I was recently thinking about 1st Timothy 2:5–6: “For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” (New English Translation)
These verses highlight the aspect of Christianity that bothers Westerners most: its exclusivity. The notion that Jesus is the only way to God vexes many people.
This morning a thought occurred to me: almost everyone who believes in God believes that there’s only one way. Most people just don’t realize it.
For most people I know, their “one way” is being nice. Unless you are nice/good/sincere/altruistic/empathetic/enlightened/adjective-of-choice enough, you fail.
The way of niceness is no less limiting than the way of faith in Christ: it excludes people just as surely and it is far more arbitrary.
This is counterintuitive to some people, so allow me to explain.
It is exclusive in that some people just aren’t nice enough. More on that later.
It is arbitrary in that the devil is in the details. How do you know if you’ve been nice enough? And what constitutes the right kind of niceness, anyway? After all, there’s no real reason to suppose that an infinitely smart Being would measure niceness in the way that makes the most sense to you.
The Christian principle of exclusivity makes more sense, for it flows from the simple belief that Jesus is God in the flesh.
Thinking about this for a second should make the reasoning clear.
If you believe that Jesus is God, then to say you can come to God apart from Jesus is as nonsensical as saying you can go to Los Angeles without going to California.
In other words, all that Christians are insisting is that you can’t come to God without coming to God. This hardly seems controversial. You may reject the premises of the argument (that God exists or that Jesus is God), but granted those two the belief can’t be categorized as extreme or bizarre. It’s just consistent.
The real problem most people seem to have isn’t that Christianity is exclusive. Their real problem is that Christianity appears to be unfairly exclusive. This is most often expressed as follows, “What about those who have never heard of Christ? How can God exclude them simply because they haven’t heard of Jesus?”
There are actually some very reasonable answers to those questions. Here’s one, here’s another
, and here’s yet a third. There are more where those came from — if this question distresses you then dig into it. You won’t agree with everything you read. I certainly don’t agree with every argument in three articles I linked. Figure out what you believe for yourself.
But here’s the important thing to realize: the same problem confronts the niceness standard. What about those born in the wrong time or the wrong place? Some of your ancestors owned slaves in accordance with the customs of their culture (this is true regardless of your ethnicity) — did they fail a test they didn’t know they were taking?
Some of them likely burned cats to death for fun. Do they fail the niceness test merely because they were born in the wrong time or in the wrong place?
For that matter, what of you? Who knows which of our actions our grandchildren will deem immoral? Perhaps you have been born in the wrong time and place to achieve a reasonable standard of niceness.
You might object that we should judge people relative to the standards of their own culture, so we don’t need to worry about what standards our grandchildren will hold us up against. Perhaps. Believing that would require you to stop judging dictatorships, sweatshops, modern-day slave trafficking, and racism in other cultures. Also, you will need to let the Church off the hook for things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. This is just one the problems that emerges from the notion that moral standards are completely relative to culture or personality. There are several detailed critiques available: here’s one
, here’s another, and here is a third (that last one is a pdf written by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope).
So if your main beef with Christianity is that it’s exclusive, examine your own beliefs carefully. You might be surprised to discover just how exclusionary they turn out to be.