Objection #5: It’s Offensive To Claim Jesus Is The Only Way To God (2001)
(Interview w/ Ravi Zacharias, D.D., LL.D.)
For someone who is of a non-Christian religion, I suppose the claim of Jesus as a sole source of salvation is offensive. But maybe not. If your goal is not to become close to God, I don’t suppose you care very much where his path lies. I can’t imagine pantheism, animism, or even Buddhism is particularly concerned with this exclusive notion. And, of course, atheists do not find it offensive per se, since a belief in God is necessary before one can be offended about the way to reach him. I would say that this exclusivity is petty and dangerous. Many people do get upset when told their religion is not as good as the next guy’s — this is why Jews, Muslims and Christians have been slaughtering each other in Palestine for centuries. So it occurs to me that exclusivity runs contrary to the general moral character of Christ, as people tend to portray him at any rate, and I can’t imagine him being particularly happy with his followers preaching it with such vehemence.
This brings up the point: is this exclusivity something Jesus actually taught — or is it a doctrine adopted later by his followers? The main support for Christ teaching this idea seems to be passages like John 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." But the context of John 14 does not directly support the concept that one must worship or believe in Christ in order to ascend to heaven. In fact, it seems to me that this scripture could easily be interpreted to mean that one must only live a Christ-like life in order to reach God. However, I will assume the standard "exclusivist" interpretation for the sake of argument in this section.
The Arrogance Of Christianity
Zacharias argues that Christianity isn’t alone among religions making exclusive truth claims. He contends that truth is, by definition, exclusive. He admits some Christians spread the message in a non-loving manner (148-51).
I can’t say I disagree much with this section. There certainly are other religions which make exclusive claims to the truth. In fact, they have to. Any time someone makes a claim which runs contrary to another claim, it is exclusive. Which leads us right into the definition of truth. If something can be said to be true, then it’s opposite can be said to be false. A is true entails not-A is false. It is elementary logic, and Zacharias recognizes this. Concerning Christians spreading their message negatively, I think we can isolate the problem to some degree. I don’t think the exclusivity is really the hang up here, but rather the lack of tolerance. Christians who spread their ideas with an air of intolerance and superiority tend to turn off their listeners. Of course, it should be noted that many Christians are gentle and open in sharing their message, and, not surprisingly, they are often more effective in winning converts.
Origin, Meaning, Morality, Destiny
Zacharias tells us that we should consider Jesus the path to God because he answers the fundamental questions of religion (enumerated in the title of this subsection) coherently, while other religions fail in this regard (151-3).
Zacharias assures us that, "There is a coherence among his (Christ’s) answers unlike those of any other religion" (151). This is really an opinion. Ravi doesn’t do much to substantiate it other than take a couple of weak stabs at Buddhism and Hinduism. And even these are more telling of Zacharias’ misunderstandings than of any religious incoherence. For instance, Zacharias says, "Buddhism is technically nontheistic…if there was no Creator, where does one arrive at a moral law?" (151). Once again, it seems plainly obvious that a moral system could be deemed wise and worthy of following even if it wasn’t handed down from on high. Regardless, in Buddhism morality is not at all about a law, but about escaping the suffering caused by desire, and one who purges desire and replaces it with love not only escapes suffering, but ceases to have any reason to do bad things, while good things become second nature. Zacharias seems totally ignorant, in other words, of just what Buddhists teach about the very question he raises.
Concerning origins, Zacharias argues that, "Since we were created in His image, this accounts for human beings having a moral point of reference" (152). I’m not sure this makes any sense, especially in light of the fact that Zacharias next launches headlong into the Adam & Eve fable. Until they ate the forbidden fruit, humanity had no concept of good and evil, and therefore no moral point of reference. But aside from Zacharias’ bumbling argument, his point is essentially that God explains morality. He says, "Even naturalists have no explanation for humanity’s moral framework" (152). But they do, and, oddly enough, Zacharias points it out in his very next sentence: "…this moral framework corresponds to the reality of human experience" (152). Which is exactly why it exists as it is. Common human experience gives rise to human codes of conduct. See the Secular Web’s libraries on Morality and Atheism and Secular Humanism. Indeed, Zacharias’s whole position is flawed, since it can be turned on its head, and is weak to begin with, as is evident when one examines the Secular Web’s libraries on Atheistic Moral Arguments and the Moral Argument and Divine Command Theory.
