Is Christianity Exclusive?
There’s a verse in this week’s Gospel reading that almost always seems to stir up conversation and controversy. After Thomas asks Jesus how to get where he’s going, Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 CEB) The verse is comforting to some of us and troubling for others. While reading various articles and commentaries on this particular verse, I’m usually amazed by the amount of theological and rhetorical gymnastics writers display in their attempts explain it away or apologize for it.
Here are some of the questions that often come up:
What about those who have never heard of Jesus? This question, quite frankly is a red herring. If a nonbeliever is asking it while in the process of considering the validity of Christianity, then the situation doesn’t even apply to them. At best, it’s a diversion from making their own decision to follow Christ, and at worst, it’s an excuse to not believe. If the question is asked by a Christian, perhaps they should interpret it as a call to pray, act, and become an answer to their own question. When I took my first foreign language class as a teenager, I wanted to know why everything worked the way it did. I tried to overanalyze the basics of the language, and my teacher would occasionally say, “Don’t ask why, ask how.” In some cases, there’s simply not going to be an answer that will satisfy our intellect, especially when we’re at the beginning stages of something. Instead of why, a better question for us to ask would be, “How can I get involved in sharing Jesus with those who have never heard of him?”
Isn’t religious faith mostly an accident of geography? No, it’s not. Am I more likely to become a Christian if I’m raised in a Christian home or Christian culture? Sure. But there’s usually a trade-off. Some of the most vibrant Christianity in the world is in newly Christianized areas, while “Christian” countries seem to have much more lukewarm or nominal Christianity. Consider physical nourishment for a moment. Am I more likely to go to bed hungry if I’m born in certain parts of the world as opposed to others? Without a doubt. But that doesn’t affect my need for food, nor does it change the moral responsibility that’s placed upon those who are more fortunate to help me. It works similarly for spiritual food. That’s why Jesus said, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news.” (Mark 16:15) Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much. (Luke 12:48)
Isn’t there good in other religions? Sure, there is. But the more pressing question isn’t whether or not a religion does good, but whether it’s salvific. Does it have the power to offer salvation? Consider the account of Cornelius in Acts 10. Cornelius was a God-fearing Gentile whose “prayers and compassionate acts were like a memorial offering before God.” (Acts 10:4) But that wasn’t enough. Cornelius and his household needed Jesus, so God went through the trouble to shake Peter up with a vision that challenged his whole belief system. Then, when Peter tried to get too analytical, “the Spirit interrupted him.” He was told to go downstairs, return to Caesarea with the people Cornelius had sent to Joppa, and not ask questions. The relatives and close friends of Cornelius then believed in Jesus because Peter preached the word of God to them. Sometimes when we’re asking difficult questions, we need for the Spirit to just come and interrupt us.
Isn’t it arrogant and intolerant to think that your religion is the only one, or even that it’s the most effective one? No. Arrogance is considering yourself superior to or worth more than others. Considering a philosophy or belief system to be superior to others and then subscribing to that belief system isn’t being arrogant, it’s being honest. Wouldn’t it be foolish to believe something that you didn’t think had some kind of edge over competing viewpoints? As for religious tolerance, that’s simply respecting the rights of people to believe what they want, even when they disagree with you. Intolerance would be forcing or intimidating them to change those beliefs to align with yours.
Jesus said that he’s the way, the truth, and the life. I think Western culture has more problems than other cultures with that declaration because we like having choices. John 14:6 doesn’t give us a “Plan B”, and it drives us crazy. The reality is, Christianity is an exclusive faith-- not because it excludes people (it doesn’t), but because it excludes competing and contradicting belief systems.