The complexity of Jesus’ claim is significant, not just for mankind, but for Jesus as well. He loves us all and desires for everyone to live with Him throughout eternity (ref. 1Tm 2:3-6). But if He is the only way to this eternal place everyone wants to go, and there are people who have not heard the plan of salvation from Scripture who will be eternally rejected, how does He legitimately maintain a loving and just character?
But notice: We have yet to contemplate how God does what He does in Christ. That Jesus is the only way to God is clear in the Bible. How He is the way is not as clear.
Jesus became incarnate at Christmas. He lived, ministered, was crucified, buried, resurrected, and is ascended to the right hand of God where He intercedes on our behalf. This redemption is what Jesus did and is the basis upon which He claimed to be the way to God. But what He did doesn’t illuminate how He accomplishes, achieves, or manages His redemption of mankind. There are compelling clues—enough of them in fact to manage the narrowness of the way, His integrity as a just deity, and man’s culpability and responsibility.
Let’s consider a spectrum: At one end you have the individual who knows the claims of Jesus Christ and rejects them. At the other end, you have the guy with the bone through his nose wearing a loin cloth.
The first person: This person willfully rejects God (for whatever reason) and God acknowledges the decision, respects it and the one making it, and agrees to separation. In God’s mind, this is hell. Who knows how the one who separates feels? I have my ideas, but that’s not the point of these lines.
At the other end of the spectrum is the guy with his bow and arrow who is clueless about everything outside his circle, a circle maybe fifty miles in diameter. I’ve been a bit flippant about this man, but only for the sake of my point. In truth, this man is just as intelligent as the rest of us. He’s just behind the times—ignorant of lots of information that would help him become enlightened. Some would argue that it is wrong to enlighten him and his tribe, but that is a sociological question, not a spiritual question. He’s ignorant today in all the ways our forefathers were ignorant. Will God punish this man—eternally—for his ignorance? If so, we can realistically label God abusive. Surely there is another option.
All of us fit somewhere along this spectrum. Chances are, if you are reading my words on this subject, you are toward the end of the spectrum where people know the claims of Christ with sufficient understanding to make a responsible decision to accept or reject them. At this end of the spectrum, we are familiar with numerous stories of faith that fit neatly into a Christian category. I can tell you my salvation story of walking the aisle in a Baptist church when I was six years old. I can relate to you the story of my wife’s conversion to Christianity. It’s similar to mine. I can do the same for lots of folks I know.
Likewise, I can tell you the story of my atheist neighbor. I know exactly what he thinks of Jesus Christ, faith in him, and relationship with God. I am clear that he wants nothing to do with God. I wish he believed differently, but unless I bind him in my garage and torture a confession out of him, he is confident in his decision. Even though different than my convictions, my neighbor has made a responsible and informed decision about Jesus’ claims.
Moving down the spectrum, away from the obvious examples above: I can tell you about some Catholic friends who came to faith in Jesus Christ via visions. These were for real, legitimate visions, of icons speaking to them. Their experience is well beyond my comfort zone, but I’m close enough to these people to know their conversion to faith is anchored in Jesus Christ as the only way to God. Just like a Baptist who walks the aisle and prays the sinner’s prayer, these friends arrived at the same conclusion regarding Jesus, but via an experiential path different from the prescribed norm.
Moving farther down the spectrum: I spent a number of years in private practice as a counselor. In helping hurting folks piece their lives back together, I ferreted out any number of conversion stories. Most of the folks who had a relationship with God through Jesus Christ could articulate their salvation experience. However, there were some who couldn’t do this. Some, to be certain, were not Believers. But there were those, who after close examination, were indeed Believers—true Christians—but were pretty sketchy when it came to telling me about relationship to God in terms that fit nicely into the normal salvation model.
More than a few times I encountered people who at first were clueless when I asked them a standard question about faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. But as we built a common body of spiritual verbiage, they would reach a point of understanding where they would say, “Oh, yes. Now I understand. I’m trusting Jesus Christ as my Savior and way to God.” And upon examination, they satisfied my testing of their eternal destiny.
Don’t miss what I’m doing here: I’m moving from the known, standardized end of the spectrum toward the mysterious, irregular end of the spectrum. Returning to the language I introduced earlier, I’m exploring how God introduces Himself, first to people who come to faith in familiar ways, followed by people who are progressively more ignorant of the salvation sequence we who are biblically literate know and are comfortable assessing. As I do this I’m proposing that Jesus demonstrates a broad array of how He does His redemptive work without compromising what He did to satisfy God’s standard of redemption.
Next: The creativity of Jesus' redemptive initiative.