13th February 2011

"Only one name?”     (John 3:18; Acts 4:12).

For most people in Britain a couple of centuries ago, religion was a simple matter: there was one faith, and that faith was Christianity. True, there were several varieties of that faith, from respectable Anglicanism and, in Scotland; Presbyterianism, through the various strands of Nonconformism, largely determined by social class and aspiration; and ending up with the Catholics who were still treated with a certain amount of suspicion. There were even immigrant communities such as the Huguenots. But, apart for a few Arab or Indian seamen and Jewish tailors in London’s East End, to live in Britain meant that you were Christian; the two things went together.

But the religious scene is hugely different today: you don’t need to tell me that we live in a multicultural and multifaith society with mosques and gurdwaras and temples liberally sprinkled around the country. (We also seem to have gained some more exotic forms of Christianity, from African Prophetic churches to Orthodoxy, along the way). And, whether we agree or not with David Cameron’s assertion that multiculturalism has failed and that we need a new approach to living together in one society, there is certainly no doubt that Christianity is not the only religion in town! Indeed, some of the other world faiths seem to be much more vigorous and active than our own.

All this means that we have to ask ourselves a very serious question, which has enormous implications for our outreach and evangelism: to what extent can we say that our Christian faith is the only true way to God? Can we say that Christianity alone offers salvation, or are these other faiths equally true and effective ways of coming to God? Or, to put it another way, do we agree or disagree with the Apostle Peter when he stood up in Jerusalem and declared that there is no other name in heaven or earth through which we may receive salvation – except the name of Jesus?

Now this was very much a theoretical question a couple of hundred years ago, except to the great missionary pioneers such as William Carey, Robert Moffat or (at a slightly later date) Hudson Taylor – they had to decide whether it was necessary for Hindus or Muslims to be converted in order to be saved. And, certainly, many of them were in no doubt: people who had not responded to Jesus’ offer of salvation were dwelling in “heathen darkness” and condemned “to be lost” for ever. And, although education and Bible translation were included in their work, a large part of the missionary task was conceived in terms of running a spiritual “rescue shop” to prevent this from happening.

But, today, the missionary task is on our doorstep. And, by and large, the Church is now far less sure of its message: we are no longer empire-builders certain of our superiority over other races and religions (thank goodness for that!), while advances both in science and theology have nibbled away at our certainties. As we look to many other faiths we can also see great sincerity of devotion, rich traditions, scholarly theology, and even profound insights about God and humanity: we do not want to simply dismiss these. And we are also left with weighty questions about the nature of God himself: if his nature really is love, how could he possibly condemn people who are seeking him, even if they do so in ways that are different to our own?

Some of these uncertainties and doubts are by no means new. We must never forget that the Church was born in a society which, although not as diverse as ours, was still one in which many religions vied for validity: the pagan worship of Greek and Roman gods, the Judaism of Palestine, Zoroastrianism from the east and quite possibly other faiths imported from the far borders of the Roman Empire. It was in this religious melting-pot that Christianity had to find its feet, proclaim its message, survive and grow. And it was within this diversity (although particularly to the Jewish community) that Peter uncompromisingly stated that divine salvation was only available in Jesus’ name. So, was he over-enthusiastic or mistaken?

Now, of course, there is an interesting question about what we should actually call Jesus in the English language. Jalal Abualrub isa Muslim Imam (in Florida!) who has accused Western Christians of deliberately distorting Jesus’s name: as he rightly says, Arab Christians use the word “Yasu” (found in many Arabic Bibles) or “’Esa” (used in the Qu’ran) instead of “Jesus”. But, of course, Abualrub has forgotten to recognise that names often get changed when they are rendered in another language: for instance “John” in Portuguese becomes “João”; while “Guiseppe” in Italian is nothing more or less than our English name “Joseph”. Jesus, as a Jew, clearly must have had a Hebrew name given to him at birth; the closest we can get to it in modern English is something like “Yeshua”. And, according to the Bible, this name was not arbitrarily chosen by his parents, but given at God's direct command, because its meaning expresses the purpose for which he was born, to be the Saviour of humankind. I suspect Abualrub’s argument really has more to do with that huge claim than with the niceties of linguistics!

As we think of this question of salvation in Jesus’ name, we must realise that the whole Bible is permeated with a strain of exclusivity. The Old Testament often portrays the Hebrew God over and against the weak and false “gods of the nations”. In fact, this comparison is sometimes done in very derisory terms, like Isaiah talking of the man who chops down a tree, using one half for firewood and the other half to become an idol; or Jeremiah writing about heathen gods which have to be carted around and which are no better than scarecrows in a cucumber patch! Elijah, too, taunts the prophets of Baal before he prays to Yahweh and calls down fire from heaven. There is certainly no sense of mutual respect between faiths – in fact the pagan gods are seen as both useless and worthless. The Old Testament regards them as gross distortions or human reductions of the one true God of the universe: there is no point whatsoever in worshipping them.

