q&r: “no one comes to the father but through me” in john 14:6?

G’day Matt

I am enjoying reading your blogs on life remixed, especially the most recent on non violence and the debate that it is raising, brilliant, well done.

As you are one of the few who like to challenge the orthodox and traditional Christian beliefs there are a couple of bible verses that Christian Fundamentalists quote incessantly to justify that Christianity is the only way to salvation and therefor all other faiths / religions are false. One of these verses is John 14:6 which seems extremely exclusive and supports the Fundamentalists teachings. This teaching is to the detriment of billions of people all over the world who are not Christians due to the simple fact of where they were born and the culture and beliefs of their parents.

Your thoughts?

Cheers

A popular understanding of John 14:6

Thanks so much for the great question. I think it is a really important issue in the context of our pluralistic culture. In regards to John 14:6: there is perhaps no verse that has been interpreted with greater arrogance. 99% of the time I have, like you, heard it used as proof that other religions are false and that to enter heaven one must believe in Jesus. It has been used for so long by some groups for the purpose of asserting faith in Jesus as the sole way of salvation that we have stopped asking what the verse might actually mean in its context!

The problem with the regular interpretation of John 14:6 is that this is not valid conclusion in light of the context.* Jesus isn’t talking about going to heaven when you die (a mistaken view of salvation in my understanding), much less about religions with which he has probably not come into contact (either because of geographical distance eg. Buddhism, Hinduism, or chronology eg. Islam). In terms of local religions at the time, Jesus is unlikely to be referring to them in John 14:6 since there is no mention of them in the surrounding literary context.

What is this context? Jesus is speaking to his disciples who are confused about the nature of his ministry and impending fate on the cross. Generally speaking Jesus’ message was not, after all, about going to heaven when you die, but about the kingdom of God coming on earth. In John’s Gospel “kingdom” language is generally avoided and replaced with an equivalent language of “life” – eternal life, life abundant etc.

The disciples seem perplexed by the meaning of this; in the previous chapter (13:1-20) Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, an expression of the kingdom and a subversion of normal practice – leadership is about servanthood, not domination as was the case with all other kingdoms.

Following this Jesus predicts his betrayal by Judas, who leaves the meal (13:21-30). He then begins to talk about being glorified (13;31f) - what is the connection? It is ambiguous at this point, but it is obviously related to his betrayal. In any case, Jesus makes clear that the place he is going is somewhere that his disciples cannot follow him, at least not until later (13:31-33, 36). In the meantime the disciples must love one another – this is a new commandment, a new Law for the community, a summary of his teaching.

Peter responds by ignoring Jesus’ new command, returning to the subject of where Jesus is going by asking where Jesus is going (13:36). Perhaps Peter expects Jesus (along with many of his followers) to stage an uprising since he goes on to say he will follow his master by laying down his life (13:37). This is the vital clue in my opinion – Peter understands that the place where Jesus is going may require him to lay down his life. Jesus’ glorification is the cross, his impending humiliation and suffering, a complete subversion of what most of his followers would have expected glorification to look like (nothing has changed today). This glorification is not heaven.

Indeed it is the cross, namely an embrace of subversive suffering, that Peter and others will follow in later in their deaths; for now they are not ready.

Jesus follows this with a word of comfort in light of the discouraging reality that Judas betrays, Jesus will die and the disciples are cowards – Do not let your hearts be troubled (14:1). The consolation includes that the Father’s house has many rooms which Jesus is going to prepare (14:2-4). Contrary to much contemporary interpretation there is no notion in the text that this refers to heaven. It seems to me that instead it refers to the Jerusalem Temple since back in John 2:16 this is what Jesus is talking about when he uses the phrase “my Father’s house”.

In that episode John has Jesus redefining the Temple as his own body. If we allow this theological redefinition to remain consistent throughout John we should conclude that in John 14 Jesus is preparing a place for the disciples in himself! For Jesus this is the same as being in the Father, since the Son is in the Father, and the Father in the Son (14:9-14).

In my view this concept of being “in the Son/Father” is a way that John talks about the kingdom of God; it is a deep “knowing” of Jesus (being in him) and thus an embrace of the Way of Christ and the reign of God. It is entry into the new life of the ages that Jesus is promising.

But it only comes by way of the cross…

Thomas, still puzzled, misses the point and asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5) Though this is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words note that Thomas has not asked, “How do we get to heaven?” or “What about people in other religions?”

Jesus responds with the famous statement – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (14:6-7) In context this is clearly not about heaven.

Jesus does not directly answer Thomas’ question, since it implies a misunderstanding of what he has been saying. Rather Jesus’ famous reply in 14:6 is a restatement of his point all along; to paraphrase - you can enter the life of the ages (the kingdom on earth as in heaven) by following me (to the cross).

