Jesus saith unto him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
The story is told of six blind men who were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. It is then explained to the six blind men how they were all correct inasmuch as each touched a different part of the elephant. Yet, if each asserted that the elephant was only the part which they touched, they would be inaccurate and incorrect.
This story is often told in order to suggest that truth can be stated and understood in different ways. On a purely human level, this is true: we see as through a mirror dimly, our perspective is often distorted, and especially when it comes to different people experiencing the same event or issue, the truth is generally somewhere in the middle (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12, Proverbs 18:17). Yet, in our pluralistic society, this story of the blind men and the elephant is used to suggest that such is true of all religions and all viewpoints: none of them have a monopoly on the truth, but each emphasizes different aspects of truth. To suggest that one religion maintains the truth is seen as intolerant, exclusivist, and a product of a bygone, arrogant era.
In reality, claims of inclusion and exclusion, “tolerance” and “intolerance,” are as old as mankind. The ancient Greeks and Romans were quite inclusivist and “tolerant” in religion, identifying many of the gods of different nations with their own gods as well as accepting and believing in the gods of the nations which could not be so easily associated with one of their own. Their inclusivism is illustrated by the Athenian altar to the unknown god, providing sacrifice to any and all god(s) not identified lest they feel neglected and cause distress among the people (cf. Acts 17:23). Such “inclusivism” was in fact the norm of the ancient world; anyone who would assert their god or religion as having an exclusive hold on truth would be considered highly suspect.
Perhaps the most prominent such group were the Jews. Their insistence on their God as being the only god and their refusal to conform to the standards of the people around them was always an issue: at best, they were tolerated on the basis of the antiquity of their customs, and at worst, they experienced persecution and suffering, even death, for holding firm to their beliefs.
Jesus of Nazareth came into this world at this time. He lived as a Jew throughout His life, fulfilling the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). He not only affirmed the exclusivity of the God of Israel but even took it one step further: He, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, was the only way to God the Father (John 14:6). His early followers did not seek to compromise this belief or water it down in any way: they affirmed that Jesus was the only way to salvation before religious authorities (Acts 4:12), and declared how Jesus was Lord to all who would listen. Christian exclusivism was not looked upon kindly in the Roman world; even though Christian apologists attempted to “antiquate” their belief system by associating it with Judaism and the Old Testament, many Romans believed Christianity to be a novel and dangerous superstition, suggesting that Christians were atheists since they denied the existence of all gods but their own.
We should not be deceived, therefore, into thinking that the conflict between “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” is new. Yet how can Christians be so confident that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way to the Father and to salvation?
This claim is not meant to be understood arrogantly or as sheer presumption, nor does it suggest that all other religions have no element of truth to them. The claim is instead rooted in a proper understanding of Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth maintained the fulness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). To have seen Jesus was to have seen the Father: the character of the Father was manifest in Jesus, and Jesus is the exact imprint of the divine nature (John 1:18, 14:9-11, Hebrews 1:3). The Bible upholds Jesus as the ultimate Example for mankind, the One whom all others should emulate and follow (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:6). This, by the way, is the one aspect of Jesus which few deny: His goodness, His excellent character, and the quality of His teaching.
If Jesus is the ideal Man, having taught and done all things well, and He represents the exact imprint of the nature of God and set forth the fulness of God, what truth is lacking in Jesus? If religion exists in order to provide us with a better understanding of the divine and its nature, what could surpass the divine taking on flesh and dwelling among us? If God is one, and Jesus is the embodiment of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, John 1:1, 14), from what other source could we gain a better understanding of God or what is true?
Humans in their limitations can only see parts of the truth; human religion, therefore, will suffer from the same deficiency. No human religion can express the totality of truth, a reality implicitly confessed by those who seek to be inclusive and pluralistic. Six blind men touching different parts of the elephant will come to different conclusions, but the elephant remains the elephant. Different religions and belief systems fumble and stumble toward the truth, and each may grasp at some aspects of the truth, but the truth remains the truth. If Jesus is God in the flesh, then Jesus is truth. All other belief systems and ideologies must be subjected to Him as the ultimate expression of what is real and what is true (cf. Colossians 2:1-9)!
Those who recognize and value authentic items dispense with any copies or forgeries, and so it is with the truth. Jesus is God in the flesh, the Truth embodied; who or what else can compare to Him? If He is God in the flesh, why would we turn to any other belief system to find truth when the truth is standing before us in Christ? Such is exclusivistic; truth is exclusivist by its very nature. Such is deemed as “intolerant”; so truth must be reckoned against what is not true.
Yes, in life, we are finite, imperfect creatures, and we will only be able to understand a finite amount regarding the truth. Yet the truth remains the truth whether we discern it, believe it, accept it, or not. The Bible claims that Jesus, as God in the flesh, is the embodiment of Truth; we either accept this or reject it. We do well to stand firm in the truth by declaring that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the way to the Father and salvation, even if that claim does not sit well with others. Let us establish Jesus as Lord of our lives and live to glorify and honor Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry