Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only way to the Father, the only gate for his sheep (John 14:6; 10:7-10). But Jesus also has “other sheep who are not of this sheepfold” (John 10:16).
There is “no other name” but Jesus “by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). But the altars of other religions, the poets of many cultures, the very rhythms of the earth, can point us to the Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:23-28).
If we “confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead we will be saved” (Rom 10:9-10). But Jesus’ “act of righteous obedience leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18).
Jesus is supreme over all things, for “all things in heaven and on earth have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-18). But “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” have also been “reconciled through Jesus” (Col 1:19-20).
The Bible is filled with tensions like these, even right within the same biblical book or passage—like the examples above. On the one hand are radically exclusive claims about Jesus and God’s salvation through him. On the other hand are radically inclusive claims about the world and its salvation through Jesus.
Christians have often turned to one extreme or the other, either radical exclusivism or radical inclusivism. The extreme exclusivists see nothing good in other religions—only explicit Jesus-confessors can know God’s presence or experience God’s salvation. The extreme inclusivists see nothing all that unique about Jesus or Christianity—there are many paths to experiencing God and the life God desires for us.
But if we are going to be faithful to Scripture we need somehow to hold both of these truths together: both the radically exclusive claims Scripture makes about Jesus and God’s salvation through him, and the radically inclusive claims Scripture makes about the world and its salvation through Jesus.
This is, in fact, one of the most pressing theological questions for us as Christians today. We live in a religiously plural world. We are increasingly aware of other religions and their truth claims, and most of us rub shoulders regularly with people who adhere to other religions. The upsurge in aggressive or even violent religious extremism—whether Muslim or Christian or even Buddhist—gives added urgency to all this. We need to figure out how to live together within a diverse global village, which means in part facing head-on the question of how the truth claims of Christianity relate to those of other religions.
So how do I understand these things? How do I hold together both the exclusive and the inclusive claims of Scripture regarding Jesus and salvation? Here’s some of my current thinking.
I believe Jesus is unique. I believe Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, uniquely embodying God in the world. I believe that Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection offer us the clearest and fullest picture of God and God’s will for humanity that there is. I believe that through Jesus God deals decisively with human sin; through Jesus God makes right all that has gone wrong in the world because of the many ways we harm one another and the rest of creation. I believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life—justice, peace, and joy—for us as individuals, for us collectively as a human race, even for all creation.
This is why I am a Christian, and not a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or atheist or anything else. This is also why I seek to proclaim the message of Jesus and live out the way of Jesus in such a way that others are encouraged to follow Jesus also, and to follow Jesus ever more faithfully. (Whether I always succeed at this is another matter…)
However, I am not convinced that the way of Jesus is entirely unique to Jesus. Many of the particular elements of Jesus’ message and example, such as “love your neighbour” or the Golden Rule or equitable justice or nonviolent peacemaking or nonviolent atonement, are reflected in many ways throughout various religious and non-religious traditions. These are simply the best instincts of humanity, seen most directly in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.
This should not be troublesome to Christians, it seems to me. If all humans are created in the image of God, and Jesus is the image of God—if Jesus is not just “true God” but also “true human,” the fullness of what it means to be “human”—if God’s kingdom Spirit does indeed “blow wherever it pleases,” and God’s presence is everywhere throughout the earth—if all these things and more like them are true, then one should expect elements of the way of Jesus to be found in various religions, cultures, and societies throughout history and around the world.
All this means that I can and will gladly point people to Jesus and say, “Come, let’s follow Jesus together, because he is the true Way that leads to life.” I believe following Jesus together in a community of Jesus-followers is the best way to learn and experience this “true Way that leads to life.”
But this angle on things also allows me to say a glad “Yes!” when I see elements of the way of Jesus or other truths that ennoble humanity reflected beyond the Christian tradition, in anyone’s life. I don’t even feel the need to “Christianize” those things, or to convert those people to the religion known as “Christianity.”
As for the question most Christians want answered—“Who will be saved in the end?” or, as I might phrase it, “Who will experience flourishing life in God’s fully restored creation?”—well, thankfully, that’s up to God. Jesus answered that question with an enigmatic challenge in return, essentially saying, “Different people than you might expect, with plenty of surprises for all. Just make sure you yourself are striving to follow my narrow way” (Luke 13:22-30).
I’m of the hopeful variety, trusting in God’s rich mercy and abundant love and persistent patience. After all, “God desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:3-4), and we are assured that “in the fullness of time God will indeed gather up all things in Christ Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).
Exclusively Jesus, inclusively all.