Smorgasbords are tempting to the eyes and to the taste buds. Once a person has witnessed the extensive varieties of delicacies spread out in a fine smorgasbord, he will never look at his peanut butter sandwich—or steak and potatoes, for that matter—the same way again. He will see it a new way: one kind of food among many.

Spiritually speaking, we live in what is increasingly a "smorgasboard" culture, in which religious options vying for our attention multiply daily. Buddhist bankers, Muslim merchants, Hindu hairdressers, and New Age neighbors are commonplace. One magazine recently suggested that there are more Muslims than Methodists in the United States.

Like the rest of the world, Americans are being forced to recognize the diversity of different religious perspectives, as well as the sincerity of many of their adherents.

In light of this spiritual smorgasboard, can a thinking person really believe that any one religion is uniquely true?

Increasing numbers of individuals would say "no." This answer comes in two flavors. Secularists hold that, ultimately, all religions are false. Religious pluralists, on the other hand, argue that all religions are ultimately true, that all are created equal. They are like different roads winding to the top of the same mountain or different rivers emptying into the same sea. (Another popular image thought to support religious pluralism is the story of four blind men attempting to describe an elephant. See my article "The Blind Men and the Elephant" for an analysis.)

According to either view, to affirm that any particular religious perspective is in any way uniquely true would be narrow-minded, ethnocentric, and intolerant.

Yet this is exactly what Christianity has historically maintained, based on the explicit words of its founder, Jesus Christ: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.[1]

It does not take hours of contemplation to recognize that, apart from some interpretive gymnastics on our part, Jesus is rejecting both secularism and religious pluralism. It is not the case, according to Jesus, that all religions are false; nor is it the case that all of them are true. Rather, while some or even all religions may contain truth, perhaps much truth, only one is ultimately and uniquely true, and that is one based upon Him.

Such a claim grinds like sand in our cultural gears. Although Jesus often called his message "good news," this may look to a smorgasboard culture like "bad news."

Is his claim not arrogant and intolerant—the most arrogant and intolerant claim ever made? Is it not a classic example of benighted religious bigotry?

How are thinking individuals to understand these words?

These are good questions, worth exploring. I am convinced that, like other aspects of Jesus' controversial life and teaching, these words can withstand honest scrutiny.

Properly understood, this exclusivist claim of Jesus’ is not only not the most arrogant and intolerant claim ever made but is, in fact, the most exciting and liberating claim ever made. It is good news. If Jesus was—and is—who he claimed to be (to marshal all of the evidence that He was would go far beyond our purpose; we can only explore here what He said and its implications), then, and only then, can humankind's deepest longings be fulfilled.

If we "unpack" these controversial words of Jesus, we see three implications which speak directly to secularism and religious pluralism.

We can come to God

First, if Jesus is right—if he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him—then we can come to God.

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Man is absurd, but he must grimly act as if he were not."[2] This was not just a conclusion Sartre reached lightly, after watching a disappointing football game on television. Sartre, along with several other atheistic philosophers of the last century and a half, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, explored the consequences that follow logically if there is no God.

One consequence, according to these thinkers, is that if there is no God, if secularism is correct, then there is no meaning or significance to human life or to anything else in the universe.

If there is no personal God, if there is only impersonal time and energy, they concluded, then we are cosmic orphans, specks of dust in the universe, atoms in the void; and all of our thoughts, loves, dreams, and lives have no more meaning than water dripping from a faucet. The only reasonable attitude toward life, then, as atheist Bertrand Russell concluded, is "unyielding despair."[3]

What, then, could be more exciting and liberating than Jesus’ claim? If he is right, then God exists and there is meaning. And this is not just meaning on an abstract, philosophical level. We can not only know about meaning, but we can know the one who gives meaning; we can come to God.

Jesus' claim distinguishes him from other religious leaders of history. He did not say, "No one can be religious except through Me," but "No one can come to the Father except through me."

