Ted Grimsrud—December 12, 2022
One of the interesting aspects of Christianity for me now, as I step back and allow myself to question much of the faith I have wrestled with these past 50 years, is the notion that there is a clear distinction to be made between being a Christian and not being a Christian. Many Christians seem to assume that you are either in or out. I now question that notion of clarity. First, I question is experientially. This is not the reality I am in now. I actually don’t know if I’m a Christian or not. Second, as I think about it more, I question it intellectually. Does it even make sense to make such an either/or distinction about human convictions, beliefs, and identities? One area where these questions apply, I think, is how we conceive of salvation.
The standard Christian salvation story
I became interested in Christianity when I was a teen-ager. The way things were explained to me centered on my need to accept Jesus as my personal savior. Basically, the idea is that we human beings start out in a place of estrangement from God due to our sinfulness. To have a relationship with God, to be allowed to spend eternity in heaven, to be “saved,” we need to make a move. Our default status is that we are unsaved and bound for eternal separation from God. The only move that works, the only way to change our status, is to confess to God in prayer that we recognize our sinfulness and that we trust in Jesus as our savior from sin (and he is our savior only because of his violent death as a sinless sacrifice where he takes God anger toward sin upon himself), and that we will commit ourselves to living as Christians (which basically means going to church, reading the Bible, praying regularly, and sharing the message of salvation through Jesus with other people).
Now, this salvation story I was told was a particular version—evangelical Protestantism. There are quite a few other versions. However, in its essence, the story is pretty similar in all the various Western Christian traditions. The key elements are that we are born estranged from God, something has to happen in our lives to change that and make salvation available, and the only way that can happen is a self-conscious commitment to Jesus Christ as our savior. That is, Jesus is the only way to salvation. Explicitly becoming a Christian is our only option if we want to gain salvation.
One of the Bible’s great prooftexts to support this salvation story is found in the gospel of John where Jesus is reported as stating: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). [It is a sign of how much this verse has been imprinted in the minds of so many of us that I, who have not thought of this passage for years, was able to get it exactly right just now as I tried to remember what it said.] What more evidence do we need that faith in Jesus is our only possible path to salvation?
This notion of salvation has the status for many Christians as one of those received convictions that simply is assumed without being questioned or scrutinized. It took a while for me to start to see some of the problems with the story I had been told. But once I did start scrutinizing it, it did not take long for me to see more and more ways that the story was not adequate, even that the story was hurtful. The first step for me, and I am sure for many others, was simply to become acquainted with non-Christians who were wonderful people.
The standard Christian salvation story fails
The virtuous non-Christian. I believed instinctively that being a Christian should make one a better person, that there is a connection between faith and how we live. It became clear immediately, though, that quite a few of the people I knew, including even some of those I was closest to, were very good people and were not Christians. This was a challenge in light of the heaven or hell teaching I had received—we all will end up in one place or the other and the deciding factor is what we believe about Jesus. Now, my received teaching had a response to this concern. Anybody can seem virtuous, but God knows our hearts and knows whether we are truly believers or not. So, I shouldn’t take the appearance of virtue at face value. However, not only did that seem unfair, that those who live the most morally solid lives wouldn’t necessarily be with God, but it also seemed to be contrary to Jesus’s actually teaching (and the rest of the Bible’s, too) that emphasized that the quality of our lives does matter—a lot.
The non-virtuous Christian. As time went on, the other side of this issue of virtuous living became more apparent to me. Quite a few of the Christians I knew and knew of were not living Christlike lives. In fact, some of them were downright mean and hurtful. I came to see, even, what appeared to be a connection between the Jesus-only belief and meanness and lack of self-awareness about the problem. I remember a shocking moment for me after I had become sensitized to the terrible problem of the nuclear arms race. I was talking with someone from my Baptist church who expressed strong support for the US nuclear policies and great comfort in knowing that when the nukes fall, we who believe in Jesus as our savior will be raptured to be with God. Implied was the idea that we may also take comfort in the hellish fate of those peace-loving humanists who were opposing the nukes. It became impossible for me to accept a salvation story that would underwrite that kind of moral corruption.
Christianity’s legacy of violence. As I learned more about the history of Christianity, I became aware that at some point a few centuries after Jesus’s death, those who claimed to be his followers began to be much more accepting of war. And that many of the wars that Christians affirmed were pursued in the name of Christian faith. In fact, it became clear to me that in Western civilization, from the Roman wars against “barbarians,” to the Crusades against the infidels, to the wars between Catholics and Protestants during and after the Reformation, to the violence of the “Christian” colonial powers against indigenous peoples throughout the world, and down to the present, that warfare—one of the greatest acts of rebellion against God—had a positive link with the Jesus-only salvation story Christians have been telling. For one thing, one of the prerequisites for violence, quite often, is the sense that those we are violent toward must first be seen as the Other, as fundamentally different. Seeing them as outside the circle of salvation is one key way that such differences become apparent for many of us.
