Special Study Articles
Salvation: Is there only one way to God?
Salvation: Is there only one way to God?
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt 7:13-14)
“He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” (Matt 12:30)
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)
“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)
These are astounding claims. Who would have the audacity to say such things? Before Jesus, no one was claiming to be the exclusive manifestation of the one God. This was shocking to the core. As Ben Witherington noted, it’s no surprise that Jesus got Himself crucified. The surprise is that he lasted three years in public ministry before it happened.(1)
The question before us is this? Are the claims true? Is there really only one way to salvation? Is Christianity exclusive? How do we reconcile Christianity with a pluralistic world?
Salvation in a Pluralistic World
In the Case for Faith: the Film, Lee Strobel tells the story of Charles Templeton, a man who at one time was a fundamentalist preacher who worked alongside Billy Graham. Then he turned to atheism. His objection? “Are we to believe only Christians are right? After all, Christians have the audacity to say there is only one God—theirs—and that the gods of every other people on earth are spurious.” After quoting Acts 4:12, he says, “Such an insufferable presumption!”(2) So who do Christians think they are to be so arrogant as to say that they are the only ones who got religion right?
In a pluralistic world, the idea of having only one right way is intolerable. Postmodernism’s impact on religion means that there is no one single religion that is valid for everyone. Therefore, one of the worst things anyone can do today is to be intolerant of other religions. For postmodernists, what matters is not whether or not something is true, but whether or not it works for the individual. If it works, it must be right for that person or group. This is what a “post-truth” world looks like.
Of course, the real question is this: is it true? Is there really only one way to God? How would we know if there is, and how would we know that we found it? Rather than react emotionally to the idea that many are wrong, we need fundamentally to ask whether it is actually true.
There are multiple views about the concept of salvation. Salvation for eastern religions may involve a release from the Karmic cycle. Salvation for Naturalism means we must save ourselves and our environment. We alone are responsible for fixing the world. There is no salvation from sin needed. As Kurtz put it, “But we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”(3)
All the so-called salvations are missing the point and do not address the real problem in which we find ourselves.
In a pluralistic world, all ethical religions lead to God. In this view, all religions essentially teach the same God, so there are many ways to salvation. This type of system tends to tie everything to moral behavior. Since all the great religions teach a high moral behavior, like Christianity, then they all equally find their way to the Ultimate Reality (as some refer to God).(4) This view dethrones Christ as God, makes him out to be a prophet on par with any world or religious prophet, and places the experience of observing similar religious behavior and morality in a superior position to revelation. There is nothing particularly unique about Christianity, though it is still considered to be a viable practice as long as it doesn’t claim to be the only way that is right. There is little emphasis on the problem of sin and the need for salvation from sin. Religion is simply humankind all trying to reach up to the same Ultimate Reality. The problem is that all of this really misses the point.
Even though there is some agreement on many issues like moral behavior (even then not always), there is great disagreement on major issues such as: Who is God? What is the nature of God? What is the nature of man? What of the problem of sin? What of salvation? Is Jesus the promised Messiah? Is He God manifested in the flesh? These are not minor issues, and Christianity differs from the major religions on these points. They cannot all be right.
Yet, the fact of religion universally demonstrates that we have a great need that cannot be fulfilled by this natural world. There is something not right, and we sense that, so we hunger for something greater. Jesus identified these problems and gave the solution to it.
Other views, more conservative in nature, focus on Christ as the one through whom salvation is found, but might still accept that those outside of Christ can be okay. Some insist we must remain agnostic about those who have not heard the gospel. Where can we turn?
The Biblical View
First, we must recognize the need for salvation because of the problem of sin. Since sin is universal, the need for salvation is also universal. The solution to the problem we all face is not simply to make us better people. That won’t work by itself. The solution is God’s grace (Eph 2:1-4).
The biblical doctrine of grace is unique. Only God has the authority to forgive sins (see Mark 2). So if we will know anything about salvation and forgiveness, it must come from the One who has the authority to tell us about it. This requires revelation of the mind of God (1 Cor 2:9ff).
Further, many passages point to the exclusive nature of salvation in Christ: John 3:16, 18; 14:6; 1 John 3:22-23 (see how one cannot deny Christ and say all religions are the same); 1 Pet 1:3-5; Rom 10:9-15; Acts 4:12. The whole New Testament shouts this theme.
Other biblical considerations show that in both the OT and NT other religions are seen as non-redemptive, even as part of the domain of darkness (Acts 19:26; 26:17-18; Col 1:13; Exod 20:3-6; Isa 37:18-19). Wrath is said to come upon those Gentiles who remain separate from Christ (1 Thess 2:16). On the other hand, conversion to Christ results in turning to serve the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9). Other religions are not considered merely inferior, but as dead wrong, because there is only one God, one Lord, one faith… (Eph 4:1-6).