Before I continue, I’d just like to think of modern ways of regarding religious faiths. One is to say that all religions (including ours) are simply human inventions: they are ways that we have constructed in order to make sense of the universe, or to express the spiritual aspects of live, even to give a basic structure to society. Clearly, if you take this line, you’ll quickly say that all religions are equally valid, different ways of expressing similar human values, truths or needs.

Another view, which I am sure is held by some Fundamentalist Christians, is to declare that our faith is the only true one and that all others are diabolic perversions. I doubt if I need to say much about that notion, except to say that it ignores the nobility and high values found in many of the world faiths. It also seems grossly unfair that God should have favoured some of humankind with knowledge of the truth while leaving so many other people in error.

There is a third view which, while seeing Christianity as the fullest and clearest expression of faith in God, regards other religions as slightly blurred variants of that same vision: God viewed through the wrong set of glasses, if you like. It may also think of the idea of growing understandings of God that have developed over time, leaving Christianity at the top of the tree (so to speak), the clearest and most perfect understanding of God that the world has seen. This idea is a very attractive one as it does not dismiss the sincerity of other believers. But I wonder if it doesn’t sound just a little bit patronising. And I also wonder where Islam fits into this scheme of things, coming several centuries after Christianity (although it can be argued that Muhammad would never have turned to Islam if he hadn’t found the Church in the Arabian Peninsula to be so weak and corrupt).

So, to return to where we began, Peter is following a well-worn pathway when he says that salvation is only to be found in one divine name. His innovation – and this must have shocked the Jews of the day to the core – was to offer that salvation in the name of the despised carpenter of Nazareth, the crucified Jesus. And yet Peter had not inventing this, in truth he was recollecting the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, words which come directly after that most famous text in the Bible, “God so loved the world ...”. For Jesus says: “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son”. If we accept this as a genuine quotation, then Jesus appears to be just as exclusive and narrow-minded as Peter, two or three years later. However both of them are speaking in an entirely Jewish context; they are actually saying nothing to those who hold other faiths.

You may be wondering if any other Bible writers have anything to bring to this debate. Well, Paul – speaking to Gentiles as well as Jews - says that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. This does not seem to allow any room for eternal salvation outside faith in Jesus; however, in his letter to the Romans, Paul also says, “the result of one act of righteousness [by which he means Jesus’ death on the cross] was justification that brings life for all men” – so does he mean that everybody will receive God’s salvation automatically, or is he only speaking of the potential scope of Jesus’ act in dying, that everyone can find salvation irrespective of their race or background?

I could multiply texts, which would probably be rather dull! But I do want to point out that there are some which give a slightly different slant to things, texts which expresses God’s desire to save people from their sins. Here is Jesus again: “My Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life”. Here is Paul: “God our Saviour ... wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. And here is a new voice, Peter’s: “The Lord is ... patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. It is clear God yearns for all people to come to him (not just men, by the way!) and receive his life. But this does seem to imply that they must convert from their former Jewish or pagan faiths and put their trust in Jesus.

As I come to a close, I must tell you that my head and my heart are in tension. For my head says that the Bible’s teaching is clear and unequivocal: there is only one route to salvation and that is through Jesus. Any other way of attempting God is doomed to failure and even condemnation. But my heart says something else: that God could not possibly be so cruel as to condemn people who are sincere followers of their own lights, who through a mere accident of birth have been born in a place where Christianity is not the predominant faith. That idea seems to fly in the face of God’s justice and love. Furthermore, many good and sincere people have felt drawn close to God through their faith, even though it has not been a Christian.

And so I am going to disappoint you by not giving a firm answer on this matter: I’m simply going to ask you to sift the issues and then come up with your own conclusions. But I am going to say one thing, and say it strongly: whatever we may think about other religions, whether we regard them as valid expressions of belief in God or not, we still have a commission to go into all the earth (or at least our little part of it) and proclaim Jesus’ message, we still have a duty to be his ambassadors and representatives in society, we definitely believe that salvation is available through Christ. We have – I hope – discovered for ourselves that the name of Jesus speaks to us of health, peace and hope, of dying sacrifice and resurrection power, above all it speaks of the love of God. Surely we will want to share that rich and precious name of Jesus with as many people as we can.