For centuries the great problem with the existence of God was the problem of evil. If God is good and loves us, why is there evil? There are two kinds of evil, moral evil, like violence and abuse and natural evil, like earthquakes and child cancer. Much of Christian apologetics has been obsessed by this question. It has even spawned its own discipline within theology and philosophy called theodicy. The postmodern person—whatever that happens to mean—still finds this question important. But there is another question that has been gaining popularity, and by that I mean creating increased anxiety and sustained unbelief, the question of exclusivity.
“If God loves everyone, why doesn’t he save everyone?”, “Are you saying that Jesus is the only way?”, “What about those who never have heard?”, “Don’t all religions lead to God?” These questions make perfect sense in a globalized culture that is used to pluralism. As we leave the comfort of our cultures and engage with new ones, we are forced to evaluate our assumptions, history, identity, values and even language. Pluralism gives us diversity and diversity gives us new ways of seeing and thinking. With that, we learn to become skeptical, skills like critical thinking and tolerance, humility and openness become important assets and means of communicating. As one scholar has put it, we’ve become, “critics not caretakers” which is to say because we gain a vantage outside of our birth culture, we are no longer expected to simply care for our cultural traditions, but gain the ability to critique them and others. This jettisoning of caretaking a tradition frees us to, at least optimistically, unite around things “that really matter.”
A negative aspect of this, at least from a theological point of view, is the assumption that pluralism holds and takes for granted, that exclusivity—the view of one truth or one path is the right way—is oppressive and short sighted, for it fundamentally leads to conflict and us/them dualisms that prohibit peace and flourishing. For Christians to say that Jesus is the only way to heaven and the only one who can take our sins away is tantamount to saying that everyone else doesn’t get it, that Christians have figured it out. And how can that be true when pluralism opens us up to the humble reality that many beliefs are just differing opinions on what amounts to basically the same hopes, goals, dreams, aspirations and urges of humanity? So many people genuinely struggle to trust in Jesus not because they find the system of Christian theology and belief necessarily unconvincing, but because they are troubled by the exclusive nature of its claims. Such exclusivity has consequences for others they know and love and consider good people, who may not believe, may never believe, and consequentially will not be spared God’s wrath if Jesus is the only way. Asking such a person to trust in Jesus is also asking them to live in the realty that their loved ones, good as they are, are not good enough, simply by virtue of the fact that they do not believe the right things. How can we respond and how can we shepherd those caring-doubters who find the exclusivity of Christ a true determent to their discipleship?
In what follows I do not offer a formula or “how to” for shepherding those wrestling with the exclusivity bug, but I do want to offer a brief way of seeing. In this sense I want Christians to be like professional counselors who don’t so much argue and debate their clients but point out false or inconsistent beliefs and replace them with true ones, and who instead of giving advice offer solutions to problems by offering up vantages and options that are unclear to the client. This is the type of apologetical shepherding that is needed in postmodernity, one that comes alongside rather than stands above as or over and against another. So here are some of my reflections on this question of exclusivity.
First, notice that the question of exclusivity is a subset of the question of theodicy. That is to say, those who ask ,”Is Jesus really the only way?” are in some sense asking, “Is God really good?” The idea that God might condemn loved ones simply because they do not assent to the right data—belief—seems to them a miscarriage of justice. How can we trust a loving God who is petty enough to condemn millions, even children, simply because they don’t think the right things? This is fundamentally a question about justice and God’s goodness. If that is true, then we must shepherd in a way that helps doubters see that God is good and loving. In other words, we must show them that, instead of exclusivity being an example of God’s pettiness, it is an example of God’s graciousness. How can we do that?
