Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” —John 14:6
A commenter gently pointed out that I only dealt with the first half of John 14:6 in my last post.1 I didn’t deal with “No one comes to the Father except through me.” What follows are four ways to tackle that, starting with the weakest one.
1. The rhetorical argument: Jesus was using hyperbole, and not for the first time. Jesus was a master rhetorician and often said things because of what they provoked in his hearers. But John’s version of Jesus doesn’t really do that—he’s so much more straightforward in speech than in the other three Gospels—so this is the weakest argument.
2. The literary argument: John’s gospel is the symbolic gospel, and should be read as such. John is organized around several great symbols (Bread of Life being another one), each with a symbolic miracle and a symbolic speech. John was writing highly symbolic, narrative poetry and meant for his work to be read as such, not as a collection of propositional truth statements to build a systematic theology upon.2
3. The historical argument: It’s widely acknowledged by scholars of most theological stripes that John is the least historically reliable gospel. Simply put: Jesus didn’t really say that.
4. My best argument: I think two and three are good arguments as far as they go, but so far we haven’t gotten at what could be true about the second half of the verse.
When you get down to it, Jesus had two primary teachings: the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of humanity. In other words, because God is the “daddy” (his word) of us all, we are all immediate family and should act like it. He not only taught these two truths but also lived them, which is what got him crucified.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, I think it’s a historically accurate claim to say that these two teachings have had a profoundly positive effect on our species. Things like the Civil Rights movement and the end of apartheid simply would not have been possible without the influence of these two teachings, to give just two examples.
To be clear, I’m not giving credit to Christianity for those two examples.3 I’m giving Jesus credit for them. Why? The historical line of development for the trains of thought and action for those movements goes straight back to Jesus—human rights, nonviolence, the whole ball of wax.
There are sometimes people who irrevocably change the course of things forever. After them, everything changes, and we cannot go back. As we’ve become a more global society, persons who changed things forever for their own corner of the planet are now starting to have an influence on the entire species. Jesus is one of those people. Other examples of these world-historical figures are Socrates, Buddha and Confucius. There are things they taught that we simply wouldn’t know if they hadn’t taught them in the way that they taught them, with their whole lives.4
What Jesus taught us with his whole life was those two things: the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of humanity. Without Jesus, we would not know these two things the way that we do. Others might have come along and taught similar things, but without the life that Jesus lived, they wouldn’t have the same profound influence. Others might have lived out those two teachings, but without Jesus’ teaching them in just the right way for his historical moment, they wouldn’t have the same profound influence either. If you want human rights and nonviolence (again, just sticking with our two examples), you first have to have a Jesus.5
So what do I take “No one comes to the father but through me” to mean? Without Jesus, I wouldn’t know about the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of humanity. And, really, no one else today would either. Really, we all owe him big time.
(Photo by @Doug88888. Used under Creative Commons license.)
- This is what happens when you write under the influence of insomnia. [↩]
- Jesus also didn’t mean for what he said to be taken as propositional truth statements to build a systematic theology upon, for what it’s worth. [↩]
- And it would be interesting exercise to see how many more we could come up with. [↩]
- Especially for these four, who never bothered to write anything down themselves. [↩]
- Countless others, many of them not Christians, also contributed to the line of development after Jesus that leads to human rights and nonviolence. And still others before Jesus influenced him. I’m not saying Jesus gets the only credit. I’m saying he gets first and last credit because of the influence he had. [↩]