Is Jesus Christ essential to the salvation of humanity? If so, how? One verse in the Bible in particular is often quoted by Christians to suggest that no one who does not explicitly believe in Jesus can be saved:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6 KJV)
On it’s face, this seems to be pretty bad news for anyone who hasn’t known about Jesus during their lifetime. Billions of people have lived and died on earth and never heard the name “Jesus”. Among these were some very good people – some probably better than the average Christian. Among these were some very sincere people, who tried to follow the truth as they understood it – possibly trying harder than the average Christian. Would God really deny someone entry into heaven simply because they hadn’t heard of Jesus, while allowing someone to enter who was less moral, less sincere – but who said a “sinner’s prayer” and used the name of Jesus?
In spite of all attempted defenses or explanations of this by Christians, we all know deep down that something’s wrong with this picture. When our deepest moral intuition conflicts with our understanding of a particular scripture – we need to at least ask ourselves if we have possibly misunderstood the scripture.
The Gospel of John, in addition to the above scripture, includes many similar “I am” scriptures in which Jesus claims great power and authority, for example:
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. (John 6:35 KJV)
Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: (John 11:25 KJV)
Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (John 8:12 KJV)
Critical readers may be willing to simply dismiss all these saying of Jesus as later additions by Christians who had developed a much more elevated Christology than Jesus originally claimed. And they have a point. But let’s follow this train of thought a little further. In the last scripture quoted, Jesus claims to be the “light”, not simply of his disciples, or his town, or the Jews in general… but of the entire world – including, by implication, people who had NEVER HEARD OF HIM. This echoes a similar set of statements earlier in John’s gospel:
In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not…the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (John 1:4-9 KJV)
Who is this “He” who is the “light of the world”? John identifies it as the “Word” (“logos” in Greek). This “Word” is coequal with God himself. The “Word” is eternal, and creates all things. In the Greek philosophies, “logos” was used to speak of the underlying reality of the universe – the animating power, the supreme truth. John implies that this “Logos” is, in fact, Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
It sounds almost like we are talking about two different beings. In other gospel accounts, particularly earlier ones, Jesus (although a miracle worker) seems very human in many respects. He was born, suffered, and died. He didn’t know who touched him in the crowd. He asked God to save him from suffering. He was hungry and thirsty. Then there are these statements in John about the eternal, uncreated, omnipotent, omniscient Logos of God. What is the relationship between these two descriptions?
The answer worked out and agreed to by many Christians (after centuries of squabbling) is that Jesus Christ had TWO completely different “natures”. He had a human nature (let’s call that one “Jesus”) and he had a DIVINE nature as the Logos of God (let’s call that one “Christ”) and these two natures were seamlessly united in one person. In eastern or New-Age terminology – one might say that Jesus was an “Avatar” – a person completely united with the Divine Nature so as to be an incarnation of God.
This helps us to understand some of the otherwise incomprehensible claims of John. How, after all, could Jesus – one individual man – be the light which enlightens EVERY SINGLE PERSON who comes into the world? (even those who’ve never heard of him). The answer is that it is the Logos of God who enlightens all people. All people, in other words, have access to the underlying Reality of the cosmos. All of them are connected to the creative energy which animates the universe. All of them have access to the universal Truth at the root of all things. All people who have ever lived are immersed in the Logos. All people are enlightened by “Christ”, even if they have never heard of “Jesus”. Only in THIS way can Christ be the light of the world, and enlighten all. Such a statement fits in Jesus’ mouth only because he is united with the Logos of God.
But now let us re-examine our problem scripture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But does this refer to the human nature “Jesus”? Does it refer to the preacher of Nazareth, born in Bethelem and crucified in Jerusalem? Or does it refer instead to the divine nature of “Christ”, the light of the world? If it refers to “Christ” the Logos – then the whole puzzle is solved. We might imagine a person worthy of heaven who didn’t know the name “Jesus” – but can we imagine a person in heaven other than by the path of universal truth and light? Everyone who comes to the Father comes through the Christ principle – but many of them do not know the name of Jesus.
Every person who has ever lived is in touch with the Christ principle. It lives at the core of every soul. It enlightens the world’s great religions, and inspires all the world’s great saints. Every good deed is done through Christ. Every beautiful thing expresses Christ. Every truth embodies Christ. And it is through Christ the Logos that God is approached.
I’ve quoted it several times here, but one of my favorite passages on this is from the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. In “The Last Battle”, a soldier who worships a demon (named “Tash”) meets Aslan (Jesus) in a final judgement. He is accepted into heaven, and is confused, because he has served Tash all his life. Aslan explains to him: “For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."