The Trouble with Christianity
Part 4: Exclusivity: how can there be just one way to God?
Thank you Chris for being willing to share those thoughts with us. Chris said what a lot of people in our culture think. How can there only be one way to God? How can Christians think that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong? It seems so exclusive and arrogant.
This is the fourth and final message in this series, “The Trouble with Christianity.” We’ve been looking at some of the major objections people have to the Christian faith. The trouble with Christianity is:
Suffering: if God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?
Christians: I like Jesus; it’s his followers I can’t stand. Sometimes Christians are so unlike the Leader they claim to follow.
Doubt: how can I be a Christian when I have so many doubts?
Today, we talk about exclusivity: how can there be just one way to God?
ILL: Do you know how many different ways you can have your coffee made at Starbucks? 100? 200? 500? Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once estimated that there are over 70,000 ways to order your Starbucks coffee! We live in an age of multiple choices. It used to be simple: black or with cream and sugar. Now there are over 70,000 choices.
But the real question is, “which one is right?” And the answer is, “grande caramel macchiato with soy, extra hot, no foam.” Yeah! Ok, that’s how I like it. The “right coffee” maybe different for you. 70,000 choices.
Religion is like coffee. We live in an age of multiple choices, not just for coffee, but for faith too. There are so many religions to choose from:
The major world religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. And there are multiple choices within each of those. The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that there are 38,000 Christian denominations in the world! Not quite Starbucks, but close!
Then there is a host of other smaller religions: Bahai, Confucionism, Shinto, Taoism, Wicca, Zoroastrianism, Druidism, to name a few.
There are still many animists in the world, who believe that spirits animate all living things, so they worship the god of the sun, the wind, and the river.
There are syncretistic religions that combine features of several faiths.
There are homemade religions; many people simply make up their own faith.
And there are more and more people who reject all religion and claim to be atheists or agnostics; they have faith that there is no god.
We live in an age of multiple choices, and we live in a culture that celebrates everyone’s right to choose what they want. We celebrate religious freedom and pluralism: we expect all the diverse faiths to live together with tolerance for each other.
Then we Christians claim that Jesus is the only way to God, the only way to be saved, the only way to heaven. That’s the problem.
1. The problem: Christians claim that Jesus is the only way to God.
The first question we should ask is: Do Christians truly believe this? Yes, in fact, we do. Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to God. Where did we get this offensive and exclusive idea? From Jesus. There are many verses in the Bible; let me give you a couple:
Matthew 7:13–14 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Jesus presents us with two ways: one leads to life, the other to destruction. The way to life is narrow and hard and only a few find it. The way to destruction is broad and easy and many go that way. Jesus said that there is a right way and a wrong way, and tells us to take the right way.
There is an ancient saying: “All roads lead to Rome.” People quote that and say that there are many ways to God, that all religions are simply different ways to God. It’s like climbing a mountain; there are many ways up the mountain. There is not just one way up the mountain; the mountain is too big for that. It’s the same with God; there are many ways to God.
Jesus disagreed with that position and said that there is a right way and a wrong way. Jesus said that not every way will get you up the mountain; not every way will lead to God.
So what is this narrow way? What is the way to God?
John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus had just told his followers that He was leaving them and going to God, to His Father’s house. And He said that they knew the way to where He was going. Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” This is Jesus’ answer: I am the way.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “I am a way. There are many ways to God, and I am just one of them.” No. Jesus says, “I am the way.” And then, so that we don’t miss His meaning, He adds, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus said that He was the only way to God. It is a shocking claim! And it is either true or false: Jesus is the way, or He isn’t. His followers believed Jesus and so they proclaimed this message: Jesus is the way to God.
Acts 4:12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Peter and John have just healed a crippled man in Jesus’ name and been arrested for it. The Jewish rulers asked them, “By what power or what name did you do this?” And Peter explained that it was done in the name of Jesus, whom they crucified and God raised from the dead, and then he adds this: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Peter believed that Jesus was the way to God. “No one else…no other name.” And remember, Peter is saying this to his own Jewish brothers who believed in God, the same God Peter believed in! Peter is saying that believing in God is not enough; you have to come to God through Jesus. It was shocking then; it still is!
