Christian Theology: Jesus Christ

Introduction

"Jesus is Lord" is the central claim of the Christian faith.  We find it scratched on the walls of catacombs in Rome, left by thousands of believers who died for their faith.  We say it when we are baptized as followers of our Lord, willing to tell the world about our commitment to Jesus and pay any price to serve him.  But how do we know that our claim is true?

If Jesus is not Lord, he lied about himself and your church has misled you.  If Jesus is not Lord, Christianity is a waste of your time and life.  The most important doctrine you can study is the topic which is before us today.  Let's look at the most common questions people ask about Jesus, and see why we should worship and serve him as our Lord every day.

How do we know Jesus Christ existed?

The poet claims of Jesus Christ, "All the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that have ever sat, and all the kings that have ever reigned, put together, have not changed life on this earth as much as has that one solitary life."  There are more Christians on the planet than adherents of any other faith, so the universal significance of the Christian position regarding the existence and deity of Jesus is clear.  But is it justified?

We believe that Jesus is Lord because the Bible teaches that it is so.  But the Qur'an teaches that Allah is the only God.  Buddhists follow their own sacred writings, as do Hindus and scores of other religions.  Do we have any other evidence to support our commitment to Christ as the King of Kings?  And how do we refute the claim that the divinity of Jesus was a doctrine which evolved centuries after his life and death?

When did Jesus live?

"Jesus" means "Savior" in Greek, a translation of the Hebrew name Joshua.  "Christ" translates "Christos," the Greek word for Messiah (the "anointed one" promised by God to redeem his people).  "Christ" is a title for "Jesus," not his last or family name.  (Men in Jesus' day used their father's name as their last name, placing "bar" or "son of" before it.  Jesus' Jewish name would have been Jesus bar-Joseph.)

Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem sometime between 6 and 4 B.C.  (We know that he was born before the death of King Herod in 4 B.C., since Herod tried to have him killed.)  Why was he born B.C. ("Before Christ")?  You can blame the confusion on a Russian monk who died around A.D. 544 named Dionysius Exiguus.

Dionysius was asked by Pope John I to work out the dates for Easter, and decided to begin by calculating the date of Jesus' birth.  He determined that Jesus was born in the Roman year 753 (the Roman calendar began with the founding of Rome).  He declared the year of Jesus' birth to be the first day of 754.  Christians later made that year A.D.  1 (A.D. abbreviates "Anno Domini," the Year of our Lord).  But Dionysius apparently did not realize that King Herod had died in 4 B.C.; thus the confusion.

Jesus was around 30 years of age when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23).  He was crucified three years later, around the age of 33.  And so his death occurred around A.D. 29.

What do we know without the New Testament?

The poet claims of Jesus Christ, "All the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that have ever sat, and all the kings that have ever reigned, put together, have not changed life on this earth as much as has that one solitary life."  There are more Christians on the planet than adherents of any other faith, so the universal significance of the Christian position regarding the existence and deity of Jesus is clear.  But is it justified?

We believe that Jesus is Lord because the Bible teaches that it is so.  But the Koran teaches that Allah is the only God.  Buddhists follow their own sacred writings, as do Hindus and scores of other religions.  Do we have any other evidence to support our commitment to Christ as the King of Kings?  And how do we refute the claim that the divinity of Jesus was a doctrine which evolved centuries after his life and death?

Before we formulate our answer, let's remember some facts about non-Christian evidences for Jesus:

The availability of international news in Jesus' day was limited, making knowledge of his Palestinian life and work improbable for historians writing in Rome.

Much of the literature of Jesus' era has not survived.  And so we should not be surprised that non-biblical records regarding Jesus' life are limited.

From the time of Constantine (A.D. 312), the Church possessed State authority to suppress all anti-Christian literature.  It considered pagan references to Jesus to be blasphemous, and disposed of many of them.

The character of the events concerning Jesus' earthly life, centering in a minor nation and religion, would have been of little interest to Rome.

Pagan sources would have been influenced by anti-Christian rhetoric.

The Jewish documents from the era are problematic in reliability and interpretation (see below).

Despite these facts, historical evidence for Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is extremely helpful in confirming the authority of his word.

Gentile references to Jesus

We'll begin with Roman historians who mention Jesus in some way.  Thallus the Samaritan wrote a history of Greece and its relations with Asia from the Trojan War to his own day.  According to Eusebius, his history was composed in three books.  It does not exist today.

