That Christianity is "the only way" of salvation has been familiar to Christians for centuries. For a long time, our Christian ancestors took it for granted. They lived in lands where everybody was Christian, or was supposed to be. They seldom if ever had contact with people of other religions. The exception was in cities where there was a Jewish population. But Jews were consistently seen as having rejected Jesus as "the only way."
This situation of Christian isolation from other religions lasted a long time. In the upper Midwest, where I grew up and went to college, I didn't know anybody who wasn't either an active or lapsed Christian. In this setting, it was easy to take it for granted that Jesus and Christianity were "the only way" of salvation.
And within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity, salvation meant "going to heaven." This is why we and other churches supported missionaries. In words from a familiar missionary hymn, there were souls perishing, lost in shades of night, and they needed to hear "tidings of Jesus, redemption and release."
Many Christians today continue to believe, or think that orthodox Christianity teaches that they are supposed to believe, that Jesus is the only way of salvation, the only way to heaven. It is a major element in the preaching and teaching of fundamentalist and most conservative evangelical churches. It is the reason for being Christian.
In the first century, what did Christians mean when they proclaimed that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life"? Or, in words attributed to Peter in Acts 4:12: "There is salvation in no one else [other than Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved"?
These words testify to the experience of Jesus's followers. They had experienced salvation-liberation, deliverance, healing and wholeness, return from exile, light in their darkness, new creation, being born again-through Jesus. From this experience came the exclamation, "He is the way!"
It is also the language of love, like the words lovers use for their beloved. When we say to our beloved, "You're the most beautiful person in the world," we are not making a factual statement that everybody should agree with. Somebody overhearing us might think, "The most beautiful person in the world? Attractive maybe-but not the most beautiful person in the world." But that would miss the point. This is the language of love, devotion, delight, commitment. This is also is part of what it means to say, "Jesus is the only way."
The language is also about more than experience and love. It does make a claim. It affirms that what we see in Jesus is "the way, and the truth, and the life" and that "there is salvation in no one else." How are we to understand this claim?
One way of understanding it, probably the most common way, is that you have to know about and believe in Jesus--that you must know about and believe in the Christian message. Note that this means that you can be saved only by knowing and believing the right language, namely, Christian language. This virtually amounts to salvation by words--by believing the right words instead of other words.
Though many American Christians believe this, many do not, because they cannot. The claim that the creator of the universe is known in only one religious tradition has become increasingly unpersuasive to many millions, in part because many of us know people of other religions and also know that all religions, including Christianity, are particular historical responses to the experience of God, the sacred, in the cultures in which they originated. How, then, can any one of them truthfully proclaim itself to be "the only way"?
There is a way of understanding the claim of John 14:6 that does not involve Christian exclusivism. The key is the realization that John is the incarnational Gospel; in it Jesus incarnates, embodies, enfleshes what can be seen of God in a human life. To say, "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life," is to say, "What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life." It is not about knowing the word Jesus and believing in what is said about him that is "the way." Rather, the way is what we see in his life; we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world, a life radically centered in the God to whom he bore witness.
In John 18:38, as Jesus appears before Pilate, the incarnational meaning of this language is clear. Pilate asks, "What is truth?" The irony is that the truth is standing before him in Jesus. What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
Can one know the way, the truth, and the life apart from Jesus? For me, the answer is yes. The enduring religions of the world all include lovers of God and saints in whom one can see the way, the truth, and the life. But for those of us who are Christians, we see the way, the truth, and the life preeminently in Jesus. He is our way, our truth, our life.
From Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored. Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Borg. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.