For me, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life—the revelation and embodiment of God and God’s way in the world. The message of Jesus, as contained in the Bible and lived out in the lives of those who follow him, is certainly good news to people who are searching for life and hope. I continue to experience the difference it has made in my life as well as the lives of others. I can still see the face of a young man who had recently committed his life to Christ after years of struggle. He was finally in touch with God, with himself, and the world around him. There was magic in that moment.
Such good news, however, can’t be prepackaged and distributed like Coca Cola. Our faith needs to be continually renewed and deepened in relation to the kind of world we live in as well as our personal journeys of faith. Our confession that Jesus is the way becomes toxic when we make the doubly exclusive claim that all who have not confessed Jesus as savior are outside the grace of God.
I once had a conversation with a college student who was a new Christian. She was so happy and sure about the faith she had found in Jesus. But she was deeply concerned that her Jewish grandparents might be going to hell because they didn’t believe in Jesus, even though they were very loving and moral people. My heart ached for the young student and her family. Who had taught her such ugly theology?
There are various places where I have found wisdom for negotiating this new interfaith world as a follower of Jesus. One is the tight-knit Old Order Mennonite community I grew up in. Old Order people are very reticent about any claims of being “saved” and say that such questions or claims about our eternal destiny are best left in the hands of God. I remember my Dad lecturing me about that after a neighboring farmer who was not a church member committed suicide.
Another source of wisdom is the book, The Open Secret, by the British mission scholar Leslie Newbigin that I read before going on our first mission assignment in the Philippines. He told us that it’s a fallacy to think we will be bringing God to the places where we go to serve. God’s Spirit is present and at work among a people and their culture long before we arrive and will still be there after we leave.
Yet another is the Catholic theologian Hans Küng who wrestled with the exclusive ancient Christian dogma that there is no salvation outside the church. He says we should not use such a teaching to condemn people from other religions. Instead, he turns it into the positive confession that he has personally found salvation here.
I find wisdom in such approaches. Let’s stick to our personal confession of faith and let the rest in the hands of our just and gracious God. With that, let’s consider words of Jesus in John’s Gospel that are often used by people making religiously exclusive claims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). How do we understand that?
I especially appreciate what Diana Eck, a well-known religion scholar and church woman, has to say about this in her book Encountering God. According to her, we need to consider the question that Jesus was responding to. It’s wasn’t, “Lord, will the Muslims, the Buddhists, and the Hindus also be saved?” Instead, it was Jesus’ response to personal faith crisis. He had just announced his impending death—that he was going to leave them. He was going ahead to prepare the way.
Thomas panicked, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way? Jesus lovingly assured him, “Can’t you see? I am the way!” An important part of this consideration is the way John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the Logos or Word which has been with God from the beginning. Jesus embodies the creative power and love through which God creates, sustains, and recreates the world. Gandhi’s word Satyagraha “soul-force” comes to mind. Encountering this divine presence or Word in Jesus does not preclude encountering it in other places.