Sometimes we make dealing with the current controversial features of Christianity more difficult than it actually needs to be. Here I’m talking about politically charged theological and ethical issues like abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, gender dysphoria, and the like. In one important sense they’re not hard at all; they’re easy.
Some ideas flow so naturally and directly from clear, core elements of the Christian worldview that they are not “tough” issues in a scriptural sense. The relevant texts are clear. There is no ambiguity in the Bible’s teaching. The basic doctrines informing these issues are not gray areas. They never have been.
The confusion comes almost completely from the outside, not the inside. Lots of folks—including Christians—simply don’t like what the Bible teaches, so they wrangle about words and twist the text trying to get the verses to say the opposite of what they clearly mean.
Which brings me to my present concern. I continue to be mystified by what I call the “confused confession” that many Christians make regarding Christ as savior. It goes something like this (note carefully the inflection): “I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus is my savior. He is the only way for me. But I can’t say He is the way for others.”
So, here’s my question: Does this claim strike you as unusual?
Now, there is a sense in which it’s not unusual at all. Comments like this are so common lately—not just with more secular Christians or with politicians who identify in some way with Christianity, but also with massive numbers of rank and file evangelicals—they hardly raise an eyebrow anymore. That, of course, is the appeal. It’s a clever way of both aligning with Christ (in one sense) and denying Him (in another). No one gets offended. Everyone is satisfied. Perfectly politically correct.
I want to know, though, if this statement strikes you as theologically unusual. Think of Christ’s response when He was asked a similar question at His trial: “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” He didn’t respond, “That’s true for Me, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to others.” He simply said, “I Am,” and, in virtue of that confession, was led away to execution.
Just weeks later, when facing the same ruling body that crucified Christ, Peter’s own confession was unqualified: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). When threatened, he was unmoved: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge, for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20).
There was no ambivalence or ambiguity in these ancient confessions, yet today ambivalence abounds. Indeed, it’s hard to know what such a confused confession even means coming from a Christian. In what sense can Jesus be “my savior” but not the only savior for everyone else?
This month’s Solid Ground is the first of a two-part series meant to deal with the confusion that prompts confessions like the one above. This confusion is so corrosive, it puts the gospel itself in jeopardy. Those who hold this view are not likely to suffer any inconvenience or discomfort to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). Worse, this conviction is so theologically thin, it may not be an expression of legitimate saving faith at all.
Three possible explanations for this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too Christianity come to mind: theological uncertainty, religious pluralism, and Christian inclusivism. (I left out “dishonesty” because I don’t want to seem completely jaundiced, though I do think that is what drives some people to make this statement, particularly politicians.) I don’t think any of these succeed, though, and I want to tell you why.
One Way for Some
There are some Christians who genuinely believe and trust that Jesus is the source of their pardon before the Father yet aren’t completely sure they are right. They believe, but do not know. Their explanation would go something like this: “I can’t say that others have to trust Jesus for salvation because I’m not even sure I have to. I believe I need Jesus, so I’m trusting Him as best I can, but I don’t know Jesus is the only way of rescue, so I can’t say with any deep confidence that others need to trust Him, too.”
I am completely sympathetic to this reason for religious relativism because I realize this is the best some Christians can do. They lack confidence because they lack knowledge—that is, they lack any evidence their beliefs are actually justified.
It’s one reason apologetics is so important. The role of Christian defenses is to supply the evidence meant to help elevate mere belief to credible and justified conviction. Some believers have not been exposed to the kind of resources that could help them bridge this belief/knowledge gap, so their hesitation is understandable.
This approach, though, has a lethal liability for our “confused confession” (“true for me but not for you”). The biblical claim that Jesus is God’s Messiah for the world (John 3:16, et al.) is either true or false. If true, then those who trust in Him are pardoned and those who do not are still in their sin. If false, then Jesus fails to save anyone, unbeliever or believer. Those who reject Him face no consequence for doing so, and those who trust Him have trusted in vain.
It is not a reasonable option, however, to claim that Jesus is one’s own savior but not the world’s. The claims of Christ can be true for me and true for you even though you don’t believe them. Or they can be false for you and also false for me even if I do believe them. Under no circumstance, though, can they be half and half. Jesus either is the savior for all, or He is the savior of none.
Here is another way of putting it. The question can always be asked, “What essential, foundational, defining benefit would any Christian gain from Christ that without Christ would be lost?” The correct answer is “salvation.” That is why we call Jesus “Savior,” after all. If damnation would be our fate were we bereft of Christ, why would it be any different for anyone else?