Many ways. I’m going to just approach one. I like to begin by offering some solidarity. I too would be horrified if God condemned people because they don’t’ belief the right things. That would be a terrible God. But that is not what the bible says about God. In fact, the bible goes out of its way to say the opposite in what is arguably the most famous verse of all, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:16-17, italics mine). God didn’t want to condemn, doesn’t seek to condemn, in fact God is fighting against condemnation (i.e. guilt and punishment). So the Apostle Paul can say, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”(Romans 8:1). The problem is not that God is condemning people because they don’t believe, he is condemning people because they are guilty. But amazingly—he doesn’t’ want to condemn the guilty. Talk about tolerance! Who doesn’t want ISIS to get what they deserve? Who wants to let the banker who defrauded millions off the hook? God! God in the sense that he loves humanity so much that he’ll do anything to stop them from being punished. I recall a story of a serial killer’s mother I saw on TV. She was horrified at what her son had done and when asked how she felt said, “I can’t help it, I’ll always love him, he’s my son.” That’s God to us. We condemn ourselves according to the biblical account, “…because you have done this [sinned] cursed are you…” (Gen. 3:14b) and God is desperately trying to save everyone. Let me say that again, far from being exclusive, God is desperate to save everyone (I Tim. 2:4, I John 2:2). So God is not the one condemning, God is the one setting the guilty free by becoming guilty for them. The great exchange.
But what about the claim to know this is true above all other beliefs? Even if the internal logic of the Christian system holds, how can we know that Jesus is the only way? I am mean, we all know Muslims and Buddhists who are more devoted and pious to their faith than many Christians.
When people are asking us how we can know we are the only one’s right, they are recognizing, in a humble way, that being genuine about our beliefs doesn’t make them true, that there is no way to adjudicate or prove one religion or opinion is more right than others. After all faith is not the same as science and so we can’t just do an experiment and say, “We’re right, you’re wrong, end of story.” So our claim to exclusivity seems arrogant and indicative of close-mindedness and rigidity that causes so much conflict. What do we say? How do we shepherd?
What people are really asking here is often, “how can you be certain?” And certainty is a tricky concept because there are various ways we accept things to be certain or not. From Descartes to Derrida, philosophers have struggled with this idea. For example, can I be certain my wife loves me? Yes. Is it the same certainty as science? No. But does that make it less certain? Not really. And lest we think science is the most certain thing, Descartes and Derrida show us, philosophically, how that might not be true either. Even if we say we can’t be certain about anything, we at least know we can be certain that we cannot be certain; and that’s certainly problematic.
Perhaps a better word than certainty is assurance. Can you be assured Jesus is the only way? This seems to me the more accurate picture of certainty in the Bible, when the word “certain” didn’t have the scientific rationalism and foundationalism that came with the Enlightenment. To that question the Bible says, “yes!” Jesus offers assurance of salvation (Jn 20:21, Heb. 11:1). And Christians, though they doubt at times as they live in the pluralistic landscape, can still have assurance.
Finally, we can help our questioning friends by showing them, at some level, the inescapability of exclusivity. An example: I say, “Jesus is the only way to be saved.” And they say, “I think all religions lead to God.” Who is more generous? Who is more or less exclusive? The answer is neither.
The claim, “Jesus is the only way” is exclusive. It says that those who don’t believe this are incorrect in their contrary belief. The claim, “I think all religions lead to God” is equally exclusive because it says that those who don’t believe this (i.e. those who believe that Jesus is the only way) are incorrect in their contrary belief. In other words, both claimants are equally exclusive because both claim that their version of truth is correct and the other is wrong. One says, Jesus is the only way, the other says, all religions are the way. Both think the other has got it wrong. In other words, it can’t be true that all roads lead to God and that Jesus is the only way. Essentially, both believe they are right and the other is wrong. That’s exclusive. The real question then is not who is more or less exclusive, the exclusively take your sin and guilt away? Only one religion offers that.
Ultimately God’s exclusivity is not more selective than other systems of belief. But—to the extent that God is exclusive by offering salvation only through Christ we can say he is more gracious than other systems because he takes on our guilt upon himself while gifting us his righteousness.
One last example to illustrate this point: When a man and women decide to marry they enter into a contract of solidarity and exclusivity. But surely that exclusivity is of the gracious kind. For by uniting only to each other they plant the seeds of true intimacy, fellowship and partnership that cannot be had otherwise. In a similar way, “Jesus being the only way” is God’s gracious exclusivity whereby he claims us as his own by rescuing us from sin, death and hell. While other religions might share similar traits (just as other humans may share traits with your spouse) they cannot provide the same intimacy. I am glad Jesus is the only way because it means God loves me so very deeply.. In essence God says, “No one can make you happy and satisfy and heal and love you like I can. No can take your sins way. Only I can be exclusively what you really need.” That friends is a graceful exclusivity. In Christ alone I find an exclusive God who wants everyone to be saved.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.