Christianity is getting less and less popular in the United States. Why? We could look at several reasons, but I would like to zero in on one of the most offensive teachings in Christianity: the claim that there are not many roads that lead to God. There is only one–Jesus.
So why does orthodox Christianity cling to this narrow-minded belief? Who said that Jesus was the only way? Well, Jesus did. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through me” (John 14:6). Not a lot of ambiguity in that statement.
Not surprisingly, there are many who strongly disagree with Jesus’s claim. And not just atheists and skeptics. Many Christians are also uncomfortable with Jesus’s declaration. If you wrestle with the exclusivity of Jesus’s statement, take a few minutes to reflect on why the Bible says that it can be no other way. And as you consider God’s reasoning, keep in mind that most of us, regardless of our religious preference, fall into one of two categories: we are either legalistic and believe we must earn what we get, or we are fatalistic and believe that what is to be will be. But when we look in the Scriptures, we discover that God is neither legalistic nor fatalistic.
To understand God’s perspective, we need to go back to the beginning. We read in Genesis 2 that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground–trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. But the Lord God warned him, ‘You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden–except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die'” (vv. 7–9, 15–17).
What’s happening here in the garden? God is telling Adam that he is free to choose his destiny–but to choose wisely. There will be eternal consequences. Why would God do that? Why would he give Adam the ability to choose? Because God wanted to create in us the capacity to love, and love cannot be coerced. It must be given freely.
There is a passage in Deuteronomy 30 that helps us understand why things must be the way they are. In verse 10, the people of Israel are told that deliverance will come “when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” God then offers them two options: they can choose life, or they can choose death. God says, “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you to understand, and it is not beyond your reach. It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. “Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Today I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:11–20).
Why is following the Lord such an exclusive proposition? Why is it him and no other? Because, as verse 20 says, “The Lord is your life.” God isn’t saying that he will kill us if we don’t choose him; he’s saying that he is life. We read in Genesis 2 that it was God who breathed life into us, so this isn’t about which religion is right–it’s about who has life. When Jesus says he’s the only way to life, he’s not eliminating other options that lead to life. He’s saying that there are no other options.
Jesus’s offer is quite different than those we hear in other religions. Pick one. Hinduism? Hinduism tells me that I’m trapped in samsara, the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. I will reincarnate until I learn how to escape the cycle. Buddhism says the same: my karmic baggage is holding me down and I will reincarnate until I get it right. Reading Hindu and Buddhist holy books like the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Dhammapada led me to the conclusion that reincarnation is a kind of punishment I must suffer until I’m able to remove all desires and feelings and everything that makes me human.
The other thing I learned about these two religions is that no one is coming to help me. I am on my own to attain Nirvana. Ditto with Islam. Allah is not coming for me. He left me a list of do’s and don’ts in the Koran and I must work and work. And even then, Allah will decide if I am worthy of paradise.
Christ’s invitation is strikingly different. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Another great place to see how Jesus’s offer is different than all the others is in John 15. In verse 9, Jesus tells his followers, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Did you catch those last few words?
Jesus didn’t come to make trouble for us.
He came to invite us to be his friends.