Julius Africanus preserves a quotation from Thallus's history.  Written in A.D. 52, it may be the earliest non-Christian reference to Jesus: "Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun--unreasonably, as it seems to me."  Julius explains that a solar eclipse could not occur at the time of the full moon, and that it was during the season of the Paschal full moon that Jesus died.

Julius and Eusebius were certain that Thallus referenced Jesus' crucifixion.  This would be the earliest pagan reference to Jesus, showing that the passion story was known in Rome and non-Christian circles in the mid-first century.  And Thallus's statement demonstrates that the enemies of Christianity tried to refute its claims through naturalistic interpretation of the facts it reported.

Pliny the Younger was a Roman administrator who served as governor Bithynia in Asia Minor.  The nephew and adopted son of a natural historian known as Pliny the Elder, he was a great letter-writer and observer of his day.  Ten books of Pliny's correspondence exist today.

Pliny wrote the first Latin passage in which Jesus is mentioned.  The tenth of his correspondence books, composed around A.D. 112, contains numerous letters to Emperor Trajan regarding the administration of Bithynia.  One of them concerns the problem of dealing with Christians.  In it he describes his efforts to secure their revocation of Christ, and the strange beliefs they hold concerning him.  Part of that description: "They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, where they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god."

Pliny provides the earliest non-biblical description of Christian worship in existence today.  It demonstrates that from the first generation of their movement, Christians considered Jesus to be divine.  His divinity was not the result of Constantine's edicts two centuries later, or an evolution of faith over several generations.  Rather, believers have always known that Jesus existed, and that he was their Lord.

Tacitus (ca. A.D. 55-120) was the greatest historian of ancient Rome.  He is best known for two works: the Annals (18 books, covering the period from Augustus' death in A.D. 14 to that of Nero in A.D. 68); and the Histories (12 books, beginning after Nero's death and concluding with that of Domitian in A.D. 96).

In Annals 15:44 we find the only early pagan explicit reference to Christ.  Regarding the great fire in Rome during the reign of Nero, Tacitus reports:

Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition . . . broke out.

Tacitus was not an eyewitness to these events.  But he reports them as facts of history, documenting that Jesus existed, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that after his death a "superstition" resulted.  "Superstition" points to something supernatural, not a normal historical occurrence.  We know that this event was the resurrection.  And so by A.D. 115 we have evidence for Jesus' existence and death, and the belief of his followers that he was raised from the dead.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas (A.D. 65-135) was chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-38).  As a Roman historian with access to the imperial records, his narratives are especially noteworthy.  Suetonius reports that during Nero's reign, "Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief" (Nero 16:2).  Then, during the reign of Claudius, "Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city" (Claudius 25:4).  This expulsion occurred in A.D. 49, and was recorded in Acts 18:2.

Mara bar Serapion was a Stoic writing later than A.D. 70 (his letter refers to the destruction of the Temple).  The letter is housed in the British Museum today.  It may be a reference to the Jewish execution of Jesus: "What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?  It was just after that their kingdom was abolished."  He does not name this "king," though it is probable that he refers to Jesus' crucifixion.

In conclusion, the Gentile evidences for Jesus make it clear that Christianity was known and reported by Rome in the first century after his death and resurrection.  They also demonstrate the following:

Jesus existed as a figure of history.

The Christians believed in his resurrection.

They worshiped him as their living Lord.

Jewish references to Jesus

The most significant Jewish historian of the ancient world was Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37/38-97).  Born in Jerusalem, Josephus belonged to an eminent priestly family, and received extensive education.  At the age of 19, he joined the Pharisees.  He was opposed to Rome during the Jewish Revolt which began in A.D. 66, but later served commander Vespasian in Jerusalem.

After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, Josephus moved to Rome, where he became the court historian for emperor Vespasian.  Four works have been preserved: History of the Jewish War (in seven books), Antiquities (in 20 books), Autibiography; and On the Antiquity of the Jews (in two books).

In Antiquities, Jesus is mentioned twice.  The first reference: "Ananias called a Sanhedrin together, brought before it James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others . . . and he caused them to be stoned" (Antiquities 20:9:1).  Note that Josephus mentions Jesus without comment or clarification, possibly depending upon his earlier statement regarding Jesus (see below).  If so, this passage verifies the earlier text's basic authenticity.  And it shows us Jesus' importance, as he could be identified by name alone.

The second reference is sometimes called the "Testimonium Flavianum":

Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works,--a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:3:3; Whiston's translation).

If this reference is authentic, it would provide an extremely significant attribution of divinity and resurrection to Jesus.  Since Josephus would have first-hand information, his statement would be especially important.

