Monday, February 28, 2011

No one comes to the Father but by me...

I am the way , and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

There are, I suppose, a variety of possible candidates, but today I submit John 14:6 as the single most blatantly misquoted saying from Jesus' entire ministry.  Lifted completely out of context, Jesus' statement is usually presented as "Exhibit A" for Jesus' establishment of the exclusive religion of Christianity as the sole route out of hell...and the reason everyone who doesn't acknowledge the speaker's version of orthodoxy is clearly hellbound.

Someone once said "a text out of context is merely a pretext," and nowhere does this statement apply more forcefully than to John 14:6.  The context is a long heart-to-heart that Jesus had with his disciples at the Last Supper (see the beginning of John 13), on the subject of his impending crucifixion.  This particular discourse actually begins at John 13:31 and continues unbroken through chapter 17.  In it, Jesus is talking about his death and encouraging his disciples to stay strong, faithful, and together through the trials that are coming.  His disciples aren't exactly tracking with his message, though...at least not at the beginning of chapter 14.  Having just told the disciples he's going to prepare a place for them, Jesus reminds them that they know where he's going and how to get there (John 14:3-4).  Thomas, not so much "the doubter" as the guy who's willing to admit his lack of clue, blurts out that he has absolutely no idea what Jesus is talking about:  "Lord, we haven't a clue where you're going, how could we possibly know the way?"  It is in response to Thomas' spoken (and, I supect, the others' unspoken) question that Jesus states "I AM the way..."

Jesus did NOT say "I am starting a new religion with you guys, and this religion is the only way to avoid hell."  Hell's not even part of the discussion.  Nor did Jesus say "no one can be saved unless he thinks in his mind that I am the son of God and I am dying for his sins."  No, Jesus says "I AM the way" directly in the context of his having just told his disciples "you know the way."  The life they have lived with Jesus during the past three-plus years of his earthly ministry, the jobs he has set them to do, the miracles they have witnessed, the teaching they have absorbed; all these things wrapped together have taught them "the way" to the Father, which is the person of Jesus himself.  When Jesus goes on in John 14:11-14 to encourage the disciples to believe that the Father is in him, even this is not for "salvation" the way we think of it...it's so they can do what they've seen him do and more, "so that the Father may be glorified in the Son."

Jesus' words in John 14 (really, all the way through John 17) were spoken not as a warning to unbelievers, but as a comfort to those who already believe!

When Christians loudly proclaim "no man cometh to the Father but by me," they are not talking about following Jesus.  They're not talking about obeying Jesus.  They're certainly not talking about staying faithful under hardship and persecution.  No, they're talking about how wrong Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Liberal Christians, Humanists, and sundry other "infidels" are.  They're usually talking about their certainty that all of the above are destined to burn forever in hell.  (For a current example, take a look at the discussion on my friend Kurt's blog today!)

The gospel of Jesus Christ claims things about him that are true of no one else.  Nobody else is Jesus, and no other teaching holds the stunning uniqueness of the One who rose from the dead.   I am not advocating for the feel-good universalist straw man so often the target of the self-righteous quoters of John 14:6.  But to properly frame those places where Jesus' words confront society, or other faiths, or the Christian church, we have got to start by representing Jesus' own words faithfully.  Using John 14:6 to club "unbelievers" and universalists over the head is categorically NOT faithful to Jesus' message.

26 comments:

thepangeablog.com said...

This was excellent and a helpful look at the context of John in light of the ill-quoted words of Jesus. Thanks for reminding us about how to actually do good hermeneutical work.

-Kurt

jasdye said...

tremendous. I'm looking to do a blog-a-thon on different orthodox Christian (specifically, Evangelical) views on the afterlife and wondering if I could include this post as one of the parts?

jasdye

greeneyebug said...

Great post!

Academia Church said...

Enjoyed this, and I certainly concur...

Tori said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post. If Jesus is not making an exclusivity claim (at least here) what is the factor that determines whether we are indeed co-heirs with Christ, or heading towards an eternity of seperation from God?

Jason Hess said...

Fantastic! Thanks for bringing context to the text.

James-Michael said...

