This very interesting article by Robert Wuthnow in Christianity Today seems to suggest that Christian exclusivity is a fading belief even among some conservative Christians. Exclusivity is the word used to describe the belief, widely held among Christian conservatives, that only those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour will be granted eternal life. In other words, only Christians will go to heaven. Wuthnow writes:
Consider Jim and Nancy Parsons, co-pastors of a four hundred member Assemblies of God church in a large city on the East Coast.
Although they do not aggressively evangelize non Christians, the Parsons are quite clear that these people do not know God. Their interpretation of Jesus' saying about being the way, the truth, and the life is that this statement leaves open only two options: either Jesus was telling the truth or Jesus was a liar and, since the latter option strikes most people as unattractive, they argue that Jesus really meant it when he said that he was the only way to come to God. Thus, they have little interest in trying to understand the teachings of other religious traditions. They acknowledge that there are well meaning people who follow these traditions, but these people will not have eternal life unless they believe that Jesus died for their sins.
Wuthnow goes on to talk about the Reverend Jim Jimson and what he says about presenting the gospel to Jews or Muslims or Hindus. He is the pastor of a four hundred member Southern Baptist Church in a southern city.
...Mr. Jimson's exact words are worth considering ... carefully. After acknowledging that he would like his church to be doing more to reach out to people of other faiths, he says, "This is where we kind of get into the difficulties. There's a verse in the Bible where Jesus says, `I'm the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father, but by me,' which very much narrows things down, [especially] if you take it that he said those words and meant them just as straight as he said them. There's another one in Acts, and the reason I quote these verses is because like I said, I feel constrained if this really is the Word of God, then I'm constrained to take that perspective, if you will. Peter told some folks, `There's no other name given under heaven by which men might be saved.' Now if that's the case, if Jesus is the only way to God, then we need to reach out to people of other religious beliefs. I know this sounds ... " He trails off somewhat apologetically, saying to the interviewer, "I don't want to make you angry, I hope I'm not doing that."
When the interviewer reassures him that she really wants to know what he thinks, he continues, "I'm not apologizing, but at the same time I want to be ..." He searches for the right words: "Yes, then I'm constrained to say there's one way to God and, boy, this sounds ... " Again he breaks off. She reassures him again. "Okay," he says. "I just don't want to sound arrogant, because it's not me who's come up with this. If I'm going to be faithful, then I'm constrained to say, then other folks have missed it. I don't want to make it sound like I've come up with this, or I found the way or something."
Mr. Jimson, like an awful lot of other Christian leaders, sounds very much like he doesn't really believe this, but he's caught in a bind. Either he endorses it or he has to reject the authority of the Bible.
The Christian church seems to be experiencing a crisis of faith. Many, if not most, Christians find it very difficult to comprehend how a loving God could be an exclusionary God, and so they either don't think about it, or they say things like "no one knows how God will handle unbelievers," or they struggle to reconcile their inclusive yearnings with what the Bible teaches about salvation, particularly the verse quoted above (John 14:6).
It may indeed be that there is no salvation outside the Christian faith, but to use Jn.14:6 to support that view seems a weak strategy. On the face of it there's no compelling exegetical reason to assume that that verse can carry the weight that exclusivist Christians lay on its shoulders. It could be, in fact, that these folks are interpreting Jesus words in light of their a priori commitment to exclusivism. It could be that the verse has nothing at all to do with declaring Christianity the only way to God, but should rather be seen as a declaration by Jesus that it is only through what He is about to do on the cross that eternal life is possible for anyone who receives it.
Perhaps the verse doesn't mean that one must know and appropriate the significance of Jesus' sacrifice, but rather that it is that sacrifice that paid the debt incurred by our sin. If this is so, then there's no logical impediment, based on this verse alone, to believing that at least some of those who never heard the gospel or who heard it but didn't appreciate its truth might nevertheless be granted eternal life.
There may be other passages which preclude this interpretation, but John 14:6 is too ambiguous to be among them. The anguish apparent in the pastors' response to Wuthnow's interviewer seems unnecessary.