Is Jesus the only way? If by Jesus you mean a great teacher, perhaps even the world’s greatest teacher, then the answer is no. As a teacher of ethics, no doubt Jesus is exemplary, and even sublime, in what he preaches. “Love God, and love your fellow humans” is usually how his ethics are encapsulated. Who among us wouldn’t agree? Even atheists would agree we should love our fellow humans even though God is a figment of our imaginations. But is Jesus the only teacher who has taught that truth? Is he the “only way”? Obviously not. You can find this “Golden Rule” of “love your neighbor as yourself” right in Jesus’ own Jewish religion in the teaching of the Rabbi Gamaliel. So not only is Jesus not unique, but he simply mirrors his own ethnicity and faith tradition. And, you can find this Golden Rule expressed in virtually all the great world religions and no doubt by the world’s great philosophers. So when it comes to Jesus’ teachings, is Jesus the only way? Surely we would have to say no.
But possibly his life was so heroic, so self-sacrificial, that he is the only way. To that, we would have to say no, too. Lots of people have been heroes and martyrs. People have stood up against the great empires throughout time and lost their lives, including Spartacus and Giordano Bruno and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Soldiers throw themselves on exploding grenades to save their buddies. Even others who haven’t lost their lives, but have been heroically self-sacrificial, like Mother Theresa, contributed more decades of good out of their lives for the poor and needy than Jesus, despite his turning loaves and fishes into food for thousands. So, surely, even as a hero or martyr, Jesus is not the only way.
And perhaps that is the only Jesus we would ever know or want: a teacher or a hero. Jesus isn’t just our buddy. He’s too important for that. So he is a wise man, a sage, and a martyr for his cause. Either way, he is someone in principle we could emulate or copy. If we really put our heart into it, we think we can love God and love our fellow humans. And we believe that if we had to sacrifice our lives for others, we would. That none of us here haven’t yet put our hearts into it is because we believe we have plenty of time left to give our all to Jesus. Jesus really isn’t an “only way” if, in fact, we can walk that way ourselves.
But what if Jesus is a way that we can’t walk? It does take the wind out of our sails when he tells us that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” What kind of man makes such audacious claims? Is he a lunatic? Is he a liar? How does he get away with it?
Jesus would indeed be the way, the only way, if he leads us out of a pickle in which we are stuck, from which we are unable to free ourselves. What would hit home with Jesus as the “only way” is when he tells us that he is the “Resurrection and the Life.” Now, what could he mean by that? He is the resurrection and life precisely because he died and rose again.
Now, if Jesus has an escape hatch from death, and neither you nor anyone else you know has it, then he is indeed the “only way.” All the great religious teachers of any and every faith tradition share Jesus’ ethics. But none of them—no matter how wise, good, or holy—have walked out of death after having died. So, if you want eternal life, life not bounded or defined or limited by death, but a full, free, and fulfilling life forever, then Jesus is the way indeed.
Are you afraid to die? Lots of people are, although they never talk about it. They are either too ashamed or too afraid to admit it. But I’ve had students tell me point blank they are afraid to die. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus tells us that he holds the “keys of death and Hades.” That means he has the power to unlock death and set men and women free from their imprisonment to it. That doesn’t mean that you and I won’t die, but it does mean that, like Jesus, we will rise from death and enjoy eternal life. Jesus was no zombie, nor will you or I be zombies either. Zombies are animated dead persons. That’s not life. Eternal life isn’t just animation, being able to walk and bite. But it is freedom from the fear of death, disease, unhappiness, and pain. God promises to bring us all that. In heaven, there will be no crying, no sighing, no more pain. All of that will be gone forever when Jesus comes again.
But can dead people actually rise? We’ve never seen anything like that. Jesus’ resurrection was no mere hallucination of the disciples. After all, they gave their lives for that conviction, based not on their imaginations but their association with the Risen Jesus. It’s not the disciples’ faith that invented the resurrection but the resurrection that gave birth to the disciples’ faith.
But doesn’t a bodily resurrection violate the laws of physics? Truth be told, we don’t know all the laws of nature, and, after all, an individual event is never completely determined by natural laws. Science can’t preclude or rule out the possibility or impossibility of an individual event (Wolfhart Pannenberg). In a nutshell, science can’t rule out a resurrection. A resurrection would be an unprecedented event, but unprecedented events do happen.
And if the resurrection didn’t happen, then how did the church ever come about? How would the disciples have had the courage to organize congregations and win people for Christ? It’s just not plausible, as H. S. Reimarus said two hundred years ago, that the disciples fabricated the resurrection because they didn’t want to go back to fishing. I’ve done both fishing and preaching, and I can assure you that the latter is far harder.
Is Jesus the only way? As a teacher: no; as a Savior: yes. Do you need his salvation? Do you need his forgiveness? Do you need his support? Do you need his promise that you, too, will have eternal life? I think you do. More importantly, I’ll give you a foretaste of this eternal life. I’ll do this by giving you a word that sets you free from sin and death: for Jesus’ sake, your sins are forgiven you. Nothing stands between you and almighty God, except Jesus Christ. His face toward you is not that of a stern judge but that of a warm, inviting, compassionate friend. He will not let death be the last word for you—a “death sentence”—about you. His decision about you is that you are a keeper. He holds you and will walk you through anything that comes your way and will bring you when you die to the heavenly home. For this, you can thank him, who is the only way, this day and forever.