People who challenge Christians with “How can you say Jesus is the only way to God?” are good at verbal camouflage, what sounds like concern for tolerance but which is actually belief that Jesus is not qualified to declare the way to God. Their problem is not with tolerance, but with Jesus’ authority.
Promoters of religious pluralism say it is applicable in all situations, including religion. However, they don’t really believe it. They are willing to accept one way if they believe it is appropriate, and to listen to authority when it is in their best interests or they have confidence in the authority. They don’t promote pluralism regarding to breathe or not to breathe (only one way keeps someone living). They follow their employers’ way of doing things to keep their jobs. They follow detour signs held by orange-jacketed construction workers. When it comes to religion, however, suddenly pluralism is an absolute and anyone, such as Jesus, who is so narrow minded as to say his religion is the only way to God, is convicted of intolerance.
How does a Christian respond? First, show the skeptic that he is, himself, intolerant of at least one religious view — Christianity, which makes exclusive claims about salvation. Then, show him that consistent pluralism is meaningless because by giving the same truth value to conflicting claims, it denies truth to any claim.
Recently a religious tolerance advocate said Christianity wasn’t true because it was intolerant. Tolerance was the only way to test religious truth. We disagreed, offering to give evidence and reasons that Christianity was true and what he believed was false. Immediately, he replied, “That’s what I mean. You’re wrong because you judge me. Whatever anyone believes is true.” You can guess how we answered him: “Be tolerant. Don’t say we’re wrong. Stop judging us. Whatever we believe is true.” Realizing he had been self-contradictory, he tried to recover, saying, “Well, it’s true for you, but not for me.” Sadly, he only dug his hole deeper. We replied, “Our truth for us is that you don’t have truth. So that must be true, because it’s our truth. So you’re still wrong.” Frustrated, he said, “No, you don’t understand. If it’s true for you, it only applies to you, not to anyone else. It’s true for you, but not for me.” We couldn’t resist one more round: “It may be true for you that our truth is only true for us, but our truth is that what is true for us is also true for you, so you lose, because that’s our truth, and you can’t apply your truth to us because that’s your truth!” He finally threw up his hands and admitted that his system was getting nowhere. What followed was an honest, friendly discussion about what kinds of evidence and reasons it would take to qualify someone to speak with authority about how humans can know God.
In addition to learning about the claims of Christianity and Jesus Christ, he learned that tolerance is only a virtue if it is applied appropriately, not universally. C. S. Lewis explains,
Some people say this attitude is “intolerant.” “He’s the sort of man,” they complain, “who thinks his own beliefs are true and everyone else’s are wrong.” But after all how can any man help doing that? A man must think his own belief true because if he didn’t it would not be his belief. “Your belief” means “what you think true.” And if you think the thing true, of course you must think the opposite false. But this is a very different thing from saying that those who hold the opposite belief are necessarily bad or stupid.(1)
Having discarded the tolerance camouflage, we can turn to meaningful discussion on the merits of different salvation claims.
If there is only one God who is eternal, all-powerful, all-good, all-loving, all-knowing, and fully just; and He creates us in His image, we would be completely fulfilled if we related to Him the way He wants us to, in harmony with His will. As the creator from concept to production line, he would know the most about the perfect purpose of his creations. No one else could compete with him regarding his creations’ functions or destiny. If He were to say one’s destiny is determined by how many hot peppers he can consume, no one could bring greater authority or knowledge to dispute him. If He were to say that one’s destiny is determined by how he responds to God’s loving sacrifice of His Son on behalf of all who are separated by sin from God, He cannot be disputed.
We evaluate different salvation plans by reasonably comparing them to what we know about history, the world, humanity, and God’s nature and character. Any plan that contradicts any know fact is at best inadequate, and at worst, completely wrong.
A plan depending on the fundamental goodness of humanity fails because it contradicts the testimony of history, insights into human nature, and our self-awareness of the sinfulness of humanity. A plan that saves all people regardless of their hatred of God contradicts both God’s justice (sin is punished, goodness is rewarded) and God’s mercy (He’s too kind to force anyone who permanently hates Him to spend eternity in His loving presence). A plan that depends on God pre-empting someone’s unique personhood and personal moral responsibility contradicts what we know about humans as responsible moral agents, created in God’s image to love him with our own love, not by means of a programmed operating system that mimics love. A plan that annihilates those who don’t go to heaven contradicts the fact of humanity created in God’s image as enduring persons who have personal responsibility and endless, interactive consciousness. A plan proposing multiple lifetimes to work off one’s own transgressions violates God’s standard of holiness, which is perfect, not perfect-minus-one. A plan including all contradictory and mutually exclusive plans is irrational and denies God’s ability and desire to communicate consistently and unambiguously to encourage repentance and faithfulness.
If we were to test each plan of salvation, all would fail except Christianity. To test each plan would be incredibly inefficient. It would be like having five thousand cars in a parking lot, only one of which has an engine, and trying every single one to find the one that worked. You could try 4,999 unsuccessfully and know without even turning the key that car 5,000 works. However, if the person who put the cars in the parking lot and chose the one with the engine were to tell you where that car is, pointed it out, led you to it, sat you in the seat, and even turned the key for you, people would call you a fool to insist, “You’re too narrow-minded and intolerant. I’d rather try a few other cars first. I have my own ideas about where the engine is.”
Christianity is the car with the engine. It fits the facts, makes sense, perfectly reflects God’s nature and character, and tells the truth about human nature and our predicament separated from God by sin. If we are created in the image of the God described in the Bible, if we are separated from Him by our own sin, and if He loves us so much that He would provide Himself a sacrifice for human sin that reconciles His justice and mercy, wouldn’t it make sense for Him to come Himself, demonstrate His identity and authority through His words and works, and then point us to the only way?
The truth of Christianity has significance quantumly beyond the car engine analogy, however. Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft affirms, “the point of Christianity is the living Christ. He is not an ancient ideal but a real person here and now, ready to barge in and transform our lives. . . . The love of God is the answers not only to (1) the quest for the supreme value. . . and to (2) the quest for the supreme reality. . . but it is also the answer to the third quest, the quest for life’s deepest meaning and purpose.”(2)
The next time someone accuses you of being intolerant of other ways, share the good news of the gospel with him confidently. It’s the truth.