Is Jesus the only way to salvation?

March 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I sat in my bedroom chair last Friday afternoon praying the Vesper Office from Phyllis Tickle’s little pocket edition of The Divine Hours, I suddenly began to hear voices singing outside my window. They were male voices sounding as if they were singing as loud as they could. I did not recognize the words or language. I don’t think they were French. But as has often happened over the last twenty-six months, though I didn’t recognize the words, I knew exactly what they were saying. They were singing praise to God. It was as surely praise music as any praise music I have ever heard.

When my curiosity finally got the best of me and I walked outside to see from where the music was coming, I discovered about ten teenage boys sitting in a circle on the garage floor beneath our apartment. They had large song books inscribed with big words and musical notes in their laps. Some were bowing their upper bodies in count with the music. Others were keeping beat with their heads. I watched and rocked my body slowly with the music for a couple of minutes, but feeling somewhat like an intruder on holy ground, I went back up to the apartment and continued to listen. It must have gone on for thirty minutes. As I joined my prayers with the young men singing outside my window, these felt like the most holy thirty minutes of all my time in Senegal.

I am a Christian. They are Muslims. Growing up, I was taught they were going to hell because they didn’t know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The subliminal message I heard was that anyone who was of a different faith was not only lost, he or she was evil and an enemy of Christianity in great need of conversion. When I met Jesus as a struggling nineteen year old and gave my life to him, I just assumed that what I had been taught was true because Jesus had so wonderfully changed and reoriented my life. Later, as my world and life experience grew larger, I would begin to question this. Today, I question it even more.

When I was a seminary student, I took an evangelism course with Dr. George Morris, then the William Cannon Professor of Evangelism at Candler School of Theology. George had quite a reputation as an evangelical in Methodist circles, and was far from being a liberal, or probably even a progressive of more recent years.

The only thing I remember from that course was the day that Dr. Morris raised the issue, “Is Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?”

Of course, there is scriptural basis for this belief. In his long farewell discourse in John 14, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father except through me” (14:6). We also have the wonderful words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16). However, there are also plenty of places where Jesus tells his disciples that it is our actions that distinguish us as his followers.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (13:34-35)

What Dr. Morris said that day, as I remember it, – Wow, that was thirty-two years ago! – was he didn’t know if Jesus was the only way to salvation, but he was certain that Jesus was a way to salvation because he was sure that Jesus had saved him. Therefore, he could gladly and boldly proclaim that Jesus was the “sure” way to salvation. It made sense to me and helped me to claim myself as an evangelical through the years. I really believe that Jesus Christ forgives sins and transform lives. I am sure he is the only chance I have of sneaking through the Pearly Gates.

But is Jesus the only way to salvation? What about the young Muslim boys praying below me? What about Mam, the young Muslim man who watches over us and our apartment, who is always putting down his prayer mat as I come home at 5 pm?

I’ve been pondering an answer to this question based on some recent thoughts about what the Kingdom of God looks like, or will look like on that day when it fully comes in all its glory. I’m still wrestling with this – It is hard to give up what you have believed for fifty years! – so I will propose it to you with some of the questions I am trying to answer.

Are Christians going to be the only folks in the Kingdom of God, or will people of all faiths who have sought to honor God and serve those made in God’s image be there? Is the Kingdom of God going to be composed only of people of like minds and thoughts, or will it be a hodgepodge of people who have learned to live together in peace despite their religious, cultural, and political differences? Are only those who have been on the right side of the issues of their day – Whatever the right side is! – be there, or will the Kingdom of God be composed of all those who have learned that being in right relationship with each other is more important than being right about the issues that divide us? Will the Kingdom of God only fully arrive when all enemies of the church have been defeated, or will it be a world in which governments have learned that the cost of having enemies is too high, and they have turned their guns and missiles into food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless?

Is it God’s goal to include or exclude folks from the Kingdom? Will the Kingdom of God be a place where one must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord before the door is thrown open, or will it be a gathering of surprised, wide-eyed, bewildered folks offering praise to God on bended knee because Jesus stood inside the door welcoming them in a blood-stained robe and we finally understand that it really is Jesus who has paid for this great party we call the Kingdom of God?

I know which way I am leaning. And some days in Senegal when I rub shoulders with smiling, dark-skinned Muslims, and play with their children, I think I have experienced a bit of just how good it will be.

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