|
  • Is Jesus the Only Way?

    by Mike Licona

    Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” I must admit that of all the biblical teachings, the claim that Jesus is the only way to God is one of the most troubling for me. Is God being unfair in requiring others to believe only in Jesus in order to get into heaven? Or is it merely a matter of some Christians interpreting the Bible in this manner?

    There is widespread evidence that Jesus himself claimed to be the only way to God. Not only are his claims multiply-attested, his earliest followers Peter and Paul taught that he is the only way (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22; 12:8-9; John 3:36; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:1-2; 2 Thess. 1:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 10:26-27). In fact, there are no claims to the contrary by the earliest Christians. Consider these statements of Jesus:

    “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6)

    “For unless you believe that I am who I say I am, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

    These are pretty amazing claims. Imagine if Rick Warren were to appear on Larry King Live and utter similar statements about himself. We might still regard him as a nice guy who has given much to help the poor and destitute. But make no mistake about it. We would also think of him as being a few French fries short of a Happy Meal! Jesus’ claims appear as outrageous today as they did to many of those who heard him and his disciples utter them. So, what are we to do with Jesus’ unrestrained claims to be the only way to God?

    Since many have made similar claims to having the exclusive truth about God, we may first ask whether these claims of Jesus are true. When asked for proof that he was whom he claimed to be, Jesus replied that he would provide only one: his resurrection from the dead. This is a pretty good test and differs from those offered by other religions. The Qur’an tells us that its divine inspiration can be known when one attempts to create a sura like one in it (a sura is an independent chapter, like a psalm). The Book of Mormon tells us that God will inform us of its truth if we read it and ask God with a sincere heart to show us whether it’s true.

    For anyone interested in taking these tests, read Qur’an 108:

    Lo! We have given thee Abundance;
    So pray unto thy Lord, and sacrifice.
    Lo! It is thy insulter (and not thou) who is without prosperity.

    It is not difficult to conceive of something else having at least equal beauty and meaning. Consider Psalm 117:

    Praise the LORD, all nations;
    Laud Him, all peoples!
    For His lovingkindness is great toward us,
    And the truth of the LORD is everlasting.
    Praise the LORD!

    Or how about the following early Christian hymn preserved in 1 Timothy 3:16?  It says that Jesus

    Was revealed in the flesh,
    Was vindicated in the Spirit,
    Was seen by angels,
    Was proclaimed among the nations,
    Was believed on in the world,
    Was taken up in glory.

    A Muslim may claim that Qur’an 108 contains superior linguistic beauty when read in Arabic. But a Christian or Jew may counter that Psalm 117 is a song that contains similar linguistic beauty when read in Hebrew. The hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16 was Greek in its original form and has beauty in both its sound and grammatical structure when read in that language. So the test provided by the Qur’an boils down to a matter of personal taste. Do you prefer the beauty of Arabic, Hebrew, or Greek? This is similar to choosing between Bach, Beethoven, and Bernstein.

    I have also read much of the Book of Mormon while praying sincerely that God would show me through his Spirit whether it is true. Although I read and prayed, God was silent while a number of archaeological facts weighed against its divine inspiration. So, the tests provided by the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are quite subjective.

    The test Jesus provided, however, is quite impressive: his resurrection from the dead. Such a test does not depend on one’s personal taste or a warm feeling. He either rose from the dead confirming his personal claims or he didn’t, revealing himself to be just another false prophet. Space does not permit me to provide a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection. Gary Habermas and I have done so elsewhere. If we may assume for the moment that Jesus was truly who he claimed to be, this goes a long way toward reconciling his claim to being the exclusive route to God with the uneasiness it brings. Notwithstanding, there are still a number of objections which pop up that I would like to address. It is my opinion that we can come to terms with most objections to Jesus’ claims to being the only way by answering three rudimentary questions.

    1.     What is truth?

    When Jesus was brought before the Roman governor Pilate, he said he had come into the world to proclaim the truth. Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” Many today are upset when a Christian repeats Jesus’ claim to be the only true way to God and may answer, “Truth is broader than your narrow concept and differs between people.” So, what is truth?

    A statement is true to the extent that it corresponds with reality. My wife Debbie and I have been married for 21 years. Our ideas of comfort differ. She has a lot of German blood and is comfortable in cooler temperatures, while I’m more comfortable in warmer temperatures (my dad was from Honduras). If it’s 70° F. in our house, she’s turning on the fans and I’m putting on a sweater! In this case, truth is both personal and relative: Debbie is warm and Mike is cool. But there is a truth irrespective of our perceptions: It’s 70° in the room.

    This applies in other areas. I’ve always been fascinated with space. When I was a child I wanted to be an astronaut. I was glued to the television as were most Americans when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. When the Hale-Bopp comet neared Earth in 1997, it was visible to the naked eye. We were the first to view this comet since the Spartans in 383 BC! There was also some news at the time related to the comet: a speck appeared in the sky next to it that astronomers claimed was the planet Mars. But the leader of a small cult, Marshall Applewhite, convinced 38 of his followers that the speck was a spaceship trailing the comet and that it would rescue them from earth before destroying it. Applewhite’s followers trusted him so much that they followed him in committing suicide, believing that the spaceship would take their souls to another galaxy named Heaven.

    Let’s assess the truth-claims of the Heaven’s Gate cult. The earth was not destroyed as Applewhite had predicted. And Applewhite was a shady character: he was arrested at age 43 for stealing credit cards and fired from his job as music professor because of “health problems of an emotional nature.” There was a truth that is personal and relative: members of the Heaven’s Gate cult obtained feelings of peace, hope, and fulfillment from following Applewhite. But there is an objective truth that holds true for everyone: Applewhite was a false prophet and his followers were duped. Sincere belief to the point of taking their own lives did not change the truth.

