When it comes to modern religious discourse, there is no greater sin than to claim your religion is the only one that is true. You can believe just about anything and receive a shrug of the shoulders from an unbelieving world, but say that you believe in one way to heaven and accusations of narrow-mindedness and intolerance are inevitable.
Years ago, there was a well-known interview between Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise about Scientology. Oprah was clearly skeptical of Cruise’s religious beliefs, but she then asked the million dollar question: “You don’t believe Scientology is the only true religion, do you?” It was easy to tell that the question was loaded with a mountain of implications; answer this wrongly and the floodgates would be opened.
Cruise, of course, answered the question as Oprah would expect. He denied that Scientology claimed to be the only true religion (apparently only evangelical Christians are that foolish). After clarifying this, one could sense the tension in the room immediately lessen.
Given this cultural context, how should Christians deal with the inevitable confrontation over the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven? For one, we need to clarify that this is not simply a claim that we are making on behalf of Christianity. It is not as if Christians enjoy their religion so much that they decide to make extravagant claims about it. Nor are the exclusive claims of Christianity merely a fear tactic designed to recruit more converts.
Instead, we need to remind folks that this is a claim that Jesus himself made (John 14:6) and that we, as followers of Jesus, are simply upholding his teachings. For this reason, I like the answer that RTS Charlotte professor James Anderson gave to this question in a recent interview for The Gospel Coalition:
It’s narrow-minded and intolerant to claim Jesus is the only way to God. No religion has the whole truth—including yours.
If it’s narrow-minded and intolerant to claim that Jesus is the only way to God, then Jesus himself must have been narrow-minded and intolerant, because that’s exactly what he claimed about himself (see, for example, Matthew 11:27 and John 14:6). Jesus also claimed to be the Son of God from heaven and that only those who believe in him will have eternal life. Yet when we read the four Gospels, we don’t encounter a narrow-minded, intolerant, arrogant man. Rather, we see a wide-hearted, selfless, and humble man, full of grace and compassion toward others.
When you say, “No religion has the whole truth,” I have to ask: How do you know? How could you know? Have you thoroughly investigated every world religion? And wouldn’t you need some kind of access to the whole truth yourself in order to make the judgment that no religion has the whole truth? The more pertinent question isn’t whether any religion has the whole truth, but whether the central and defining claims of any particular religion are in fact true.
Christians don’t claim to possess the whole truth. Only God could make that claim! But we do believe God has revealed the most important truths through Jesus, and that Jesus has more credibility than anyone else in his claim to know—indeed, to be—the way to God. Is there anyone in history who has a more credible claim to know God? Is there anyone who showed greater insight into the human heart and our deepest spiritual needs? Don’t take my word for it. Study the Gospels for yourself and draw your own conclusions!
Anderson’s response also highlights the problems with the well-worn analogy that all religions are like blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. As the blind men try to determine what an elephant is like, one feels the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake!” Another feels the tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope!” Another feels a leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree trunk!” And so, the argument goes, they are all right because they are only seeing part of the truth.
The core problem with the elephant analogy is that the person using the analogy is assuming that they themselves are not blind! The person using the analogy is basically saying, “Let me tell you how all religions really work.” But that is an enormous (and arrogant!) claim that requires near-omniscient knowledge. How would this person know how all religions work? And why should this person be exempt from the very analogy they just gave?
This is precisely Anderson’s point. As soon as the non-Christian claims that no one has absolute truth, then he himself is making a wide, sweeping, all-encompassing truth claim that must be justified.
It is as this point that the distinctiveness of Christianity stands out. Christians don’t make exclusive claims on the basis of their own knowledge, but on the basis of Christ’s knowledge. If he is the very Son of God, it is reasonable to trust what he says about the way religion works.
To put it simply, if a person is going to make absolute, all-encompassing truth claims, they better have access to some source of knowledge that is absolute and all-encompassing. And, of course, this is the very thing that the non-Christian lacks.
To read the whole interview with James Anderson, see here.