However, most interpreters do not believe that the uniquely Christian elements of the text came from Josephus.  Rather, they affirm that the basic facts of the "Testimonium Flavianum" may be accepted as genuine, with theological interpretations held in judgment.  As such, the text is an important Jewish record of the basic facts of Christ's life, death, and reported resurrection.

The Talmud tradition provides additional Jewish attestation to Jesus' existence.  The Talmud was a compilation of Jewish oral traditions, collected in written form by Rabbi Akiba before his death in A.D. 135.  The work was then revised by his student, Rabbi Meir, and the project completed around A.D. 200 by Rabbi Judah.  The written record of the oral tradition is known as the Mishnah.  Ancient commentary on it was called the Gemara.  The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemara is the Talmud.

We would expect such literature to be biased against Jesus.  And we would be correct.

For instance, the Babylonian Talmud 43a states, "It is taught: on Passover Eve they hanged Yeshu. . . . They found nothing in his favor, so they hanged him on Passover Eve."  Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 107b contains a bizarre treatment of Jesus' followers and their heretical acts.  It considers Jesus to be a heretic and a sorcerer.  And Tosefta Hullin 2:22-24 dismisses Jesus' miracles as magic and superstition.

It is noteworthy that those who composed these early rejections of Jesus as Messiah never thought to deny his existence.  This would have been the easiest way to debunk the growing Christian movement.  But these writers, working so close to the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, knew that such claims would be rejected.  And so their anti-Christian rhetoric further makes the case for Jesus' historical existence.

Early Christian records

The earliest Christian writers produced volumes of important works on the life and significance of Jesus.  Many of these writings contain vital facts regarding the Christ event.  We would expect these materials to report positively on the Christian faith they reflect.  The point is that these faith commitments were made at a very early time in Christian history, not as the product of generational of evolution and political manipulation.

Clement of Rome (A.D. 95) is generally considered to be the earliest extra-biblical Christian author.  He was the leading elder at the Roman church, and wrote Corinthians to help settle a dispute between laity and elders within the Corinth congregation.  His letter sets out the divinity of Christ, and his delegation of authority to his apostles.  He anchors the authority of the gospel in the resurrection of Christ.

Ignatius (A.D. 110-115) composed seven letters to six churches and one individual (Polycarp), while on the his way to execution in Rome.  His letter to the Trallians documents Jesus' lineage, life, crucifixion, and resurrection; his epistle to the Smyrneans affirms his lineage and virgin birth, baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection; his letter to the Magnesians affirms the facticity of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection.

Quadratus (A.D. 125) provides an early apologetic for the historicity of Jesus' miracles.  Barnabas (dated variously) shows that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament laws.  Justin the Martyr (ca. A.D. 150) provides significant and lengthy treatments of Jesus' historicity.  First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho document Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

These and other early Christian documents demonstrate the historicity of Jesus' earthly life and work.  They were written at a time when such claims could be countered easily, if they were fictitious.  The early Christian letters reproduce much of the New Testament, and provide independent evidence for its trustworthiness and authority.

So, on the basis of non-biblical evidences, we can know that:

Jesus Christ existed.

He was crucified by Pontius Pilate.

The first Christians believed him to be raised from the dead.

The early church worshiped him as Lord and God.

Jewish opponents tried to slander him, but never to deny his existence.

The facts of Christian faith were settled early in church history, and are no invention of later revisionists.

The Roman Empire persecuted Christians because they claimed no King but the Lord Jesus.  Their radical faith and courage, and the rapid spread of their movement, have no other explanation except that the living Christ changed their lives and empowered their faith.  Multiplied thousands died because of their commitment to Jesus.  And people don't die for a lie.

Extra-biblical evidences thus demonstrate the trustworthiness of Scripture's central claim: that Jesus is Lord.  Such historicity is excellent evidence for the authority of the book which records his life and ministry.

The Empire persecuted Christians because they claimed no King but the Lord Jesus.  The radical faith and courage of the first apostles, and the rapid spread of the Christian movement, have no other explanation except that the living Lord Jesus changed their lives and empowered their witness.  Multiplied thousands died because of their commitment to this One.  And people don't die for a lie.

Why was he born to a virgin?  Why was he poor?

The Bible teaches clearly that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born (see Matt. 1:25; Luke 1:34).  Why was it important that Christ be born to a virgin?  For the simple reason that his miraculous birth made clear his miraculous, divine nature.  If he had been born in the normal way, he would be human but not also divine.

