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Serious Stuff

Dylan and Josh and John 14:6

by Somebody Else
June 12, 2010

Let's say that someone out there calls him or herself a Christian.

The Bible is a big book. I mean, there is a lot of information in there. Actually, the Bible is composed of several books, so it's really a kind of compilation of different books, with all of them brought together in one big collection. We should also bear in mind that each of these books within the Bible has a different author, and that some books were composed centuries earlier or later than others. Like I said, there is a lot of information in there, and some Bibles have well over a thousand pages.

So, you might conclude that, in order to properly define the essence of being Christian, it would be necessary to carefully study the contents of this massive book. After all, the Bible is the Christian handbook for living, or a kind of instruction manual.

In fact, you often hear the common saying that the Bible is indeed the instruction manual for your life, so if your life isn't working out properly, you should carefully consult the instruction manual that comes with it.

Speaking of instruction manuals, let's take a moment to consider the kind of information that often comes with your latest electronic doohickey, kitchen appliance, or whatever. If you think about it, you usually get two instruction manuals. One is the real bona fide booklet with a whole lot of pages and dense type. If you read the real-deal instruction manual, you will know your product up and down and backwards and forwards.

But you may not have the time or the patience for that, so in that case, they have provided you with the mini instruction manual, which is the super-condensed version, usually only one or two pages of very large print and instructive images. This short version presumes that you just want to get down to the business of using your product and that you don't care to be bothered with a lot of useful details.

I think that this is just part of our human makeup. We are by nature impatient beings. Some of us out there want to be Christians, and we don't have time for a lengthy process of investigation. Instead, we want the mini instruction manual.

Luckily for such people, there are plenty of folks out there who are more than willing to provide all of us with just such a mini instruction manual. They do this by hand painting a bunch of crude signs which can easily be seen from the roadway, by slapping bumper stickers on their cars, or by wearing t-shirts, etc, many of which contain the same simple and direct message:

John 14:6

This is as if to say, "You want to be a Christian? Check out John 14:6. That's what it means to be Christian, friend."

So, you go to your Bible, and you find the Book of John, Chapter 14, verse 6. Here is what you find:

"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me."

Many liberal or progressive-minded people cringe and groan when they hear or read this particular verse.

Let's say you are sitting down at your locally-owned coffee shop, drinking some organic coffee held in a biodegradable cup made from recycled materials, and that you have just shared this potent biblical verse with a friend of yours named Dylan who has earrings in both ears, a few tattoos here and there, and is wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt.

Let's imagine that Dylan makes the following response:

"Man, what a bunch of ignorant, pig-headed garbage. That's just so they can say that the Dalai Lama is going to go to hell or that all the Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists are going to go to hell or that anybody who doesn't think just like they think is going to go to hell. That's why I don't have time for religion, since all it's good for is starting a bunch of wars and killing people."

Now, let's imagine that at that same moment, a clean-cut young man named Josh has just walked into the coffee shop and has overheard you reading John 14:6 and has also heard Dylan's response.

Josh walks up and puts in his own two cents:

"The whole point of John 14:6 is to show you that if you want to get to heaven, if you want to know God, you have to go through Jesus Christ. You can't get to God through the Dalai Lama, or the Buddha, or Muhammad, or Krishna. You can only get to God through Jesus Christ. That's why Christianity is the only religion in the world through which you can be saved. No other religion can do that for you."

To which Dylan responds:

"I'll tell you what. You keep your Bible, because I don't need it. People who think like you and hate like you have ruined the world we live in."

So, Josh comes back with:

"Not hate, but love for God, and love for my fellow man. You see, my friend, I love God so much that I want to show everyone the one and only true path to him. And that one and only true path is Jesus Christ."

Dylan:

"That's just what you and people like you think. I personally prefer the Dalai Lama. I really like this book he wrote on compassion. I think you should check it out, you know. It might make you a little less likely to declare war on the unbelievers, if you know what I mean, dude."

Josh:

"I'll pray for you, brother."

Dylan:

"Yeah, you do that. And I'll drink a beer in your honor, alright man?"

So, from this dialogue, we might well conclude that the purpose of John 14:6 is to define Christianity by what it is not, and what it is not are Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. Those religions will send you to hell, and only Christianity will send you to heaven.

Do you want to go to heaven or to hell? Would you rather have vanilla ice cream or a dog turd? Do you want to be good little children or get a spanking? Would you rather strum a harp on a cloud for all eternity or sizzle like a rotisserie chicken until the end of time? Would you rather save America or let the terrorists win? Then come join us at our racially-segregated church this Sunday and be sure to vote Republican in the upcoming election.

So, Dylan doesn't even bother to crack open a Bible. Likewise, Josh doesn't even bother to consider a non-fundamentalist interpretation of John 14:6.

You might be wondering if there is such a thing as a non-fundamentalist interpretation of John 14:6. Even Dylan, liberal and progressive thinker that he is, might argue against it by claiming that such an interpretation would just be a pathetic attempt to sanitize a bigoted and intolerant book. Oddly enough, Dylan would then implicitly be putting his stamp of approval upon Josh's interpretation of John 14:6.

What is missing from most discussions on John 14:6 is an adequate consideration of the context of that verse within the Bible. At the very least, John 14:6 should be considered in context with John 14:5 and John 14:7, all three of which we see here:

"Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?' Jesus said to him 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth, you know him and have seen him.'"

This is one of many examples in the Bible in which Christ speaks metaphorically but is interpreted literally. Thomas thinks that Christ is referring to a physical location, in other words, the way or route to a particular place. But Christ is of course speaking about the way to God, which is a spiritual and not a physical destination.

In these verses, Christ makes clear to his followers that he is indeed the pathway to God, and that knowing him is equivalent to knowing God. That much is evident and clear.