In other words Jesus says, “If you want to know what God is like, and what being his people looks like, then look at me.” What follows from Philip’s response (14:8) onwards in which Jesus discusses the life of discipleship seems to confirm this interpretation.

In terms of the initial question, I can’t justify the view that John 14:6 expressed exclusivism based on my reading. It seems to me the crux of “coming to the Father” is not about salvation of the soul but about knowing Christ and following him to the cross. In doing so we come to our place of belonging – we embrace the will of the Father. We know him.

MCA


* I have before been accused of interpreting contentious passages such as John 14:6 with a bias toward unconventional readings. I should make clear at this point that now, as always, I do my best to read the text as honestly and as contextually perceptive as I can. I have my assumptions and biases, of course, but no more than those who seek to assert the status quo. If one has a good reason to challenge my reading(s) with a sound argument for the standard Evangelical reading then please feel free to comment.
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Posted on February 9, 2012, in Biblical Studies, New Testament, Q&R and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Matt, the call to the cross is inclusive to all. But, the cross is what makes it exclusive to all other religions. Therefore, while Christ embraces all inclusively, other religions exclusively ignore and exclude him.

  2. Great summary; I recall Dave Andrews makes a similar argument in Christianarchy, when when I read a number of years ago I found almost hopelessly controversial, but am now probably more in agreement with than anything else, taking a view of Christ as ontological Truth.

    @Craig: It’s all very well and good to make such a claim, but I think Matt makes a pretty compelling argument that even if it is true, you can’t biblically justify such a position with this verse. I mean, if it makes you feel more secure, sure, go ahead, but I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to get at with your charming platitude. If you wanted to argue for a more orthodox position, you could at least back it up with scripture.

  3. Hi Craig,

    Pete is right in what he reflects about my point. I don’t believe I said that Christ was not the only way to salvation – I think sometimes we can react in a knee-jerk fashion and perhaps respond to what has not been said.

    The point is that you can’t necessarily prove this by John 14:6. Though note I have made clear that to know God, his will, his kingdom, you must know Christ. What that means exactly is of course contentious.

  4. Matt, Pete.

    You are right that you can’t make a compelling statement about the overriding inclusiveness of the Gospel leading to exclusivity from this verse. However I think a parody has been made , as no one actually hangs their ‘exclusive’ belief of the cross on this one verse.

    Within this framework you have set out of Jesus stating “Hey guys, I am THE Temple!” One has to bring into the question of both the inclusiveness of all as to what this means. Through a wider Biblical understanding we know that in Christ there is no gender, nationality or social class distinctions…all are included.

    Yes, this inclusiveness, is also extremely exclusive. Paul labours this point to the Jews and Gentiles in Romans. He doesn’t make a cart blanch statement that its a free for all – rather he makes the point, that though its incredibly inclusive and creates a level playing field – its also exclusive in that the only way to the father is through Christ.

    In answering the comment posed to you from a reader, the commenter seems to be offended by the thought that Jesus is the only way – this same thought also offended the religious leaders of the day – when Jesus told them that he was the way, the truth and the life and was the only way to the father. Particularly within the framework and context of Christ being the Temple.

  5. This is why I love the comments section of blogs – you get the chance to discuss and expand the ideas in the initial offering. In this case it’s important since there is so much to be said about this verse and a post is so short.

    There is always a danger of creating straw-men in a debate like this, and you are right to raise the question. However my experience tells me this is no straw-man – I have literally heard it preached like this almost every time. I never said this was the only verse on which such exclusivism hangs, but noted it is a prominent “clobber passage”.

    Ultimately I’m not in this post debating the inclusiveness/exclusiveness of being in Christ; I’m simply answering a question about John 14:6.

    I can’t speak for the questioner, though I did not read their issue as being with the exclusiveness of salvation in Christ, but rather with the issue that for billions of people throughout history they have no tangible way to respond to Christ whom they have perhaps not been told the truth about, nor perhaps even heard of.

    I think we need to be careful about the statements we make regarding the text – when Jesus says he is way, truth and life he is not saying it to the religious leaders in the narrative (contra your suggestion above). You need to define what you mean by the “only way”. I have obviously defined it in terms of coming into the kingdom, that is, entering the life/reign of God here on earth. In the political situation of Jesus’ day, where some in Palestine expected an uprising, Jesus’ words are a powerfully subversive statement against this political commitment.

    So my question for ongoing consideration is what do you mean by “only way to the Father”? What do you mean by only way, and what does it mean to come to the Father?

    I’m also interested in what you believe the function of the Temple was, and what this means for Jesus’ claim that he was the true Temple.

    Matt

  6. Great summary, Matt. Well put.

    But the question still remains: Can one entr the Kingdom via Islam/Budhism/Hinduism?

    It’s not the question that this passage asks or answers, and I’m happy for you not to stick your neck out on this one (as it may get you fired from a really great job), but it IS the question of our times.

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