Examining "The State of Theology": Is Jesus the only way to God?
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Generally speaking, people today like Jesus. Few people, after reading the Sermon on the Mount, would say that Jesus wasn't a great moral teacher. Commands to love your enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:44) and to do unto others as you would have done unto you (Matthew 7:12) have both a wisdom and radical element to them. Jesus seems to command of us what we know intuitively represents the good of human beings, even in such a world as this. Jesus commands us to be more, to embody something of what makes us human. Jesus, even for those who do not believe in Him as Savior, commands a reverence still that few, if any, historical figures command in the same way.
This is true in spite of the fact that so much of what Jesus taught was and is still very offensive to people. One of these offensive teachings is John 14:6, on which I will focus for the entirety of this post. It says (NASB):
"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'"
Do professing Christians today agree with this claim of Jesus? According to the State of Theology survey, many Christians disagree with Jesus. Four statements confirm this. Here are their results:
#3: God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. (A: 67%; D: 21%)
#34: Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. (A: 58%; D: 42%)
#33: Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin. (A: 63%; D: 37%)
#32: It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior. (A: 53%; D: 47%)
Similar to the results of the statements about the objective truth of Christianity, these results seem to conflict with each other. On the one hand, someone might be surprised to know that the broad majority of professing Christians (67%) believe that God accepts the worship of all religions. Even among evangelicals, there seems to be an even split, with 53% of evangelicals in the survey agreeing with the statement. Yet the majority believe that only those who trust in Christ alone as their Savior are saved (58%) and that Jesus' death is the only sacrifice that could atone for sin (63%). So God has given us only one way of salvation, through trusting in the atoning death of His Son, yet God accepts any form of worship, including those who don't acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
Then we get to the combination of #33 and #34 with #32. God has offered us only one way of salvation, through trusting in the atoning death of His Son, yet only 53% of respondents can be bothered to tell someone about it? The statement on evangelism (sharing your faith with others so that they may come to know Christ) because, if Jesus is the only way to God, as Jesus Himself claims, then how can we not share that with others? An exclusive gospel is good news. An inclusive one is just one message among many, and all of them are equal.
Last week, I discussed the philosophies undergirding the idea that religion is not a matter of objective truth but of personal taste or whatever makes one happy. This is closely related to the issue of what is called Christian particularism. Personally, I don't like the fact that there is a view called Christian particularism. What is someone who claims to trust in Christ supposed to say? Am I now supposed to let someone know that I'm a Christian particularist? The Scriptures clearly teach that Jesus is the only way to God. The issue is not whether Christian particularism is true, if Christianity is true, but if it is comfortable.
Claims of absolute truth tend to make people uncomfortable. In our culture today, we tend to focus on whatever we think will make us happy. Celebrities will receive applause for encouraging their audiences to "live your own truth," as if this is a profound idea. What's worse is that well-meaning Christians have bought into this idea. They think that it is somehow more loving not to challenge someone with the truth. These Christians will enjoy relatively comfortable, even close and meaningful, friendships with unbelievers until, on the judgement day, those amenable friendships end in fire. Let me clarify. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with meaningful friendships or that the alternative is fire-and-brimstone street-preaching. Let's maintain those friendships with the unbelievers in our lives whom we love. But have you shared with them the truth in love, the hope of our salvation?
I have had to repent of this desire for comfort as well. It is so easy to ride the current of the culture instead of moving against it. But sharing your faith in love and spreading the gospel requires moving against the current. Let's humble ourselves before the Lord, repent where it's needed, and seriously think about those relationships in our lives with people who need to hear the gospel. Life is short and often cut even shorter. Christian friends of mine have often expressed fear to me that their unbelieving friend, who they love dearly, will get angry or cut off a friendship if they share the gospel with them. Sometimes (oh, have I had to deal with this), we feel content that the unbelieving friend knows that we go to church. If they wanted to ask, they would. The hard truth is that the gospel is offensive to people who are perishing. I've had friendships broken over this, not because of a lack of love on my part, but because my unbelieving friend didn't want to hear it. That is difficult to go through, but now they've heard the good news. Most people will reject it, but that has nothing to do with whether or not we should share it.
