I’m so tired of people using the words of the “prince of peace” to justify attitudes that lead to violence. And I would suggest that any time we assume that certain people are bound for hell, we are halfway down the road to war; after all, how much can it matter to kill someone who is likely to be in hell soon anyway.
I don’t know with any certainty what Jesus meant when, as recorded in the gospel of John, he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6) But I trust, with a fair amount of confidence, that he did not mean that everyone who would ever live without having heard of him in such a way as to become “believers” was bound for eternal destruction.
I’m writing this because I think that the possibility of developing good empathic relationships with people of different faiths (or none) or, in other words, seeing everyone as human beings, is one of the most important things in the world. I actually think this was pretty high on Jesus’ agenda. And I am so weary of seeing this quote from John 14, among others, being used to justify the dehumanizing of most of the world’s population.
There are basically two directions that we can go with interpreting what Jesus meant. Either he meant that it is absolutely essential that anyone who wants to find true, real, or eternal life must come to hold a very specific understanding of himself and who he was, or he meant that the pathway that really opens a person up to the fullest quality of life and relationship with God was the one that he was trying to demonstrate and draw our attention to. I think it was quite likely the second.
What he demonstrated was a life of failure and poverty by any typical standards. He got run out of “church” in his hometown when he tried to preach, and he never killed a single Roman – pretty useless, then, as a Messiah. Whenever he got too popular, he seemed to do a great job at saying something offensive and turning people off. In spite of his failure and poverty, though, he had incredible trust in God and the wideness of God’s forgiveness. In fact, he proclaimed forgiveness to everyone left and right with the one exception being those who were intent on withholding forgiveness to others. He just couldn’t seem to figure out any way for someone to experience forgiveness when they were busy excluding others and holding others to account for their sins. Otherwise, the doors seemed pretty wide open to anyone interested.*
So the way and truth and life that Jesus was talking about seems to be the same as what he was saying in the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The way to life is accepting one’s failings and poverty – and then trusting somehow anyway; that’s the way in which Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Doesn’t that make more sense than using Jesus to justify exclusion? Doesn’t that make more sense than seeing ourselves as superior to the rest of humanity? Doesn’t that make it easier for Jesus’ followers to actually work for peace in the world rather than finding violence a handy alternative?
(*This is, of course, an oversimplification. Jesus also spoke often of the natural consequences, for individuals and communities, of our choices – especially the choice of violence. But the doors were wide open as long as one didn’t bring the weapons of violence, domination and exclusion with them.)