What is not so clear is whether or not Christ has here insisted upon absolute exclusivity. The issue is not as cut and dried as it might seem.

Let's look at the words "no one comes to the Father, but by me."

If we insist upon a strictly literal interpretation of this verse, it would seem that prior to Christ, nobody had access to God. Let's consider all of human existence before the appearance of Christ. That's a very long time for humans to have no access to or knowledge of God, and would include the times of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah that preceded Christ. Were all of them sent to hell because they lived before the appearance of Christ? This seems highly doubtful, to say the least.

Let's consider the unfolding of God's will and purpose as a dynamic reality. In that case, Christ's appearance meant that a new way to God had been given to humankind. It was a way that had not existed before, but upon Christ's arrival, that way became open to all, and what is more, following that way became obligatory.

It's kind of like when a new law is passed. It wasn't in effect before, but once it is on the books, everyone has the obligation to abide by it.

Similarly, before Christ appeared, nobody could be made responsible for following him, but after his appearance, knowing him became necessary for knowing God. That is, in our time, belief in Christ is not optional. If you wish to know God, you must know Christ.

A common corollary to this interpretation is that nobody in our time should be held responsible for not accepting Christ if he or she has never heard of him. This directly relates to the idea that nobody could be condemned prior to the time of Christ for not knowing him. Christian missionaries have been and still are quite busy trying to spread the Gospel to those far corners of the world where people are presumed to have an insufficient understanding of Christ. Presumably, once they know of Christ, they become responsible for acknowledging that he is the way to God.

Furthermore, let's examine the fundamentalist assumption that there is no other way to God but Christ. Clearly, prior to the time of Christ many men, such as Abraham, Moses, and the like, appeared to provide the people with the way to God. To exclude them as pathways to God is to contradict Christ, who himself affirms the validity of the Old Testament, and acknowledges the holiness of the prophets who came before him.

This indicates the essential unity of the prophets of God, each of whom is the way to God, which is shown in Mark 9:4-8 as given here:

"And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, 'This is my beloved Son; listen to him' And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only."

Are we to infer from these verses that the prophets Elijah and Moses, long deceased at the time of Christ, were not holy, and that only Christ was of God? Or is it not more sensible to conclude that the celestial authority and power of Elijah and Moses were entirely contained within and completely overshadowed by Christ, in other words, that the spiritual realities of Elijah, Moses, and Christ all collectively constitute the way to God?

Similarly, if we can accept the entirely reasonable premise that the way to God was provided before Christ, we should be able to accept that the way to God has been provided after Christ through other great spiritual educators such as Muhammad, who himself testified to the holiness of Christ, as well as through certain non-biblical religious figures living before the time of Christ, such as Buddha and Krishna, who were largely unknown in Christ's time in the lands immediately surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

Thus, if we can affirm the essential unity of Elijah, Moses, and Christ, can we not also recognize Christ's oneness with Muhammad, Buddha, and Krishna? Is not each and every one of them the way to God, that is, the way to divine understanding? Does no one come to the Father, but by them? Does the Bible really implicitly state that Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are ungodly religions?

Consider John 10:16:

"I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd."

Evidently, those sheep (followers) outside of the sheepfold (in Christ's time, the Jewish religious community) were people who were not brought up learning from the Old Testament. In the Gospel, such people were Roman citizens of pagan background. If those people could be welcomed to Christ, then why not welcome Buddhists and Hindus? Most importantly, in accepting Christ, should they be forced to denounce Buddha and Krishna any more than Jews should be forced to denounce Elijah and Moses?

True, Roman citizens who had once worshipped pagan gods were in no uncertain terms told to forsake them after becoming believers in Christ, but should Buddha and Krishna be equated with the oftentimes capricious, vengeful, and lustful deities of Roman mythology? Can a fair comparison be made between worshipping the Roman emperor as a god, and following the spiritual teachings of the Buddha or diligently studying the subtle and illuminating text of the Bhagavad Gita? We should judge fairly on this matter.

As for Muhammad, the fundamentalist argument is that no spiritual educator can ever appear after Christ. They claim that God's testimony to man ended with the ministry of Jesus Christ. However, let's consider John 16:12-13:

"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come."

Could not Muhammad be considered the Spirit of truth mentioned in this verse? Has he not fulfilled the description given here? Did Muhammad not reveal to humankind things that Jesus Christ had not told them? Did Muhammad speak on his own, or did he rather only speak what God had told him to say? Did Muhammad not prophesy of what was yet to come?

Might this description also apply to other spiritual educators who appeared after Muhammad?

To which Josh likely responds:

"That's a lot of new-age interpretation meant to cloud up the evident meaning of John 14:6. If you've got to do all of that explaining, it just means that you don't have a good argument. The purpose of the verse is crystal clear. There is only one way to God, and that is Jesus Christ, end of discussion."

To which Dylan likely responds:

"Man, I appreciate you trying to make the Bible more tolerant and compassionate, but what's the point? Christianity has been completely taken over by people like this guy (motions his head towards Josh). So, you can see, there's really no hope for the Bible. The televangelists have totally ruined it, so we've got to chuck the whole thing and move on. This is the modern world we're living in now, not the dark ages. We don't need any one particular spiritual guide or religion. Everybody should just guide themselves, read some good secular self-help books here and there, check out Bill Maher from time to time, try not to be a jerk, recycle, protect the environment, and just basically chill out and not judge other people and not start any stupid wars. You know how John Lennon put it, imagine there's no religion, then we'd have the best kind of world to live in."

Thus continues life in the United States, liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, secular versus religious -- the customary ideological gridlock in America these days. But maybe there is a middle ground between Dylan and Josh, just maybe.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...