Many Christians say that Jesus is the only way to salvation, the only way to eternal life in heaven. This has been a basic Christian belief since the very beginning of Christianity, that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
It's a basic belief of Christianity because Jesus Himself said it. Jesus said in John chapter 14, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." In Mark chapter 16, Jesus said that those who believe will be saved, but those who do not believe will be condemned.
Other parts of the New Testament say the same thing. Acts chapter 4 says, talking about Jesus, "There is salvation in none other." That's why it's been a basic Christian belief from the very beginning.
This belief, though, has been a cause for criticism from those who are not Christians. They ask, "How can you say that your way is the only way to salvation? How can you be sure there are not other ways to salvation?"
In recent years, the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation has also been a cause for criticism within Christianity itself. Many Christians today reject the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation. It’s not uncommon within mainline Christianity to find many people, including pastors and denominational leaders, who believe that there are many roads to salvation, not just Jesus. Many within mainline Christianity today believe that other religions can just as well lead to salvation. The traditional belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation has been rejected by many within Christianity itself.
But why did Christians traditionally believe Jesus is the only way to salvation? Of course, we’ve just seen places in the Bible where Jesus says that, but other than that, why is it that Christianity has traditionally believed Jesus is the only way to salvation?
The best way to understand this is to think about the concept of a messiah. Christians have traditionally believed that Jesus is The Messiah. But Christianity is not the only religion that talks about a messiah; many other religions include the concept of a messiah.
Some sects of Judaism look for a messiah figure. All Jews do not expect a messiah, and among Jews who do, there are differing beliefs about it, but one of the major ways of looking at a messiah in Judaism is that the messiah will be a military and political leader who will lead Jews in once again having an extensive kingdom, in other words, once again having their own country and government, one that will be wide-ranging. Another belief, according to some Jews, is that the messiah will usher in an age when Judaism will be the only religion in the world, and when all people will recognize Judaism as the only true religion. But whatever the case, in Judaism, the messiah is a person, just a regular human being, who is basically a military and/or political and/or religious leader.
Some Muslims look for a messiah. Like in Judaism, the messiah of Islam is also a person, just a regular human being, who is a political and religious leader. The messiah of Islam will lead Muslims in converting the whole world to Islam, and then Muslims will govern the whole world according to Islamic law.
You can see that there's a lot of similarity between the Jewish and Muslim concepts of a messiah. In both, the messiah is a person, a regular human being, who will institute either Judaism or Islam as the only religion in the world, and then the world will be controlled by the laws of either Judaism or Islam.
Both of these are worldly concepts of a messiah. What the messiah does is done in the world and limited to the world; it is completely contained in the physical realm.
Some Buddhists look for a messiah. Some Buddhists believe a messiah will come at a time when everyone has rejected the teachings of the first Buddha. This messiah will be even better than the first Buddha. He will be an ideal teacher, an unsurpassed teacher, and he will guide people fully in the precepts of Buddhism.
The religion of Zoroastrianism also looks for a messiah figure. This messiah will make the world perfect and everlasting, and all evil will disappear.
And then there’s the Christian concept of a messiah. In Christianity, the messiah is not seen to be just a regular human being; the messiah is a human being who, at the same time, is also God Himself. The Christian messiah is not a military or political figure, like in Judaism and Islam, and what the messiah primarily does is not done in the world. The work the Christian messiah does is not primarily in the physical realm. The major thing the Christian messiah does is in the spiritual realm.
We’ve looked briefly at the concept of a messiah in five different religions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. The ideas all these different religions have about their messiah figure and what he will do seem very different, and in many ways they are, but there's a common thread running through them all. In all of them, the messiah comes to make things right when it seemed that nothing could make things right. When there’s nothing but despair, when things look hopeless, when it seems like there's nothing more anyone can do, a messiah comes and makes things right. The messiah does what no one else could do.
