Since its beginning, Orthodox Christianity has held that the only access to God is through Christ. To modern people, this often seems arrogant and intolerant. When we address the problem, we find three possible responses.
1. Christianity Is Not Exclusive
The first option portrays Christianity as a broad and accepting religion that would eliminate no one who sincerely seeks God. While there are some technical distinctions among religions, all are essentially the same.
A common illustration sees religion as a mountain with God on top. There are many paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same destination.
But according to Christ himself, everyone is lost apart from him (John 3:16-18, 8:24; 14:6). Uniquely among the founders of world religions, Jesus did not say his teachings were the only way to God, but that he himself was.
This was based on his claim to be God (John 8:19; 14:9), and in his use of the phrase “I AM” about himself (John 8:58). This echoes Exodus 3:14, making the claim that he was YHWH, the LORD of the Hebrew scriptures.
His indirect claims included: his acceptance of worship by men (Matthew 14:33; John 9:35– 39; 20:27-29), his ability to forgive sins (Mark 2:5-11; and Luke 7:48-50), and his claim that all men would face him in judgment (John 5:24-28).
Skeptics speculate that the disciples misunderstood Jesus and that he never claimed for himself what they said about him. But his critics also recognized that Jesus was making these claims (Mark 2:6-7; 14:61-64; John 5:18; 10:30-33).
It is not enough to understand that Christ claimed to be the only way to God, we also need to understand why. We all recognize that we sin, that is, we fail to live up to our own ideals, much less those of a holy God.
Jesus taught that our sin has separated us from a holy God. There is no amount of good that we can do that will “undo” this situation.
The only way to bridge the gap between us and God is through accepting Christ’s payment for his sin.
Had there been another way of saving us apart from Jesus’ death, God would have heard his prayer in Gethsemane and spared him. His death is the only way to life.
It is essential that we understand Christianity’s position through the ages. Christ’s insistence that he is the only solution for the problem of sin is a very narrow and restrictive assertion.
The question is no longer whether or not Christianity is narrow, but whether it is right.
2. Christianity Is Exclusive and Wrong
The second option recognizes that Christianity claims to be the only way to God but denies the validity of such a claim.
This rejection is often a result of false assumptions:
Exclusiveness equals wrong. The assumption here is that anything this narrow-minded must be wrong. Yet a position can be narrow and wrong, or it can be narrow and right.
Truth is always intolerant of error. The fact that one plus one will always equal two is very narrow, but it is also right.
Sincerity equals right. The second major objection to Christianity’s exclusiveness is that it eliminates many sincere people who are seeking God through other means.
Sincerity, or the lack of it, however, has nothing to do with determining truth. We can be sincere and right or we can be sincere and wrong.
In 1997, 39 people following Marshall Applewhite in San Diego died by suicide, hoping to join a spaceship coming with a nearby comet.
They were sincere in their faith in their leader, but it was a tragically misplaced faith that led them to pain and death, not peace and prosperity.
But what about those other sincere faiths?
The major religions differ in their perception of who God is, in their view of ultimate human destiny, and in their means of attaining salvation.
Let’s look first at the different views of God. Christians believe in one God who subsists in three persons. Jews and Muslims are strong unitarians and reject the Trinity.
The philosophical Hindu believes god is an eternal, non-personal, abstract being without knowable attributes.
The popular sects of Hinduism worship many gods. Various sects of Buddhism are either polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic.
Next is the question of man’s destiny. In Christianity, believers will experience a personal existence, and meaningful responsibilities, and will fellowship with God forever in heaven.
Jewish beliefs range from existence ending with death to the hope of an afterlife in the company of their Messiah.
Muslims believe they will join Allah in heaven for an eternity of sensual pleasure and gratification.
Hindus believe they eventually will become one with the impersonal supreme being (Brahman) in a state of nirvana.
Buddhists aspire to nirvana as a state of total nothingness, a final annihilation of individual consciousness.
How does man achieve his destiny in each of the major religions? Christians believe they enter heaven by the acceptance of Christ’s payment on the cross for their sin.
Christianity’s solution is based on faith in Jesus Christ, not on one’s good works. Jews who believe in heaven attain it by obeying God and living a moral life.
Muslims try to be worthy of salvation by believing the five doctrines of Islam and by performing the Five Pillars of Islam.
Hindus believe they will eventually achieve nirvana after a series of reincarnations.
