(Originally published at Covert God)
A ship is capsizing on the Atlantic Ocean near the remote arctic regions around Greenland. Many life rafts are aboard, but they vary in design. Due to the variety, an argument ensues over which raft is most suitable for survival. The time, pressure and desperation offer little peace for making the decision, so everyone splits up and clings to the raft of their choosing, hoping it will last.
Such is the clash of worldviews on Planet Earth.
Religions across the globe contend for the legitimacy of their chosen rafts. The problem with this dispersion of convictions lies not in the ideas themselves, but the humans who adhere to them. We are finite, mortal and unable to ascertain absolute truth.
Due to this enigma–this unknowability of absolute truth–postmodernism has influenced many towards the notion of “tolerance.” Christianity (along with the other prominent monotheistic religions) is considered “intolerant” because of its view of exclusive salvation; we hold that Jesus is the only path to eternal life (John 14:6). It’s a bold sentiment, and one to which many take offense.
The Christian faith is unique by maintaining the death and resurrection of its incarnate deity as the only means by which humanity obtains life after death (Rom. 6: 4-11; 1 Cor. 15:1-8; 1 Tim. 2:5-6). All other tenets flow from this, which is why it’s essential to resist straying from it for the sake of “tolerance.” Losing exclusivity means losing the integrity of the Christian worldview.
Some Christians may be tempted to acquiesce or even embrace “tolerance” to avoid being offensive to others. It’s natural to shy away from the exclusivity of Christ when the reasons for such exclusivity are unknown, but the Bible doesn’t leave us without such reasons. It is our responsibility, as Christians, to know what it means for Christ to be the “only way,” and to know why it is a good thing.
Jesus called himself the “narrow door” (Matt. 7:13; Luke 13:24). What he meant was that only a few people would come to him in faith, and thus salvation. Some want to enter, but are unable (Matt. 7:14; Luke 13:24). Why? The texts say they are “workers of evil” (Luke 13:27; cf. Matt. 7:23); they may appear to be righteous, but inwardly are sour and unfit for the narrow door (see 2 Thess. 2:10). Therefore, it’s not that God is unjust for restricting their access through the door, but it’s their character and disassociation with God that leave them outside (Matt. 7:23; Luke 13:27).
The deeper reason, though, for why the door is unreachable is the nature of the “path” that leads to it, which is described as, “hard” (Matt. 7:14). The Greek term for “hard” denotes “affliction,” and so Jesus is essentially saying that few will find the door because the path to it is filled with hardship (see Luke 14:25-33; 2 Cor. 1:6; 4:8; 7:5; 1 Thess. 3:4; Heb. 11:37; cf. 1 Pet. 2:6-8). Jesus knows how hard the path is, and so he pleads with his disciples to “strive” (Luke 13:24; cf. 1 Cor. 9:25, where the same Greek term is used) through the affliction so that they may enter the narrow door. He is encouraging them to keep the faith because that’s what it takes to reach the life he offers (see 1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Does the difficulty of the path make God unjust? Far from it. The difficulty of Christ lies not with him but with humanity’s incessant sinfulness and helpless gravitation towards the easy path. We are all under sin’s corruption (Rom. 3:23), and God has graciously given the opportunity for everyone to come to him because this is what he desires (Tim. 2:1-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9b; cf., Ezek. 18:23), yet we are prone to wander away from such salvation (Heb. 2:1; 3:12-13). Theoretically, all can be saved from sin (Rom. 5:18), yet it’s the presence of sin that makes many unable. A perfect God saving imperfect people is bound to pose problems for the imperfect side of the relationship. This is why the New Testament is riddled with passages pleading for its audiences to persevere in their faith in Jesus Christ (e.g., John 8:31; 1 Cor. 9:24; Heb. 3:6, 14; 10:23; 12:1-2) because faith in him is the only guarantor of salvation (Rom. 3:21-25; Eph. 2:4-9).
A natural result of “tolerance” is the promotion of diversity. For many people, the Church is considered stringent and restrictive, which can portray it as a hindrance to diversity. The Church, however, is far more organic than many assume. We are called “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12), which means diversity is required for such an entity to function properly. Christ’s “narrowness” does not imply “restricted access” (as one would expect from a club), since Christ’s followers are as diverse as people can be. The Church functions best when its members come from diverse backgrounds, thereby creating an active organism that engages with the world in a perpetually relevant way. Diversity is thus a blessing for the Church as long as Christ remains the one element that holds it together in unity (see 1 Cor. 12:12-30; Eph. 4:1-16), for without the singularity of the Head, the body would inevitably fail due to competing authorities.
Imagine if Christianity were an hourglass: the narrow opening in the middle is Jesus, the sand in the bottom is the Church, and the sand in the top is all who have not yet come to him. As the sand in the top section gravitate towards Jesus, the “narrow door,” they center their beliefs on him. As long as the sand comes through this narrow opening, it can disperse, expand and diversify throughout the space allotted in this lower section. Just as the granules were diverse before Christ, so can they be afterwards. The Church is not restrictive, but welcoming to people everywhere (Isa. 56:3-8; Mark 11:17; Eph. 2:11-22).
One last issue deserves some attention, although by itself, it could provide countless hours and books of discussion. It can be summed in a single question: What about those who die without having a chance to heard the Gospel? The problem is a logical one: if people obtain eternal life through faith in Jesus, and if there are people who die without hearing about him, then those people will miss the opportunity to obtain eternal life. Many accept universalism (the view that everyone will obtain eternal life) as a valid response to this issue, as it satisfyingly casts aside the tension.
Although the Bible doesn’t provide a clear answer, it does provide clues that maintain exclusive salvation in Jesus while also confirming God’s mercy towards those who haven’t heard the Gospel. The first point to remember is how God intends the Gospel to be promulgated: by his people (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 1:8). Secondly, the Christian community widely accepts the notion that God works outside of time, and this includes his ability to introduce people to the Gospel (1 Pet. 4:6). It is, therefore, possible that God works “behind the scenes” of time in ways we could never comprehend (see Isa. 55:8-9); death and time hold no bounds for God’s grace and his means of imparting it to those who need it. Even though God desires us to participate with him in the promulgation of the Gospel, we, like those to which we proclaim Christ, are fallen and prone to fail in our evangelistic task. That is why we must trust God to do his part to save those who have never heard the Gospel–after all, God’s saving has and continues to prove trustworthy, as is attested by the proliferation of the Church today.
For a Christian to embrace “tolerance” is to destroy their own worldview. We must remember the purpose of exclusivity before casting doubt on it. Exclusive salvation doesn’t make God evil or impartial, since God is gracious (Eph. 2:4-5), good (John 10:11), kind (Rom. 2:4) and patient (2 Pet. 3:9) in providing salvation for everyone (see Rom. 5:18). Although narrow, the door of salvation is plenty wide for the entire world to fit through (theoretically), and then find a home in the diversity that awaits in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-30). Still, not everyone is guaranteed salvation because of our universal coexistence with sin. Such sin works against our efforts to endure the hard path to the narrow gate. Yet for those who are faithful, and who endure the affliction and resist the powers of sin, there is peace and rest on the other side of the “narrow gate”; God assures us that it’s worth it, and he will always provide the strength to endure it (Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23-24). The exclusivity of Christ’s salvation will always pose problems for advocates of “tolerance,” but God cares more about humanity’s salvation than the short-term comfort of lukewarm convictions.