Another problem that I had with accepting Christianity was that it seemed to be an exclusive religion, which denied the authentic experiences of other faiths. Many traditional Christians believe that basically there is only one way to God, and all other beliefs lead to being tortured for eternity.
People with this fearful view of God can also justify any means (no matter how horrible) that results in bring people to believing in Jesus, since logically the suffering of just one person in eternity would be worse than all of the suffering in the world. Henceforth proceeded all kinds of bad fruit – wars over religion, religious prosecution and discrimination, excluding others with different views, etc. Unfortunately, extreme religious exclusivity is the logical conclusion of believing in eternal torment, however it is also completely contrary to the actions and teachings of Jesus. My argument is that if Christianity was meant to be an exclusive religion, then Jesus would have acted and taught much different than he did.
Before I get into my argument though, It is also important to draw a distinction between an being divisive and being exclusive; for example the civil rights movement was inherently inclusive, however it was also divisive because it lead to political and societal unrest. The problem I have with the arguement that religion inherently creates division, is that by the same logic one could argue that the civil rights movement was wrong. Certainly there are some things that are so important that they are worth risking creating division.
Christianity is the definitely divisive, because the truth will necessarily create some division in society between those who accept it and those who reject it. This is what Jesus meant when he said “I bring a sword”, because he knew that the truth is divisive and those who accepted Jesus would often face persecution and rejection. However, Christianity is not exclusive on the same account, as Jesus called on his followers to love and do good to those who rejected them. Jesus never intended his followers to engage in persecution and rejection of non-Christians or Christians of different theological opinions. Unfortunately, that historic reality is that those who have practiced Christianity have often engaged in persecution, but in my opinion that is in spite of the teachings of Jesus rather than because of them. We sometimes forget how horrible humanity can be when left without any guidance; such as those ancient religions (not Judaism) that practiced burning their own children alive, in order to appease their false God. More recently, we can see how even a potentially good idea like communism was instrumental in the death of millions in China and Russia. Only God knows how horrible the world would be if an explicitly violent religion had been dominant for the last 2,000 years (instead of Christianity). However, my point here is not to defend historic Christianity, but rather that the nature of Christianity is not defined by its association with the flawed progress of humanity over the last 2000 years; the same way that Jesus is not defined by hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners.
For the following five points, I will explain why I do not believe that true followers of Jesus can practice religious exclusivity.
Firstly, Jesus genuinely cared about people’s lives on earth. There are many times that the gospel describes Jesus as being moved with compassion. His miracles were life affirming, such as healing people from disease and blindness, which only make sense if Jesus cared about people’s quality of life on earth. Inevitably some of those who were healed would have gone on to commit sins which they would have previously been unable to do – but Jesus still healed them anyways. If Jesus only placed value on the fate of our afterlives (rather than on having a fulfilling life on earth), then instead of caring about people’s present affliction, his message should have been instead “it’s better that you just stay blind, so then you don’t sin and risk being eternally tormented” and also “oh, you think your affliction is bad? Just wait until you get to the afterlife”. The Jesus that we know from the gospels was not like that though – he definitely placed value on having a fulfilling earthly life, even to the extent of turning water into really good wine (only God know how many sins indirectly resulted from that miracle).
Secondly, Jesus cared about the state of the world. This is similar to my first point (that he cares about people), but on a larger scale. His message was “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is on heaven”. That means that what happens on earth matters – not for just God’s “chosen people” but rather the entire earth is God’s kingdom.
How that is interpreted though can make a world of difference; some people may think that “God’s kingdom” means that Christians should try controlling everything so that we can impose Christian beliefs and values on others, however I don’t think this is what Jesus intended. If God’s kingdom was based on coercion, then Jesus would not have come as a poor carpenter from Nazareth.
The understanding of God’s kingdom is seen in how Jesus also called his followers the “salt of the earth”, which necessarily implies that even if the “salt” is a small amount, it positively affects the taste of the entire meal. Christians are meant to extend God’s goodness and love into the entire world, including those of other faiths and even to those who may be considered our enemies.
Third, many of Jesus and his apostles have statements about non-judgement.
It then does not make sense then for any Christian to judge anyone elses relationship with God – including from other differences in religions or theological opinions. As a Christian, I do believe that Jesus is the way to God, but then it is not for me (or any other Christian) to say who Jesus has or has not redeemed. Jesus even said basically that not everyone who calls on him will be saved, but rather those who do the will of God.
From this perspective then, Christianity is not an exclusive religion, because only God knows who is doing His will. For example, if I (as a Christian) were to say that a Muslim orphanage or a Buddhist free-hospital are not doing the will of God, then I would only be setting up a basis of judgement against myself.
Just to clarify though, I am not saying that Christian beliefs are compatible with other religions (you can’t have a Christian Muslim), but rather that Christianity please provides no basis for persecuting, or even judging, other religions. The only thing that we can really judge is when we see bad fruit (i.e. people getting hurt, hypocrisy) coming from what people believe, however we cannot judge any people or their belief systems as inherently being evil.
I also believe that there is room in Christianity (indeed, God is big enough) to recognise that people of other faiths also have their own relationship with God, but whether that relationship leads to eternal life or not, we cannot be the judge.