As for the issue of meaning, I can’t really make heads or tails or Zacharias’ ramblings. His sentences read like a series of non-sequiturs. For example, Zacharias says, "Only something greater than pleasure can provide meaning, and that is the perpetual novelty of God himself in worship" (152). This might make sense as the conclusion of an entire essay, but not as a stand-alone sentence. There are two huge assumptions inherent in it that Zacharias doesn’t make any attempt to prove or even recognize. They are:
(1.) Only something greater than pleasure can provide meaning.
(1.1.) Why can’t pleasure provide meaning?
(1.2.) If it can, can something lesser than pleasure provide meaning?
(2.) Worship of God is a perpetual novelty.
(2.1.) Is perpetual novelty really greater than pleasure?
(2.2.) If so, is there something other than perpetual novelty that is greater than pleasure?
Zacharias "coherently" explains Christian morality by noting that its root can be found in, "…an eternal, moral, omnipotent, infinite God who is inseparable from his character" (153). But this raises many questions. Is God subject to his own moral law? If so, why can’t humans be subject to their own? If not, is God actually good? Can he be judged by a standard that he is above? Why should humans follow God’s moral law? What if they see some of his laws as evil? Should they still follow them out of fear? Is this moral? Etc. So I wouldn’t say Christian morality is entirely "coherent." Regarding destiny, Zacharias points out that Christ’s resurrection, "…opened the door to heaven for everyone who will follow him. Where else do you have anything that comes close to claiming this?" (153). Just off-hand, I would say Mormonism, which claims not only to open the door to heaven but promises the possibility of godhood, at least equals, if not surpasses, stock and trade Christianity for pure destiny-appeal.
As is becoming clear, this whole section is little more than a collection of Zacharias’ opinions. This is further clarified by his assertion that "No man spoke like Jesus. No one ever answered questions the way he answered them…" (153). I believe Socrates’ (among others) oratorical abilities eclipse those of Christ. And the Secular Web library on the Character of Jesus reveals that Zacharias’ opinion can certainly be easily challenged.
[Note: The alleged historicity of Christ’s resurrection is brought to bear a couple of times in this chapter, and probably in chapters to come. I feel I have dealt adequately with this contention in prior chapters, so I will say no more on the subject here. Again, if you want an in depth discussion of the issue see the Secular Web’s library on the Resurrection]
Of Elephants And Faith
Zacharias denies that the world religions teach the same fundamental tenets. He also rejects the idea that different religions have a "piece" of the truth, with different cultures perceiving God differently (154-5).
Again, I find little to take issue with in this subsection. I agree that the major world religions are often contradictory in their fundamental aspects. But I can’t say I would necessarily disagree with the idea of different religions perceiving God differently — if I were a theist. But, since I don’t believe in God, I don’t imagine anyone is perceiving Him at all.
One small point: Zacharias argues against the notion of different religions perceiving God in different ways with the question. "…does the atheist have a piece of the truth, or is the atheist marginalized here?" (155). It should be noted that atheism is not a religion, and should not be grouped with religions. There is no body of positions or unity among atheists. Simply put, atheism is the lack of a belief in god(s) — no more, no less. Rather, one must focus on specific atheistic worldviews like Metaphysical Naturalism, Secular Humanism, or Objectivism, to give only three examples among many. And Zacharias seems to have no coherent idea of what he means by "truth" here — A piece of which truth? About what? How can he say no religion has any truth to it when all religions agree in at least some respects with Christianity? Certainly, Judaism overlaps a great deal with it. So all this is a rambling, pointless contrariness.
Redemption, Righteousness, Worship
Zacharias suggests that belief is more important than conduct. He tells us Jesus’ purpose was not morality. He knocks various philosophical ethical systems and is questioned on the probable destiny of Gandhi (155-7).
Zacharias’ answers continue to be heavy on speculation, and light on coherent content. It’s hard to critique "arguments" that don’t really follow any thread, and that are more assertion than argument anyway. Zacharias says moral living is well and good, but belief is what really matters. "Jesus Christ didn’t come into this world to make bad people good…he came…to make dead people live" (156). Is this really what Christ taught? It’s what his disciples and the early church taught certainly, but can this focus be observed in Jesus himself? I think not. Zacharias criticizes several ethical systems because "they are reduced to mere survival" (156). He indicates that when constructing a moral paradigm, "life and death, spiritually, is where you begin" (157). But isn’t this just reducing it to mere "spiritual" survival? He is describing a purely mercenary religion, where Christians would gladly follow even an evil God if it got them into heaven. Is he really supposed to be making Christianity look good here?
