Listen: Episode 77
Lifewords Q&A is the podcast where we explore answers to your tricky questions about faith – with journalist Clare Bruce, and pastor & writer David Reay. Explore all episodes.
Episode 77: “Jesus – The Only Way to God? Doesn’t That Sound Arrogant?”
CB: Welcome to another episode of LifeWords Q&A, exploring answers to tricky questions about the Christian faith. I am your host, Clare Bruce, and with me is our ever-thoughtful ‘font of wisdom’, David Reay. G’day, David.
DR: Hey Clare, nice to be here.
CB: David is a broadcaster and a writer, he’s the man behind the Lifewords daily devotional at the website of Hope 103.2, Sydney’s Christian radio station. Every week we explore the answers to one tricky question, the kind of question that’s probably crossed your mind at some point in your Christian journey, but maybe you’ve never been brave enough to ask.
This week’s question: “Jesus, the only way to God? Doesn’t that sound arrogant?” David, this is such a, I think, a common question from people particularly who are exploring the Christian faith or on their journey towards Jesus maybe. We know that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, and that nobody gets to God except through him. Other faiths disagree. So how do we relate to people of other faiths without sounding arrogant?
DR: There’s sort of two questions in that, I think. First of all, how do we relate to people of other faiths? Well, that’s, I think, fairly straightforward. I think we can treat them with great respect. We might disagree, but we’re to be gracious and kind. It’s no great advertisement for the Christian faith if we’re bullying and arrogant and saying, “Listen, we’ve got all the answers, you haven’t”, and so on.
And the other thing is, people should be free to express their faith. It’s quite interesting in today’s political climate that we’re arguing about religious freedom. Well, if Christians want to be free to express their faith, we’ve actually got to allow other faiths to be also free to express their faith. We need to be in the forefront of lobbying for religious freedom, but not just freedom for Christians. We live in a pluralist society. So we need to be sensitive to other faiths.
And in regard to other faiths, I think we can speak the truth. We don’t water down our faith in order to sort of be all nice and ‘palsey-walsey’ with people. But at the same time, we want to relate with respect, with sensitivity, understanding those other faiths; we want people to understand the Christian faith, not misunderstand it. So we should pay the same courtesy to them, instead of just arguing against stereotypes and so on, or what the media has said about other faiths, we’re to take them seriously and to meet them as it were on their own ground – as we would like them to do as well.
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So I think that’s fairly, hopefully, it’s fairly straightforward – that we’re not to look down on other people. And yet we’re to courteously and respectfully agree to disagree.
In other words, we’re not saying “We’re really all the same aren’t we”, in order to be nice, nor at the same time, say, “I’ll have absolutely nothing to do with you, because we’re right, you’re wrong, and that’s the end of the story.” So there needs to be courtesy and respect, even in the midst of any disagreement.
But the other little part of the question – well it’s not a little part of the question, it’s sort of the, as it were, the elephant in the room, you hinted at: “is Jesus being arrogant?”
CB: Yes, look, I remember once as a very young journalist, having a conversation with a workmate. I’d only just started at the office, I was very shy and timid. And he proceeded to tell me that he thought Christianity was very arrogant, because it claimed to be the only way to God. And I was completely stumped. I couldn’t have been a less arrogant person, I think, at the time, and didn’t know how to respond. What is a good response to that charge?
DR: Well, it is difficult to respond because you see Jesus, when he makes that statement, as a student of the New Testament, I can say there’s no real way to squirm out of it, by ‘looking at the Greek’ or something. Jesus did say what he said, he is the only way to God. I’ve got to say to people, well, looking at the whole spectrum of Jesus life, he doesn’t appear to be an arrogant person. He’s not just throwing his weight around. He’s not a bully. He does respect people. He does love people. He is gracious to people.
So I’ve got to say, “Well, look, it’s Jesus saying it, not me”. I’m not saying it. And Jesus is actually I believe, expressing a truth. But here is where it gets challenging. Because if people want to say to me, “Well, the only way to God is by embracing faith in Jesus”, we’ve got a problem. Or at least people like Moses and Abraham and David Jeremiah and Jonah and Daniel have got problems. They don’t know anything about Jesus
CB: He wasn’t even around.
DR: Exactly. And I’m just leaving aside the issues of what happens to the severely disabled or infants or so on. And I’ll leave that one to another Q&A, perhaps. But all I’m saying here, is that Jesus might not – well, I don’t think can literally be saying, “unless you literally embrace me, you can’t get to God,” because obviously there were a whole lot of people before Jesus came, who knew nothing of Jesus. Here’s how I explain it: that when Jesus is saying this, he’s saying, “Yes, I am the only way to God. But whether you acknowledge that publicly, whether you are conscious of it or not, is another issue.”
In other words, obviously, the Old Testament people cried out to God for mercy. Now, the only means, the only way in which God could show them mercy, and thus be ‘right with them’ forever and ever, was through Jesus—but they didn’t know that. All they were saying is, “God, be merciful”. God says, “I will be merciful – on the basis of what Jesus is going to do on the cross by forgiving your sins.”
