The sky burial site was a disturbing scene. The sweet smell of rotting flesh filled the man’s nostrils, stimulating his salivary glands so that he felt sick yet hungry at the same time.
Around a group of flat stones, he could see bloodied hatchets lying on the ground amidst torn clothes and human bones — a pelvis, skull, forearm. The bits that the vultures do not eat will lie there until they decompose or are carried away by dogs.
Coming down off the mountainside he looked pale and was clearly in shock. He had found what he was looking for, but not what he expected.
The glossy guide books made the Tibetan Buddhist practice of ‘sky burial’ sound intriguing and mysterious. When a person dies, the body is taken up on the hillside and fed to the birds of prey in the belief that they will carry the spirit to a better reincarnation.
He could not help but reflect on the Christianity of his youth. In contrast to the mystical religion he had come to explore, its dignified burials and promise of eternal resurrection gave hope and meaning.
They took the girl outside and beat her. The family had always been Tibetan Buddhist. When grandfather lay dying, they had prostrated themselves in front of the idol-shelf until their hands and feet cut 2-inch deep grooves into the wood.
If she stopped worshipping the idol, something bad might happen. The whole village was Tibetan Buddhist. If the monks heard about this, the family would be cut off from the community.
Her family treated her well by local standards. Some of the poor families had sold the girls they did not want. She had worked since childhood in order to earn money for her brother to go to school.
Each night, she cried herself to sleep in despair. One day she heard about a religion which promised forgiveness, hope and love. Her father and brother told her she was not allowed to be different. After they beat her, she was too afraid to become a Christian.
Society as we now know it would have been unimaginable when our grandparents were children. In the last few decades, eastern religions like Tibetan Buddhism have become increasingly popular in western society.
Schools which once recited the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 in morning assemblies now offer a daily thought from the Dalai Lama. Church halls are used for Yoga instead of prayer meetings. The noticeboard in a popular North Wales café advertises shamanist retreats near Machynlleth.
In the years after the Second World War, there was an understandable backlash against any claim to absolute authority. Philosophy began to doubt whether objective truth could be communicated by and to subjective individuals.
Rejecting traditional, doctrinal Christianity, many people came to believe that the only truth worth knowing was ‘truth’ you could feel. Mystical religions gained popularity, offering non-dogmatic spiritual experiences, a connection with nature, or the ideal of ‘love, peace and happiness’.
Of course one need not travel as far as Tibet in search of all this. Europe has its own traditions of paganism and occult arts that present broadly similar attractions.
As the above true stories demonstrate, the harsh reality of these religions in their indigenous context is far from the popular perception.
At the grass-roots level, they are often characterised by intolerance, superstition, hopelessness and fear. Those who have naively accepted the popular view have bought into a well-sold lie.
The Bible identifies some fundamental spiritual realities which explain why so many people are determined to reject Christianity in favour of idolatrous, occult religions. Firstly, it teaches that all human beings are sinful.
That does not necessarily mean that we are all outwardly immoral. But it does mean that even the best of our good deeds are tainted by pride and selfishness. In other words, we think of ourselves as central to the universe. In doing this we are claiming an honour which belongs to God alone.
Sinful people are more than willing to distort and ignore spiritual truth in order to maintain the illusion that God has no authority over our lives.
Secondly, the Bible presents the devil as a real, personal, evil spirit. He is in rebellion against God and exercises what power he has to deceive human beings and draw them away from the truth. Scripture calls him ‘the father of lies’.
He has lies to match the preferences and prejudices of every one of us. He has convinced some people that they can earn their way to heaven by going to church and appearing outwardly ‘Christian’, ignoring the biblical imperatives to repent, believe and be born again.
He has convinced others that they can control their own destiny through merit-earning prostrations and repetitive chanting, or that they can control spiritual forces and powers through magic and shamanism.
He sometimes tries to add credibility to his lies through supernatural phenomena. Accounts of inexplicable incidents are widespread among traditional practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Satan’s little magic tricks are designed to keep people in spiritual darkness, enemies of God enslaved to sin and forces of spiritual wickedness.
That is why the Bible is uncompromising in its warnings against, and condemnation of, any involvement in idolatry or occult practice. Those who wake up to these facts discover too late that they are not in control, but being controlled by the spirits of darkness.
We are not strong enough to fight our way free from Satan’s grip. Because God is just and must punish sin we each face a hopeless eternity in hell, unless someone comes to our rescue!
The Christian good news is this: Jesus is willing and able to rescue us from sin, guilt and the devil. Our rebellion can be forgiven. There is hope for all who will turn from their sin and trust only in him.
As the apostle Paul wrote about some of the early Christians: ‘You, who were dead in your trespasses … God made alive together with [Jesus], having forgiven us all our trespasses’.
God does not ignore our wrongdoing. Jesus, the God-man, who had no sin, was executed as our representative-substitute, paying the death penalty that others deserved. The record of our sins was nailed to his cross, thereby satisfying the righteous demands of God’s law in our place and ‘cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands’.
Furthermore, Jesus’ death was a complete victory over the evil spirits, for ‘he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them’ (Colossians 2:13-15). Satan conspired to kill Christ, but death could not hold him; Jesus rose from the dead! Jesus is stronger than Satan and sin. Satan to Jesus must bow.
Christians look forward to a physical resurrection and eternity in heaven rather than meaningless cycles of reincarnation. Instead of slavery to vindictive and violent spirits, we serve the King of love.
We have hope and dignity; they have shame and despair. They bow to wooden statues; the Creator of the universe hears our prayers. They have a well-sold lie; we have a priceless treasure.