What about Kat? Do you think she's going to hell?” It was the hardest question I'd ever been asked. Kat was my college roommate and my closest friend. We were at the beach with a group of close friends at the end of our freshman year. Over the course of our week at the beach, the group of us had sat around the table every night talking and laughing—about politics, family, literature, music, and pop culture. We had become close friends over the course of our freshman year, and we found ourselves able to talk for hours about anything. But on this particular night, the conversation turned to our differences—our beliefs about religion.
Sitting around the table that night were two Jews, an aspiring Buddhist, several agnostics, and one adamant atheist. (The adamant atheist was my roommate.) I was the only Christian there. None of them shared my faith in Jesus Christ, yet they were my closest friends in the world.
How had I been drawn to these friends who were so different from me? It's not because they were exotic. I wasn't trying to rebel against my upbringing. And it wasn't because we kept things shallow and spent our time partying. No, these friendships were deep and real. The friends around the table that night were the people I found on campus who touched my soul. These were the friends with whom I could talk about the deepest questions of life. We shared a common understanding of what it meant to be a good human being in this world. They seemed to speak the same soul-language I did, and I could tell by their words and actions that they knew something about love.
I had tried some of the Christian groups on campus. But the Christians I came across did not leave room for my deepest questions. They were enthusiastic and nice, but something was missing for me. We didn't connect to each other's hearts. To put it another way, in none of the Christian communities did I feel at home.
So, here I was, the only Christian at the table. We were talking about truth and absolutes when the conversation turned to religion. If each of us thought that we were right, did that mean that everyone else was wrong? Eventually the inevitable happened: someone at the table turned to me. Everyone seemed to know where Christians stood on this question. “Don't Christians believe that Jesus is the only right way? Isn't that what you were taught?”
Is that what I was taught? Looking back on my childhood, I'm not so sure. I grew up in the United Methodist Church with parents who encouraged intellectual thought and curiosity. I learned from them and from my church the basic convictions about Jesus Christ that are central to our faith. But if I had to summarize what was the bedrock of my faith at that point in my life, it would be that God is love and we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies.
In all of this time growing up I hadn't encountered many people who weren't Christians. I never really thought about what happens to nonbelievers. I had read John 14:6 and assumed that Jesus Christ was the Way to God. And, when pressed on the issue, I guess I agreed that he was the only Way.
With the eyes of all my friends on me that night twenty years ago, I stumbled through some sort of answer about how Jesus was the Way to God. But then the question became personal: “What about Kat? Do you think, then, that she's going to hell?” She was my dearest friend in the whole world. She was an atheist and rejected all organized religion. But she knew my heart. And I knew hers. She was loving and compassionate and cared about justice. The injustices of the world broke her heart. She worked with inner-city kids and wanted to go into the Peace Corps. She loved me better than any friend I'd ever had. How could I look her in the eye and say, “You are going to hell"?
Frankly, I do not remember how I responded to the question. All I remember is bursting into tears. Something inside of me shattered. I couldn't reconcile John 14:6 with my love for Kat. I couldn't believe that God would reject her or that somehow my love was more inclusive than God's love. It was the first time that I had felt trapped by the words of the Bible, and all I could do was cry.
What about Kat? We who are pastors find ourselves facing some version of this question over and over again in our ministries. In the years that I've been in ministry, I have officiated at weddings in which the bride was Christian and the groom was Jewish. I have conducted funerals for people who were agnostic. I have sat on a community panel with a rabbi, a Muslim, and a Hindu to talk about what prayer means to us. I have counseled a mother concerned for her daughter who had joined the Universalist Church.
In all of these situations we pastors could find ourselves bumping up against John 14:6. If the Christian way is the only way, if a person must profess Jesus Christ in order to be right with God, what do we say to the Jewish groom? To the grieving family of the agnostic? To our counterparts from other faiths? To a mother who's worried about the fate of her daughter's soul?
My first reaction is to burst into tears, as I did many years ago when I first faced the question. How could God reject people who are kind and gentle and compassionate? How could God not recognize and affirm love, wherever and in whomever it appears? If I can love these folks, how much more will God love them?
In those moments I turn to other places in the Scripture. Didn't God promise to take care of Hagar and Ishmael, too? Didn't Jesus say something mysterious about having sheep in another fold? Didn't Peter have a vision that convinced him that God “shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35)? In Matthew 25, doesn't the Son of Man reward people not based on what they said they believed but on whom and how they loved?
Remembering these other voices in the Bible certainly helps me in these moments of pastoral crisis. I remind myself that God is love and wherever there is love, there is God. And I no longer feel trapped. But what about John 14:6? Do I ignore it? Discard it? Is there not something unique and central and necessary about Jesus Christ?
Fast forward to another pastoral encounter. Just a few weeks ago a member of my church came to my office with questions about how we as Christians “deal with other religions.” If everyone is on a different path to truth, she wondered, and if all the paths are equal, then why bother to come to church or to try and follow Christ at all? She was struggling hard with this question and wanted to know where I, as her pastor, stood. With a full heart I was able to assure her that I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he is the unique revelation of God. He lived, died and was resurrected from the dead. He is the Lord of my life, the center of my heart, the ground of my being. Because I have heard his story, because I love him, because I am known by him, I can take no other path. I can claim no other truth. No other can be my Lord.
If pressed on the issue today, I would confess frankly that all religions are not equal to me. I have made the choice to follow Christ and no other. I believe that following Christ is what I must do. Nothing else makes sense to me. My relationship with God in Jesus Christ began years ago, and it is the relationship. For me, there is no other way.
But as a pastor and a friend to many different kinds of people, I base all of my actions on the truth that God is love. God does not call me to be right. God calls me to love. God isn't pleased with correct doctrine as much as God is pleased with kindness and humility and compassion. At least that is what I glean from the Old Testament prophets and from Jesus' confrontations with the religious authorities of his day. Just as it was twenty years ago for me, today this life of faith is all about love.
So as I look at Kat and the Jewish groom and my friends of other faiths, all I feel called to do is love them. And if I find love, kindness and humility in those of other faiths, I praise God. I try not to waste too much time wondering where people stand with God. That's God's business. I am perfectly happy and deeply grateful to be able to say, “I don't know.”
What about Kat? Will Christ one day turn to her and say, “You didn't call me by name, but you lived in my Spirit. You didn't know it was I you were feeding and clothing and visiting, but it was. Come on in, my daughter"?
I don't know. But I sure like to think so.
Carol Cavin-Dillon is Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.