I could go on; there are many other verses in the New Testament about this. In fact, the entire evangelistic enterprise of the church—all our efforts to persuade others to believe in Jesus—is built upon this belief that Jesus is the way to God. If there were many ways to God and Jesus was just one, then we’d stop trying to win people to Jesus and simply encourage them to find their own way. If all spiritual paths are equally legit, then it doesn’t matter what you believe or who or what or how you worship. Find your own way. But we try to win people to Jesus because we believe Jesus is the way to God. And we believe it because this is what Jesus taught us to believe. It is what He claimed for Himself.
And it is this belief that many people find exclusive and offensive and arrogant. That’s the problem. So let’s consider a few questions that might help us unpack this.
2. Some questions to consider:
A. Shouldn’t we be tolerant?
As Americans, we value tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society, meaning there is a plurality of belief systems; so we have to be tolerant in order to live together. Live and let live. We believe in freedom of speech and religion and we fight to protect it. In fact, Thursday was Veterans’ Day when we remember and honor the sacrifice and service of our military who protects those freedoms. Would all the vets, and all those in active duty stand and let us thank you for your service. Honor vets.
So we value these freedoms, and the tolerance it takes for us to live together in a free and pluralistic society. We value this as Americans and as Christians.
We value tolerance, but in recent years, tolerance has taken on a new meaning. We tolerate anything except the notion of truth. It is ok to believe whatever you want until you say that your belief is right and mine is wrong. Then you are arrogant and intolerant, and that is intolerable.
ILL: In 1893, Hindu leader Swami Vivekenanda told the World Parliament of Religions, “We Hindus accept all religions to be true. The real sin is to call someone else a sinner.”
Over a century later, this sentiment dominates our culture. All religions are equally valid ways to God. And the only real sin is to call someone else a sinner, to say that you are right and they are wrong. Thus, tolerance becomes the highest virtue, and any claim to truth (right and wrong) is seen as intolerance of others, and will not be tolerated!
Should we be tolerant? Yes and no. Let’s think about it. Tolerance can be good or bad. There are three kinds of tolerance.
First, there is legal tolerance. This would be what the first amendment guarantees: the right to believe what we want. As Americans and as Christians, we would say this is a good tolerance.
Second, there is social tolerance. We accept others as human beings regardless of what they believe, and we treat them with dignity and respect. We love our neighbor, even when we don’t agree with them. I think we’d say this is a good tolerance.
Third, there is intellectual tolerance, which is accepting every idea as equally valid, good, right and true. This is the tolerance that is being advocated today. All religions, all beliefs, all “truth” is equally valid and true. No one can say, “this is right and that is wrong”. If you do, you’ll be labeled intolerant. But are all views equally valid? Of course not! We all know this and we all live this way. The person who says that all truth is relative still lives like some truth is absolute. The person who says all beliefs are equally valid still lives like some are not!
ILL: There was a big ruckus this week about Amazon selling a digital book entitled, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure.” The author described it as an “attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles…by establishing certain rules for these adults to follow.” It reportedly described how to engage in pedophilia in such a way that you minimized your legal liability and possible jail time.
Is this an equally valid point of view? How many of you think this is wrong? Disgusting? You are so intolerant! By the way, it seems most Americans agree with you and the outcry forced Amazon to remove the book from their digital shelves in one day.
Are all points of view equally valid? No! Are all equally true? No! You may believe that the earth is flat (you’d be wrong), or that the King James Bible is the only true Bible (you’d be wrong). I respect your legal right to believe that even though I disagree with you: that’s legal tolerance. I respect you as a person made in God’s image and will treat you with kindness, even though I disagree with you: that’s social tolerance. But I don’t have to think that your ideas are as true or valid as any other. I don’t have to practice an unthinking intellectual tolerance. We can disagree with each other intellectually without being intolerant legally or socially. This is how it works in the marketplace of ideas.