Why am I focusing so much on evangelism in a post about whether Jesus is the only way to God? First, I believe that what you think about John 14:6 will have a radical effect on your evangelism. If Jesus is the only way to God, then you just can't be content with your unbelieving friend until he or she knows Jesus and is saved. Second, I think that the current cultural discomfort over John 14:6 has two distinct but related dimensions. First, there is the religious claim of pluralism, or the claim that all worldviews are fundamentally true, which is common in the culture. On the basis of religious pluralism, people will often say that it is somehow wrong or arrogant to claim that only one religious tradition is true. Second, there is a general discomfort in the culture, including among Christians, with making absolute claims of truth, so that even Christians who believe that particularism is true are uncomfortable with sharing the gospel with unbelievers. This is rooted in a modernist understanding of truth, which is still dominant in the culture.
First, what is claim of religious pluralism? Often, as you talk with friends about religion, you will hear claims such as, "All religions are essentially the same." Or you hear illustrations such as that of the blind men and the elephant. If a group of blind men were to be asked to describe the elephant by touching it, one blind man may feel one part and say that the elephant is rough to the touch, another smooth, and so forth. All of them are right, but because they're blind, they cannot see the whole picture. In the same way, it is said, every religion contains part of the truth but not the whole truth. It is now popular to espouse a kind of "oneness" to reality, that all religions point to one ultimate Truth. Another illustration is that of the separate paths leading up the same peak of the same mountain. The destination is the same, but the paths are different. Thus, the claim of religious pluralism states that it doesn't really matter which religion one subscribes to, since all of them lead to the same place. Religious pluralists espouse a doctrine called universalism, according to which everyone goes to heaven, since there is no connection between what one believes and one's eternal destiny.
As a claim, what is the problem with religious pluralism? I'll highlight one main problem. First, religious pluralism violates a law of logic called the law of non-contradiction. This law holds that, for any proposition p (where "p" is a particular claim and "not-p" that claim's negation), p and not-p cannot both be true in the same way at the same time. This law takes seriously that any proposition has one of two possible truth values, either true or false, and cannot have both. For instance, one may ask, "Do unicorns exist?" In order to answer this question, we have to realize that there are only two possible answers, yes or no, and that yes and no is not possible.
Is Jesus the Son of God? Did Jesus rise bodily from the dead? Christians say yes. Muslims say no. Here, we run into a devastating problem with religious pluralism. In order for one to affirm religious pluralism, one must affirm contradictions, such as that Jesus both did and did not rise from the dead and that He is and is not the Son of God. Different religious worldviews tend to contain truth claims that are mutually exclusive because they contradict each other. Since a major claim of Islam is that Jesus was merely a prophet of Allah and did not raise from the dead (and was not even crucified), then it is logically impossible for Islam and Christianity to both be true. This is not to say that the two worldviews don't agree in some ways, but in major ways, they are logically incompatible. In other words, religious pluralism is impossible; it cannot possibly be true.
So much, then, for religious pluralism as a religious claim. How about the general discomfort associated with religious claims in the culture? In order to illustrate this discomfort, I'll point to a bumper sticker that has been popular for many years now:
This popular bumper sticker is a symbol for religious pluralism and tolerance, which expresses a general sentiment of American culture that religious people should just learn to get along. After the attack on the World Trade Centers on 9/11, Americans were both weary and wary of religious claims. As many in the U.S. had seen it, over 2,000 Americans had been killed on American soil because of extremist Islamic beliefs. The so-called New Atheists- spearheaded by bestselling authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett-argued that religion was the problem, not just the extremist beliefs. Their books claimed to argue that religion was not just wrong but dangerous. Greater focus was placed on the perceived evils resulting from religion, including the Spanish Inquisition and Crusades, rather than on the goods resulting from religion. Because of this, there arose a general angst about religious belief, and people were careful not to get into arguments about religious beliefs. The motto "Coexist" came to summarize this sentiment. The obvious fear is that, if religious people disagree, then religious people kill each other.
As I see it, there are four issues that are highlighted in our culture's discomfort with making specific religious claims. First, it is thought to be arrogant to make claims of absolute truth. Second, it is thought to conflict with the value of inclusivism. Third, it is thought to be intolerant. Fourth, religious claims are thought to be essentially inscrutable, a term that I'll explain below.
