If you were to ask a person on the street about what they disliked about Christianity, there would be one item that would be near the top of the list. Some would accuse Christians of being intolerant. Although people may see us as intolerant in a number of ways, there is one aspect that would be common. Christianity is exclusivist. What I mean by that is that Christians believe that we are correct in our interpretation of God and specifically that Jesus is the only way to find salvation.
How can we hold to such a view? We live in a pluralistic culture. Our neighbours and co-workers, the children at our schools, all follow different religions. There are different ideas about who or what God is. Won’t insisting that our interpretation is right tear apart our society?
There are actually two questions we need to ask. The first is whether Jesus really is the only way. The second is whether that belief is dangerous and unhealthy.
There are people even within the church who struggle with these ideas. I know of one well known religious writer, a former priest, who believed that the exclusivist passage from John 14 was the foundation for the crusades, inquisition and the holocaust. This led him to a radical reinterpretation of who and what Jesus was that would make all people of every religion the same.
These are questions that are worth asking. In doing so, we need to look both to our Bible and to our cultural context.
Are All Religions True?
I wish I had a dollar for every time a person has told me that all religions are basically the same. When I hear such claims, I try to ask questions about what ways they are the same.
It is easy to assert that they are all the same but such similarities quickly disappear under scrutiny.
Here are some examples of major differences. Many Hindus believe everything is God, many Buddhists that there is no God. Jews believe that Jesus is neither Messiah nor Son of God. Muslims believe that Jesus is the Messiah but not the Son of God. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Jews believe that Jesus was crucified but not resurrected. Muslims believe that Jesus was neither crucified nor resurrected. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Some may argue that these are only surface differences and that deep down they are the same. I disagree as these are major differences. However, each religion disagrees as to what the actual root problem of humanity is.
For Hindus, the problem is breaking the cycle of reincarnation from bad karma. For Buddhists, the problem is suffering based on being attached to things and people. For Jews, the problem is covenant faithfulness. For Muslims, the problem is the need to submit to God. For, Christians the problem is separation from God because of sin.
Of course each religion has a different solution, because each religion has a different idea of what the problem is. Because of this, saying that all the religions are basically the same does not make sense. It is like a man introducing his wife and saying that she is both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time.
I’m not arguing here for the truth of Christianity. All I’m saying is that it is possible that one of these religions is true or that none of the religions are true. What is not possible is that all of the religions are true.
Is Christianity Intolerant?
I’m not ready to argue for the truth of the Jesus way. I need to address the emotional response that people have when we talk about there being only one way. If we say that Jesus is the only way, does that make us bad people? Is Christianity intolerant at its core?
I am going to argue that an exclusive Christianity is more tolerant than those who attempt to be inclusive by blending all the religions into one.
What does it mean to be tolerant? Tolerance, despite what many in the media say, is not about embracing everything as the same. Tolerance is the willingness to allow something even if you disagree with it or don’t like it. Imagine you are walking in the snow with your winter boots on. A stone falls into your boot and there is no way to take it out without removing your boot and getting your feet wet. In such a case, you would be tolerating the stone. The discomfort to the foot is worth the benefit of keeping the feet dry. That is tolerance.
Imagine a different scenario. I go to visit a person in this congregation and they insist on giving me chocolate every time I visit them. Do I tolerate the chocolate? No. I can’t tolerate what I love, I can only embrace it.
How does this fit with other religions? Although I believe that Christianity is true and is the only way, I also affirm other religions to believe the same thing about their beliefs. I’m not offended by Muslims believing the five pillars are correct or Buddhists believing that the eightfold path is correct. I don’t want them to compromise their beliefs just to say nicer things about me. As an exclusivist, I will stand up for the rights of other to be exclusivists.
I would suggest that those who try to blend all the religions into one are actually less tolerant. They are less tolerant because they ask not just one but all religions to give up on what makes them unique.
Christians should be tolerant specifically in fight for the right for all religions to have the freedom of expressions but without demanding that each religion compromise what they really believe.
Why Can’t Jesus Be One of Many Ways?
You have perhaps heard people describe religion as different paths up a mountain, all leading to the same God. It doesn’t matter which path you take as all go to the top. The problem with this is that the religions don’t even agree on if there is a God, much less what that God is like. If you went back in time and assured the Buddha that you believed his teachings are valid ways to experience God, he would look at you very strangely as God had no place in his philosophy.
I am sympathetic with the desire to say all religions lead to God. I will even agree that all religions have some degree of truth in them and all are able to produce good and ethical people. But there is a problem with saying that they all do the same thing.
Think about the central claim of Christianity. God sent his Son to die on a cross to pay the penalties for our sins. Does that even make sense if there are some other equally valid but less painful means of salvation?
Think about it in this way. Imagine that there is a disease. Doctors have found ways to treat it with both a variety of medications and some surgery. But they have also discovered that there is something in my son’s brain that could be made into another cure, but it would result in his death. If there were already good and effective ways to treat the disease, would I really offer the death of my son, just to provide a bit more variety in the range of cures? Not a chance.
But that is what we would have to accept if the teachings of prophets and spiritual masters, meditation and religious practices were already bringing people to God. There would have been no reason for God to offer his Son. In fact it would have been cruel. But we believe that it is only through Jesus that we can come to God.
What About Those Who Have Not Heard?
Before I conclude, I need to address an important question. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? In our city you can hardly go any distance before bumping into a church building. It is not that way every place in the world. Are people damned for lack of knowledge that is not their fault?
There are no easy answers but we can say some things about this. First, there is more than enough evidence for God in nature. You don’t need a Bible to know God exists. The true God is revealed. I believe that if a person honestly calls out to God with a humble heart that they will meet Jesus in some way. That may be through God sending missionaries or God speaking through dreams and visions. They may never read a New Testament or have detailed information about Jesus, but we are not saved by passing a theology quiz. All we are saying is that salvation is through faith in Jesus, whatever that may look like. I truly believe that all those who seek will find. We just need be aware that it might be us that God uses to reveal Jesus.
You may feel a tinge of guilt if you believe that Jesus is the only way to God. You may fear accusations of intolerance and bigotry. But believing Jesus is the only way is nothing of the sort. As long as we are willing to share the freedom that we desire to express our beliefs to other religions, there is nothing wrong with this. We are actually being insulting to other religions by trying to throw them all into a blender. Every religion has an exclusivist component.
In our pluralistic world, we can present our beliefs about Jesus, and let people decide for themselves. Backing down and saying that all the religions are the same is not the compassionate thing to do.
It is only through Jesus that God became a human being. It was through that Jesus that full payment was made on the cross. That same Jesus was raised from the dead and offers that life to us. Popular or unpopular, it is through Jesus that we experience the truth.