During this “silly season” of presidential politics, it is not uncommon to hear something I think is odd. Politicians, regardless of political stripe, make a confused confession of faith in Christ that 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.”
Does this statement strike you as unusual? Now, there is a sense in which it is not unusual at all. Comments like this are so common lately—not just with politicians, but also with a massive number of rank and file Christians—they hardly raise an eyebrow anymore. That, of course, is the idea. It is a clever way of both aligning with Christ (in one sense) and denying Him (in another). No one gets offended. Everyone is satisfied.
But does the statement strike 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 living God?” He didn’t respond, “That’s true for me.” He simply said, “I Am,” and, in virtue of that confession, was led away to crucifixion.
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 is hard to know what such a confused confession even means. In what sense can Jesus be my savior, but not the savior for others?
This month’s Solid Ground is the first of a two-part series meant to deal with the foolishness behind the relativistic religion prompting confessions like the one above. This confusion is so corrosive it puts the Gospel itself in jeopardy. Those who hold this view sincerely are not likely to suffer any inconvenience or discomfort required to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Worse, this conviction is so theologically thin, it may not be a legitimate expression of 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 didn’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, and I want to tell you why.
One Way for Some
There are 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 in Jesus for salvation because I’m not even sure that 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 truth.”
I am completely sympathetic to this reason for reverting to religious relativism because I realize that this is the best some Christians can do. They lack confidence because they lack of knowledge.
The role of Christian defenses (apologetics) is to supply the evidence meant to elevate mere belief to credible and justified conviction. Since they have not availed themselves of the kind of resources that could bridge this belief/knowledge gap, 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.
There is no reasonable option, however, to claim that Jesus is my 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 that would be our fate bereft of Christ, why would it be any different for anyone else?
This brings me to the question of why Jesus is the only savior for everyone. It is very difficult for a believer to assert that Jesus is singular savior if they are unconvinced that He is one.
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—that kind of thing.
Now, if we have never broken any of His laws—if we have never faltered in any of God’s requirements—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 without any further consideration, 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 their own merits will be judged by their own merits and found wanting. Anyone trusting in the merits of Christ will be judged by the merits of Christ and will find favor.
There is no middle ground for the Christian with the confused confession. If he thinks there is, he has either severely misjudged the problem—sin—or the only 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 about is not simply that there are lots of religious views out there—a pluralism of views—and 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. God has somehow ordained various paths for various people and diverse cultures. Therefore, no one is within his rights saying that his religion is better than anyone else’s. God is bigger than our limited theological categories, some would say. Christ is the path for Christians, but others have legitimate paths of their own. This alternative, though, is another dead end.
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.”1
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. “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 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 religious pluralism, that every faith represents just one part of a larger truth about God. Each religious tradition has only a piece of the truth, ultimately leading to God by different routes. Advocates of Eastern religions are fond of using the parable in this way.
There is a problem with the parable, though. 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. Had they searched more completely, they would have seen their error. Christians are just uninformed.
This is not the case, though. Christians reject pluralism, in part, because defining elements of different religions contradict each other. Judaism teaches Jesus is not the Messiah. Christianity teaches He is. Jesus either is the Messiah or He is not. Both groups can’t be right. 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 afterlife, only the grave. 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. It’s possible all of these options are false, but they cannot all be true.
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 big as a house at the same time.
No possible future discovery is going to change the fact that religious claims 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 out shared moral proverbs. Contradictory claims can’t be simultaneously true. 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 teachings of many religions, 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, etc. Clearly, those who follow Jesus and understand the New Testament teaching on the work of the cross—and also for 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 high-bred combination of one way and many ways called “inclusivism.”
Inclusivism is different from pluralism, but in its more extreme form—there are actually two versions of 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. 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 for anyone: Without the cross there could be no salvation. However, the object of faith for the salvation provided by Christ has not always been Jesus. Therefore, a person does not have to believe in Jesus to benefit from Him.
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 in 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.
I do not think there is good scriptural justification for this hesitation. However, I am somewhat sympathetic to this view given the uncertainty some have. It is far less dangerous then the 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 even if they reject Christ. 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. For whatever reason, they sincerely and diligently pursue other religious options. In this effort, God recognizes their implicit faith and answers with 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 an entire issue of Solid Ground to its discussion and refutation.