First, it is thought to be arrogant to make religious claims. I have seen this sentiment come out in my interactions with irreligious and religious people over the years. When I share that I am a Christian, the person will say, "Oh, that's great," even if he or she is an atheist. Yet, when I say, I believe that Christianity is objectively true, the tone of the conversation seems to change. If religion is a matter of personal taste, then anyone can affirm one's taste, but objective truth claims assume that religion is not a matter of personal taste, but of reality. This affirmation, that Christianity is true, will even surprise Christians at times.
But is it arrogant to claim, using propositional language, that p, that is, that a certain proposition is true and not false? We speak in these terms all the time without offense. Take a normal example in everyday life: I could say, "Yesterday, I went grocery shopping at about 3:00 PM." This is a claim, which could be true or false. Sometimes, such as in a murder case, this normal example could be my alibi or, if I am lying, prove my guilt. No one says to the prosecutor who claims that I'm lying, "You're arrogant to claim that Kevin is lying about where he was yesterday. Who do you think you are?" Yet, when applied to religious claims, somehow claiming that a religious worldview is true is arrogant.
I take it that the basic issue underlying this sentiment is epistemological, that is, related to the philosophy of knowledge. This will come back up in my fourth point. Since religion is basically a matter of personal taste, not objective truth, then it is supposedly absurd to make the claim that a particular religious worldview is true and others false. It's like claiming that broccoli is objectively bad and that everyone who likes it is wrong, If, in fact, religious beliefs are not a matter of personal taste, then this claim of arrogance quite easily goes away. I will cover this under my fourth point.
Second, making religious claims as if they're true seems to conflict with the value of inclusivism. Inclusivism and diversity are two of the most important values of American society today. The fear, then, is that religious claims divide and exclude people. Here, we can see the legacy of 9/11 at work. People fear that if we argue about religion, religious conflicts will result, leading to violence. In order to come together, we have to either put aside our differences or, as in the case of the claim of religious pluralism, deny that those differences make a difference.
Toward the sentiment that religious claims aren't inclusive, I'd point out that truth, by nature, excludes false claims. If we were to hold consistently to the notion that claims of truth aren't inclusive, then we'd have no problem with flat-earthers, young-earth creationists, or the KKK. For the sake of coming together and upholding diversity, why disagree about anything? One may say, "Well, false claims have consequences," to which I heartily agree. Sometimes, eternal consequences. This is a form of argumentation called reductio ad absurdum. It reduces the argument given to absurdity, showing that its logical consequences do not make sense. People who believe that religious claims are not inclusive do not apply this equally to all claims of objective truth.
Second, I'd point out that the claim that religious claims are not inclusive fails to be inclusive. Again, if truth is, by nature, exclusive, then to claim that religious claims are not inclusive and therefore should not be discussed excludes the one who believes that religious claims are matters of objective truth and that they are worth discussing. This form of argumentation points out that the claim is self-defeating; when applied to itself, the claim in question disproves itself. If truth claims are not inclusive, then the claim that truth claims are not inclusive is not inclusive and, therefore, shouldn't be discussed.
I suspect that the value of inclusivism is closely related to another value in our culture, tolerance, to which I now turn. It is often though that religious claims are intolerant of other religious people. Here, however, it's clear that the culture has failed to define the word "tolerance" correctly. Tolerance, in its meaning, assumes disagreement; it does not eliminate it. We see the value of tolerance at work (or not) when we come together with our families at Thanksgiving. Any normal family represents a plethora of religious or political viewpoints, which conflict with one another. I can imagine that conversations around the dinner table this November, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests and coronavirus pandemic, will be interesting, to say the least. When we try to come together, in spite of disagreements, as a family, do we just "agree to agree?" Of course not. We put aside disagreement, but we don't deny that there are disagreements. I have plenty of friends who disagree with me on a number of issues, but I love them and I love sharing the table with them. To tolerate one another's disagreements presupposes that they exist.
Therefore, as Christians, we should embody the value of tolerance, but tolerance understood correctly. Share the table with the one with whom you disagree. Talk about those disagreements while sharing the love of Christ. The culture, in one sense, is right that it's difficult to address disagreement with tolerance, since we live in a fallen world filled with sin. Let's be salt and light by embodying the culture's value better than anyone in the culture.