Which brings me to the question of why Jesus is the only savior for everyone. It is difficult for a believer to be confident that Jesus is the singular savior if she is not clear on why He is necessary in the first place, so let me make that clear.
As each of us lives life, we accumulate to our account a rap sheet of sorts, a personal list of our crimes before God. When we stand before Him at the final judgment, God is not going to ask what religious club we belonged to. He is going to judge us from the record in the books according to our deeds (Revelation 20:11–15).
God is going to ask if we lived our lives the way we should have: honoring Him and loving Him before anything else, never lying or deceiving, never taking something not our own, never dishonoring our parents, never abusing other people in any way, never hungering after something that does not belong to us (including people we were not married to), always loving our neighbors as ourselves—those kinds of things.
Now, if we have never broken any of His laws—if we have never faltered in any of God’s requirements in any way—then we have nothing to worry about. However, if we have done wrong, we will be punished in proportion to our crimes.
This, of course, is not good news. It is bad news. The good news is that even though God would be completely just to punish us without any further consideration, still He has provided a rescue plan. He extends an offer of mercy through His Son.
Jesus has purchased a pardon. With it, we are rescued. Without it, we stand alone. Anyone trusting in his own merits will be judged by his own merits and found wanting. Anyone trusting in the merits of Christ will be judged by the merits of Christ and will find favor. As I have written elsewhere:
This is why Jesus of Nazareth is the only way to God, the only possible source of rescue. He is the only one who solved the problem. No other man did this. No other person could…. Only Jesus of Nazareth could save the world. Without him, we are crushed under our overwhelming debt. Without him, every single one of us would have to pay for our own crimes, and that would take eternity.[i] [Emphasis in the original.]
There is no middle ground, no neutral place to stand for the Christian espousing the confused confession. Anyone thinking there is a third option has either severely misjudged the problem—sin—or he has severly misjudged the solution—Christ—or both.
Many Ways for All
It could be that the confused confession is motivated by a different false conviction: religious pluralism. There are actually two kinds of pluralism. The first is so unremarkable, it only needs to be mentioned in passing to prevent those who are not reading carefully from thinking I am denying something obvious.
The religious pluralism I am concerned with is not simply the observation that there are lots of religions to choose from (a plurality of views) coupled with the conviction that we ought to live in peace with people who disagree with our own convictions. That strikes me as self-evident.
The pluralism that concerns me is the view that, generally speaking, all religions are each on their own terms legitimate roads to God. According to this view, God has somehow ordained various paths for various people in diverse cultures with diverse beliefs. Therefore, no one is within his rights to say his religion is better than anyone else’s. “God is too big to fit into one religion,” the bumper sticker instructs us. The Almighty is much larger than our limited theological categories. Christ may be the path for Christians, but others have legitimate paths of their own.
This alternative, though, is another dead end. I’ll use a popular religious pluralism parable to show you why.
In the children’s book The Blind Men and the Elephant, Lillian Quigley retells the ancient fable of six blind men who visit the palace of a rajah and encounter an elephant for the first time. As each touches the animal with his hands, he announces his discoveries.
The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.” The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake.” The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.” The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall! An elephant is like a tree.” The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”[ii]
An argument ensues, each blind man thinking his own perceptions of the elephant are the correct ones. The rajah, awakened by the commotion, calls out from the balcony of his palace. “The elephant is a big animal,” he says. “Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”
Enlightened by the rajah’s wisdom, the blind men reach an agreement. “Each one of us knows only a part. To find out the whole truth we must put all the parts together.”
This fable is often used to illustrate the nature of religious pluralism, instructing us that every faith represents just one part of a larger truth about God. Each religious tradition possesses a piece of the truth, eventually leading its adherents to God by its own unique route. Devotees of Eastern religions are fond of using the parable in this way.
The problem with the parable, though, is it presumes that Christians reject pluralism because they lack exposure to other beliefs, much as the blind men erred because each explored only a part of the elephant and not the whole animal. Had they searched more completely, they would have discovered their error. Christians, then, are simply uninformed about the bigger picture.
This is not the case, though. Christians reject pluralism, in part, because defining elements of different religions contradict each other. For example, Judaism teaches Jesus is not the Messiah; Christianity teaches He is. Jesus either is the Messiah or He is not. Both religions can’t be right. One or the other is mistaken on one of its core, defining doctrines. The notion that Christianity and Judaism are somehow equally true is contradictory, like square circles.