Would you then say that this is a case of "right doctrine, wrong text"? That the place to go for a discussion of the exclusivity of the Gospel is found better in places such as the "there is no other name under Heaven whereby one might be saved" speech in Acts?

I'm not fully convinced that this verse isn't at all applicable to discussions of salvation though. Jesus does seem to enforce the idea of Him being the only mediator between humanity and God when He says "NO ONE comes to the Father EXCEPT BY ME" (emphasis mine). Does this not at least say that eternal life (a theme in John's Gospel) comes only through following in "the way" of Jesus, which begins with repentance, a life of discipleship and ultimately, if need be, laying down one's life for His sake (as John shows Him doing)?

In other words, I don't think this passages is as irrelevant to the discussion as your post seems to indicate. Of course it shouldn't be used in a proof-texting manner (as many are guilty of doing, myself included in the past!); but it does seem to support the rest of the NT's assertions that Jesus is the only means by which anyone will ever enter into the New Creation (regardless of how the mechanics of that play out, i.e. do they need conscious knowledge of His person or does a general faith and commitment to the light they've been given ultimately find its referent in Jesus even if they don't realize it? etc.)

Blessings,
JM

Geoff said...

Thanks for behaving like a spiritual person! Nice post.

Dan Martin said...

@Tori, I think the primary answer to your question is not "what" determines our fate, but rather "who." Jesus called us to a way, not to fire insurance. I went into far more depth on that subject in my series on hell, done as a response to questions asked by a mission agency who ultimately rejected me as a candidate to work with them on the basis of this doctrine.

Dan Martin said...

James-Michael, I do not dispute that there are unique claims made in the Gospels vis-a-vis Jesus...and I said so at the end of my post. However I do not think this verse is at all relevant to them. In contrast to your emphasis, I would state a more appropriate focus in-context would be:

I AM the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the father BUT by me.

In other words, Jesus really is talking to his disciples about his own centrality in their lives and their quest. He's not talking about the religion we call Christianity at all.

I would agree with your final paragraph...whatever reconciliation to God ever happens, will happen because of the resurrection of and mediated by the power of Jesus Christ. Given what I see about his mercy (which is far greater than that of Christians), I rather suspect there are a variety of ways in which he'll accomplish this, and many of us may be surprised by who all he accomplishes it FOR. I am quite convinced thinking the "right thoughts" about Jesus is neither fully necessary nor sufficient as it is currently cast by Evangelical Christians.

Thanks for coming by!

Stephen said...

Thanks for another fine post,Dan. If I correctly understand you, your view of the statement of Jesus is very close - if not exactly the same - as mine.

Since I am one of those against whom fundamentalists invoke this verse, I have done a lot of thinking about it over the years. It seems to me that Jesus' point was that what they had seen and heard in him manifests the 'way' to the Father.

The works he did, the words he spoke, and the life he lived showed the 'way' which would bring them to the Father; they proclaimed the truth of the Father; and they manifested the life of the Father. We are called upon to be followers of him, including taking up a 'cross' and following him in his death to the ways of the world. It is only by living the kind of life he lived that we will be able to 'find' the Father.

There are people who have perhaps never even heard of Jesus Christ who nevertheless show the 'law of Christ' engraved on their hearts; they live the kind of life Jesus lived - with heartfelt love for God and for their fellow humans - and they are welcomed by the Father. I am open to the idea that it is the secret influence of God's Christ (Jesus) in their lives that produced that manner of life even though they never heard of Jesus.

There are others who have been presented with such a distorted view of Jesus and Christianity that they simply cannot believe in him. They nevertheless show by their lives that the things Jesus taught and the manner of life he lived are inscribed on their hearts - although they think they don't believe in Jesus Christ. They also are welcomed by the Father.

Such people may be Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, or Muslims - but they belong to the Father if they follow (knowingly or not) in the steps of Jesus by loving God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves.

I know that fundamentalism will not accept such a view; but I am nevertheless convinced of it.

Dan Martin said...

Hey Stephen, thanks for checking in again! I am absolutely in agreement with the first half of what you say. Your third paragraph...about those who exhibit Jesus-like behavior even if they don't know his name...I'm inclined to agree with you (and I think you'd find some good company in C.S. Lewis); however I don't think the biblical case is open-and-shut so I agree with a different level of certainty.

