How Can Jesus Be the Only Way?

The belief that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6, Acts 4:12), and that humans are lost without him, is a bone that sticks in almost everyone’s throat. It is admittedly one of the most difficult Biblical truths to swallow.

Consequently, universalism (the belief that everyone will be saved, no matter what they believe or do) is one of the most appealing falsehoods on the market. Who wants to be uncool by being an exclusivist in our modern, inclusive age? Yes, it is one of the first doctrines that we who believe it would discard if we thought that reality would allow us to do so.

We feel the pinch of this doctrine when we question whether our good Muslim or Hindu neighbor can possibly be lost. We likewise feel the pinch when we are asked hypothetically whether the good person who has never heard of Christ must be lost. We feel this, whether the non-believer is someone we know, or a nameless, faceless stranger.

I am the chair of a regional committee in charge of certifying candidates for ordination in my denomination (ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians). One of the Essential Tenets of our faith is the belief that Jesus is the only way to God. I find that candidates are often willing to affirm that language, but are speechless when asked to comment on the fate of those who reject Jesus and never change their mind. I cannot blame them; our list of Essential Tenets doesn’t address the issue, either.

Let me share with you some thoughts that have helped me make sense out of this issue.

First, let’s refute the claim that faith is just an accident of where we were born. The principles of space flight are just as true, whether you were born in Texas or Indonesia. So what if you are more likely to learn them if you were born in Texas? Where you were born doesn’t change the laws of physics. Neither does where you were born change the truth about how to reach God.

But how can life and death depend on something we do not know? For the longest time, the world has not been able to find the cure for HIV. Until we do, not knowing is death for those who have the disease. When we do find the cure, it will be suicidal if HIV patients refuse to accept that cure. But wishing that it were otherwise, or complaining that it’s not fair, cannot change the truth.

Is HIV always fatal? Maybe not, but we are wise to treat it as if it is always fatal, by avoiding exposure to the disease at all costs. The same goes for the question of whether failure to accept Christ is always eternally fatal. Only God knows for sure, but we must treat the Christ-less condition as if it were always eternally fatal, and leave the details in the hands of God.

But God sends no one to hell for what they do not know. Ultimately we all “know too much” to claim ignorance before the throne of God. Deep in our hearts, we all know we are sinners who need a Savior. The critical question is whether we are willing to take action on what we do know.

What is so cool as we read the book of Acts is that we see that God has a track record of breaking down every barrier so that good people who haven’t heard yet can hear the Good News of Christ. So when we see areas of the world where people haven’t heard, God knows whether their hearts are ready to hear yet or not. The recently exploding number of Muslims reportedly seeing dreams of Jesus seems to be God doing what God did in the book of Acts.

Is there another way to be saved? The answer can be seen in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus agonizes over the idea of suffering all the pain of hell on a cross the next day for the sins of humankind. Jesus begs God for another way for people to be saved: “Take this cup away from me!” If there was any other way for the world to be saved, the cross becomes a stupid mistake. I am convinced that there was no other way. The whole world needs what God offered us on the cross. And that’s a very humbling conclusion I am compelled to draw.

We need not be arrogant – in fact, we must not be arrogant as we affirm that Jesus is Lord of all. If someone believes the world is flat, we don’t need to call them stupid or treat them like dirt. But neither must we agree with them or humor them in order to love and respect them. We can respect someone, without accepting their beliefs as equally true.

In fact, the best way we can respect our non-Christian neighbor is to acknowledge that at least one of us must be wrong, however well intentioned we may be. Because if all beliefs are equally true, they are all equally false, which is demeaning to the beliefs of both parties.

How can a good person still be lost? None of us is good, except in a relative sense. And if my non-believing neighbor doesn’t need Jesus, then I don’t need him, either.

Jesus makes it all about him. Like it or not, I agree. We are lost without him.