Finally, people in the culture today tend to think that religious claims are inscrutable. In philosophy, a particular proposition is inscrutable if the probability of the proposition is unable to be determined based on the information available to us. Let me give an example. All probability judgements are made given other propositions. So, let's consider this question, what is the probability that we are living in the Matrix, given current empirical or scientific evidence? Notice how the question is posed. Since we're considering the empirical evidence for or against the idea that we're living in the Matrix, we're not considering other possible sources of knowledge, such as experience. In probability, we express the probability of proposition A, given B, with the following statement: P(A/B). Read the forward slash as "given that." Let's say that the proposition, "We are living in the Matrix," is M, and the current empirical evidence is E. Therefore, to determine the probability of M, given E, we would express the statement as:
What is that probability? To answer this question, we'd have to consider whether the current empirical evidence supports the idea that we live in the Matrix, but that task seems impossible. Any empirical evidence gathered from the world could be, for all we know, evidence from a real world or a computer-generated Matrix, and we can't tell the difference. Therefore, P(M/E) seems to be, in principle, inscrutable. We can't know what this probability is.
In the case of religious belief, we could consider probability that a particular religious worldview R is true, given our background evidence B, which is relative to the individual. Therefore, each individual must consider P(R/B). For the religious pluralist, either the question itself is absurd (since religion is not a matter of truth but personal taste), or the probability is inscrutable. The former has to do with modernism, whereas the latter has to do with religious skepticism.
Modernism, briefly, includes the view that only scientific questions or questions, which can be determined via the faculties of reason, such as mathematics, have any objective truth value. Anything related to the humanities, including religion, is basically a matter of personal preference or perspective. This can be heard in many of the little aphorisms that we hear in the culture, such as "truth is in the eye of the beholder," and "live your truth." Because of this, it is perfectly reasonable to question issues such as the roundness of the earth, since this can be investigated scientifically, but it is arrogant to claim that Christianity is true. It would be like arguing that someone is incorrect for liking The Phantom Menace more than The Empire Strikes Back (even though it is clearly incorrect).
The clear problem with this sort of popular-level modernism is that it fails to recognize that all religious worldviews include claims, which can be true or false. For instance, the central claim of the Christian faith, that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, is in principle an historical claim, akin to the claim that George Washington was the first president of the United States, and is therefore not a matter of personal taste or perspective. If Jesus really did bodily rise, this claim would be true, even if there were no Christians alive who believed it. Thus, the nature of many religious claims simply conflicts with modernism.
Religious skepticism is quite different and more difficult to address. People in Western culture generally tend to be very skeptical of religious claims. This is the legacy of religious diversity. People see that they have good friends of all kinds of religious perspectives and can't really see how one is better than the other. I think that we, as apologists, need to address this in two steps. First, show the person that what one believes about God and Jesus is incredibly important and is a matter of truth. Second, provide arguments and evidence to show that person that the probabilities are not inscrutable, that in fact the arguments and evidence can be shown to lean toward Christian theism, as opposed to any other worldview. This will require us to have a firm grasp on those arguments and evidence, so that we can help our friends overcome that skepticism.
I have two purposes and hopes for this post. First, I hope that my brothers and sisters in Christ are able to overcome their discomfort at seeming intolerant or bigoted in believing that Christianity is true and that Christ is the only way to the Father. I also hope that the Holy Spirit uses this post to light a fire for sharing the gospel, as we realize that we can share the gospel with confidence, even in a culture that discourages it. Second, I want to, with love, challenge my unbelieving friends to consider the objective truth of Christianity, not whether it makes people happy or "is true for you but not for me." Let's come together to discuss these issues with love and tolerance for one another, in spite of deep disagreements.
Well, friends, that's it for the "The State of Theology" survey! We have used this survey to cover a wide range of essential Christian doctrines, which all of us as followers of Christ should affirm. For my brothers and sisters, I hope that this series has helped you to better understand your faith and think and talk about it. For my unbelieving friends, I hope that the series has helped you to understand the perspective of your Christian friends and family and encourages you to discuss these things with others.
Next week, we will start a new series on a field of theology called natural theology, which is that field of theology concerned with using reason, arguments, and evidence to show that Christian theism is true. In Holistic Apologetics, we want to show that Christianity is both true and desirable, thus appealing to the head and heart of our friends. Natural theology attempts to show that the worldview is true. I hope that you will join me for these interesting posts! I'm confident that you will learn a lot and be edified by the content.
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If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.