Is Jesus the only way to God? Yes. Absolutely. But what does it mean to say this?
There are two ways of thinking about this question and they both hinge on one’s interpretation of John 14:6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Again, wonderful. But what does it mean?
The traditional view is that it means only Christians will get to be with God in the next world (and in this one!). Only Christians have come to Christ for forgiveness of sin and so everyone who is not a Christian will be eternally separated from God. The problem with this is that even the Christians who hold this belief don’t actually believe it. If I approach one of them and say, “What about those who have never heard of Jesus during their lives at all?” almost all of them will say, “God will judge them according to what they knew.” Very few Christians are willing to say that everyone who ever lived before Jesus, along with all who will die without ever having heard of him will be separated eternally from God. So they say there’s a loophole. Apparently the death of Jesus will ultimately secure even some who never formally accepted him, because of God’s mercy and love.
Which leads to interpretation #2, which has not a lower but a higher view of Jesus. This view holds simply that all who come to God come through Christ. Let’s say I am drowning and you throw me a lifeline, pull me to shore, and then immediately leave the scene once you know I am safe. After I recover my senses, I may remember your face and thus “know” who saved me. Or I may have been so panicked and hysterical that I don’t remember your face at all. In fact maybe I don’t even have any memory of being saved. None of these three scenarios changes the fact that it was you who saved me. It was you whether I realize it or not, whether I saw you or not, whether I remember you or not. You did it, and you were the ONLY one who did it. Even if I think someone else did it, you were the one who actually did. What I understand about it takes away absolutely nothing from the reality that it was you who did it.
This view completely freaks out large numbers of Christians and they believe it is close to heresy, if not actual heresy. They believe it takes a low view of Jesus, but it doesn’t.
View #1 actually takes the lower view of Jesus, because while claiming that everyone who is saved is saved only and exclusively through a personal relationship with the historical person of Jesus, it then turns immediately around and stakes part of its ground in the territory where #2 is firmly planted, saying God is able to make a way for people who did not have a chance to accept him.
But either God can save those who did not know Christ, or he cannot. There is no middle ground. If he can (which people who hold both views mostly agree on), then he can. People can argue all they want that, “Yes, but this applies only to those who have not heard,” etc., but the problem with that is that they are making it up. It’s just a way for some people to maintain the exclusivity of the Christian way while not appearing to be as hard-hearted as to suggest that those who have never heard will be condemned. But apparently they are okay being as hard-hearted as to suggest that those who were born into different circumstances and make the best choice they possibly can from among nearly unlimited options will be condemned for having simply chosen poorly – as if God will be separated from his children simply because they had the wrong facts or information.
Am I saying everybody “gets in?” Nope. That’s the last thing I’m saying. Clearly there are those who want nothing whatsoever to do with God and are more interested in doing their own thing. I’m just saying I am confident there will be many Christians walking around one day in heaven saying “What are YOU doing here,” to a lot of different people.
Now to be perfectly clear, remember that I am a Christian pastor. Christian theology holds that Jesus is the “imago Dei” – the image of God. This means when we look at Jesus, we are seeing God himself. The book of Colossians spells out all that this means and it’s fantastic, high language about Jesus, all of which I deeply believe. I do not preach that everyone from every possible faith background will wind up with God. In fact I preach that NO religion will save ANYBODY. I preach Christ as God, as the one who has power to save, and who we can trust to do exactly that. I simply avoid saying that if one is Muslim, or Jewish, or something else, one is irrevocably lost beyond all hope. I am perfectly comfortable preaching Christ and leaving the judgment to God – all of it.
For more information on this topic, see Dallas Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today. I have long held this interpretation of John 14:6, seeing it as common sense and actually a higher view of Jesus, but did not have the courage to say so in public until Dallas wrote about it in this book.