I am especially compelled--and often angered--by the situation you describe in the fourth paragraph. It is absolutely true that many are driven from considering the faith, not by Jesus or his teaching, but by the absolutely repugnant behavior of those who loudly proclaim him. The most relevant scripture for these "Christians" is Matt. 18:10. If you haven't already, two posts of mine that you may find applicable would be The Gospel According to Heinlein and An Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens.

Are these, driven so wrongly from the faith, still a target of God's mercy? I hope and suspect they are. The Father himself knows...and I'm pretty sure these modern Pharisees don't.

Dan Martin said...

@jasdye...

Hey Jason, sorry I missed responding to you yesterday. Sure, I'd love to be a virtual contributor to that topic. You might want to check out my series on hell for further inspiration and/or inclusion if you want more trouble than this already might cause. ;{)

E. A. H. said...

As a self-proclaimed "feel-good universalist," I appreciated this post quite a lot!

Dan Martin said...

Thanks Leesha, good to hear from you again!

The thing that keeps me from being a full-on universalist is my reading of those places where Jesus did talk quite severely about condemnation. Those who not only reject Jesus, but quite actively drive others away from him, are condemned awfully harshly. In particular, this is true for those who ought to (and claim to) know better. In Jesus' own day that was the Pharisees & teachers of the law. In our own day I believe it's many of those "Christians" who scream "damnation" the loudest, all the while demonstrating hate, elevating the status of the wealthy and powerful and aiding & abetting the trampling of the weak. I'm not sure those will be brought to salvation in this life or the next...

The scriptures usually used to justify universal salvation tend, from what I've observed, to be more likely to apply to the innocent who've never heard, or to those driven away by the purported "faithful," than to those who do the driving-away.

E. A. H. said...

Thanks, Dan!

Truth be told, I'm only a universalist part of the time. The rest of the time, when I'm feeling sheepish about ignoring parts of the Bible I don't like, I hedge back into some form of conditional immortality. Really, that position makes the most sense to me, even Biblically. There is still punishment for evil done, but eternal life is extended only to those who believe. Hence why Adam and Eve were banned from eating from the Tree of Life-- once they had fallen, God didn't want them to live forever in that state. So those who remain in that state, don't live forever. If the wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus, then it only makes sense that those in their sins cease to exist, since they don't have the gift of eternal life.

I know I sound really wishy-washy on my Biblical interpretation, but hey, a girl has to sleep at night, and people spending eternity burning in torment was just one idea I could no longer stomach or mentally assent to in any way.

Stephen said...

Peace and blessing to you.

@ Dan - Thanks for giving the links to the two articles. I had read them previously, but it was good to do so again. I certainly find myself in agreement with what you wrote. I believe that the main reason some Muslims find the New Testament "as it currently exists" to be offensive (particularly the letters of Paul) is because they're reading through the lens of 'orthodox' Christian interpretation - which I believe to frequently be misinterpretation.

@ E.A.H. and Dan - I appreciate that you both find the 'orthodox' idea of 'eternal torment of the wicked' to be offensive, even though you may believe that there still may be warrant to think punishment must be 'eternal' in some sense ('annihilation' or 'conditional immortality').

But as a "feel good universalist" myself, I don't believe that the denial of 'everlasting' punishment in all senses is the same as denying 'punishment' - the fact that evil actions have undesirable consequences both in this life and the 'hereafter'.

In the early centuries of the Christian church, there were 6 theological schools. Of those 6, 1 taught 'eternal torment'; one taught 'annihilation' of the wicked; and 4 taught some form of universalism.

Of the 4 universalist schools, 2 taught reincarnation (Origen and his teacher Clement of Alexandria for instance), and 2 taught some other means of eventual universal reconciliation (I presume something of a precursor to the idea of 'purgatory'). All taught that there would be punishment for unrepentant sinners; but they also all recognized that punishment is corrective in nature - it's not simply vindictive.

So while they all recognized some form of punishment after death for the unrepentant, 4 schools affirmed that the punishment would eventually have the desired effect of correction and reconciliation.

