What God does can be mysterious, but it is dramatically clearer than how He does it.
For example: The Gospel of John makes a categorical statement about what Jesus is without offering in the same verse how He is what He is. If you know anything biblical, you know the verse: Jesus states, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father (i.e., God) except through me” (14:6).
Taken by itself, the verse is narrow, prejudicial, and exclusive. This God-inspired passage concerning what Jesus is, i.e. the way to God, leaves exactly NO room for there to be any other way to God.
I say, “God-inspired” verse. There are folks who have concluded the Bible is not inspired principally because they stumble on verses like John 14:6. I understand. One would like the way to be broader. When it comes to eternity and heaven, truth and life, everyone except for true followers of Jesus Christ are out of luck. Really?
If we conclude our consideration of God and all He holds important with this passage, then it requires a certain fatalism, or robust set of religious blinders, to conclude anything other than God is prejudicial, exclusive, intolerant, narrow minded, narcissistic, and a number of other hateful and ugly qualities. At a philosophical level, we can ponder what becomes of Jews or Muslims in eternity. Of course, one can argue that they are familiar with Jesus and His claims, and are therefore culpable per John 14:6. At a simpler, more basic, pragmatic level, we can wonder about the man living in New Guinea, wearing a loin cloth, who thinks airplanes are animistic omens that he shoots at with his bow and arrow? Not only has this person never heard of Jesus, he can’t even read. When his time on earth is completed, does God really send him to hell because he never declared faith in Jesus Christ?
And it is with that last sentence that we start getting into trouble. With that final question the proverbial line in the sand is drawn. Either the guy in the loin cloth is bound for hell or God didn’t really mean Jesus was on the only way—which then means the Bible is metaphorical myth. These are not good options.
Our predicament with the narrow standard of John 14:6 is further complicated by the fact that everyone wants to go to heaven, yet Jesus’ declaration in John appears to arbitrarily limit those who make the trip successfully.
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.
It is easier to fit a biblically educated convert into a salvation box than it is a biblically ignorant convert. I’ve led people to faith in Jesus Christ who asked informed questions about God, Jesus, faith, salvation, and the Bible. There was also the Catholic lady who professed what I determined was valid faith in Jesus Christ but was utterly astounded when I prayed to Him. I also recall the convert from Judaism to Christianity who called from the bookstore where he had gone to purchase a Bible. Standing in front of a whole wall of Bibles, he said, “What the hell is it with all these Bibles? Before, when I went to buy a Torah, there was only one. What do I do?”
I’m comfortable with a familiar salvation story—like mine. I’m comfortable with a familiar rejection of salvation like my neighbor’s. I understand both processes in depth and can relate them to my experience and biblical understanding. However, the farther across the spectrum of humanity I move, the less I understand and the more questions I have to explore. When I move all the way to the end of the spectrum where the guy with the bow is shooting at airplanes, I’m virtually clueless about what’s transpiring with regard to his faith in the unknown deity of Jesus Christ.
However, just because I don’t understand, can’t relate, or can’t categorize a man’s acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean Jesus Christ has not introduced Himself to that man in a meaningful and legitimate manner. The mechanism of John 14:6 is clear. The management of its standard by Jesus Christ can be mysterious.
If Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and if God is truly just and fair regarding eternal salvation, then what each of us do with Jesus Christ is critical. It is eternally critical, in fact. How God makes the redemption that is available in Christ Jesus apparent across the spectrum of humanity appears to be as creative as the Creator Himself, but without compromise of either Jesus Christ or man’s eternal responsibility.
What God did in Jesus Christ is evident. How He goes about revealing redemption can be mysterious.