? In the end, only Christianity and Mormonism accord with reality on this historical fact. While this thought experiment does not necessarily prove either belief system true, it sheds some light on the pantheon of belief systems in the world today and the comparative theology between them.
It is interesting to note how few belief systems have a substantial grounding in empirical reality. The notable exception, of course, is atheism, which for the most part deals only in physical reality, leaving the far more important metaphysical questions unexamined. The “atheistic” religions— Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Jainism—concern themselves with morality, meaning, consciousness, and other non-physical realities, yet do so devoid of substantive doctrinal ties to physical reality. The same can be said of most of the theistic religions on our list including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Bahá’i. However, the Judeo-Christian faith stands out from the rest because it offers a full-orbed explanation of the supernatural realm of reality and boasts a wealth of touchpoints within human history and empirical reality. Indeed, its most critical truth claim, the Resurrection, is firmly grounded in space/time. While other religions trade primarily in abstract concepts, the Judeo-Christian faith includes dirt, flesh, and blood in its very theology.
 Unless otherwise noted, the estimated number of adherents for each belief system is based on the numbers published in Boyett (2017).
 According to sociologist Phil Zuckerman, broad estimates of those who have an absence of belief in a deity range from 500 to 750 million worldwide. This category includes scientism and materialism.
 There is no expectation that any belief system can be empirically proved or disproved to a certainty of one hundred percent.
 Also known as the Hebrew Bible. It is the same body of text Christians refer to as the Old Testament.
 For a number of scientific articles on the historicity of the flood, see the Institute for Creation Research: https://www.icr.org/worldwide-flood.
 Craig’s arguments can be found in full in Reasonable Faith, pp. 361-377.
 The concept of reincarnation is a spiritual rebirth into a new form of existence that may or may not even be human. The concept of resurrection, by contrast, is that the same human being who died is physically brought back to life.
Boyett, J. (2017). 12 major world religions: The beliefs, rituals, and traditions of humanity’s most influential faiths. Zephyros Press.
Craig, W. L. (2008). Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics. Wheaton, Ill Crossway Books.
Habermas, G. R. (2016, September 28). Minimal Facts on the Resurrection that Even Skeptics Accept | SES. Ses.edu. https://ses.edu/minimal-facts-on-the-resurrection-that-even-skeptics-accept/
Keller, T. (2016). The reason for God: belief in an age of skepticism. Penguin.
Klein, C. (2019, February 26). The Bible Says Jesus Was Real. What Other Proof Exists? HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/was-jesus-real-historical-evidence
Robyns, M. (2001). The Archivist as Educator: Integrating Critical Thinking Skills into Historical Research Methods Instruction. The American Archivist, 64(2), 363–384. https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.64.2.q4742x2324j10457
Strobel, L., & Vogel, J. (2017). The case for Christ: a journalist’s personal investigation of the evidence for Jesus. Zondervan.
Zuckerman, Phil (2006). “3 – Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns”. In Martin, Michael (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. p. 61. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521842700.004. ISBN 9781139001182. Between 500 million and 750 million humans currently do not believe in God.