The lack of biblical warrant for this story. In time, I decided to examine the Bible itself to see whether it actually supported the salvation story I had been told. Of course, I had been taught that this story was the Bible teaching. But given how problematic I was finding it; I began to wonder. As I came to see, in fact the Bible does not tell us that belief in Jesus is the necessary (and only) prerequisite for going to heaven for eternity and that all those who don’t believe in Jesus will go to hell for eternity. The Bible’s teaching actually fits closer to the sense I had that the way we live matters the most. And the Bible isn’t very interested in an otherworldly eternal life determined solely by what we believe. It cares, I came to see, mainly about the quality of our lives in the here and now
What about all those who have not heard? This is one of the most obvious questions to ask of the Jesus-only salvation story. The large majority of human beings who have ever lived (and who are alive now) have never even heard of this story. How can they be condemned for not believing in something they have never even heard about? Of course, this concern has fueled massive evangelistic efforts, but it still seems that people around the world are being born faster than the message of Jesus can be spread. To complicate things even more, so much of what Christians have said and done has been violent and unjust. How can those who are aware of the injustice that has been perpetrated by Christians be condemned for rejecting Christianity? A God who determines people’s eternal fate based on acceptance of this one particular story seems hardly fair or just.
Why would God want to send us to hell? One more question that has bothered me a great deal (and I can think of many others I don’t have space to mention) fairly quickly became apparent to me in my early days as a Christian: How do we hold together a notion of God as love with a notion of God as one who condemns so many people to eternal punishment? Why would God want to send us to hell? The answer I was given in the old days was that God’s holiness requires God to punish that which is unclean (and human beings are by nature unclean)—only Jesus’s sacrificial death can satisfy God’s need for punishment as the consequence of sin. In this view, God grieves condemning people but can’t really help it. That idea never really made sense to me. This abstract holiness is more powerful than God’s mercy? Why can’t God simply choose to forgive? It seemed that either God wants to condemn people, or this entire idea is not right. Happily, I eventually came to affirm a different salvation story.
Understanding salvation in light of God’s love
The basic issue, I think, comes down to the question of what God wants. Does God want life to be about mercy and healing or about strict holiness and punishment? Now, certainly the Bible gives us somewhat mixed messages on this issue—but only somewhat. It seems clear to me that when we read the Bible as a whole the Big Story tells us that God’s will is healing. It is not that Jesus comes onto the scene and, in face of God’s punitive justice, gives his life as a necessary violent sacrifice in order to provide exclusive access to healing for those who are part of a specific religion. Jesus’s message from the beginning of the gospels is that God is a God of love who in him was present in forgiveness and healing.
The Big Story presents Jesus as a witness to the salvation present from the beginning in Genesis—salvation open to all who trust in God’s love, salvation that is the default status of all humanity when we break free from the bonds of idolatry and the deceptions of the Powers. It is not that salvation was not present before Jesus. It is not that Jesus, and only Jesus, makes salvation possible through being crucified. Jesus was not executed in order to provide the only way that makes salvation possible. Instead, Jesus was crucified because he witnessed to the salvation that was already present and in doing so exposed as idols the Powers of empire and religion that had claimed to be the exclusive guardians to access to salvation. How ironic is it that the one whose message was openness and welcome would come to be seen as bearer of a path to salvation that excludes the large majority of human beings who have ever lived!
To understand Jesus as a witness to a salvation that truly is open to everyone instead of as the bearer of a salvation open only to adherents of one particular religion has huge implications in our present day. We may value and affirm that people within all of the world’s religions and those who are not religious all have access to healing through committing themselves to the way of love that Jesus witnesses to. When Jesus directly linked salvation with the practice of love toward neighbors, he was not making a statement about which religion is true but about a way of life available to everyone within whatever religious tradition that might find themselves.
So, I would say that Jesus does witness to the one way to salvation. We will not find salvation without a commitment to love of neighbor—in part because to refuse such a commitment is to condemn ourselves to lives of alienation and fearfulness. However, Jesus is not necessary to find this path. He is not the only way to join God’s people. He encourages us, I believe, to value and embrace all who commit themselves to such love. And he condemns all efforts to practice Christianity in ways that undermine the love of neighbor.
3 thoughts on “Is Jesus the only way to salvation? [Questioning faith #10]”
Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Ted. Much to ponder.