Jesus’ claims about His identity and mission were bold. When He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6 NASB), He was making an assertion that may be hard to accept, but His meaning was unmistakable: He meant that He was the only possible path back to God, the one means designed by God to provide salvation for all mankind.
- John the Baptist: “Behold [Jesus], the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
- Jesus: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
- Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
- Peter: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11,12).
- Paul: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
As we said, these statements may difficult for us to hear, especially in today’s social environment. But what shall we do? One approach would be to water down Jesus’ claim and reinterpret it in a way that is more acceptable to modern sensibilities. However this is not a responsible way to handle an ancient text, whether it is the New Testament or any other document. Even if we disagree with ancient writers, they should be allowed to say what they said. A better approach would be to simply ask: are Jesus’ statements true? It may be that, despite our negative knee-jerk reaction, this is still (1) what Jesus actually taught, and (2) the evidence supports the fact that His teachings are true. If what Jesus said is correct, it needs to be accepted and acted upon.
Granted, we should take a stand for that truth without being hypocritical, self-righteous, or judgmental. And if we accept the gospel of Christ, our attitude toward those who have not yet accepted it should be one of compassion and humility rather than condescension.
That said, however, we must not evade the force of what the gospel teaches. There is no way around the exclusiveness of the idea that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” If true, the gospel requires us to discard the familiar image of God as a mountain summit that can be reached by any path one chooses to climb.
But I want to suggest a line of thought that may help with some of our misunderstandings about the idea of God providing just one way.
Think carefully about the difference it makes which view we take about how mankind needs to be “saved.”
- Social improvement. If we think mankind’s worst problems are things like social injustice, crime, poverty, and health disparities, there might be room for discussion as to the most expedient way to improve the world. “Making the world a better place” is certainly a project in which all religions can play a role, and it would be a waste of time to debate which one is the most effective. If we envision “God” merely in terms of a worldly utopia or temporal paradise, any religion that advanced the cause of social justice would be helpful to some extent.
- Health and wellness. Many people are interested in religion for its therapeutic value; they want its help in overcoming their stress and unhappiness, so they can feel better and live longer. And here again, almost any religion, if taken seriously and devoutly, can lend a helping hand (just ask Alcoholics Anonymous). If you think your religion is the only one that can help overcome these kinds of problems, the statisticians and social researchers will quickly prove you wrong.
- Moral instruction. This is the third reason why many are interested in religion. They believe religion’s primary role is to reveal the right way to live. But frankly, most of the major religions agree on the core principles of morality. They vary slightly, but if there was no higher purpose for religion than moral instruction, one might argue that all of the religions contribute something of value.
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However, what if the main purpose of religion is not social improvement, health and wellness, or moral instruction? What if the thing we need to be saved from is sin and its eternal consequences? That would radically change the question of whether there are many paths to God.
To be sure, the teachings of Jesus will improve social conditions, and they are conducive people’s emotional and physical health. As far as morality is concerned, Jesus’ teaching was consistent with what thoughtful human beings have known about right conduct since the beginning of time. He did not claim to introduce a moral standard that was new or unique. Instead, He called people back to the standard the human race started out with in “the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
Our problem is that we’ve violated the standard — and we’re cut off from God as a result. Christ claimed that His sacrifice was the only way we could be cured of the cancer that was our real problem: sin.
If God is the God described in the Scriptures and Jesus is His Son, God alone has the right to say how we can be reconciled to Him. A partial (or merely “helpful”) solution will not do. Either the solution comes down from God and saves us in eternity or it does not save us at all. In the busy religious marketplace, Jesus did not set up a booth where He hawked a new plan for a nicer life. What He did was die for our sins.