Following is one of the more interesting questions posed in Banned Questions About Jesus. This one verse from the Gospel of John is the subject of much controversy and, for some, no small amount of pain and confusion. So in the book, I asked several contributors to offer their thoughts, including Phil Snider, Chris Haw (“Jesus for President“), Peter J Walker and Amy Worley.
In John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one gets to the Father but through me.” Do people have to choose to follow Jesus to go to Heaven? And what does it mean to choose his way?
A lot of people think this verse means that only those who accept Jesus into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior will go to heaven, but if you read the gospels closely you’ll see that Jesus never mentions this as a requirement. I tend to think that faith in Jesus should make us more inclusive of others, rather than less. While people are quite good at building walls of exclusion, it’s the upside-down kingdom of God announced by Jesus that knocks them down time and again, precisely because Jesus’ way – in stark contrast to our own – is “the truth and the life.” Accordingly, heaven can be viewed as that place and time (no matter which side of the grave you happen to be on) in which God’s love reigns supreme, not petty human acts of exclusion.
Furthermore, I don’t think that choosing Christ is a one-time affair, but rather a decision I make (or don’t make) every moment of my life. As Peter Rollins suggests, I choose Christ’s way “when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed,” yet I deny Christ every time I don’t. So you might say I’m aspiring to be a Christian, and in the best moments of my life, as few and as far between as they are, I hope to become one.
John’s mysterious gospel also mentions that no one can “choose Jesus” except by being drawn by the Father. Perhaps one might think that John was anachronistically trying to prove Calvinism’s predestination or over-emphasize Augustinianism.
I think it is best to interpret John’s point in light of the larger scope of his theology. I am told that John’s gospel was barely accepted into the canon, and was accepted only on the condition that we interpret it in light of the Johannine epistles, or letters (which were likely not written by the gospel writer). And the way to do such interpreting, for this verse, is to understand what Jesus is to John: Jesus has God’s full life in him. And that life is love—for “God is love.”
Simply, if you do not have the life of God in you, you cannot go on living after your biological life gives way. This isn’t a matter of exclusion as it is of identifying the principle by which life persists: God’s being, which is love. Admittedly this position, intermingled as it is with the resurrection of the dead, appears to us as extremely optimistic—that love animates life.
In popular imagery, we have retained this thought by symbolizing the heart with love—not an obvious connection when you think about it. And, perhaps even more interestingly, we have some biological findings that should give us pause when we declare our modern veto on all miracles and our ban on the resurrection:
“At the organismal level, there are no physiological or thermodynamic reasons why death must occur. In fact, there are several unicellular species that are immortal and one advanced multicellular organism that has not demonstrated any signs of senescence (Bristlecone Pine).”
So, from a certain perspective, “choosing Jesus means choosing life, which means choosing love. But love is a profoundly confused term and begs not only a definition but also a specific example. Jesus is apparently our most excellent example; and, if you reject him you are rejecting love. I appreciate how the Church has maintained a canon of saints to clarify other echoes of Jesus, so we keep our minds tuned to what “accepting Jesus” looks like.
Historically, Christianity has taught a fairly exclusive doctrine of salvation: those who don’t accept Christ are condemned to hell. That teaching is easier to accept when you’re (a) an oppressed believer, living under violent Roman persecution, or (b) part of a theocratic medieval society where everyone is Christian. In either scenario, it’s unlikely that typical Christians faced the dilemma of a neighbor or loved one who did not believe. That’s probably a core reason our soteriology (study of religious doctrines of salvation) developed and cemented as it did. In the 21st Century, however, we confront this problem daily with friends, family, coworkers and classmates.
There are plenty of scriptures available for constructing arguments in favor of exclusivism, inclusivism and universalism. No one “wins” that fight. We all choose to believe what seems true to us. Many of the most conservative Christians I have known still make special allowances for people they care about – people who “couldn’t possibly go to hell!”
Objective truth is one thing; subjective relationships are another. My friend Jim Henderson (www.OffTheMap.com) says, “When people like each other, the rules change.” Many of these changed rules remain secret because people are scared of risking judgment or reproach from their churches. I have decided to accept the backlash and make my rule-breaking public because I think it’s helpful to talk about these things openly.
I know my salvation is in Christ, but I don’t demand that of others. If Jesus came only to offer exclusive salvation through himself, then he actually made things worse for folks, not better. I believe Jesus flung the door to God wide open! George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, referred to an “Inner Light” that every human being carries: God’s immediate presence. I affirm that spiritual connection in us all, and believe it is inherently salvific.
Amy Reeder Worley:
John is the newest and most unique of the gospels. Although none of the gospels were written as purely historical accounts of the life and times of Jesus, John is the most mythical (truth revealed through the totality of a narrative rather than a logical theorem) and mystical (the pursuit of union with the divine).
Because John differs from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in its Christology and language, there is substantial scholarly disagreement about its ultimate message. However, most scholars agree that the author of John’s view of Jesus is revelatory—Jesus came to reveal the path to God. In John, Jesus claims to be “the bread of life” (6:35), “the light of the world” (8:12), “the paraclete” (14:16), and “the resurrection and the life” (14:6). This metaphoric language evokes images of Jesus feeding the spiritually hungry, lighting the path for those who cannot see it, and drawing our attention to the sacred around us.
We should note that Jesus does not say, “no one gets to heaven but through me.” Rather, he refers to getting to the Father. This is in keeping with John’s somewhat mystical theology concerning the human experience of God. Second, although the second sentence of John 14:6 asserts the exclusivity of Jesus as the path to God, the first sentence explains why Jesus is the “way” to God. Jesus is the” truth,” meaning his message was true. Jesus is the “life,” meaning his life was a map to experience God. In other words according to John’s gospel, Jesus embodied the way to God.
So, is Jesus the only way to God? I don’t think so. John was written during a time when the early Christian church sought legitimacy. It was distinguishing itself from Judaism and the Roman god cults. I like to view the exclusive language in John 14:6 as an emphatic affirmation of the truth in Jesus’ message, not a condemnation of other paths to God.