“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) You have heard these words often, at funerals if nowhere else, but they’re also popular as a bludgeon to declare that only by being a Christian, a certain kind of Christian, can one avoid spending eternity in hell. Some assert that only by accepting Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior, in those formulaic words, can one be assured of being a real Christian.
On the other hand, the same words are used by skeptics as evidence of the arrogant hubris exhibited by Christians claiming their way is the only way –– religious imperialism at its worst.
Is Christianity the only way to salvation? It’s a problem, and not just for rank and file Christians. Many a clergy gathering has pondered how to understand it. It doesn’t help when more of this part of John’s gospel is read: where Jesus made it clear that he and his Father are one. If you know Jesus, you know the Father. It’s a cornerstone of Anglican theology, and it’s tempting to take it as the seal to the argument: Christianity is the only way. In John, there is no doubt that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. As Trinitarians, we boldly assert that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be spoken of as three, but they’re nevertheless manifestations of one God, and there is no other God. When Jesus said he and the Father are one, he meant it.
How that works is a mystery we have to be willing to live into. It’s not ours to rationalize, or simplify to make it easily understandable, not that two thousand years of theology hasn’t tried. All we end up doing when we try is add to the number of rejected heresies. Although, in fairness, each heresy offers a brief glimpse of a partial truth. So forget about explaining how it works, and focus on this truth: the only way to get to God is through God, and Jesus, as we know God in Jesus, is the face we will meet. There isn’t any other.
That’s one thing, but we need to step back a little and separate Jesus from Christianity because Christianity is another thing. Jesus, whose earthly life was spent as an observant Jew, is not a religion, and he certainly wasn’t a Christian. Christianity is a religion. It’s the constellation of creeds, traditions, and rituals through which believers in and followers of Jesus as the Son of God have organized their lives and worship. It’s what gives structure and meaning to discipleship.
So here’s the conundrum under which we live.
There is only one God, whom we know in Jesus, and it is God in Christ Jesus who gets to decide who is saved and who is not. To put it another way, God gets to do what God gets to do, and no one else gets to do it. If I recall, Calvin poked around a bit with that idea.
Christians may be confident they’re following Jesus now and for eternity, but it’s not up to Christians to tell God, or anyone else, who is eligible for salvation. There is no set of magic words that must be chanted. There is no ritual that must be enacted. It is God, and God alone, who decides who is first, and who is last.
“Jesus, let us in, we’re the ones who preached in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and did many deeds of power in your name.”
“I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” So says Jesus in Matthew 7. So much for Christian hubris.
I have no doubt that everyone, in every place, and every time, will meet Jesus. Those who hear his voice, and recognize God in it will find an open door. Is there an expiration date? Do you have to meet Jesus and recognize him as God incarnate in this church, in this life, to make it into heaven? Scripture never says so. During his earthly ministry, it seems Jesus was gloriously inconsistent in whom he healed, restored, or to whom he promised salvation. If there is an other side to death, why not meet him there for the first time?
Does that mean anything goes? Of course not. All humanity is under commandment to love God, love neighbors, and love each other as Christ loves us. The bar is set high. It’s not easy to get over. But the bar of merciful grace is set higher, and we’re invited to be lifted over it.
As for me, it is as a Christian, worshiping in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, that I meet and recognize Jesus as the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, and through whom I have my life and being, now and for eternity. Of that I have no doubt. It is an unshakable faith. It’s the good news I want to share with everybody in every place, inviting them to begin living now, this day, into their eternal life, not by believing in Jesus, but by following him as disciples. Christianity is the sure and certain way. Of that I have no doubt. Are there other ways? Of that I am agnostic. What I know is this: there is nothing that deprives God of saving whom God will save, Christian or not.