Jesus Christ, is He the Only Way?

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:12)

Is Jesus the only way to eternal life with the Father? Is Christianity an exclusionary belief system? What about people who lead lives of honesty, generosity, temperance, and morality in other religions, such as good Hindus and Moslems? Don't all religious paths lead to the same God?

Based on the definition of "Christians" as those who are saved through Christ, the Bible indicates that only Christians will receive the gift of eternal life with the Father. This position tends to offend people who choose not to be Christians. Such reaction is understandable without considering the following issues.

I've suggested a definition of "Christians", but what does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean joining a specific church organization or subjecting oneself to blind obedience to men who claim to have exclusively franchised authority? Does it require enchanted rituals? If these are the tests of being a true "Christian", then Christianity would be offensive. The gospel of Christ as described in the Bible doesn't bar people from eternal life because they failed to participate in the right rituals. The gospel that Jesus taught is not about rituals. Of the thousands of his words that are recorded in the Bible, He only teaches about ordinances three times: his own baptism (Matt 3:15), the institution of the Lord's Supper (Matt 26:26-29), and the Great Commission. (Matt 28:19). The apostles similarly de-emphasized ordinances in their New Testament letters. The Christ of the gospels would not say something like, "You gave your heart to me, but you failed to join the right organization. Therefore I'm rejecting you." Christ wants people to become a certain kind of people. He's not looking for people who have said the right words and participated in the right rituals.

And Christianity is not about following certain men. The apostle Paul taught that it is wrong when some people say that they follow Paul and others teach they follow Apollos. (1 Cor 3:4) Although teachable and willing to submit to leaders as appropriate, Christians are disciples of Christ and Christ alone.  Paul also taught, "so then, no more boasting about men!" (1 Cor 3:21) We are not to testify of men, whether they are prophets or otherwise, but of Christ.

So, what separates a Christian from a good person of another persuasion, and why would God accept the one into heaven and not the other? If God is just, there must be a fundamental difference between the two. There must be some basic characteristic of a Christian that uniquely meets God's criterion. Otherwise, Christianity would only be another form of hocus-pocus.

In searching for God's criterion, let's test the hypothesis that "Christians are better than everyone else." Another way of stating this same potential parameter is that Christians obey certain critical commandments more completely than anyone else does.

There are at least two flaws with this hypothesis. First, even if it were true that Christians are on the average more righteous than other people on the average (and it probably isn't), there would at least be some non-Christians who are more righteous than some Christians. Second, what infinitesimal point on the scale of righteousness would be the breakpoint between good enough to earn immortality and eternal life, and below which lesser eternal joy is obtained?

Actually, the Bible answers the question of where the breakpoint is. It is in complete perfection. It is at the absolute top of the scale. The only people who are righteous enough to earn eternal life with God are those who are as perfect as He is (Matt 5:48). Perfection means never having a mean or selfish thought. It means never putting one's own needs above the needs of others. And no mortal on this earth, Christian or non-Christian is at that level, nor will anyone ever reach that level by simply working harder.

So, any religious doctrine that teaches that personal worthiness is the basis of earning eternal life is illogical. For this reason, obedience to commandments cannot be the standard for earning a position in the next life. Whether we are searching for one breakpoint or a finite number of breakpoints, the righteousness of humanity is distributed across a continuum.

To the contrary, Christianity is the only formal belief system (that is, based on documented systematic theology) in which eternal life results from complete trust in God rather than obedience to a set of codes of conduct. When a person follows Christ, he places himself directly under the transforming influence of God rather than the authority of codified rules or religious leaders. He realizes that he is incapable of becoming good enough to be worthy for eternal life through his own efforts, but that by consecrating himself to God he will ultimately be transformed. God works from the inside of a person's soul. And since absolute perfection is the minimum criterion for entrance into God's kingdom, a person can be justified by humbly accepting Christ's atonement on the cross.

Christianity does not make a person better than someone else; it makes a person better than he was. A person, no matter how bad he may be, is in the process of getting better when he is under the transforming influence of Christ. On the other hand a person with vain religious piety may have started out as a very obedient person and may appear in his own mind to be maintaining that obedience. But everyone is changing: some towards ultimate good, and some towards ultimate bad, and it is only important where we are going, not were we are. C.S. Lewis wrote, "When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less." (Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1943, book III, chapter 4) Commandments are not prerequisites for entry into the best afterlife as in other religions. They provide a definition of righteousness, an understanding of the direction for personal transformation, and a view of the ultimate goal. Christians do not obey commandments in order to earn entry into heaven; they obey commandments because a little bit of heaven is already inside them. If by the word "religion" we mean a set of ordinances and codes with corresponding blessings for obedience and penalties for disobedience, Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship with Jesus Christ that results in a worldview and a transformation of the individual believer.

