Throwing Out Jesus with the Bathwater: Jesus is Not the Only Way (Part 1)

” ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ 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 except through me.’ “ -John 14:1-6

“Jesus at one point claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than all other religions. That completely misses the point, the depth, and the truth. Rather, he was telling those who were following him that his way is the way to the depth of reality. This kind of life Jesus was living, perfectly and completely in connection and cooperation with God, is the best possible way for a person to live. It is how things are…. Perhaps a better question than who’s right, is who’s living rightly?” -Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis

“I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain with their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.” -Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy

With this post (and its sequel) I would like to introduce what promises to be a recurring and lively “conversation” over the rising trend of emerging, or emergent, Christianity. I hope, through this series and this blog, to shine light on some of the more dangerous teachings that are being espoused in the writings and the pulpits of many prominent emerging leaders. (Note: as a nice introduction you may want to view this previous post).

That said, I want to begin with two statements that absolutely shocked me (though not necessarily surprised me) when I first read them. Both of the above statements, made by two very popular leaders in two very hip books, lead to one disturbing image of this new emerging theology, that being that Jesus is no longer the only way. Instead, we are being told that neither (1) is it necessary to accept Jesus to receive salvation, nor (2) is it necessary to serve Jesus once you’ve been saved. Below we will deal with (1) and the next post will handle (2).

In Bell’s quote, we see that it is his opinion of John 14:6 that Jesus is not putting himself up as the “mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5), but instead Christ is saying that of all the imaginable ways to live, living like him is the “best possible way.” This certainly was a new reading to me, as I expect that it is fairly new to most of you as well. However, I see, among others, two major problems with this.

To begin with, the text of John 14 just doesn’t seem to actually allow for this reading. As we see in verses 1-4, Jesus is describing to them the Father’s house and his travel to prepare a place for them there. He then makes the remark that “you know the way to where I am going (v.4)”, to which Thomas says, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? (v.5)” It is at this point which Jesus makes the statement in question:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (v.6)”

So, it seems clear that Jesus is speaking of a physical way, right? Apparently not to Bell. To be fair, if we look to the original Greek, the word translated “the way”, hodos, means primarily “a traveled road, way”, but it also has a metaphorical meaning of “a course of conduct.” Thus, Bell has to assume the second translation here. But then the question is, why does Jesus tell them that he is the course of conduct when all along he has been talking about going somewhere? As a matter of fact, why would he say “I am the course of conduct” instead of something more intelligible like “My life is the example for the course of conduct”? And, if he is talking about his life being “the best possible way for a person to live”, then why does he say “no one comes to the Father except through me”? It would make sense that, if Jesus is giving a choice here, then he would say something more to the tune of “it is more enjoyable to come to the Father through me”. This seems pretty insurmountable in my mind.

However, assuming Bell is able to convince you of this amazingly twisted-up reading of the text, there is still the question of just exactly how Jesus lived his life. If the best possible way of living is the way set out by Christ, then in order to mimic that, we must have a firm understanding of how Jesus lived. But in this we arrive at another caveat of Bell’s theology, that being that his emerging/postmodern worldview does not allow for certainty in our readings. The emerging group seems pretty certain that Jesus was about love and tolerance, but they aren’t quite sure if he actually meant to talk about Hell so much. They know that Jesus has faith in us (Bell states later in Elvis that “what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me.” Isn’t that nice!), but they don’t know if it is necessary for us to have faith in Jesus.

Therefore, it seems like a bit of a quandary if Jesus is telling us that the best possible way to live is to live like him and yet we can not quite be sure how Jesus himself actually lived. It doesn’t make much sense for him to do that now does it?

2 Responses to “Throwing Out Jesus with the Bathwater: Jesus is Not the Only Way (Part 1)”

  1. Tyler Says:

    While I have my disagreements with Bell and his stances and hermeneutics, I do not think he would vote for pluralism. I can’t say the same about McLaren. I think we need to be careful to not paint them into a corner, even though we might disagree. I just don’t see Bell ever having come out and said Jesus is not the only way.

  2. Todd Burus Says:

    I think your last comment is what’s truly the problem: Bell has never straight come out and said anything. It is the same problem that a lot of the guys in this movement suffer from. You can never get a straight answer out of them about any issue of true importance.

    However, we can make some reasonable assumptions about Bell from this quote. If you ask any Christian, particularly a Baptist, of which Bell claims to be or at least have been, about how you get to heaven, they will almost inevitably quote John 14:6. I believe it is intellectually dishonest to assume that Bell doesn’t know this. That said, his adamant rejection of the traditional understanding of this verse (and really, do you think his understanding holds any water?) does more than just say what it says; it also throws a dart at the fundamental argument for Jesus being the only way. But why would Bell do that? One possible explanation would be that he rejects the exclusivity of Christianity and instead believes in a pluralistic gospel.

    Another thing which points me in that direction is Bell’s insistence on the fact that the message of Christianity is not that Christ died for our sins so that we may be justified before God, but it is that there is something good inside of us that Jesus died for and we have gotten away from that and therefore we need to return to it in order to have heaven on earth. Thus, by saying Jesus is the best POSSIBLE way Bell is tacitly implying that there are other ways to do this, and de facto there are other ways to achieve the ends of “Christianity” outside of Christ.

    So, if Bell is being painted in a corner it is of his own doing and his refusal to make a clear statement must be interpretted as a silent acceptance of something else.

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