Scripture teaches what has been termed “exclusivism” (often not meant to be a compliment). That is, salvation comes only through Christ, and those who are outside of Him will be eternally lost. Salvation depends upon explicit personal faith in Christ as Lord, though it is still considered as a gift of God’s grace (Eph 2:8).
Why is Salvation Only in Christ?
If Christians are going to say that Christ is the only way to salvation, then they need to be able to give reasons why this is so. These are, in fact, the very points that show biblical Christianity to be different from every other world religion. Why is Christ superior? Why is Jesus Christ the only way? We could spend time getting to know all the various world religions—Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.—but the following reasons are sufficient to demonstrate why Jesus Christ is the only way to God:
1. Because Christ is the only one who has come to this world – God manifested in the flesh—and died for the sins of the world. We should understand, as one put it, that God isn’t looking down at different religious clubs (the Hindu Club, Muslim Club, Buddhist Club, Christian Club) and saying “I like the Christian club the best.” Rather, He is looking upon all humanity and seeing people who are lost in sin, separated from Him, and He has responded by stepping into the world He made and taking that problem of the human condition of sin upon Himself in the most personal way.(5) Jesus became the sacrifice for sin that we might be forgiven (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 1:18-21).
Some want to compare religions on the grounds of what works to make people better, but this misses the point. The question for religion is not which one makes us better people. There may be many religions that help improve a person’s character, but that is not why we need salvation. The question is which one (or, rather, who) responds properly to the human condition of sin, and the only answer to that is Jesus Christ.
The ultimate superiority of Christianity over all other world religions is not the ethical system, as many religions contain a high ethics. It is not in the assumption of a high morality in itself. It is not in the rituals and practices that make Christianity unique. The superiority of it lies in the fact that Jesus, God manifest in the flesh, died for our sins and was raised from the dead, thus providing salvation from sin and the living hope through the living God. No other religion can begin to offer this. God responded to the human condition through Christ, taking sin upon Himself. One who rejects this rejects the only true means of dealing with the condition of sin.
2. Because Christ is the only one who can properly mediate between God and man. If the fellowship that was broken between God and man, due to sin, is to be bridged, then we need someone to stand in the gap and mediate. Only Jesus Christ can do this.
How so? One reason is because Christ is both God and man. As such, He knows and has the right to bridge the gap caused by sin. He is God’s communication with mankind, and He is mankind’s advocate before God (see John 1:1, 14; 1 Tim 2:5).
All other views about salvation must ultimately reject this truth about Christ. The divine nature of Jesus is the key to understanding the exclusive nature of the claim to salvation. No one else anywhere or anytime can represent us to God as Jesus can, and no one can represent God to us as Jesus can. Jesus is, at the same time, both our sacrifice and our great High Priest. Because of Jesus and His work, we have an advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1-2). No religious leader of any other religion can begin to touch this.
3. Christ is the only one who ever lives to make intercession (Heb 7:25). He intercedes for His people who have sinned. What other religion offers a living savior—even now—who intercedes to God on behalf of his people?
4. Christ is the only one who backed up His remarkable claims. Many people have made terrific claims without providing much support. The difference is that Jesus backed His claims up (see Mark 2). This was the purpose of His miracles and resurrection (John 20:30-31; Matt 11:2-6).
5. Because Christ is the only one who was raised from the dead, never to die again, and in fulfillment of his own claims and prophecies (Matt 16:21). The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate proof. If this didn’t happen, the rest is in vain anyway.
6. Because Christ is the ultimate Judge, we will all stand before Him (2 Cor 5:10). Again, God’s Proof of a final judgment is the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:30-31). No one else in the entire religious world can claim to be judge then demonstrate it through resurrection. Because of this, Jesus is the only one who has a right to command everyone to repent and expect their obedience. His authority is absolute. No other religious leader or system has such a right.
Of course, just calling yourself a follower of Jesus isn’t enough by itself (Matt 7:21-23). Faith in Christ and living by His will are necessary components of our salvation. However, this by no means indicates that we earn our salvation. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace. Yet grace teaches us to live soberly, righteously, and godly (Titus 2:11-14). If we live just any way we desire apart from what God teaches, then we cannot say we are truly receiving God’s grace.
Submission to the Lordship of Jesus requires us to listen to His authority and live by it. Our job is not to “pick” a religion that we think is going to save us.(6) Our job is to respond to the offer given by God by which He, in His grace and mercy, has responded to the human condition of sin and sent His own Son to die as a sacrifice for sin, then raised Him up to give us the hope of heaven. This religion of Christ is not one based upon mere emotion or experience, but upon the historical reality of God acting in this world on our behalf. God acting in this world through Jesus is what justifies the exclusive claims of Christianity.
(1) Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: The Film (Santa Monica, CA: La Miranda Films, 2008), DVD.
(3) Paul Kurtz, In Defense of Secular Humanism (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983), 16-17.
(4) See, for example, John Hick, and et al, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1996).
(5) Strobel, The Case for Faith: The Film.
This can be found, among many other essays, in Mind Your Faith, 2nd Ed., by Doy Moyer