In most cases a religion requires faith in the mortal person who founded it, such as Buddha for the Buddhists. If Mohammed was a false prophet, then the Muslims have placed their hopes for eternal future on false revelations. If Mary Baker Eddy delivered a false message, then the Christian Scientists have rejected the Lord's simple offer of grace for a fabricated plan of salvation. The same is true of the dependence of the Jehovah's Witnesses on the veracity of Charles Taze Russell. Similarly the validity of the Unification Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of Sun Myung Moon. Each of these religions, even if it is among those that use the name of Christ, places its entire hope for eternity under faith in the individual mortal who founded it. Yet it is universally understood that "nobody's perfect", a fact that is confirmed by the Biblical prophets. (Eccles. 7:20; Rom. 3:9-20) Everyone makes serious mistakes in his life, and there is no guarantee that these individuals weren't mistaken in their claims of founding authority, no matter how many people are of the opinion that they were correct. And it doesn't matter how many miracles are attributed to the founding individuals because they all are credited with miracles, even though they contradict each other.

True Christianity requires faith exclusively in the Maker of the earth, and does not stand or fall on the basis of any mortal man. C.S. Lewis wrote, "We must be thankful to all of the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them. But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world." (Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1943, book IV, chapter 7)

One might ask if the faith of Christians relies on the truthfulness of the Bible writers because our knowledge of Christ depends on the Bible. And the answer is to the affirmative - indeed it does.  But only as witnesses - indeed many different witnesses who are independently consistent with each other.  However, these witnesses, the Bible writers, do not claim to be deliverers or administrators of salvation, but only witnesses to the ministry of Christ.  Most other religions depend on mortals as conduits to salvation.  In Christianity, Christ is the only One who administers salvation.  Christians have direct access to Christ and his salvation rather than receiving eternal rewards through a mortal or organization of mortals.  So we are not placing our trust for salvation in mortals.

Returning to the questions at the beginning of this essay, will anyone who has not been baptized as a Christian live eternally? According to the Bible the answer to that question is yes, but the details on this subject are limited. It would be surprising if the Bible devoted much attention to this issue since it is written for people who are earnestly searching for the Lord's plan of salvation. It is not an instruction manual for people to use in judging whether or not other people will be admitted into heaven. Such judgment is the responsibility of the Lord. However, this is what the Bible tells us:

  • Eternal life (salvation) is made possible through the atonement of Christ. There is no other source of salvation. (John 14:6) (This issue is covered in more detail in the chapter, Salvation by Grace.)
  • Salvation is not universal: many will not be saved. (Luke 13:23-24)
  • Baptism is a public expression of acceptance of the Lord's grace. It is not a ritual with enchanted powers. People are cleansed from sin by Christ's atonement at the cross, not by baptism. Although we are commanded to baptize new believers and baptism is symbolic of cleansing from sin, baptism is not a determinant for an individual's admission into heaven. (1 Cor. 15:3) (This issue is covered in more detail in the topic, Baptism.)
  • People who lived before Christ's earthly mission were saved by his atonement through their faith in God even though they did not know the name of Jesus, died before the atonement, and were not baptized. (Hebrews chapter 11 and Romans chapter 4)
  • The kingdom of God belongs to little children. Because of their teachableness and innocence, little children who die will enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:16-17)
  • Taking upon oneself the name of Christ or testifying of Christ in front of an audience of like-minded people does not move a person any closer to heaven. (Matt. 6:16-17: 7:21-23) However, testifying of Christ where risk or cost is involved is an indication of true faith. (Matt 10:32-33)
  • People die and then they are judged. (Heb. 9:27) There is an impassable gulf between the spirit prison (hades, where the spirits await the second resurrection) and paradise (the abode of those destined for the first resurrection). (Luke 16:26) All of the inhabitants of Hades are destined for Hell. (Rev 20:14) Therefore this life is the only time to become a child of God, and there is no opportunity for salvation after death. (See Heaven & Hell.)
  • People who die without accepting the grace of God in this life have no excuse. This has been true since the creation of the earth because the attributes and nature of God have been visible through his creation to anyone who is sufficiently open-minded to see them. In addition, personal revelation has always been available to all people who would receive it. Therefore no one who has ever lived on this earth will be able to use the excuse that he or she was not given the gospel message. (Rom. 1:18-20)

For Christians, it is not our purpose to judge others or to worry about things over which we have no impact. Nor is it our calling to present ourselves as examples of superior righteousness and spirituality. It is our purpose to trust in God's power, and to accept God's love and share it with everyone that we know. A Christian is not a religious person who sees imperfections in non-religious people. He sees the image of God in all people, and where he sees need in others, he takes the time and gives the resources to help those in need.

So based on the definition of "Christians" stated earlier in this essay, how do we know who is and who is not a Christian?  I don't really know the answer exhaustively or exclusively.  God didn't appoint me to determine who is in the kingdom and who is not.  But I'm pretty sure that it isn't based on whether or not a person calls oneself a Christian or whether a person joins a church that claims to be exclusively franchised with the authority of God or whether a person is the recipient of magical rituals.  I think it has more to do with accepting the love of our Creator and and sharing that love with all other people of all religions and races.

In his book, The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor wrote, "Mistaking this active life of faith for an institutionally backed and culturally bound belief system is similar to reducing the Mona Lisa to paint-by-numbers." (The Myth of Certainty, InterVarsity Press, 1986, p. 124)

2005 William C. Hamer