Now you asked David or Moses or anyone, “what’s all this about forgiveness of sins?” “What’s all this about Jesus dying on the cross?” – they wouldn’t have a clue. But what they do know is, “God, be merciful”.
I believe – and others might disagree with me – I believe that if someone genuinely cries out to God for mercy, whether they’ve heard of Jesus or not, will receive that mercy.
“Oh, doesn’t that contradict what Jesus is saying?” Not at all! Because Jesus is saying, “I am the only way to God”, and those people who cry out to God for mercy will only receive it, will only be right with God, because of what Jesus has done. The difference between you and me and those people is, you and I know what Jesus has done. And so our testimony is, “we have trusted in Jesus, and he has put us in right relationship with God”.
The people who’ve never heard of Jesus can say, “Well, I’ve trusted in God’s mercy. I hope God will be merciful for me”. And they do not simply know that Jesus is the way in which he’s shown mercy.
Some people have said, well, when they, as it were to put it crudely, ‘get to heaven’, these people, they will realise that Jesus is the one who got them there. But, so, we’ve got to be careful not to interpret Jesus as saying, “Only those who have had a conscious, historical, personal experience of me can get to heaven”, because, well, that, obviously, can’t be right, for all the Old Testament believers.
CB: Interesting. So in essence, you’re saying that God looks at people’s hearts more than he looks at a certain prayer or formula that they – a certain box they have ticked?
DR: Oh, indeed. I mean, we all know, I certainly know, of many people who’ve made a formal commitment, signed a prayer card or whatever to follow Jesus, and they’re nowhere near him! But I think yes, God looks at the heart.
And this is where it’s very important and related to this question: you and I must never, ever make a judgment on someone’s eternal destiny.
People ask me “Well, do you think so and so has got eternal life?” Well, I’ve gotta say, “Well, look, I’m sorry, I’ve got to be wary of making that judgment”.
Someone who sits in church every Sunday might not have eternal life. And someone who’s never darkened the door of a church might have it; it’s only because of Jesus. In other words, one person has called out to God for mercy and has received it, and whether or not they know that Jesus as a source of the mercy is another matter.
The other person might know all about Jesus, all the historical stuff, but sadly, have no personal relationship with him. So Jesus is not being arrogant. He’s speaking a clear truth. That He is the only way to God. The only question is, that we cannot decide and determine just who has received that mercy.
If someone is in heaven, they will only be in heaven because God is merciful. How is God merciful? Jesus. You and I know that; other people might not
CB: David, so one final point that comes to mind in answer to that accusation that my workmate made to me, 20-something years ago – “Isn’t it arrogant to say that Jesus is the only way?” – I’d like to turn that on its head and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that God has provided a way?”
DR: That’s a good response, Clare, because I think the mindset of that person you were speaking of there, is such that it’s what we call relativism: there’s no absolute truth. You can’t make absolute statements like Jesus made, and so on and so on.
And I think we’ve got to be standing against it and say, “No, there is such a thing”. Just as an aside, many of these people who are so concerned and so dogmatic, that there are no absolute truths – are actually expressing an absolute truth! I mean… there are absolute truths, and I don’t think we need to apologize for it. But what we need to do is to say “Yes, when Jesus says the only way to God is not therefore, condemning people so much, he’s just, like you were quite wisely saying, that, the best way of responding is to say, “Well, yes, he is the only way to God, but isn’t it wonderful that this way has been offered in the first place?”
CB: And I think sometimes people who say it’s an arrogant claim, they’re people who aren’t seeking a way to God. They’re people whose hearts really aren’t yearning. And so that’s the claim of someone who doesn’t want to know. But the claim of a person saying, “it’s wonderful”, that is a person who wants to know God and is ready to receive him.
DR: Look, I think we have to go back there, to the point that you just hinted at – that as the Lord God says in the Scriptures, “Those who seek me will find me”. I reckon, in a Muslim culture, Jewish culture, Buddhist culture, whatever culture you like, if someone is genuinely seeking after the God of the Scriptures, he will be found by them. How that works, I don’t know; it’s beyond a mystery. But they will find him and be saved only through Jesus, because that’s the only provision that God has made.
The only question is, whether or not those people are conscious of it or not. And of course, the ultimate statement we have to make here is – well, I trust that many people who are listening to us or phrasing this question – “Well, you have heard of Jesus!”
CB: Yep, yep. What are you doing about it?
DR: It’s a little bit academic. That’s right; “What are you doing about it? You know, the way!”
CB: Wonderful. Well, that’s given me some good things to go and ponder and apply. Hopefully it has for you, our listeners too. And if it has, please share this episode, because I’m sure there’s many other people who have asked these same questions themselves.
David, thank you as ever for your insights.
DR: Thank you.
CB: This has been Clare Bruce and David Reay, and if you’d like to submit a question, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.