Other examples abound. What happens when we die? Some religions promote Heaven and Hell. Others teach reincarnation. For still others, there is no conscious afterlife at all, only self extinction. However, when we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” we may go to Heaven or Hell, or we might be reincarnated, or we could disappear altogether, but we can’t do them all at the same time. Someone is mistaken. Indeed, it’s possible all of these options are false, but they cannot all be true.
If the point is still unclear, consider this. What if the elephant in the parable were a miniature, so small one of the blind men could completely encompass it in his hand? If another then claimed, “The elephant is bigger than a house,” the first would be right to disagree. An elephant cannot be small enough to fit into one’s hand and also as big as a house at the same time.
No, the Christian’s concern is not based on ignorance. No possible future discovery is going to change the fact that many of the claims of competing religions simply cannot be harmonized. Rather, exploration complicates the issue. The more we discover about core beliefs of various faiths, the more complex the problem of harmonizing becomes.
Appealing to the ubiquity of something like the “golden rule” is no help. It is a moral action guide that says almost nothing about any religion’s fundamental understanding of the shape of the world. Profound contradictions between foundational beliefs are not removed by pointing to shared moral proverbs. It’s the differences that matter, not the similarities. Contradictory claims about fundamental beliefs cannot be simultaneously true. Consequently, religious pluralism self-destructs.
I guess someone could respond that from God’s perspective the details don’t matter. He is satisfied with any sincere religious effort. But how do they know this? This claim is an article of faith, a leap of hope that turns out to be contrary to the specific teachings of just about every religion, especially Christianity.
Any informed Christian can immediately see the challenge religious pluralism presents for the Great Commission, the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Christ, the role of evangelism, etc. Clearly, those who follow Jesus and understand the New Testament teaching on the work of the cross—and also those who take the first of the Ten Commandments in its plain and obvious sense—cannot make peace with pluralism, no matter how politically incorrect it is to oppose it.
One Way and Many Ways
There is a final, more sophisticated way of explaining how Jesus can be the savior for Christians even though others need not believe in Him. It is a hybrid combination of one way and many ways called religious inclusivism.
Inclusivism is different from pluralism, but in its more extreme form (there are actually two versions of it), it has the same ultimate impact, and therein lies its danger.
First, inclusivism is only promoted by Christians who agree that, as the New Testament claims, Jesus is the only way of salvation—at least in one sense. However, explicit faith in Christ is not required on this view. In God’s bookkeeping, so to speak, Christ is the only grounds of forgiveness—without the cross there could be no salvation for anyone. However, the object of faith for the salvation provided solely by Christ need not be Jesus.
Clearly, Old Testament saints had no knowledge of Jesus. He hadn’t been revealed yet. Even so, God rescued the ancients who were faithful to the limited light they had been given. In the same way (the explanation goes), there are millions of people today outside the range of the gospel who have never had a chance to consider Christ yet still seek God the best way they know how. Would it be just for God to condemn them for not believing in a Jesus of whom they have never heard?
As I mentioned, this inclusivism takes two different forms, what I might call “modest inclusivism” and also a more radical variety. The modest version goes like this: For everyone who hears the gospel, the standard for them is faith in Christ. For those who explicitly reject the gospel, there is no hope. However, we must be either agnostic about those who have never had a chance to hear the gospel, or consider it possible that God judges them by a different standard. A person does not have to believe in Jesus to benefit from Him.
I do not think there is good scriptural justification for this hesitation. However, I am somewhat sympathetic to those who hold this view given the uncertainty some have. It is far less dangerous than the second, more radical version of inclusivism. Here it is: Even those who are exposed to Christianity and who have heard the gospel are not required to believe it. They can be forgiven through Christ even if they openly and decisively reject Him.
Maybe they have been so deeply influenced by circumstances and cultural biases that they do not have the psychological freedom to take the gospel seriously. Maybe they are convinced that the narrowness of Christianity isn’t fair or just. Maybe Christ simply isn’t compelling to them. Whatever the reason, they sincerely reject Christianity and diligently pursue other religious options instead. For this effort, God recognizes the implicit faith of these religious people—“anonymous Christians,” of sorts—and answers by granting them the saving grace of Christ.
The first—modest inclusivism—is somewhat benign. The second—radical inclusivism—is so insidious, in my view, I am reserving the entire next issue of Solid Ground to its discussion and refutation.
[i] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids: Zonndervan, 2017), 132.
[ii] Lillian Quigley, The Blind Men and the Elephant (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959). Possible original sources of the story are the Jataka tales, a collection of Buddhist birth stories, and the Pancatantra stories, Hindu religious instruction fables.