One Way-Many Ways
A common objection to the exclusive claims of the Christian faith is to say that life is like climbing a mountain. Religions offer different ways to the top, and each person thinks he or she has the right one. But Jesus said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).
Is there any reconciliation possible between Jesus’ very exclusive statement and the idea of many ways up the mountain of life?
We begin with the fact that no two persons have the same life journey. In that sense there must be many ways to God, As Paul explained to the Athenian philosophers, "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth. His purpose in all of this was that the nations should search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts17:27). At least that proves than people will try out a huge variety of ways up the mountain of faith.
Secondly we must distinguish between the explanations given by the various religions and the truth as seen from the point of view of the Son of God. A person may get the explanation wrong and still be on right way. Even within the Christian faith there are huge differences in the way Jesus’ plan is explained.
In The Last Battle C.S.Lewis pictured a man who had served the god Tash all his life. When the battle was over, Aslan invited the man up to sit with him, and said "Well done my good and faithful servant." The man objected, saying that he had fought on the wrong side all his life. "Yes, but I knew your heart, and in serving for the wrong reasons you were actually fighting for me." That suggests that many will be surprised when the battle ends, that in following a wrong explanation they were actually on the right side.
Thirdly, we note that in our text Jesus is the only way to eternal life for all people, but we should not add that we cannot be saved unless we have a right understanding of how he saves us. This is obviously true for children who die in infancy before they know any religious explanation. The same must be true of people who never had the opportunity to hear the good news.
If we take this approach, what becomes of The Great Commission? When I went to India as a missionary in 1952 I imagined my task was to get as many to hear and believe as possible, and all others would be lost and burn in hell. Living among the hundreds of million people of North India, I soon realized this could not be part of the love of the Messiah, who wants as many in heaven as would be happy there. Slowly, missionaries have come to see that Jesus was engaged in a teaching ministry. The Great Commission is to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19, as set out in Go Make Learners among the books on this website).
Why do people need teaching? Some may have their heart pointing in the right direction but they are riddled with guilt. Others imagine that the best way to please God is by killing his enemies. Many find their religion a bore and a chore. Many are terrified of death, and they need to learn about life on the other side. In an article titled "Caterpillar Religion" I pointed out that if God has planned for a butterfly life after death for caterpillars, surely he must have a wonderful future in mind for us. These and many other truths about the love of God need to be explained to people everywhere.
Does that mean that by different routes all eventually make it to heaven? It seems there must be a way for people to reject the heaven God has in mind for us and choose to be snuffed out for ever. At that point our limited understanding goes beyond its limits. Better leave a loving God to do what is best for each one. Meanwhile the opposites we began with may not be as impossible to reconcile as we might have imagined.