And even supposing morality was moot and only eternal survival mattered, just how are we supposed to decide if a system behooves our spiritual existence? It’s kind of hard to tell until we are dead, and then it’s a bit too late. And for those of us who don’t believe in a spiritual existence, it is a useless starting point. Zacharias notes that, "…anyone spending eternity with God in heaven is there because of the grace and provision of Jesus Christ, which the person trusted and received" (157). This brings up another interesting question never adequately answered by Christians. What about the 40,000 years or so of pre-Christ human (Homo sapiens sapiens) history? Are those people stuck in purgatory? Are they just plain out of an afterlife? Even if you insist on the literal Bible and the Ussher calculations, you’ve still got to account for a couple thousand years.
So What About Gandhi?
Strobel resumes the issue of Gandhi’s fate which Zacharias previously dodged. He, more or less, avoids it again. He claims David Berkowitz has been saved if he has truly repented because murder is not the worst thing one can do (158-60).
It was asked: so did Gandhi go to hell because he was an unbeliever? Zacharias basically says: I don’t know, but God will always do what is right. That is very comforting. When asked again, Zacharias says "that will have to be determined by God" (158). This is a perfect example of how ludicrous people become when trying to adhere to doctrine. The bottom line is that Zacharias doesn’t want to admit Gandhi was good because he was an unbeliever. How can an unbeliever truly be good? Everyone knows you must believe in Christ to go to heaven! Yet, it is plainly obvious that Gandhi’s moral character outstrips innumerable Christians so that the idea of him suffering in hell is problematic. This is a Christian at his most pathetic. If Zacharias was truly moral, he would have the courage to stand up and say that any God who judges Gandhi unfit has worthless standards: such a God could not be deemed good Himself. Zacharias says salvation is possible for serial killer David Berkowitz if he has accepted Christ, but everything he has said also entails that it was not possible for a righteous man like Gandhi. Zacharias knows this discredits his religion, so he refuses to admit that this is indeed the inevitable conclusion of his own argument. After all, he says murder is not so bad because, "The worst thing is to say to God that you don’t need him" (159). Therefore, since he effectively said this, Gandhi was more immoral than a serial killer. How twisted is this religion? Maybe I’m biased, but I have a hard time buying into an ethical system that places someone like Gandhi below a serial killer in virtue.
What Of Those Who Haven’t Heard?
Zacharias suggests that those who don’t live in heavy Christian areas will still find God if they seek him. He gives a couple of examples (160-3).
In grappling with the problem of condemning those not raised within Christianity, Zacharias cites Acts. 17:26-27. "From one man he made every nation of men, that should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." Whew. I am certainly glad God chose to place me in wealthy, 21st century America. I wonder how the third world peasant, or medieval serf toiling endlessly in the fields feels about his placement though. And it’s nice that those who seek God may find him, but why would many non-Christians seek him? From Hindus to atheists, non-Christians often feel that they can explain the universe just fine with god(s) of their own – or none at all. God is very inefficient if he allows billions of people to have less a chance to find him than billions of others. As for the examples of personal revelatory experiences of converts, these are useless beyond emotional value (see the Secular Web library on Religious Experience). But ignoring that, there is another problem. What of the millions who have had such experiences in favor of non-Christian religions? Are all their experiences invalid while Christians always get it right? And what of the former Christians who have converted to other religions? Might they be on to something? See the Secular Web’s library on Arguments from Confusion.
Why Not Jesus?
When asked why Christianity doesn’t win many converts today, Zacharias says it is because of the level of commitment required – Christianity is hard. He then tells his personal conversion story (163-6).
I don’t think it’s the difficulty of following Christ that is holding Christianity back. The real problem is twofold: (1.) They don’t have a well oiled conversion machine; (2.) Most of the world is already aware of Christianity. Consider the Mormons again. They are converting at a startling pace because they have a built-in conversion apparatus. Nearly every 19-year-old male in their Church spends two years of his life doing nothing but selling the religion in used-car-salesman style. This is very effective and must create nostalgia for Catholics who harken back to the good old days of world expansion into areas suffused with unbaptized heathens. Which is the second problem. Christianity has now spread worldwide and is one of the most popular religions on the planet. It’s hard to make much progress (percentage wise) when you have converted more than a billion already (economists call that “market saturation”). Zacharias’ personal conversion story again highlights a point that this book is making quite clear: the real explanation for people becoming Christian (or religious at large) is grounded in emotion, not reason.