Is Jesus the Only Way Home? Is it False to Teach Otherwise?
I read a blog last night that discussed a theory that some Christians have. It runs like this:
Jesus is the way, the light, and the truth, and through him is the only way one can approach God. Jesus also warned about the influence of false prophets, so if someone preaches something that goes against the centrality of Jesus to the salvation of his or her listeners, she or he is a false prophet and is leading you astray.
As an interfaith minister who hails from the Christian tradition, I accept Jesus as our savior. I believe that he died and was resurrected, and that he was the son of God and was doing God’s will his entire lifetime. But I don’t believe that this means that Jesus wanted us to abandon other holy and pure paths Home. I don’t think that following Jesus’ actual teachings means that we must reject other well-intentioned routes or teachings that can also guide us to God.
And here is why.
Jesus taught that God’s main commandment was to love God and to love one another as God loves us:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40.
What this means to me is that Jesus taught an overarching law. We should love God, the Father, and we should love one another. If we live like this and do not know Jesus (say we live in a place where the history of Jesus is unknown, or say we grow up being taught solid Buddhist, Hindu-Yogi, Sufi Muslim, or Native American beliefs), we are following a proper and good path Home. We are living as Jesus lived, with love, tolerance, forgiveness and obedience to God’s will as our central precepts.
Jesus repeatedly said that he was doing His Father’s will. He did not claim to be the Father, but the son of God.
Jesus also taught that when he left this world, he was leaving behind a great gift to all of us in the form of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is what allows each one of us to connect to Home. It is, the best I can tell from what Jesus said, akin to a Holy Counselor, or a direct line to our Creator, and we are supposed to honor this gift by using it to listen to what the Spirit tells us. Says Jesus:
I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say. Luke 12:8-12.
This is a rather an amazing thought. Jesus says that you shouldn’t speak against him (and that’s something I for one will not do, for I believe in him as our Savior and as the son of God). But he says you will be forgiven if you do. But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, which for sure represents a different entity and thus path to Salvation than going through the son alone, you are blaspheming and will not be forgiven. Thus when we listen to the Spirit and follow what we hear, when we incorporate teachings that come from within us and try to be the best souls we can be, we are following a good path. And when teachers tell us to look inward and to listen, they are not leading us astray. They’re simply telling us to do what Jesus told us to do.
The Holy Spirit spoke to many of the apostles after Jesus died, and helped them in their ministry. There were prophets mentioned in both Acts and in 1 Corinthians, and these prophets are accepted as being proper and good teachers (so long as they are listening to the Spirit and using what they hear to help guide listeners to the straight and proper path). Here are some examples of prophets doing God’s work after Jesus died:
And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. Acts 19:6-7.
We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Acts 21:7-9.
Note that Phillip, one of Jesus’ apostles, had four daughters, and each one of them were prophets.
In the next paragraph, it states that another prophet delivered a message to Paul, warning him of danger.
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” Acts 21:10-11.
This same man, Agapus, is also mentioned as being in a group of prophets and sharing warnings earlier in Acts:
In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted through the Spirit that a great famine would sweep across the entire Roman world. (This happened under Claudius.) So the disciples, each according to his ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gifts to the elders with Barnabas and Saul. Acts 11:28-30.
In addition, 1 Corinthians 11 speaks of how prophets (male or female) should behave in a properly run church. In other words, Paul thinks it is acceptable for a woman to prophesies (so long as her head is covered, which is another issue altogether). The place of prophecy in religion and in future church life, in other words, is accepted by Paul, for we all have special gifts and abilities we should use to serve one another and to serve God. Prophecy, which can come to anyone who is chosen by God, requires that one listen to the Spirit, or to God directly. It is also likely that God could send his only begotten son, Jesus, or an angel as a messenger to speak to any human. It is not logical to argue that Agapus, Phillip’s daughters, or any of the future prophets discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, are doing wrong when they obey the guidance of the Spirit and share the message they receive to others. The mere fact that prophets (who are divinely guided, either by God or by the Spirit) are accepted in the New Testament shows that the Christian Church assigns the Holy Spirit an important role in the calling of individuals to God. If the Spirit can call us, then it is right and good to follow that call rather than the mere call of Jesus alone.
