One of the more vexing questions faithful Christians face more and more is the one raised by the claims of Jesus that he is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Is salvation found in no other way than through conscious faith in Christ alone? It has become customary to agree that there are three alternative answers to this question.
This is the traditional answer and the one held by almost all Christians who are conservative. There is "no other name" and thus no other way to the Father but through Jesus Christ alone. This requires the Church to say, "All other religions and views are false and that is that." We have the truth and you do not. We serve the true God while you grope in darkness. If you come to trust in Jesus Christ personally then you will know the real truth about God and yourself and find true salvation as we have.
This is the modernistic alternative to the first view. For us Christians, Jesus is the way, but for you it may be something, or someone, else. We Christians have experienced enlightening but you may experience the same thing very differently. We will not judge that. And, underneath all the rituals and practices of various religions we can find a common core that is a true, valid and saving religion for us all. This view is most popular with liberal Christians. Frankly, it misrepresents other religions as well as Christianity.
This is a kind of mediating position between the two above. It is built on Karl Rahner’s idea of "anonymous Christians." With No. 1 this view argues that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Christianity is the unique and definitive religion. But with No. 2 this view says God is at work in others and insists that we cannot limit God’s grace to insiders only. So, those who live in the light they have, and practice the most authentic religion that they know, will be saved.
Now, I am not afraid of controversy, as my readers know, thus I will attempt to explain why I think an alternative view to these three is sorely needed. While I have the most agreement with No. 1 there is something to be said for both No. 2 and No. 3., though much less for No. 2 for sure. In the end I think all three of these alternatives miss something important. So, please follow my argument as closely as possible. (Sadly, I am sure some will look for every grain of error they can spot!)
If these are my only alternatives then I am forced to adopt No. 1 and run the risk of being arrogant and intolerant of other religions and the faith of my neighbors. If I adopt No. 2 or 3 then I may be open and tolerant but I have denied the claims of Jesus who is Lord of all, which is the worst of any choice I could make.
Because of this dilemma I, and many others in our time, seek a choice that remains faithful to the core of No. 1 while it remains open to truth that can be found in many places and avoids the problems with how No. 1 has been expressed by many Christians who hold it. The usual way modern Christians try to approach this matter is to seek to combine the strengths of each of the three views. I think this is utterly impossible since No. 2 has few if any strengths to commend it.
I would prefer to find the weaknesses in all three of these traditional positions and then seek a genuinely fourth alternative that is biblically sound and personally responsible. I am not absolutely certain that this has been done but I am open to the process. I invite the input of all who share this concern.
Where do I begin? With the person who stands at the center of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ! My problem with a great deal of what has passed for exclusivism is not with the primary argument itself but rather with the way Christians have used it to proclaim the superiority of their system of belief, their Church, or their specific teaching of certain views, etc. The center of all, I insist, must be Jesus Christ.
I probably began to think about all this when I first read E. Stanley Jones many years ago. I had numerous people tell me that he was a "liberal." I read him for myself and soon found that this was so untrue as to be preposterous and slanderous. What he claimed is pretty close to where I find myself today. Jones was a graduate of Asbury College and Seminary and a missionary to India. He was also a prolific writer. He sought to introduce the high castes of India to Jesus Christ without attacking the Hindus or their beliefs. He even created "Christian ashrams" in order to teach and disciple. His goal was to show Hindus how Jesus Christ fulfilled their longing to know God. And he did this without employing the methods and arguments of exlusivism. The method he adopted and wrote about is what brought suspicion upon his evangelical credentials.
But back to my critique of the three traditional alternative approaches. Pluralists have the least to offer us because they are not generally interested in the gospel and what it tells us about Jesus. They tend to measure the truth by their own philosophies and ideological criteria. Inclusivists are correct, in my view, in wanting to acknowledge that God’s grace is genuinely free and can be at work wherever and however God chooses. But, and this is hugely important, inclusivists can tend to make the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ unnecessary.
So, a fourth alternative would proceed in a different manner. This view would begin with Jesus Christ, as the way, the truth and the life. He is the center and must remain so. We must not give away what is authentically Christian in order to respect other faiths and views. But the fourth view also says that we must make a clear distinction between Jesus Christ and his gospel and the Christian religion. The Christian religion is a human expression of religious faith made by various churches and groups. To be a Christian is to know Jesus Christ and to exalt him personally above all others.
In the last volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics he wrote:
The statement that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God has nothing to do with the arbitrary exaltation and glorification of the Christian in relation to other people, of the church in relation to other institutions, or of Christianity in relationship to other conceptions (Church Dogmatics, IV.3.91).
While some will cite certain weaknesses in Barth’s theology, and even submit that he was a universalist (he certainly leaned that way yet he personally denied it), the above statement is true. It is not right to exalt Christianity as a religion or the church as an institution. It is certainly not right to exalt my views as over against your views.
What is good and true is not defined by what Christians are, or even by what we confess. It is defined by who Jesus is, the truth he brings, and what he offers by the gift of himself. I am not called to empower, to judge, to liberate or to save the world, Jesus is! It is the good news of Jesus Christ that we bring to the world not our judgment about what will happen to every man, woman and child.
You say, "But Jesus warned people abut hell." Yes, he certainly did. And he particularly warned conservative religious people who were quite orthodox in most of their beliefs. I must believe in a real hell because Jesus did. And I do not believe everyone will be saved because Jesus seemed very clearly not to believe this either.
But I do believe the gospel has been influenced by history and cultural forms. This is my real problem with exclusivism and how it comes across in the modern world. It looks and sounds like it is saying "our doctrine of Jesus is what condemns" you who do not follow him. I submit that a better way to express that Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life" is to missionally disconnect our views from gospel itself and then point people to him, not to our view of what happens to people who embrace other religions. Let God be God and let us preach the gospel!
I am not advocating inter-religious dialog replacing gospel proclamation, not at all. And I am not advocating anything remotely like universalism. And I certainly am not saying that people are saved without Jesus. If you read this into my comments you have not read them carefully at all. I am saying that what Barth called "a self-exalting or self-glorifying Christianity" that makes us as Christians, and our version of the gospel and our answers to difficult questions like this one, feel or act superior to other people is harmful. This superiority puts someone else between the sinner and Jesus and is harmful to real mission. We would do very well to discuss this with much more light and a lot less heat.
Finally, dialog with non-Christian religions will not bring about obedience to the Great Commission. Where we need to go with this is right back to the radical claims of Jesus Christ himself. The late Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., a longtime Presbyterian theologian, says this well:
For it is not "dialogue" but he that is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ himself–not the true Christianity of any one church or group in the church, traditional or contemporary, conservative or liberal, male or female, of any race or class or culture. Jesus Christ alone–not the religions and ethical insights of Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists or Christians, not even what they may discover they have in common if they work at it hard enough. For there is no other name by which we can be saved (Always Being Reformed, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 64.)