While people may claim to embrace intellectual tolerance, no one really does. When pushed, people quickly revert to right and wrong. A person may say that all religions are equally true. But when I say that Jesus is the way, they will tell me that I’m wrong! Which leads me to a second question:
B. What is truth?
The critical issue in this discussion is the nature of truth. Is there such a thing as truth? Or is there only personal opinion? Is all “truth” relative?
We need to be very careful and very clear here. There is such a thing as true truth—truth that is objectively true apart from any person believing it. It is simply true. And there is such a thing as personal opinion—something may be true for me that is not for you.
ILL: Let’s go back to coffee. A caramel macchiato is a coffee drink—that is true, whether you believe it or not. A caramel macchiato is the best coffee drink—that is true for me; that is my opinion. But it is not “true truth”, something that is inherently true whether you believe it or not.
There is true truth, and there is personal opinion; and sometimes these get confused by all of us. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the truth and personal opinion. But there is such a thing as truth. And truth by definition is exclusive. If something is true, then something contrary to it is false. “My father is dead.” That is a true statement; he died in 1993. So if someone told you, “Joe’s father is living in Oregon”, you would say, “that is false.” Truth is exclusive.
Now here’s the thing: every religion makes truth claims.
Christians claim that Christ rose from the dead and is God in the flesh.
Muslims claim that Mohammed is Allah’s prophet, and the Koran was dictated to him in Arabic.
Hindus claim that we are reincarnated according to the law of karma; every birth is a rebirth that makes recompense for a past life.
Buddhists claim that there is no personal god, that life is suffering caused by our desires and sense of self, and that we are released from suffering when we lose our desires and sense of self.
Every religion makes truth claims—not just Christians—every religion. In this sense, every religion is exclusive. Every religion says, “We are right, you are wrong.” And when people or religions make contradictory truth claims, one may be right and the other wrong, or they may both be wrong, but they cannot both be right. For example, Christianity says that Jesus is God’s divine Son; Islam says that he is only a prophet. One could be right and the other wrong; or they could both be wrong; but they can’t both be right. This is the nature of truth.
The popular position—all religions lead to God—is the one intellectually indefensible position. It cannot be true. Anyone who has studied world religions knows this; they are fundamentally different. They might all be wrong, but they can’t make opposing truth claims and all be right. Which leads to the next question: am I saying that all religions other than Christianity are totally false, that they are wrong about everything?
C. What about the good in other religions?
Well, they are good. The good things, the true things in other religions, those things are good and true.
As a Christian, I believe Jesus when He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” I believe that. I don’t believe that all religions are just different ways to God. Does that mean that I believe other religions are completely wrong about everything? No.
ILL: C.S. Lewis helps us here. He wrote in Mere Christianity, “if you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through…If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions…contain at least some hint of the truth.” Lewis goes on to suggest we think of it in terms of arithmetic. There is only one right answer to 2+2, and that is 4. But if someone answered 6, that would be a lot closer than answering 37. While there is only one right answer, some answers are closer to the truth than others, and it doesn’t detract from the right answer to acknowledge that.
For example, Buddhism teaches that we shouldn’t take the life of another, steal, engage in immoral sexual behavior, or lie. That is good and true and I can affirm all that.
Does that mean that Buddhism and Christianity are fundamentally agreed or that they are two equally valid paths to God? No. There are enormous and irreconcilable differences. The Dalai Lama has stated publicly that the central doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity are not compatible. He has said that you cannot be a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist. The Dalai Lama said that. Does that make him intolerant or arrogant? No; it merely shows that he understands the differences between our faiths and knows that both can’t be right.