Buddhists believe they attain release from the endless chain of reincarnations by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
All religions except Christianity seek salvation through human effort, but the requirements are different for each. Christianity recognizes the futility of humanity’s efforts and relies solely on the grace of God.
All the major religions also claim to be exclusively right. Hindus are the only ones who might equivocate on an exclusivity clause, yet though Hinduism allows for an openness to other faiths, it claims to be the ultimate truth and thus superior to all other paths.
Many people today assume that all religions are different paths on a single mountain leading to God, but after looking at their beliefs and practices it is clear that they aren’t even on the same mountain.
One of the most basic laws of logic is the law of non-contradiction: if two statements contradict each other or make mutually exclusive claims, then either only one of them is true, or they are both false.
Since the major religions make mutually exclusive claims, the law of non-contradiction applies. Either one of them is right and the rest are wrong, or they all are wrong — they cannot all be right.
Here again, it is vitally important that we remember not just that Jesus claimed to be the only way to God, but why he claimed to be the only way.
Every religion and almost any system of good works can help a person “sinless,” thereby making life better and usually longer.
But no amount of “sinning less” will make us “sinless.” Jesus offers a solution to the sin problem that no one else can provide by offering his sinless life for us.
Jesus’ offer of salvation is narrow in the how, not the who. Jesus offers salvation for free to any man, or woman of any tribe, or color (Galatians 3:28).
The hard question facing Christianity is not whether it is narrow, but whether it is true. We turn to our third option, that Christianity is exclusive and true.
3. Christianity Is Exclusive and True
We know from Christ’s own claims that Christianity is narrow. What we must determine now is whether or not Christianity is true.
If Christ was not who he claimed to be, then he must have been either a liar or a lunatic, as C.S. Lewis aptly observes. Given his statements about himself, we cannot reduce him to simply being a good moral teacher.
The very character of Christ argues against his being a liar. In fact, very few people will make this claim. The evidence is weighted heavily in favor of Christ being a paragon of truth and virtue rather than a liar.
The consistent life and testimony of Christ make it clear as well that he was not a lunatic. A lunatic shows his madness in how he lives, but in Christ, we do not see this. On the contrary, we discover a man who is mentally sound.
If Christ is not a liar or a lunatic, then he is who he claimed to be — Lord of all, the only way by which man can be saved.
This is supported by the objective evidence of the truth of Christianity found in the Bible and the historical evidence for the Resurrection, which we have discussed in other articles.
Those trying to escape the claims of Christ sometimes argue that he was simply a legend, a mythological figure who never existed. This is also addressed in other articles.
His works (credentials) authenticate his words (claims), and the nature of his claims leads us to a liar or lunatic because these are the only real options about Jesus.
But what about the Jews? Christians say that their God is the same as the God of the Old Testament and thus Judaism. Isn’t that enough?
Or is Christianity a Gentile religion, so that to become a Christian, a Jew must stop being a Jew?
In the early church, the problem facing believers was not how a Jew could become a Christian, but how a Gentile could become a Christian. Early Christianity was predominantly Jewish.
So, Jews do not need to abandon their Jewishness anymore than Irishmen would have to forsake being Irish. There are Gentile Christians and Hebrew Christians.
The Jew, just like anyone else, must deal with his sin and the separation it has caused between him and God. The standard set by God is perfection, and the Jew doesn’t measure up to that standard any better than the Gentile does (Isaiah 53:6).
The penalty for this imperfection is death and separation from God. A person can pay this penalty themselves or accept a substitute in their place. This is what the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to, but they were incomplete.
The debt was only covered, not canceled. But Christ’s sacrifice canceled the debt for all who come to him, Jew, and Gentile alike, but it hinges on trusting Christ as sacrifice, Savior, and Lord.
A second question concerns evangelism and missions, which are seen as imposing our viewpoint on others. But since Christianity is true, it would be unloving if we didn’t share Christ’s solution with others.
We are called to expose and propose Christianity to others — not impose it. Our task is to present Christ in a loving way and allow men and women the choice of accepting or rejecting him.
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Kenneth Boa equips people to love well (being), learn well (knowing), and live well (doing). He is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor and is the President of Reflections Ministries, The Museum of Created Beauty, and Trinity House Publishers.
Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image; Handbook to Prayer; Handbook to Leadership; Faith Has its Reasons; Rewriting Your Broken Story; Life in the Presence of God; Leverage; and Recalibrate Your Life.
Dr. Boa holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England.