In some respects Christianity is considered a "religion," one religion among many others. Yet Christianity as described by Jesus is amazingly nonreligious. Christianity is fundamentally not a set of religious rituals or a lifestyle or an ethical code. It is a personal relationship with God.

Jesus did not talk about coming to church, but about coming to the Father. And I am convinced, with millions of others, that a relationship with our Creator is our deepest need and desire in life. As St. Augustine said, "Thou has made us for Thyself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee."[4]

We know the way to come to God

It is always hopeful when asking directions to find someone who acknowledges that "you can get there from here." It's much more helpful, however, if he can also explain how to get there.

The second crucial implication of Jesus' claim, if it is true, is that we not only can come to the Father, but that we can know the way to get there: through Jesus Christ himself.

It is here that our first big objection naturally arises, the objection of arrogance. Jesus does not speak of a way to a relationship with God, but claims to be the Way. He does not offer one truth among many but claims to be the Truth. And he is not advocating a particular lifestyle, but rather claiming to be the source of Life. It sounds like he is claiming to be nothing less than God! And, in fact, as he makes clear in a number of other statements, he is claiming to be God.[5]

When comparing the different religions of the world it is important to note that Jesus is unique among all religious leaders in at least two very important respects. First, he claimed to be God. Unlike New Age claimants to deity, such as Shirley MacLaine, Jesus was clear that he was not claiming to be God in the same sense that, as New Age pantheists hold, everything else is God, too.[6] Jesus was explicit in His claim to be the one, true God, the creator and sustainer of the universe.

As E.O. James writes, “Nowhere else had it ever been claimed that a historical founder of any religion was the one and only supreme deity.”[7]

Many have pointed out that it is the clarity of Jesus' claims that really limits our options of how we can look at him. [8]

If, out of intellectual honesty, we take his own words about himself seriously, then we must conclude that either he was who he said—God become man—or that he was wrong about himself and therefore was not a "good man" or a "great religious teacher," but was in fact either a charlatan who lied about his identity or a lunatic with the severest delusions of grandeur.

Jesus' claim to be the way to come to the Father is intimately related to his identity: If He was really God, then he alone would have the unique credentials to make such a claim.

His claim is also based on the second respect in which Jesus is unique among all religious leaders:[9] He said that he alone could provide a solution to the basic human problem of sin (our self-centered attitude of rebellion toward God, resulting in our being spiritually separated from him). Jesus said that his death upon a cross was to be a sacrifice, a substitute to pay the death penalty for sin, which is required by a just God from every guilty human being.

Only a perfect person—that is, only God—could pay such a penalty as a substitute, because only a perfect person would not himself be under the penalty as well. And only an infinite person—that is, only God—could pay the penalty for billions of sinful humans. That is, only Jesus, if he was indeed whom he claimed to be, could be in the position to provide a solution to the basic human problem.

Is Jesus' claim to be the way to come into a relationship with the Father an arrogant one? Yes ... unless it is true. And if it is true, it is not arrogant: He is only telling the truth, reporting a fact. And it is, I would maintain, the greatest fact of history.

Not just any way will do

The third implication of Jesus' claim is even more controversial, yet it follows logically from the first two: If Jesus is right, then not just any way will do. Jesus is the only way to come to God.

This raises the second objection, especially from the point of view of religious pluralism: the objection of intolerance.

How dare Jesus say there is only one way to the Father? Hasn't he ever taken a "comparative religions" class?

This exclusivist implication seems to many to be the height of narrow mindedness, ethnocentricity, and intolerant religious bigotry. Who does Jesus think he is? God? As we have seen, yes.

Christians are often criticized for claiming that Christianity is uniquely true and for encouraging everyone, whatever their religious background, to come to the Father through Jesus Christ. They are regularly said to be intolerant. It is important, however, to note that this claim is not something Christians have invented in order to lose friends and alienate people.