It is important to know that Jesus' virgin birth is not God's condemnation of sex between a husband and wife.  Medieval theologians developed the idea that sin is transmitted from parents to children through sexual relations, and taught that Jesus was born of a virgin so that he could be born without sin.  This doctrine is not taught in the Bible.  Jesus' virgin birth made clear his divine nature; it did not condemn our human nature.

He was born to a simple family living in relative poverty.  For instance, when his parents came to the Temple to bring the sacrifice expected for a newborn child, they could afford to offer only a pair of doves or pigeons at his birth, the sacrifice allowed for very poor people (Luke 2:24).  He grew up in Nazareth, a town so obscure that it was not mentioned a single time in the Old Testament.

Jesus' relative poverty made him accessible to the common people of his day.  If he had lived in wealth, the poor people would never have accepted his message or ministry.  He became one of us, so that all of us can become one with him.

How could Jesus be both God and man?

The Bible teaches clearly that Jesus is the eternal, divine Son of God.  At the same time, he became a man in the "Incarnation" (the word means "to become flesh").  He left heaven for earth and exchanged his divine glory for human suffering and frailty (Philippians 2:5-11).  How could he be both God and man?

This apparent contradiction illustrates the fact that our finite, fallen minds cannot comprehend fully the nature of God.  Centuries before Christ, Aristotle taught us that truth is dependent on non-contradiction.  The object you're holding in your hands right now cannot be both a piece of paper and a Big Mac.  It cannot be two contradictory things at the same time.  We assume the same is true of Jesus—thus our confusion.

You and I cannot understand how Jesus can be fully God and fully man, but our limited intellectual ability does not make his Incarnation less real.  A fourth-grader's inability to understand geometry makes the Pythagorean theorem no less real.  I don't understand how my laptop works, but I'm grateful that it does.

Every significant Christian doctrine involves a paradox, accepting apparently contradictory statements as both true.  God is three and one; the Bible is divinely inspired and humanly written; God knows the future and we are free to choose.  The Bible teaches clearly that Jesus is fully God and fully man.  I don't have to understand God's word to believe it.

How can Jesus be "the word"?

John's Gospel begins with a strange statement: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning" (John 1:1-2).  You have probably been taught that the Bible is the "word of God."  How can the same be true of Jesus?

It's actually not.  John began his Gospel with a Greek term which was very important in his culture.  The logos ("word") was believed by Greek philosophers to be the organizing principle which holds the universe in harmony.  They saw logos as reason, order, unity.  The Jews, by contrast, saw the logos or "word" of God as his creative power.  God spoke, and there was light and all of creation (Genesis 1).  To them, the "word of God" was the power which created all that is.

John was writing both for Jews and Gentiles, so he used a word which both affirmed as very significant and powerful.  By calling Jesus the Logos, he told the Greeks that Jesus was and is the divine power which holds the universe together and brings order and meaning to life.  At the same time, he told the Jews that Jesus was and is the creative power of God which brought the universe into being.

Both audiences would have understood his meaning immediately.  His assertion is still true—Jesus is still the divine power who creates life and gives us purpose and significance today.

What is the "Son of Man"?

"Son of Man" was a common phrase in Jesus' day, and his favorite title for himself.  He used it to emphasize both his humanity and his divinity.  As the "son of man" he was born into the human race.  He felt hunger at the Samaritan well (John 4) and thirst on the cross (John 19:28).  He suffered and died at the hands of Roman soldiers on Calvary.

But he was also divine.  "Son of Man" was used in Daniel 7 to describe a coming conqueror from heaven: "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).

By contrast, the title Son of God was often used by the Romans for Caesar and/or their pagan gods.  If Jesus had used this title for himself, the Romans would either have arrested him for sedition or seen him as one of their deities.  By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus conveyed his Incarnational nature to his followers.  

Did Jesus go to hell?

Millions of Christians have recited the Apostle's Creed as a basic part of their weekly worship.  This fourth-century statement of basic Christian beliefs, likely edited from documents even older, was not written by the apostles.  However, it contains a brief summary of teachings considered to be theirs, and so has been authoritative for centuries.  Its fourth clause contains this affirmation: Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell."

Did Jesus really go to hell?  If so, why?  Does the Bible teach this doctrine?  This subject is probably the most confusing issue related to Christology (the doctrine of Christ).  The Nicene Creed, also fourth century in origin, makes no mention of such an event.  The Athanasian Creed, dated to the sixth century, does.  What should we believe?  Why does it matter?