Fourth, there is evidence that Jesus taught in a way that respects people’s free will. I at first found it bewildering to hear that Jesus tells parables so that some people would not believe:
“they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven”
Shouldn’t Jesus be trying to save as many people as possible, why would he intentionally withhold the truth?
However, I now realize what this means – it is not that Jesus is excluding people, but rather that Jesus had full knowledge of the truth, so if he were to speak plainly it would actually be compulsive. Everyone listening would have no choice but to believe in Jesus, meaning that they might as well be God’s robots or puppets, because they have no free will to make a choice in the matter. Such a compulsive relationship is of course not the kind of relationship that God desires for us.
Thus Jesus spoke in parables in order to preserve our free will and ability to make a choice in what we believe. The parables are like an invitation for the heart to be changed by seeking the truth hidden in the parable, but they do not force anyones heart to change against their own will.
After this realization, I concluded that any societies or structures that attempt to coerce people into being Christian or following “Christian Values” are actually contrary to Jesus’ method of teaching.
Fifth, Jesus was notorious inclusive, so much so that he was criticized for his interaction with tax collectors and other sinners. He also didn’t show any problem with interacting or healing non-jews (gentiles, as long as they had faith), and used a Samaritan for an example of a good neighbor (in the good Samaritan parable).
However, it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus ministry was only towards other Jews. So then why wasn’t Jesus inclusive enough to minister to the Gentiles as well?
This deserves some further explaining, because it seems to be often misunderstood. Jesus was a Jew, and himself subject to the Jewish covenant with God. He came to bring a new covenant (i.e. a new way of having a relationship with God) which was intended for everyone, however there are a few likely reasons he restricted his ministry to the Jewish people:
1. It’s part of God’s fairness in being faithful to his old covenant with the Jews, by giving them priority in entering into the new covenant. For example, even in a business, if you have an agreement with existing contractors and your terms change, it would only be fair to notify the existing contractors of the new terms first before opening up the competition to new contractors.
2. Jesus needed a critical mass of “original copies” (i.e. Jewish disciples who had interacted with Jesus). If he had gone straight to the Gentiles, they would not have had the religious context to understand the significance of Jesus, and might have distorted or mixed the gospel message with other religion. Anyone who has ever used a copy machine understand this problem – it is always better to copy from an original document then to
3. Jewish people were more skeptical (harder to convert, due to preconceptions about Jewish Messiah), and so there was a critical window in which Jesus could directly give them evidence of his divinity. On the other hand, the gentiles would be more easily converted after Jesus death, due to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This exactly what happened, as the early diciples and apostles (after Jesus left earth) had much more success converting gentiles than Jews.
4. The disciples probably needed more training and experience before they were given the comission to bring the gospel to everyone. They also have not received the Holy Spirit yet, as so their ability to evangelize and create new diciples amongst the gentiles would have been limited.
5. Jesus wouldn’t have been able to do much healing in a gentile setting, as in general their faith in God is not as strong as the Jewish people. As explained in a previous point, Jesus’ healing is limited by people’s faith, so that it does not violate their free will.
In summary (for this point), it is clear that there is no contradiction between Jesus’ initial ministry to the Jewish people and his later great comission to make diciples of all nations. Jesus meant his gospel to be for all people, and the initial focus on the Jewish nation was a matter of fairness and strategic timing. However, even if Jesus’ words did not make it crystal clear that he was inclusive, certainly his actions did, to the extent of including the man who he knew would betray him as a disciple and breaking bread with him before he was betrayed.
In overall summary, I hope I have demonstrated that Christianity is not exclusive – or at least not inherently exclusive.
Jesus used parables to great effect, and in that similar vein I think what I have explained could be succinctly summed up in a parable (which I made up) that I will call “The parable of the bad seed planters”:
There was a wealthy man who owned a huge garden, with many gardeners. One day he told his gardeners “I want my garden to bear good fruit to eat, so plant these seeds and grow as many fruit trees as you can as quickly as you can, as I need them to grow before the winter”.
When he returned in the winter from his vacation, he found his garden in ruins, and enquired to his gardeners what had happened.
“Well, we thought it would be better if we removed all the other plants first, so the fruit trees have more room to grow” explained the gardeners.
The owner replied “Who told you to destroy my garden? I only told you to plant seeds, and if I wanted you to clear my garden first, I would have told you so. Don’t you know that tree seeds grow taller than any flower or shrub, and those under the tree will naturally die from lack of sun? Infact, there is no plant that can stop a tree that is properly planted.”
“But see” said the gardeners, “we did manage to plant some trees for you…but it’s not as many as we intended. After we spent so long removing the other plants, we found that we didn’t have time to plant all the seeds before winter set in.”
The owner then said “not only that, but for the trees that are planted, most of the fruit is unedible. Once you cleared so many of the other plants, all the pests of the garden had nothing to consume except the fruits!”
The message of this parable is of course that Jesus told his followers to plant seeds of faith, but Jesus never told his followers to persecute or exclude other faiths.
When Christian focus on attacking other faiths and beliefs, the result is a just destruction of the world and corruption of Christian teachings.