In Judaism, for example, some Jews have hoped for 3000 years that things would be restored similar to the way they were under King David, but much better. They have hoped for 3000 years that their religion would be recognized as the only true religion and that they would be acknowledged to be at the head of it. But, for 3000 years that hasn't happened. They themselves have not been able to bring that about, although many of them have tried, and it looks like they will never be able to do it themselves. But many Jews believe one day God will send the messiah, and the messiah will bring it about. The messiah will do for them what they could not do for themselves.
It’s the same in Islam. Some Muslims have looked forward to the day when Islam would be recognized as the only true religion and the whole world would be governed by Islamic law. But they themselves have not been able to bring that about, try as they might. In fact, things seem to be moving farther and farther away from them being able to do that. But some believe one day God will send a messiah, and the messiah will bring it about.
In some forms of Buddhism, the belief is that the pure teachings of Buddha are fading away. They have been changed and polluted with other beliefs, and as a result, people are moving farther and farther away from the true Buddhist beliefs. It seems like one day, Buddhism might disappear, true Buddhism will be lost and forgotten, and Buddhists themselves can't do anything about it. They are powerless to stop it. But one day a messiah figure will appear. He will revive true Buddhism and bring people back to it.
In Zoroastrianism, the belief is that the world is getting more and more evil, and despite the best efforts of people, no one can change it. There’s nothing people can do. Will the world just be absorbed with evil? No. One day a messiah will appear, and he will change all that.
I hope you see the pattern in all those examples. Each one sees some kind of condition in the world they would like to change, and although they have tried their best to change it, over and over again, they can’t. Exactly what that condition is differs according to the different religions, but the commonality is that there is some condition people would like to change. They have tried and tried to do something about it, but they can’t. They can't do anything about it; they seem powerless. It seems like things will never change to the way they would like them to be; in fact, there’s no hope that things will change.
But here's where the messiah comes in. The expectation of a coming messiah brings hope that things will change. The messiah will be able to change things; in fact, the messiah is the only one who can change things, and one day the messiah will come, the messiah will change things, and things will be as the people want them to be. The messiah will do this for them.
No one else but the messiah can do it. No Jew, other than the messiah, can restore their kingdom and make them the only religion in the world. No Muslim, other than the messiah, can bring all people to Islam and order the world according to Islamic law. No Buddhist, other than the messiah, can restore pure teachings. No Zoroastrian, other than the messiah, can rid the world of evil.
That’s the common thread running through all these religions related to a messiah figure. Each one sees some kind of situation, whatever it might be, that they would like to change but can’t, and the messiah is the only one who can change it.
The messiah is a unique figure, the only one who can bring about the change. That's the key to understanding the concept of a messiah.
Think of it like this: You've fallen down into a well, and you can't get out. Other people come and try to get you out, but they can't. No one has a ladder long enough to reach down into that well. They try all sorts of things. They try tying ropes together, they try many other things, but they still can't get you out.
There's only one man in the area with a ladder long enough to get you out. He's the only one who can get you out of that well. He comes, lets his long ladder down into the well, and you get out.
That's the idea of a messiah. You're in a situation, and nobody else can help you. The messiah is the only one who has a ladder long enough to get you out of the well. To put it another way, the messiah is your only way to salvation.
That's what Christianity means by saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Christianity says that we all are in a desperate situation, and granted, there are different ideas within Christianity about what that desperate situation is, but whatever it is, it's some kind of desperate situation.
Christians not only don’t agree on what that desperate situation is, they also don’t agree on why we are in a desperate situation and how it got to be that way. There are different ideas about that in Christianity, different ideas about what the situation is and why and how we got into that situation. But, for all that disagreement, there is agreement that we are in a desperate situation, and that it’s a situation we can do nothing about. There's nothing any human being can do to change it.
There's only one figure who can get us out of the desperate situation, and that's the messiah--Jesus. Jesus is the only one who has the power to get me, you, and everybody else out of that desperate situation.
That's why Jesus is called The Messiah in Christianity, because we're in a desperate situation, and He's the only one who can get us out of it. Remember, that's the real meaning of "messiah"—the only one who can get us out of some situation.