    If we can assess the truth-claims of the Heaven’s Gate religion, we can assess the truth-claims of other religions. Followers of other religions may find that their religious beliefs and practices bring them feelings of peace and hope and give them a purpose for living. In fact, here is a true statement: A number of valuable benefits have been realized by followers of non-Christian religions. However, if Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive way to God is true, then the following statement is false: Muhammad provided an effective way to be acceptable to God. In other words, a religion can be true in a subjective sense while being false in an objective one. I am interested in following religious teachings that are true in both senses.

    I realize that this can be quite offensive. But we must not be so captive to our politically correct culture that we are led astray from truth. Since the truth of a statement can be measured by how closely it corresponds with reality, if Jesus claimed to be the exclusive way to God and rose from the dead in order to confirm his claims, the following statement has a very high probability of being true: Jesus is the exclusive way to God.

    2.     What is ethical?

    Any Western Christian who has shared his or her faith with others understands that claiming Jesus is the only way can be perceived as being intolerant of and offensive to others. A few years ago I had a public discussion with a Muslim professor on a university campus. The morning of the event, the moderator informed me that the Muslim professor had just called and said he would not participate unless I agreed not to offer any criticism of Islam. I was shocked but agreed. During my speech that evening I shared that I was a Christian today because I had investigated Christianity historically and discovered that Jesus’ claims to deity, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection could all be confirmed by historical research. During the Q&A period one of the audience members asked me why the Muslim professor and I hated one another. Now we had been very collegial to each other during the evening’s event. So, I responded that I did not hate him and did not sense that he hated me. I added that if I were to claim that his views were equally valid or true as my own, he would not respect me and I would not respect him if he were to say the same to me. I added that such a comment would be rather insulting, since both of us are strongly persuaded that our own religious tradition is true to the exclusion of the other. Accordingly, if I were to assert that the Muslim view is as valid as the Christian view, he would understand my comment as a demotion of Islam. I ended by stating that it is certainly possible for us to disagree in the strongest sense with the other’s cherished views while acknowledging and even defending their right to have them. The point I want to make is this: when someone claims that my belief that Jesus is the only way is intolerant and offensive, they ignore the fact that their pluralist approach is likewise intolerant and offensive. They are being intolerant of exclusivist views and offensive to those who hold them.

    Amy-Jill Levine is a distinguished professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University and is Jewish. Professor Levine opines that the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way is not morally dubious. She adds, “What I would find more ‘morally dubious’ is my insisting to another that his or her reading or presuppositions, because they are not pluralistic, are somehow wrong. . . . The evangelical Christian should be free to try to seek to convert me to Christianity: such an attempt is biblically warranted and consistent with evangelical (exclusivist) theology. I remain free to say ‘thank you, but no thanks.’ I would not want someone telling me that my ‘cherished confessional traditions’ have only limited value. I would not presume to do the same to another.1

    Moreover, there are times when truth should not be sacrificed for the sake of avoiding offense. While the Titanic was sinking, since lifeboats were available, it would have been unethical for the crew, in the interest of reducing panic for the moment, to have told all of the passengers to go back to their cabins and sleep through the night because everything would be fine in the morning. Truth is important. Decisions of greater importance should drive us to discover the truth, rather than dilute or deny it in our efforts not to offend, which as we have seen is a no-win situation. However, when sharing our faith with others, Christians should remember to do it “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We should love others and be graceful in our efforts to share the greatest news ever told.

    3.     What is required?

    Perhaps you have heard the following: “It doesn’t matter what you believe. The way to heaven is paved with sincerity, goodness, and belief in God.” This statement attempts to shed the offense of the exclusivity claims of Jesus. However, it introduces new problems. In claiming that sincerity, goodness, and belief in a generic God are the true requirements for God’s acceptance, one is making a religious claim: “This is how one can appease God.” When someone says that to me, I simply ask, “On what foundation is such a belief based? It’s not from the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other holy book. Why should I believe it? Have you heard personally from God?”

    There is another problem with this assertion: How much sincerity and goodness are required? Most people would agree that despots who were responsible for the mass murder of millions, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, certainly don’t make the cut. But the line blurs after that. What about Muslim terrorists who blow up innocent people in the process of doing what they believe is a service to God? Someone may suggest that we just need to keep the Ten Commandments; how many of them must we keep? Did you ever steal as a child, ever break a Sabbath, used God’s name in a disrespectful manner, dishonored your parents, falsely accused your sibling, or had an obsessive desire for something belonging to someone else? If you have, you’ve already violated six of the Ten! Where should the line be drawn? If God is the one who draws it, shouldn’t we seek to know where He has drawn it?

    The Christian gospel lays out the requirements for acceptance by God: It’s nothing any of us can do (Rom 6:23); it’s all about what God has done for us in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9); we must entrust our eternal destiny with Jesus (Jn 14:6); we must believe in Jesus’ deity, atoning death, and resurrection (Jn 8:24; Rom 10:9). We may also recognize that Jesus said that the road to heaven is narrow and few follow it (Matt 7:13-14).

    How can I share the gospel with others, given their aversion to the exclusivity claims of Jesus? I’d like to suggest three actions. First, understand the answers to the three rudimentary questions we have discussed: What is truth; what is ethical; what is required? Second, clothe Jesus’ message with love. Be winsome and humble. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Third, recognize that timing is important.  

    Some may think you’re being narrow-minded now. However, if a time comes when their life is falling apart or they have just learned that they have cancer, they may want you to give them the answer and will respect you for holding true to your faith.

     



    1Levine, A-J, “Homeless in the Global Village” in Penner, T. C. and C. V. Stichele, eds. Moving Beyond New Testament Theology? Essays in Conversation with Heikki Räisänen (Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society/University of Helsinki, 2005), 195-96.