Regarding the words translated "eternal", "forever" and "everlasting", I of course can't go into detail in a comment; so I'll just mention that in both 'Testaments' the words mean "for an (or the) age". That is, for a long time (of unspecified duration). It is not literally "everlasting", because the "age" can have an end.

To give just a couple of instances to illustrate this, Isaiah 32:14, 15 says: “Because the palaces will be forsaken, the bustling city will be deserted. The forts and towers will become lairs FOREVER [to the age], a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks – UNTIL the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest”. And in the story of Jonah (2:6), Jonah prayed from the belly of the 'whale': "...I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me FOREVER; yet YOU BROUGHT UP MY LIFE FROM THE PIT, O LORD my God." In that story, of course, "forever" was only 3 days!

So while there are certainly a number of Biblical references to 'eternal' consequences for the unrepentant, I can feel very secure in saying that the punishment is "forever...until" the intended correction and reconciliation is accomplished. I joyfully submit those considerations to you for contemplation.

Dan Martin said...

@Stephen, grace and peace to you as well!

You are absolutely correct that the "aionion" word in Greek, often translated "eternal" in English Bibles, does not necessarily always carry with it our current interpretation of "forever and ever." This is one of many places where sloppy theology has resulted from the misunderstanding that diverse languages don't always permit one-to-one translation.

You are, I believe, equally correct that many misunderstandings of the Biblical text by Muslims come from a combination of linguistic factors (e.g. the notion of "ibn" not allowing for figurative sonship the way English and Greek both do). They unfortunately also come from misinterpretations that are the result of sloppy hermaneutics by Christians...I took a highly informative course called "Loving our Muslim Neighbors" by a dear brother who's studied Islam and Arabic for many years, and found it quite enlightening in this area.

As for your notion of universalism, I'd like to believe it's true, and as I've said I strongly suspect that God's mercy is vastly wider than humans'. However I think that the scriptural evidence is strongly indicative of a real, honest eternal death sentence (not eternal torment) for those who definitively reject God's overtures to them, and in particular those who actively oppose him. Not that I want this to be true, and frankly my faith is not at all dependent on it being true. If God has a way, eventually, to rescue all, more's the glory to him!

defeatingdefeaters said...

Hi Dan, if the point is that Jesus "I am/by me" statements are not part of an ordo salutis, then I see what you mean. Language like that specifically throughout John seems to be fundamentally about Christology not salvation, but obviously none of that means an exclusivity doctrine is false. Inclusivity is not a direction you’re open to is it?

Dan Martin said...

@defeatingdefeaters, you're tracking pretty clearly to my intention...precisely that John 14:6 is not germane to an ordo salutis. Of course, if you cruise around my blog a little you'll also see that IMO salvation as a concept has both been misconstrued and overemphasized by the church...by which I mean that (1) Jesus' and the apostles' invitation is primarily to follow and to become disciples, not to be saved, and (2) salvation as a biblical construct is far more global/cosmic and less individually-focused than the concept usually preached in the church.

As to your second point regarding inclusivity, it depends entirely what you mean by the word. I do believe, as I have also written here before, that scripture leaves open the possibility that God will save some people (still through Jesus' work) who haven't actually "known" him or "believed in" him as we usually use the terms (please note here that I said "possibility," not "certainty"). However I also believe Jesus made it clear that some who have actively opposed him have closed themselves off to his redemption. So to the extent that when you say "inclusivism" you are using it as a synonym of "universalism," I would have to say that is a position against which I believe scriptural evidence remains compelling. I've linked it before, but take a look at my series on Eternal Destiny if you'd like more detail.

defeatingdefeaters said...

Dan, the scriptures seem to tell us that salvation IS definitely more than ‘fire insurance’. My Catholics friends like to speak the language of “God saved, is saving, will save” those who have placed their trust in Him. That much seems to capture a point you’ve made above and I agree. However, broadening our conception of salvation in that way does not entail one should delimit or siphon-off an understanding of salvation that includes instances where guilty become righteous as far as God is concerned. When you say that the “invitation is primarily to follow and to become disciples, not be saved” I’m left wondering because the former seems to entail the latter. Do you see what I mean?

Dan Martin said...

