This is the next topic in my series, "If Christianity Is Really True, Then...?". I'll try to cover it over the next few weeks.
A few years ago I got a call to meet for coffee with a small group of young pastors and leaders, working with college students in our city. "We'd like to hear how you handle this question; "Why do Christians insist that faith in Jesus is the only way a person can get to heaven? Isn't that arrogant and disrespectful of other religions?"
None of these young leaders had any doubt personally that Christ is the only way a person can be made right with God. But they were frustrated that the arguments they'd been using just weren't doing the trick. So apparently they were looking for some new material.
Perhaps you have an older child or grandchild who have voiced the same questions. You've tried giving them a Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel book, attempting to prove Christianity and the Bible are true, but you're not even sure they've read it, or ever will. Then again, perhaps you're the one with all the questions.
The idea of tolerance is a good one, generally. Unfortunately, it's more revered today than faith. (We'll get into why, a bit later.) Tolerance used to mean, "putting up with someone, or an idea not especially liked or espoused." That's a virtue especially when we live in the U.S. and can have living on our same block, blacks, whites, Jewish people, Democrats, Republicans, atheists or Muslims. Tolerance enables each of us to hold to our own spiritual or worldview beliefs, and still function as a society and even be friends with one another.
However, in our culture, tolerance among those who are not religious has morphed into meaning, "all values, beliefs, lifestyles, and truth claims are equal." This can lead to the charge that if you don't accept my truth, or everyone's truth, you are intolerant. If that's really true, then every religion or belief system, including atheism is intolerant, why?
Every major religion believes their way is the "only way."
Here was my first observation I made for these young pastors; Muslims believe Islam is the only way to Allah (their god.) Likewise, Hindus, Christians, Jews and almost all world religions have their own version of God, or gods and their "way," to find him. (However, Buddha and Confucius were largely silent on the existence of God.) If you strongly believe your religion is the only true religion, then, of course, by definition, you have to believe all others are wrong, or you'd convert! So, I find it ironic that the only people l've ever met who seem to think there are more than one way to God, are those who don't actually appear to believe in any god!
In all fairness, most world religions do have some things in common - they all recognize a spiritual dimension to all people and have broadly similar moral codes. When it comes to the other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, there are even more similarities. We share common history, prophets, concepts and the Jewish Bible is 75% of the Christian Bible.
Unlike Christianity, Islam tells us that mankind is essentially good and that we just need to live a certain way to earn God's forgiveness. Since the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Judaism has also relied heavily on righteous acts, obeying the law or doing good works to please Yahweh. "Christian cults" are considered cults because they rely on something, or someone other than faith in Christ alone for salvation. Mormonism comes pretty close in this respect to biblical Christianity, but when taken with its other beliefs, like the Trinity doesn't exist, and there are three gods, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that's obviously a deal killer for both Christians and Jews who believe in only one God!
The biblical view is that humans are deeply flawed and sinful and unable to live up to God's righteous standards. Therefore, no one can ever be good enough to earn their way to Heaven. But because God deeply loves the world, he gave his son Jesus to pay for the sins of anyone who believes Jesus is the Son of God, asks God's forgiveness and demonstrates that deeply held belief by their changed behavior.
Earning your way to Heaven?
I used to own a factory and almost all the workers were on the incentive plan. Piecework. They got paid based on how much they produced. Everyone seemed to like it and it was fair. Frankly, if I were God, I'd have put everyone on the incentive plan. Good people go to Heaven. Bad to Hell. What could be more fair than that? The obvious question that system raises is, "How good is good enough?"
All other religions actually do require earning your way to "heaven" to appease the "gods." Christianity alone claims that out of love, Jesus is the one who did that for us on the cross. Putting it another way, all other major world religions can be summed up by the word "Do." Christianity, by the word "Donel" Those cornerstone truth claims, make all other religions theologically incompatible with Christianity
. About now you may be saying to yourself, "Wait, Wait! Christians have all kinds of rules you're expected to live by. That doesn't sound like done at all!' Fair enough. It can be confusing. What the Bible actually teaches is that no one can be good enough on their own to become a child of God and go to Heaven. The only way that can happen is by believing Jesus is the Son of God and asking him to forgive you. If you are dead serious about that, the Holy Spirit creates in your old sinful spirit a "new you" which the Bible refers to as being "born again."
"If any man, (or woman) is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come."
II Corinthians 5:17
This new creation, this new you, if it's for real now desires to live for God and be more like Jesus. When someone is truly born again, they actually want to "do" the will of God. In other words, obedience isn't a requirement for salvation. But it is the best evidence of it - what the Bible calls the fruit of true belief.
If there is very little change in a person's life, it begs the question whether they actually ever truly believed in the first place. I'll admit, there are a lot of jerks who claim to be Christians because they believe certain facts about God, but not with enough conviction to change their behavior much. Are they actually true Christians? Only God knows that.
The all-purpose God I've found the people asking the "aren't there many ways," questions aren't generally atheists. Most are very likely agnostics. Agnostics believe there may be a god somewhere, in some form. A divine spirit may exist, but there's no reliable way to know who this deity is, or what he/she/it requires. I've nicknamed this deity, God of the Chamber of Commerce, or Rotary - the all purpose deity Americans invoke at public events to bless their food and keep America prosperous and safe and to heal and protect their family and friends when they are in deep trouble and nothing else is working. They may also be people who grew up in the church hearing about God and "believe in god" at some level. But, these generally aren't people who really desire to believe in any deity to whom they will be required to give life's highest allegiance.
Some may be open to God. But most of them I've met are bright, educated people who I think just don't really want to believe in the God of the Bible, because their friends don't and many fear the loss of their respect, more than they fear God, or what happens after death. Their wariness of religion isn't just that it's wrong and narrow-minded, it's oppressive.
In highly educated circles, to be strongly religious is synonymous with being both ignorant and close-minded- the ultimate sin. They're not going to risk losing their intellectual virginity by believing what they've been told is an ancient myth. Chuck Colson once famously observed, "Hating Christians is the last socially acceptable bigotry in America." So, I think some people ask the, "Is Jesus really the only way?" question not because they really want to find the "right God." They ask it to prove the absurdity, and narrow-mindedness of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
However, I believe there's a far more subtle reason, people would like to believe there are other ways to God. If they finally ever did land on truly believing in a god, any god, of any religion, then that's it for their personal moral choices. If there really is a God and he's made his will known to you, then you are duty bound to obey him. The God of the Chamber pretty much minds his/her/its own business when it comes to your personal, moral behavior unless it hurts others. However, the God of the Bible is an existential threat to our personal freedom.
Frankly that's what kept me from surrendering my life to Jesus decades ago. I just knew if I got really serious about Jesus, it was going to change everything in my life. I was the proverbial rich, young ruler of the Bible. For months I read the Bible, just "sniffing around the trap, desperately trying to find Plan B, a less costly way to follow Jesus that would allow me to "believe" without radically letting Jesus change my life. I never found it. And I'm eternally glad I didn't.
When I decided to become a true Christian, I knew I was signing a "blank check" to God. That's what true faith is! That was a frightening thought. That became infinitely easier when I remembered Jesus actually signed a blank check for my sins on the cross. No matter what you've done Clare, or what you will ever do, I've forgiven you and you can't run up a tab I can't cover. I love you that much...