The Exclusivity of Christianity

Most people like Jesus; it’s Christianity that rubs most folks the wrong way.  Jesus is often perceived to be a bastion of tolerance – judge not lest ye be judged, you know – and inclusivity – he opened his invitation to women, outcasts and Gentiles after all. Yet the religion that surrounds him is often thought to be exactly the opposite:  a quagmire of intolerance, judgment and exclusion.  Perhaps no single feature of the Christian faith seems to most typify this tendency than the fact that Christians typically insist that their faith is not merely a way into heaven but the only way.  Of course, this belief is based directly on the clear teaching of Jesus himself who said:  “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)[1]  It’s ironic, therefore, that so many people laud Jesus as an example of inclusivity while criticizing his followers for being exclusive.

Let’s be clear:  I have no interest in defending a lamentable tendency on the part of some Christians, myself included, to huddle inside our comfort zones, slow to reach out to those that don’t fit a particular personal profile that looks suspiciously like our own.  We might call this a socio-political exclusivity.  That sort of exclusivity is wrong and is clearly at odds with the ministry of Jesus revealed to us in the Gospels. 

What I am interested in exploring, however, is what we might call the theological exclusivity of Christianity.  This is the exclusivity that arises from taking Jesus’ words as the simple truth:  Jesus is the only way for us to come into relationship with God and enjoy that relationship for all eternity.  The theological exclusivity of Christianity doesn’t say that Christians are better than everyone else but it does contend that Christianity – to the extent that it accurately reflects Jesus’ own teaching – is better…though perhaps it would be more proper to say that it is more effective than all other religions in the sense that it can provide what no other religion can provide:  eternal salvation.  This is the kind of exclusivity that so many people today find abhorrent and which, for many, creates a nearly insurmountable obstacle to really considering the truth-claims of Christianity.

Why is this?  What is it about Jesus’ claim to be “the way, the truth and the life” that causes so many to stumble?  I believe there are several reasons why this claim is so difficult to accept in our culture.

1.  We’re thinking of our separation from God in terms of distance rather than essence.

If we think of Jesus as a road that leads us from where we are to where we need to be, then several difficulties become immediately apparent.  First, there are very few places that can only be gotten to by one road.[2]   Some roads may take longer and be less efficient, but most roads ultimately connect to other roads that connect to other roads, etc. until we eventually get to the same place regardless of the route we take to get there.  Sure, we’ll have to course-correct at times, but our experience tells us that, as long as we’re not headed in the exact opposite direction from our destination, there are multiple paths that will get us there.  Second, even if we drop the road analogy and opt for something more like the analogy of getting to an island in the middle of the ocean or climbing a high peak, we still find that our experience tells us that multiple paths ought to get us to the same place.  If anything, this analogy more strongly reinforces this belief; because we all start from slightly different places it feels like there have to be different paths that eventually get us to the same place.

But God is not to be found atop a high peak or on an island in a vast sea or at the end of a long road.  The problem with all of these analogies is that they imply that the only thing between God and ourselves is some kind of distance.  In reality, however, the real problem we face is not that we have a long way to go to get to God but that between us and him there is an impenetrable barrier, one erected by our own efforts.  The Bible calls the thing which has built this barrier sin which can be understood to be the absence of God’s own nature and character.  Sin has consequences precisely because it is the opposite of God’s own nature.  According to Scripture, the consequence of sin is death (Rom 6:23), which is perfectly understandable:  God is the source of life.  Sin is the act of living independent of God.  Sin therefore results in death. 

Sin does not just result in death, it is the stuff of death, the building blocks of an eternity spent walled off from the God who longs to shine His life and light into us.  Our sin is not just a step away from God but another brick in the death-wall.  As only light can eradicate darkness, only life can eradicate death, but there is not enough life in us to accomplish this critical task and what little we have left is fading quickly since we have no more access to the source.  To get to God we must go through this barrier of death.  But, we are incapable of breaching this barrier.  If we must use an analogy of roads, then all roads lead to a sheer, black wall of our own construction which cannot be scaled, vaulted or pierced because the one thing that can pierce it is the one thing that we no longer have.  But…and this is very, very important…what is impossible for us is not necessarily impossible for God, and the essence of the Christian faith is the belief that what we could not do on our own, God has done for us. 

What has He done?  He has breached the barrier.  Through the sacrifice and resurrection of His own son, he has breached the barrier of death.  But, and here’s the catch, the barrier between humanity and God continues to grow as we continually sin.  Our sin continues to add layer upon layer to the barrier each day.  In a very real sense, the barrier cannot be removed because we are constantly building it.  However it can be breached and that breach can be maintained, even while the barrier continues to grow around it.  The cross of Christ is both the point that pierces the barrier and the beam that keeps the breach open.