@defeating, I do see what you mean. I think we're on the same wavelength though...I'm not saying that salvation doesn't matter, so much as I'm saying that it's not the centrality we have made it. Jesus' salvation (past, present, future) is certainly part of the process, but it's only a subset of the much greater superset of becoming a disciple.

That plus the fact that Jesus' salvation is soften described in Scripture, not as the benefit to an individual, but rather the redemption of all creation (of which we individuals are certainly a part).

Finally, I do think the issue of guilt/righteousness was a particular concern of the Jews, and is discussed in the N.T. primarily in the context of Jewish Christians...I've got to dig into that context further, but my instinct (not having actually studied this question) is that our projection of the Jewish concern with guilt and atonement, onto the Gentile situation is more of a Catholic and Reformed obsession than a biblical focus.

As I wrote last year, Enough with Salvation Already!

Nightcrawler said...

I am afraid i have to disagree. Jesus said in many accounts there is no salvation from hell except trough him. Unlike your opinion that there are many roads to salvation, which is false Christ says the opposite. He says: "I am the door, no one can enter except trough me. " also "You cannot do anything without me" also "at man being saved is impossible but with God nothing is impossible" also "no one can ascend to heaven except the one that has descended from heaven, the son of man"

Dan Martin said...

@Nightcrawler, you landed on the old version of the blog; please feel free to see us at http://nailtothedoor.com for more current comments. This post can be found here.

To your comment: I truly hope you read your Bible more carefully than you read this post. John 14:6 is not about hell...in fact the word "hell" does not occur anywhere in the entire passage from John 14-John 17. The closest one can (maybe) get is John 15:6, which states that branches who do not abide in him (that language usually referred in Jesus' usage to Jews who rejected him as Messiah) are "thrown into the fire and burned." But an honest, contextual reading of John 14:6 reveals that it wasn't about hell at all, and certainly not about Jesus establishing an exclusive religion.

However, you also make the accusation that it is my "opinion that there are many roads to salvation." As I said before, I hope you read your Bible more carefully than you read this post. Nowhere did I say anything of the sort...in fact I said the exact opposite in my last paragraph...I encourage you to reread it:

The gospel of Jesus Christ claims things about him that are true of no one else. Nobody else is Jesus, and no other teaching holds the stunning uniqueness of the One who rose from the dead. I am not advocating for the feel-good universalist straw man so often the target of the self-righteous quoters of John 14:6. But to properly frame those places where Jesus’ words confront society, or other faiths, or the Christian church, we have got to start by representing Jesus’ own words faithfully. Using John 14:6 to club “unbelievers” and universalists over the head is categorically NOT faithful to Jesus’ message.

Finally, you stated: "Jesus said in many accounts there is no salvation from hell except trough him." Again, go read your Bible. I have done what I believe to be a complete survey of every reference to hell or condemnation in the entire New Testament...you can find it here if you wish. I just went back and looked. Jesus never mentioned "salvation from hell" once in all of his words recorded by all four gospel writers. Your claim is factually incorrect...which is really my point with this post. Jesus is unique. The way of Jesus is unique. But John 14:6, usually quoted in arrogance and triumphalism by fundamentalist Christians, says nothing about salvation and damnation at all...that was not Jesus' point when he said it.

philip.eapen said...

I can't believe anyone who has read the entire John's Gospel can fail to understand the exclusivist claims of this Gospel regarding salvation. Someone who talks about context must take the entire book into consideration. The key verse of John's Gospel is 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
The purpose of the Gospel is stated clearly in 20:30. The writer wanted his readers to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, and get eternal life through Jesus. John's focus on "eternal life" highlights the need to escape eternal death or hell.
Therefore, in the light of the whole Gospel, 14:6 is certainly an exclusivist claim. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only one who has seen God and He came here to reveal God to mankind (1:18) NO ONE else has seen God as He is and no one else can take us to God.

Dan Martin said...

I can only say, Philip, that you clearly have a different definition of "context" than I've encountered before, as it's clear you're superimposing assumptions on all three texts (re: salvation, but even more re: damnation) that are not in those texts.

If you are interested in engaging (which I welcome) may I suggest you re-post your comment at the active site of the blog, http://nailtothedoor.com/no-one-comes-to-the-father-but-by-me/. This site is archival only.