Larson's Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality

Larson's Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality

by Bob Larson

Paperback(Revised Edition)



An indispensable reference tool for parents, students, and pastors alike. Larson analyzes dozens of world religions and spiritual movements—from Islam to UFOs, from the New Age movement to witchcraft—and presents the information in a reliable encyclopedia format. Larson's Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality is a ready reference that will help address answers to tough questions from a biblical perspective.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780842364171
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/2004
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 592
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

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Larson's Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality

By Bob Larson

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Bob Larson
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Do you remember where you were during the final days of March 1997? That was when thirty-nine members of a group called Heaven's Gate dressed in identical black outfits, lay down on identical metal beds, and methodically killed themselves.

The members of Heaven's Gate had been told that death would be the portal taking them to another life in a galaxy far away (see the entry on Heaven's Gate for more information).

This whole idea sounds silly to reasonable people, but for the thirty-nine people who died because they believed this lie, the outcome was tragic.

Today many people believe that all religions teach the same thing, or that they are all equal, or that it doesn't really matter what someone believes. But the tragedy of Heaven's Gate reveals that it does matter. In some cases it's a matter of life and death. If you aren't convinced, check the entries on Jonestown, the Order of the Solar Temple, and some of the other deadly cults found in the pages that follow.

In most cases people don't die from believing a lie, but often their lives aren't all they could be. In the case of some controlling religious groups, people sacrifice their money, their relationships, and their free will for a self-proclaimed guru's promise of salvation.


In recent years there has been a paradigm shift in the way people in the West think about religion. Concepts of truth are now considered less important than subjective experience. The late Joseph Campbell said as much in his book The Masks of God: "The swamis are coming from India, and they're taking away the flock. They're speaking of religion as dealing with the interior of life and not about dogmatic formulae and ritual requirements."

Today many people don't care whether a religion is based on solid truth like the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Instead, there is a voguish interest in experience and mysticism with little concern about truth or falsehood. If Marshall Applewhite, founder of Heaven's Gate, says that aliens in a spaceship are waiting to pick up the group's true disciples, some people respond by saying, "Well, that may be true for you."

Did Mormon founder Joseph Smith really discover golden plates buried in Palmyra, New York? Did Victor Wierwille (founder of The Way) actually hear the voice of God? Did Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard truly discover the essence of religion that has eluded saints and scholars for millennia? Millions of Americans have placed their faith in such questionable claims, regardless of whether or not they are true. In fact, it matters little to many mystics whether their system of worship is historically accurate. If we point out that Krishna's discourses with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita are mere legends, our assertion is dismissed with a shrug. Experience is what counts.

Consequently, the historical anchors of Christianity of a bloodstained cross and an empty tomb have little meaning to contemporary spiritual seekers. Whether Calvary and the Resurrection actually took place seems less important to them than what they see as the allegorical grandeur of the story.

But truth does matter! And when the myths of other world religions and New Age philosophies have been shattered, Bible-based Christians must be ready to offer disillusioned seekers an objectively valid response to the "whys" of life. We must be ready to present the claims of Jesus' divinity and his sufficiency as our Savior and Lord. "If anybody asks why you believe as you do, be ready to tell him, and do it in a gentle and respectful way" (1 Peter 3:15, TLB).

This book has been written to help provide those answers. The reader whose faith is experientially rooted in the living Word of God will find in these pages a concrete, intellectual rationale for pointing spiritual seekers to the historical Christ.


Americans value independence, freedom of thought, and the entrepreneurial spirit. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that our nation has given birth to thousands of new religious groups. As a result, the United States has become one of the foremost battlegrounds in the struggle between Christianity and non-Christian faiths.

In a way, however, it's ironic this struggle has occurred here, because the deists and the devout Christians who settled this land were committed to a transcendent faith that recognized a God based on the Judeo-Christian model. However, a careful study of America's past reveals that the breeze of freedom that became the tumultuous gale of do-it-yourself spirituality in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries influenced even the early years of settling and exploration.

The promise of freedom of religious expression that originally lured people to this land also fostered utopian, communal, and apocalyptic dreams. American visionaries have always been enamored of idealistic, simplistic, and sacred explanations for life's purpose. This philosophy of manifest destiny has been most evident in times of cultural transition such as during the Armageddon-crazed days of the industrial revolution. Today's rapid growth in non-Christian religious and spiritual groups is the cultural by-product of this uniquely American attitude.

As an American, I support my country's commitment to freedom of religion. On the other hand, I believe that souls for whom Christ shed his blood deserve more spiritually fulfilling answers than those provided by modern myths.

As the reader, you have a right to know I am an evangelical Christian committed to a biblical theological perspective in this book. Does that mean I have slanted the information in an effort to recruit converts? No. But I have tried throughout to compare the teachings of various groups to the Christian faith taught in the Bible and proclaimed by the church for centuries.

However, I have not been commissioned by any church or denomination. Nor do I have a particular bias against any non-Christian spiritual group or leader. My analysis of each religion, spiritual movement, and philosophy in this book is based on orthodox Christian presuppositions alone.

Two basic theological principles have guided my study:

1. "In Christ the fullness of God lives in a human body, and you are complete through your union with Christ. He is the Lord over every ruler and authority in the universe." (Colossians 2:9-10, NLT)

2. "Don't just pretend that you love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of the good." (Romans 12:9, NLT)

This book is not intended to be a sociological or theological treatise. Its purpose is to aid and inform the average person whose friends, neighbors, coworkers, or loved ones may be involved in a non-Christian religion or other spiritual movement. It is also intended to prepare readers to respond knowledgeably and in love the next time a canvassing missionary from a religious group rings the doorbell.

