[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
by H. Van Dyke Parunak, Ph.D.
This question rests on a more fundamental issue: What is the source of our knowledge about spiritual issues? In general, there are two ways we can learn the answer to any question: personal experience, and reports from others whom we trust. In this case, we can take either route.
Here’s how to learn the answer by personal experience: pick the Great Religion whose effectiveness you want to evaluate. Devote yourself completely to it for the rest of your life. When you die, and stand before God, you’ll know whether it can bring you salvation or not.
The problem with this approach is like some free samples: there’s only one to a customer. It can tell me if a specific Great Religion can bring me salvation, but perhaps some can and some can’t, and if I choose the wrong one, I can’t go back and start over. To make that evaluation, I need to rely on the experience of others. At this point, we have to consider seriously the claim of the Lord Jesus:
John 3:13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
Really, he’s making two claims. One is that he can speak on earth, from personal experience, about what happens in heaven. The other is that he is the only source of such authoritative knowledge. He backs up this claim by dying and then rising from the dead, a credential that is not shared (so far as I know) by any other historically documented person.
If we believe his claim about access to heavenly truth, then the Lord Jesus pretty much answers the original question directly, later in John’s gospel:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. John 14:6
The exclusiveness he claims is not popular today, but it is unambiguous. If I don’t want to do the experiment myself, I have to trust some authority. If I claim to be a Christian, then it’s hard to avoid what Jesus says on the issue.
What’s really at stake here is the source of spiritual knowledge. Our generation is victim to a hubris that can be traced back to the Greeks and even further, that we can figure out the answer to any question with our own intellect. When Job was wrestling with the reason for his misery, and accusing God of abusing him wrongly, his friends were insisting that his sufferings were punishment for sins that he refused to acknowledge. Zophar challenged him, Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? Job 11:7
In fact, as the sequel to the book shows, Zophar is on the right side of this point. Job’s dilemma, like other great spiritual questions, is not accessible to human reason, and God condemns both sides in the debate when he appears and says, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Job 38:2
Paul makes the same point when he writes to the Corinthians, For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. 1Co 1:21
Knowledge of spiritual things is inaccessible to human wisdom, and that limitation is by divine design. We can only know God by his revelation, and on the question at hand, that revelation is unambiguous. The Lord Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 may be the clearest statement of the principle, but it is hardly the earliest. At Sinai, God commands Israel to forsake all other gods and worship him alone. When they disobey this command and follow after other “great religions,” God doesn’t say, “Ah well, all roads lead eventually to the top of the mountain.” Through Isaiah, he proclaims eloquently the emptiness of other deities:
Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. 7 And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them shew unto them. 8 Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any. 9 They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed. Isa 44:6
Other gods are not alternative routes to salvation. Those who worship them will be ashamed, not delivered. The people’s ecumenical explorations were the grounds by which God banishes them from their land:
And it shall come to pass, when thou shalt shew this people all these words, and they shall say unto thee, Wherefore hath the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us? … 11 Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the LORD, and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, … 13 Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favour. Jer 16:10
And when they return from that captivity, they acknowledge the powerlessness of other gods:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. 5 They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: 6 They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: 7 They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. 8 They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. Psa 115:4
“So is every one that trusteth in them.” The unnamed Israelite who wrote this Psalm after the captivity had abundant experience with an alternative Great Religion, the elaborate polytheism of Babylon. His voice joins those of Moses and Isaiah, and anticipates the crowning statement of the Lord Jesus, that the only way to the Father is through his incarnate Son.