Jesus is the one who made this claim. Christians are just his messengers; they are simply trying to be faithful to report accurately what he said very clearly about himself.

Disagreement with Jesus' claim must ultimately be taken up with him. Thus, the real issue is not whether Christians are intolerant. No doubt some are intolerant.

The real issue is whether Jesus is intolerant in making this claim in the first place.

Is this an intolerant claim? Yes ... unless it is true.

And if it is true, it is not intolerant, because there is nothing intolerant about simply telling the truth. (See my article "Getting Clear About Tolerance" for a further analysis.)

This third implication follows logically from the first two: If there is a God and if he has revealed himself to us and provided a way for us to come to him, then it is an uncontroversial fact of logic that the way he has provided is the way he has provided.

Reporting that is not intolerant any more than insisting that 2+2=4 is intolerant.

Interestingly, the very thing about Jesus' claim that gives rise to this objection of intolerance is what makes it such good news: It purports to be not just another opinion but actually true. We really can come to God; there really is a cure for sin—the deadly condition of separation from God.

Jesus could have avoided the contemporary controversy simply by being a religious pluralist Himself. He could have said, "Here are some pretty good ideas I've had; they're not really 'true'; at least they're no more true than anything else that anyone has said. If you want to believe them, OK. If not, that's OK, too; it doesn't really matter. Whatever you want to believe is equally effective."

If that had been Jesus’ approach, his claim would not have been controversial. But it also would not have been good news because a "cure" that is only as good as any other non-cure is nothing for the terminally ill to celebrate.

Smorgasboards are great for food, but when it comes to truth they can be deceptive. Logically competing views cannot all be true.

Truth is not determined by a majority vote; it makes distinctions. Truth is inherently exclusivistic. It is no wonder, then, that Jesus was exclusivistic as well, for he claimed that his words, which forever have altered the religious landscape, were true.

Jesus' claim to be the unique way to come into a relationship with God is good news. If Jesus was and is who he claimed to be, then we are not cosmic orphans. Our deepest need and desire in life can be fulfilled in a personal relationship with God. We can come to him.

And the way that we come to Him is very simple, according to Jesus. It is not through religious rituals, living a good enough life, or attaining some kind of mystical or meditative state; it is through Jesus Christ alone, accepting His payment for our sin.

Controversial in a smorgasboard culture?


But it is the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, based on who he is and what he accomplished by his death on a cross almost 2,000 years ago, that gives hope to the human race.

(Originally published in A Separate Peace (Worldwide Challenge), November/December 1991.)

[1]John 14:1, New International Version of the Bible.

[2]Cited in Give Me an Answer that Satisfies My Heart and My Mind by Cliffe Knechtle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p.71. For a good analysis of existentialism, see Existentialism: The Philosophy of Despair and the Quest for Hope by C. Stephan Evans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Probe, 1984).

[3]Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship," in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (NY: Simon and Schuster/Clarion, 1957), p. 107.

[4]Aurelius Augustinus, Confessions, book I, chapter 1. There are many translations.

[5]For documentation of this point, see Jesus: God, Ghost or Guru? by Jon A. Buell and O. Quentin Hyder (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Probe, 1978).

[6]For a full discussion distinguishing New Age claims and the historically reliable claims of Jesus, see Revealing the New Age Jesus: Challenges to Orthodox Views of Christ by Douglas Groothuis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

[7]E. O. James, Christianity and Other Religions (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968), p.170. Cited in Buell and Hyder, pp. 19-20.

[8]The great Oxford and Cambridge scholar C. S. Lewis makes this point in his classic, Mere Christianity (NY: MacMillan,1952), pp. 55-56.

[9]There are, of course, other ways in which Jesus is unique among other religious leaders, the most obvious and important one being His physical, historical resurrection from the dead. For compelling evidence that Jesus' resurrection is an historical fact, see Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection by William Lane Craig (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1988).