We can be honest and charitable and acknowledge the good or truth in other religions or belief systems without having to swallow the whole package. Next question, and this is a big one:
D. What about good people who aren’t Christians?
If you say that Jesus is the only way to God, then what about all the good people who aren’t Christians? Are they going to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus? Or what about those raised in other religions, or who have never heard of Jesus? Will God send them to hell because they didn’t have a chance to believe in Jesus?
These are difficult and fair questions. And here’s what I do when I’m asked them: I fall back on the character of God. The Bible is clear that God is loving, merciful, gracious and just. He is completely fair; no one will be able to say, “I didn’t get a fair chance.” I don’t know how God will handle some of the cases in question, but I know He will handle it fairly and justly. I’ve listed a few verses that tell us a lot about God.
Genesis 18:25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; Abraham is asking Him if He would spare the innocent. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the answer was, “Of course.” God did spare the innocent and the righteous. God will always do the right thing. No one will be treated unfairly…unless it is that we get grace we don’t deserve.
Acts 10 is the story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who feared God, prayed and gave to the poor. An angel visits Cornelius to tell him that God has heard his prayers and seen his offerings, and told him to send for Peter and listen to his message. Notice: this man was not a Jew or a Christian; he was simply a seeker. And God responded to his seeking heart.
Acts 10:34–45 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
Peter acknowledges that God accepted this Gentile who was seeking him, and then proceeds to tell Cornelius about Jesus—notice that Peter said God accepted him but still told him about Jesus. Peter would have never sought Cornelius out to tell him the gospel—it took a vision from heaven and a message from the Holy Spirit to get Peter to go. This was all God’s work, and God was responding to the seeking heart of an outsider to the faith.
We underestimate the heart of God.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, not just the Christians, or the Jews, or the good people or the religious…the world! God so loved the world that He gave His Son so that whoever believes would not perish but have eternal life. Look at the next verse.
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Why did God send His Son into the world? To save the world—not to condemn the world but to save the world. God’s heart is to save, not condemn. God wants everyone to be saved.
1 Timothy 2:3–4 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Who does God want to be saved? All men. Everyone. The whole world. We underestimate the heart of God.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
God doesn’t want anyone to perish. He wants everyone to come to repentance. Everyone! We underestimate the heart of God. He sent Jesus because He loves the world and wants everyone to come to repentance and be saved.
Colossians 1:19–20 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
In Christ’s death on the cross, God reconciled all things to Himself. Everyone was reconciled to God in Christ. This is the heart of the God—He reconciled everyone and all things to Himself.
So does that mean that everyone will be saved and go to heaven? No—the Bible is clear about that. Not everyone will be saved. Not everyone will choose the narrow way. Some people will choose the wide way; they will choose not to believe, not to receive, not to repent. God has reconciled them to Himself in Christ, but they refuse to accept the gift.
ILL: Imagine that you did something terrible to me—let’s say you stole my whole savings account—and our relationship was broken. But then I decided that I wasn’t going to let what you did separate us any longer. So I absorbed the loss, and forgave you, and let you know that I loved you and had forgiven you and wanted you back as my friend. I have reconciled you to myself—I am at peace with you, and I have done everything necessary to restore our relationship. But you won’t enjoy the reconciliation until you receive it. You could choose not to believe it or receive it.
Here’s what I’m saying. Don’t underestimate the heart of God. He loves the whole world. He has reconciled everyone. He wants everyone to be saved. This God has gone to incredible lengths to save us. I think He will continue to do everything in His power to save us. Which means if you aren’t saved it’s because you didn’t want to be.
I’m counting on the character and heart of God.
3. The final question: What about you: do you believe?
In Matthew 16:13-16, Jesus asked the question, “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus turned the question on them and made it personal. “What about you? Who do you say I am?” And Peter spoke up and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
It’s one thing to ask, “What about those who have never heard? Or what about those who grew up in other religions? Or what about those who are good people, but are not Christians?” But Jesus always turns the question back on you and me: “What about you? Who do you say I am? Do you believe?”
John 1:12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
Have you believed in Jesus? Have you received Him as your Lord and Savior? What about you?