Unless we understand this truth the nature of what separates us from God, the exclusivity of the Christ will be incomprehensible.  The problem is that, as Christians, we too often insist on the exclusivity of Christ without helping people to understand the nature of our separation from God.  It is not one of degrees; it is one of natures and between our nature and His there is a barrier of our own building. Yet there is also a single breach born of His mercy and grace.  Why has He not chosen to breach the barrier more often?  Perhaps for the same reason that we dig only a single tunnel through large mountains:  the cost to construct and maintain such a breach is too great to do it in multiple places.

For God so loved the world that He gave is one and only Son…

(John 3:16)

For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

(1 Co 6:20)

2.  We confuse the essence of Christianity with the particulars of Christian denominations.

If God has breached the barrier which sin continually builds, and if the cost of this breach is as high as the Bible says, then it begins to make sense that there is only one way to God.  But this simple truth becomes obscured by the bewildering variety of Christian groups, all of whom claim to be walking the same path.  It becomes counterintuitive that there is only one way to God when those who claim to be on it seem to be walking a different road than others who say they are walking the very same exclusive road. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Catholics all say Jesus is the only way, but they often deny  that other followers of Christ are really fellow-travelers.

But it is important to separate the particular expressions of Christianity from the essential nature of it.  Christianity is a faith built primarily on three simple truths:

1.  Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate  (and thus of infinite value and moral perfection)

2.  Jesus died on the cross as a substitution for the price of our sins, then rose from the dead three days later to testify to the finality of his work of restitution and reconciliation.

3.  We must each consciously choose to accept and trust in his work on our behalf in order for it to be applied to us.

All Christian denominations are built upon these essential truths.  To be sure, there have been modern departures from this orthodoxy[3] in some denominations, but these are corruptions rather than genuine variances.  Most varieties of Christianity (a.k.a. denominations) exist because various groups emphasize (and sometime rightly so) the importance of other theological tenets or practices. Imagine a castle with several wings and various turrets rising from those wings.  One wing might represent the Roman Catholics, one wing the Easter Orthodox Church, one with the Protestants.  Now, rising from the Protestant wing there is a turret called Presbyterianism, another called Baptist and another called Lutheranism.  We might even imagine various pennants hanging off of the Baptist turret, one of which says “Southern Baptists”, another “American Baptists”, another “Conservative Baptists” and so on.  Off the Presbyterian turret there might be hanging pennants labeled “Evangelical Presbyterians”, “United Presbyterians” etc. There are obvious and significant differences between the Southern Baptists and the Evangelical Presbyterians, but what unites them is that they rise from the same wing of the castle.  But what unites the Protestant wing (and all that rises from it) with the Catholic and Orthodox wings?  All the wings are part of the same castle which is built upon the same foundation.  That foundation is Christ and the essential truths about him and his work listed above.

When we look at it carefully, we begin to see that, at least historically, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists are not claiming to be two different “ways” to God but two varieties of practice within the same system; that is, they both agree that Jesus alone has breached the barrier between God and ourselves and that we must enter this breach through faith in Christ.  This is not to say that there are not significant differences between the various denominations and sects of Christianity, but merely that they are all varieties of Christianity and that they all proclaim the same breach in the wall of sin and death.[4]

3.  We misunderstand the nature of truth and forget that all truth is exclusive to some degree

The modern objection to the exclusive claims of Christianity is bolstered by the relativism which has come to so dominate our culture.  Relativism claims that all truth is “true” only in so far as it is embraced by the individual. There is a factual basis for this.  It is certainly the case that some things are “true” for one individual but not for another.  If, for instance, one person is highly allergic to milk, then the slogan “milk – does a body good” is not really true for that individual.[5]   Therefore, it is not a universal truth.  But for the person who is not allergic to milk, it does indeed do his body good.  So this is a true statement for one but not for the other.  In other words, this truth is relative to the individual.  But does it follow from this that all truth is relative?  Certainly not.

First, just because some truths are relative does not mean that all truths are relative.  For instance, no one can will themselves into existence; if you didn’t already exist, then there would be no you to do the willing..or anything else.  This is a universal or absolute truth.  It is not true for some and false for others.  It is always true for everyone.[6]  There are plenty of other truths that fit into this category of absolutes.  So to say that all truth is relative is simply wrong.  Any given truth is either relative or absolute and the trick is simply to figure out which is which. A lot of this has to do with the way a claim is phrased.  If the claim admits no possibility of exception, as when Jesus said “no one comes to the Father except through me” then this is an absolute truth claim which can only be shown to be false by demonstrating an exception.  If no exception exists, then this is an absolute truth.  But of course, it is very difficult to know if such an exception exists.  What we have, however, is one who has been to the other side of death and come back, enabling him to say “I have proven that this way works.”  No other religion can offer this kind of evidence for the truth of its claims. 

