In the first part of this series I suggested that Christians who want to convince others that Christ is the one way to the one God need to talk about more than whether that belief is true; we also need to give attention to the common belief that it is immoral to think so. I followed that by contrasting an arrogant belief that we Christians “hold the truth” with “The Truth holds us;” that we receive the truth given by God in grace, and we submit to it in humility. In this third part I want to show that Christians are not the only exclusivists anyway. More than that, though I want to direct our attention toward one key teaching at the heart of Christianity’s exclusivist beliefs—Jesus Christ and the Cross—and show how it makes all other beliefs exclusivist.
Christ and the Cross
Historic orthodox Christianity (which I will hereafter call simply “Christianity”) teaches that Jesus Christ was and is God in human flesh, and that he lived among us to show us an example for living, to heal, and to teach. As he was doing these things on earth, though, he was always aiming toward a decisive climax to his ministry, without which none of the rest would matter in the long run. He knew that correcting the pain and problems inherent in being human would take much more than learning to live life a little better; that we were estranged from God and from God’s love and life because of our own rebellion against him. We were, in the apostle Paul’s words a few years later, “dead in our trespasses and sins.” So Christ in his love took our sins upon himself and suffered for them, dying in our place so that we could be freed from death.
There are three core beliefs above all others in Christianity: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. I don’t mean to deny the central importance of other Christian doctrine, but I’m quite sure most Christians would place these three at the top of the list. Deny any one of them and you no longer have any semblance of historic orthodox Christianity.
Jesus’ death was brutal. Some have called it the worst form of execution ever invented. It began for him in humiliation: he was arrested in front of his friends, tried and convicted on trumped-up charges, and delivered over to death while, in the governor’s annual prisoner-release gift to Israel, a known murderer and insurrectionist was set free. The region’s King, Herod, called on him for a command performance of miracle-working.
And then things got rough. Roman soldiers scourged him with whips that had metal cutting tools attached. They jammed a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him with pretend worship.
And then it got much rougher. The soldiers forced him to carry his cross to his place of execution, though they relented when he fell under it, unable to bear the weight in his literally tortured condition. They bound him to the cross and hammered nails through his ankles and his stretched-out wrists. He hung on the cross from his wrists, his chest collapsed in that posture so that he could not breathe without standing up, as it were, on the nails through his feet. The crowd mocked and jeered at him. Finally, too spent by torture and too exhausted to lift himself up for air, he died of suffocation. All this to take the sting and penalty of death on our behalf.
The Spiritual Menu
I have a reason for sharing all this bloody detail, which I will come to in a moment. First let’s think for a few moments about religious inclusivism. Here’s how the prevailing idea goes: no religion has primacy over any other. The different faiths are just different paths up the same mountain. We are all blind men trying to understand an elephant. We all have equal though different pieces of the one truth.
So if you climb the Hindu path you will reach the top of the mountain. If you are a Jew, you too are ascending the same peak, just on a different path. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, and any other faith tradition will just as surely take you to the top. There are any number of right spiritual choices; the one thing wrong is to say that someone else’s choice is wrong. That’s where Christianity is so offensive, because Christians do say that others’ spiritual choices are wrong.
I think of it as if reality were offering us a menu of nice ideas to get to our best destiny, and the nicest of them all is that any of these ideas will work. Just as in a restaurant we can choose the vegan meal, the turkey, or the prime rib, whatever fits us best, so we can choose whichever spiritual option we prefer, or seems to fit us best.
And the One Item That Cannot Fit On That Menu
And so I think, wasn’t that nice of reality to give us that freedom? We can reach the top of the mountain through Buddhism’s eight-fold path, or by accepting the five pillars of Islam. If that seems a bit severe, no problem, we can follow one of the more relaxed forms of Judaism, or even the indulgent nature religion of Paganism or Wicca. Or if we prefer we could follow the path in which the loving God of the universe sent his Son to be humiliated, tortured, and brutally executed on our behalf. Isn’t that nice, too?
That’s not nice, it’s horrifying.
There’s no way God could have done this. Not if there was any way around it, that is. Some people recoil at the bloody torment of Jesus’ death, and rightly so. It must be wrong—unless it was God’s one available way to show the depth of his love, and to solve humanity’s problem of sin and death. Think of it: if there were some plan B, some other good item on the menu, wouldn’t God have chosen that instead?
But Christianity claims that a loving and merciful God did this. If it is true, then it is the greatest truth of all history; but it cannot be true unless it is exclusively true. I fthe message of the cross of Christ is true, then in spite of its horror it is a beautiful truth of God’s deep sacrificial love for us. But it cannot be beautiful—it cannot even be true—unless it is the only truth. If it is a way to my best spiritual future, then it must be the only way to my best spiritual future–and yours or anyone else’s, too; for if God had another way for you or someone else, then there never would have been a cross of Christ for anyone at all.
Either the Only Truth or Not True At All
Having reached that conclusion, we can flip it around to its logical equivalent: If the cross of Jesus Christ is not the only truth, then it is not true. Period. It is either exclusively true or it is false. And now it’s time to recall what I said earlier, which some readers might have agreed with the first time around:
There are any number of right spiritual choices; the one thing wrong is to say that someone else’s choice is wrong. That’s what Christianity does, and it’s offensive.
As it turns out, not only Christianity says other choices are wrong. Perhaps this is the real problem some people have with Christianity: not that it says other faiths are wrong, but that it forces a choice. There is no straddling of the options: the message of Jesus Christ is either exclusively right or it is completely wrong. So you who want to deny the exclusive truth of Christianity are saying that my spiritual “choice” is wrong. How exclusivist of you!
Maybe there’s an escape hatch out of this dilemma, though: maybe this isn’t something that really happened in history, maybe it’s just something that Christians believe happened. Maybe Christians are wrong about that. But if you say we’re wrong about this, then you say we’re wrong at the very center and core of all our beliefs. That’s exactly what inclusivists aren’t supposed to do.
Or maybe there’s yet another possible escape hatch: maybe nobody knows whether this really happened in history, and a proper inclusivist would hold the options open. But that won’t work, for historic orthodox Christianity just is the belief (among other things) that these things happened in history. If you say we can’t know, then you’re saying we’re wrong about that. Agnosticism is not inclusivism.
I had intended to leave this as a three-part series, but now I find I’m an an unsatisfying point of a tit-for-tat: “We’re exclusivist? Well, so are you!” It’s going to take one more article to put this all in a proper context, to show the true morality of Christian exclusivism.
Part of a Series