I bear a solemn obligation in writing this book. If Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, really do have inside information about the world's end, and if Scientology really can extinguish our hang-ups from past lives, then you, the reader, have a right to know. If Sun Myung Moon is the Messiah, or if Baha'u'llah was the Christ, then no personal prejudice on my part should stand in the way of proclaiming these facts.

But if these spiritual leaders and philosophers are in error, then every person whose life this book touches deserves to know the unvarnished truth.


Some people think it is wrong to criticize another person's religious beliefs. But is it better to smile and say nothing as people follow self-proclaimed messiahs to a false paradise or worse?

I believe it is my obligation as a Christian to talk to non-Christians about their faith, but in doing so I must follow the example of Jesus Christ, who attracted many people to his message through his grace, love, and compassion. Sound theology, doctrinal purity, and aggressive evangelistic techniques are not the whole answer. We are involved in a spiritual battle, but our weapons are not angry words or intimidating techniques. Rather, our mandate is to speak the truth in love.

John 13:34-35 reminds believers that love is the mark of discipleship. And love for our neighbors is the distinguishing characteristic of our love for God. Such is the message of the Good Samaritan parable recorded in Luke 10:30-35. A personal anecdote may emphasize this fact in a practical manner.

As I was writing the first edition of this book at the Colorado cabin where I did most of my writing, there came a knock at the door.

It was pouring rain outside, and when I opened the door, I saw two drenched Japanese-American girls standing on the doorstep. Once inside, they explained that the friends with whom they were traveling had slid off a muddy road and wrecked their car. They asked for a ride to a nearby lodge where they could call a tow truck.

No writer appreciates an interruption, but there was no choice but to render immediate assistance in their distress. The two girls, Harriet and Ellen,were soaking wet and covered with mud. Needless to say, my vehicle suffered the consequences! To make matters worse, on the way to the lodge, the heater fan conked out and the knob to the defroster fell off. One annoyance after another was heaped upon me to exacerbate the situation. After phoning for the wrecker, the girls asked me for another ride to the place where they had joined their friends and left their car-a half-hour's drive away.

There was no question that these young ladies needed my help. What concerned me was that their plight interfered with what I thought was a more important spiritual responsibility-writing this book.

On the way to retrieve their automobile, the conversation centered on the weather and how the accident occurred. Finally, Ellen asked what I did for a living. That led to a lengthy explanation regarding my personal faith in Christ, something neither girl seemed to understand.

"Where do you attend church?" I asked.

"We're Buddhists," they replied.

Suddenly I knew why God had allowed this interruption. What I had considered an annoying infringement on my time was God's way of reminding me that writing this book was not as important as showing God's love and helping someone in need.

The young ladies' devout Buddhist beliefs soon collided with my scriptural insistence that Christ is the only means of salvation. When we reached their car, Ellen's parting words climaxed the episode.

"Well, I guess we won't really know who's right until we're both dead," she concluded.

"But if Jesus is correct," I answered, "it will be a little too late for you to find out."

As I drove off, the Holy Spirit impressed upon me an important lesson: God loves mankind so much that he is willing to provide shelter and kindness even to those who reject his Son.

My knowledge of world religions, particularly Buddhism, would have enabled me to argue effectively on an intellectual level with Harriet and Ellen. But God was more concerned about my extending a Good Samaritan act of love than my winning a theological debate in defense of truth.

When I arrived back at the cabin, I was prepared to pursue this book with new resolve and enthusiasm. Most importantly, I felt the need to do more than simply issue a warning about the dangers of groups like the ones in this book. Dismantling the myth of false religious beliefs is not only the work of biblical apologetics; it is also a labor of love.


I wrote this book out of genuine love and concern for people who follow other beliefs. As a Christian, I believe that God has revealed his will to humanity in many ways over the centuries. Most importantly, he revealed himself through Jesus, his only Son, who came to earth to redeem us. People are free to believe whatever they like, but I want them to be aware that there are consequences to their beliefs. Faith matters.

I also want to help people develop better critical thinking skills so that they won't be seduced when a charismatic leader declares that he alone has the key to understanding the secrets of the Bible.

God created all of us, and as it says in the Old Testament book of Genesis, we are created in God's image. This means we have a deep spiritual hunger. Over the years, people have developed thousands of different ways of filling that hunger. Can all these religions be true? Not when they teach different things.

It is only through studying what the various groups have to say and comparing that to the standard we find in the Bible that we can find our way through the confusing maze of today's religions, alternative spirituality, and cults.

It is my hope that this book will help you in your study.

Chapter Two


It is important for Christians to evaluate other religious groups according to biblical criteria. Not every group will have obvious cultic characteristics, but what they teach-their principles and values-may be contrary to the truth of the Bible. As Dr. Walter Martin, one of the pioneers of cult research, has observed, "A person can be morally good, but if he sets his face against Jesus, his fruit is corrupt." Whether or not a particular religious group claims to be Christian is not our primary concern. Its members may quote the Bible and claim the endorsement of Christ for their efforts, but if their doctrine and practices are out of step with what the Bible teaches is true, then they are leading people astray. In determining whether a group is essentially non-Christian, we have based our analysis on two central factors:

1. They ignore or purposely omit central apostolic doctrines.

2. They hold to beliefs that are distinctly opposed to orthodox Christianity.

Deviation from either criterion rules out a group's inclusion in the Christian community. The ultimate gauge of truth and error is whether a belief system conforms to Scripture or the extent to which it departs from biblical precepts. Thus, any group that intentionally manipulates its language to mimic evangelical beliefs must have its semantic distortions exposed. Any group that


* * *

One of the best-known UFO groups, the Aetherius Society encourages members to be willing channels of communication with extraterrestrial beings.



Excerpted from Larson's Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality by Bob Larson Copyright © 2004 by Bob Larson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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