Indeed, Jesus states as much when he tells us it is worse to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit than to speak against him. Jesus also says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” And Jesus, again and again, states that he is obeying the Father and doing the Father’s will by sharing God’s teachings with God’s people. Jesus tells us all to listen to God and to do as the Holy Spirit guides us. It is impossible to say that we should disobey the dictates of the Holy Spirit and still follow Jesus, because Jesus himself tells us to obey the Spirit. In other words, Jesus explains that we can follow his teachings to love God (the Father), to love one another, to look inward and listen to what the Spirit tells us, OR to accept Jesus’ teachings and apply them to our lives. It’s not enough to simply accept Jesus as our Savior. We must live according to his commandments, and these are to love the Father and to love one another.
Is it enough to live like Jesus lived, to love one another, but to accept the teachings of other (earlier or later) prophets? Are all Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, secular humanists, perhaps even Unitarians, as well as those who follow the teachings of indigenous traditions . . . are all these people condemned to hell? In other words, what do these words mean to those of us who live two thousand years after the death of Jesus:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6.
One possible interpretation is of course taking these words completely literally. If you want to get to God, you gotta go through the son. You can’t go directly. You can’t listen to the Spirit. You listen to Jesus and to Jesus only.
This is a sensible interpretation in some ways. But if you will, consider the time and the place, or the texture of when and why this statement was made, and also consider the other teachings Jesus brought. After three to five years of oppression and opposition, of denial and worse, Jesus was about to die. When Jesus was talking to his disciples, he was preparing them for his death. He was about to go away, but he would send the Holy Spirit down as a guide. The rest of the conversation went like this:
If you had known Me, you would know My Father as well. From now you do know Him and have seen Him.”
Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus replied, “Philip, I have been with you all this time, and still you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I say to you, I do not speak on my own. Instead, it is the Father dwelling in me, carrying out His work. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father
is in me—or at least believe because of the works themselves.
Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I am doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
If you love me, you will keep My commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot receive Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you do know Him, for He abides with you and He will be in you.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. In a little while, the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you. Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and reveal Myself to him.” John 14:7-21.
Jesus explains that he is doing God’s will. That the Father lives in him and he lives in the Father just as the disciples live in Jesus and they live in him. We are supposed to love Jesus and to love the Father, and we are supposed to live according to what Jesus taught when he lived on earth. We are supposed to continue doing Jesus’ works even after he is gone, and the Holy Spirit will help us serve others just as Jesus did his Father’s will and served God’s people.
When Jesus says that he is the only way to God, I think he was speaking to the times he lived in. In 33 AD, Jesus was living as the Messiah here on earth. John the Baptist, the other leading prophet of the time, had already handed the baton to the Lamb of God, as John called Jesus, and had gone Home to rest. All of John’s disciples would then have been expected to follow Jesus, and we are told in John 1:35-42 that Andrew and most likely John followed Jesus based on John’s instruction. The rest of John’s disciples probably took after Jesus once John the Baptist passed away. Everyone who lived at the time of the Savior would have been expected to help Jesus in his miracle-giving ministry. Anyone who lived and saw the miracles Jesus did with their own two eyes should have accepted and followed the son.
How far does this expectation extend? Many generations have passed. Many countries, including Israel, have fallen and risen. And many people follow the teachings of other prophets and servants of the Lord, including Muhammad, Rumi, Buddha, Ramakrishna (from the Hindu monk tradition), Ahmad . . . the list goes on. I am not comfortable asserting that all of these teachers are false, or that those who follow these teachers and do their best to live good lives, to love one another, to love God . . . are damned.
I just don’t think that is what Jesus meant when he said to the people in his own time period that he was the way and the truth and the life. I don’t think he meant that good souls who lived thousands of years later were condemned to hell if they looked inward and listened to the Spirit and found a route Home that took them through the gates in a slightly different way. I don’t think that Jesus, after living on earth as a man, meant that for all souls who lived on earth thereafter, that the only way to God forever and ever more was to proceed through the gate manned by Jesus. If that were the case, then why send down the Holy Counselor, or the Holy Spirit? Why commission Paul to preach? Why does the New Testament speak of so many other prophets who listened and taught after Jesus went Home? Why did the Spirit talk to saints and monks, preachers and teachers, like Saint Theresa, John of the Cross, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, Meister Eckhart . . . and why has the church accepted the visions and accounts, the epiphanies and insights . . . of so many who were inspired by the Spirit?
Am I certain I’m right? No, I’m human, I’m in a human shell. I do my best to interpret and teach the scriptures. I listen to the Spirit and to what I’m told and study and while I’m in this shell, I will do my best to love God, to honor the son of God, and to love others. I will look inward, and suggest that others look inward as well. After all, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God exists within us. Therein lies the map Home. We all have it. We all have the key to our own salvation.
 Mark 13:21-22. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
 Luke 17:20-2