Using the example of being stuck in a well again, the messiah is the only one in town who's got a ladder long enough to reach down to where you are stuck in that well. That's what it means to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
We live in an age today where it bothers people, including many Christians, to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation. They think it sounds exclusive, like we Christians think our way is the only way. They also don’t like the picture of God they think it paints to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation, because they think it means that God is callous and heartless to make Jesus be the only way to salvation.
Frankly, that’s the way Christians themselves have sometimes used “Jesus is the only way to salvation.” They have interpreted it to sound exclusive, to sound like we’re saying “our way is the only way,” in exclusivist terms, and they have said God Himself designed it to be so that Jesus is the only way to salvation. But, just because Christians have sometimes interpreted it that way doesn't mean that's the way it actually is.
So how can we look at it?
I would suggest looking at it like this: Every human being is in a desperate situation, and there's nothing we can do to get out of it. But God didn't make it that way, God didn't design it that way, God didn't put us in a desperate situation, and God doesn't want us to be in a desperate situation. We’re in it, though.
God sees that we're all in a desperate situation, and God looks for a way to get us out of it. He looks around and realizes there’s only one way He can do it, only one possible way. Even for God, there's only one way to get us out of this desperate situation. God’s options are limited. It’s not that there are a million ways God could have chosen, and He just chose this one. It’s that this way is the only way possible for God to do it.
So that's what God did in Jesus. It's not that this was the way God chose, it's not that this was the way God wanted it; rather, it is that this was the only way God could do it.
It's not that there were a million other possible ways, and God chose to offer us only this one way and say to us, "You're stuck, and if you want to get out, this is the only way I'm offering you."
Although that’s the way a lot of Christians interpret it, I don’t believe that’s the way it is. I don’t believe it’s that way at all.
It is that this one way is the only way God could do it, the only way possible to get us out of the desperate situation.
Saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation is not saying God chose to offer us only one way of salvation. Saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation is saying that's the only way God could do it.
Why do I think that? Well, the Bible itself says that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Think about that for a minute. If God doesn't want anyone to perish, why would He arbitrarily have chosen to offer us only one way to salvation? That wouldn't make sense. If God truly doesn't want anyone to perish, and if there were many other ways God could have saved us, then wouldn't it make sense that He would have made all those other ways available, too?
We’re looking at two things—that God doesn’t want anyone to perish and that Jesus is the only way to salvation. If you put those together, it leads to the conclusion that there was only one possible way for God to save us, the way He offers us in Jesus.
I really think that's the way it is. Even for God, there was no way He could save us, other than what He did in Jesus. What God offers us in Jesus is the only thing God can offer us that will save us.
First Timothy 1: 15 says this, "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." That's usually how it's translated—to "save" sinners. But the Greek word that's usually translated "save" actually means "rescue," in the sense of delivering someone out of mortal danger and into safety. It's like when the Coast Guard rescues someone from a sinking ship, or when a fireman rescues someone from a burning house. The Coast Guard didn't put you on a sinking ship, and the Coast Guard didn't want you to be on a sinking ship. But you're there, they get the call that you're out there and in trouble, and they come to rescue you with the means they have. That’s very important—they come to rescue you using the means they have.
It’s the same with the fire department. The fire department didn't put you in a burning house, the fire department didn't want you to be in a burning house. But you're there, they get the call that you're in a burning house, and they come to rescue you with the means they have. That’s the only way they can do it—with the means they have.
We can think of what God does in Jesus like that. God didn't put us in a desperate situation, and God doesn't want us to be in a desperate situation. But, God sees that we are in a desperate situation, and He comes to rescue us with the means He has. And the only means He has is Jesus.
That’s what I think it really means to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation: Jesus is the only way God could do it. It's not the way God chose, it's the only way He could do it. It's not that there were a million other ways God could have chosen, it's not that God only offered one way knowing full well that not everyone would find that way. It's that Jesus was the only way possible, the only way God had.
I think that’s something to consider.
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