Second, all religions are exclusive, to some extent.  It’s the nature of religious claims, which purport to describe the nature and character of God.  Opposite descriptions cannot both be true. If God is a personal Trinity then He cannot also be an impersonal force, so Buddhism and Christianity can’t both be right, at least about that.[7]  The only way for a religion to avoid exclusivity is to make no significant statements about God or right living.  Since all religions do make such statements and since some of those statements contradict statements in other religions, all religions are exclusive, though to varying degrees.  Islam says that all other religions are wrong.  Judaism says that all other religions are wrong.  Buddhism seems to get along pretty well with Hinduism, but it says that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all wrong.[8]  .  In that sense, Christianity is absolutely no different than any other religion. 

Overcoming the Barrier of Exclusivity

How should followers of Jesus deal with negative reactions to the exclusivity of Christianity?  It seems to me that there are two things to keep in mind.

1.  Don’t assert the exclusivity too early.

Too many Christians, it seems, think that they must say “Jesus is the only way” right at the beginning of any evangelistic conversation.  But to what advantage?  This often becomes a stumbling block for people long before they are able to consider the implications of the Cross and the Resurrection which are, by all biblical accounts, the heart of the Gospel message.  Two things should be noted.  First, Jesus’ statement “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) was uttered to his disciples, not to non-believers and it was done well into his time with them, not at the outset.  Second, I can find no call to faith in the New Testament that includes a statement about the exclusivity of Christ.  Certainly such statements are present throughout the New Testament, but the context of all those instances is that of teaching given to those who have already come to Christ.

Now, this is tricky.  Let me be clear.  I am NOT saying that we should hide this truth about Jesus being the only way, nor am I saying that we should sneak around it.  It is divinely revealed truth and, as such must be asserted with full confidence and boldness.  But what I am saying is that it appears to be a truth that is most easily embraced after one has already taken the critical initial step of trusting in Jesus.  One can begin to walk a road to a destination without necessarily understanding that this is the only road that will get you there.  But then, when that person asks “why should I be so concerned about trying to get other people on this road?” the answer will have to be “because this road is the only one that gets us where we need to be; there are no other options.” Or, to put it another way, this may be meat-truth rather than milk-truth (1Co 3:2). 

2.  Cast the exclusivity of Christ in the proper terms

There are two stages to this.  First, we must help people see that all religions are exclusive and that, in this respect, Christianity is really no different.  Second, we must help them to understand why Christianity should be exclusive.  As I’ve described the situation above, the problem is not that we are all climbing a mountain to get to heaven.  If that were the case then there would almost have to be multiple paths to get us there.  But instead, we are barred from the throne of God by a barrier which we cannot breach.  Fortunately, what we cannot breach, God can and has, but at a cost so high that it would be ludicrous for us to think that He ought to provide multiple points of ingress.

[1] And for anyone who has ever wondered if this is really an accurate translation of the original Greek, the answer is:  yes.  There are, in fact, definite articles in front of each of these nouns.  Jesus did not say he is “a way”, “a truth” or “a life” but that he is “the way”, “the truth” and “the life”.  If anything, the original wording is even more exclusive than most English translations make it out to be since it says, literally, “no one comes to the Father if not through me.”

[2] And even those rare places with only one road can be gotten to by a little off-road hiking!

[3] This word should not be confused with Eastern Orthodox or Russian Orthodox or any other such particular usage.  Here, orthodoxy refers simply to the basic, essential tenets of Christian faith – listed above – as they have always been understood.

[4] To be completely accurate, it must be pointed out that I am speaking here of the historic expressions of Christianity rather than corruptions of it.  It must be granted that some groups claim to be Christian but do not hold to the essential tenets of orthodoxy.  These I call cults, for their similarity does not extend to the foundations.  They are outside the moat of the castle, so to speak, though they work hard to appear as simply another wing on the mansion.  There may also be historic Christian denominations which have abandoned their orthodoxy and have thus become cults in more recent years.  I leave it to the reader to identify such groups.

[5][5] Although, if we were going to be technical about it, the statement would still be true with respect to the intended meaning; that is, that milk provides needed vitamins and minerals which the body needs to be healthy.  The fact that some people have an allergic reaction does not do away with the good things that milk provides, it simply means that those who are allergic to milk cannot safely benefit from what milk has to offer.

[6] It is also true for God, by the way.  Even God could not will Himself into existence.  But He didn’t have to because He has always existed.

[7] This does not, however, have to mean that all claims made by Buddhism (or any other religion) must be false.  There is no reason why we cannot acknowledge true claims about God, morality and life that are embedded in other religions.  Doing so does not mean that all religions are equally true or equally effective at getting us to God.  Doing so simply allows us to build common ground and, from that common ground, proceed to the more important considerations.  Paul models this for us masterfully in Act 17:16-34.

[8] There have been recent attempts to meld Christianity and Buddhism, but at the heart of both systems are fundamentally incompatible statements, such as those mentioned above.  There are some aspects of Buddhism and Christianity, however, which are perfectly compatible. These secondary compatibilities should not be confused as showing that the core theological claims of the two religions are compatible.