Preaching to "the spirits in prison"

The text at the heart of the issue is 1 Peter 3:18-20, typically regarded as one of the most difficult in all the New Testament.  It begins: "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (v. 18a).  Remember, he died one time for all of humanity.  You'll need that fact later in this section.

Peter continues: "He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit . . ." (v. 18b).  The Holy Spirit was the power by which Jesus was raised from the dead.  Now the confusion begins: "through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built" (vs. 19-20a).  Who were the "spirits in prison"?  And when did Jesus preach to them?

"Spirits" typically refers to spiritual beings such as angels, though the word can refer to humans as well.  They were "in prison" as a result of their disobedience to the word and will of God.  Some have suggested that these were the offspring of the "sons of God and daughters of men" (Gen 6:1-4).  But that text nowhere states that this offspring disobeyed God, or that their origin was sinful.  And they were born before Noah was called by God.

These "imprisoned spirits" disobeyed God during the period when Noah was building the ark.  Noah was also a "preacher of righteousness" (2 Pt 2:5).  Thus Peter most likely refers to those who refused Noah's call to repentance during the 100 years he spent building the ark.  "Through the Spirit," Jesus preached to them.

When?  Peter's Greek grammar is clear: he did this while Noah was building his Ark and calling the people to repentance and salvation.  Those people are now, in Peter's time, "spirits in prison," awaiting their final judgment for their rejection of God's grace.

How did Jesus preach to them?  It is possible that he did so through a personal manifestation of himself (a "Christophany," or appearance of Christ before his incarnation), though no text suggests this event.  And we wonder why they would warrant such a unique privilege.

Some suggest that he preached to them between his death and resurrection.  This is the option which gave rise to the belief that Christ "descended to hell."  However, Peter's syntax seems to indicate clearly that he preached to the spirits during the time Noah was building the ark.  Nothing in the text requires that we locate Jesus' preaching to the spirits between his death and resurrection.  And it is hard to see why this one group of people would receive a second opportunity or a unique declaration of their condemnation.

The most likely option is that Jesus preached "through the Spirit" in Noah's preaching.  In other words, he motivated and inspired Noah's preaching by the Holy Spirit.  If this is the correct option, Peter uses this fact to show that the same Spirit who brought Jesus to life also gave spiritual life to people as far back in history as the time of Noah.  This was the approach favored by Augustine, and followed by many interpreters today.

Note Peter's earlier comment: "the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come to you searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Pt 1:10-11, emphasis mine).  If the Spirit of Christ was preaching through the prophets, he could preach through Noah.

Did Jesus descend to hell?

I am aware of no other text which is used to justify this belief.  Such an interpretation raises two difficult questions: (1) why did those who were in hell at the time of Jesus' death receive a visit from him which has been (apparently) unavailable to those since? (2) what would be the purpose of such a visit, given that no second chance is offered in Scripture (cf. Heb 9:27-28)?  As we have seen, Peter's statement, while difficult to interpret, seems clearly to locate Jesus' preaching "to the spirits in prison" as occurring during the time of Noah, not between his death and resurrection.  The clearest answer to these questions is to deny the premise which requires them.

In addition, Jesus promised the thief at his side, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43).  He could not have descended to hell and been in paradise at the same time.  And his last words convey the opposite impression of a journey to hell: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46).

Remember Peter's first affirmation: "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Pt 3:18).  The paradise he offered the thief who died at his side is now available to any who will die in the same way.

Is there only one way to God?

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a disease caused by tiny virus particles which attack the brain and spinal cord.  Until this generation, polio was a kind of AIDS in American society.  Why is polio not feared as it once was?  The answer is named Jonas Edward Salk.  Dr. Salk, an American research scientist, announced in 1953 that he had developed a trial vaccine for polio.  By 1955, his discovery was being used across the world.

In those exciting days, there were two questions no one thought to ask.  First, aren't all vaccines basically the same?  They knew that all others had failed, and that Dr. Salk's had succeeded.  And second, why only one vaccine?  For the simple reason that only one was needed.  No one asked these questions, for the answers were obvious.  And across the world, millions of people made sure they were vaccinated, and those they cared about as well.  Today polio is virtually no threat to world health.

Unfortunately, there is another disease which still exists today, and is far worse even than polio.  This disease has infected every person who has ever lived, and is always fatal.  Fortunately, there is a vaccine which will work for every person on earth, and is free of charge.  The disease, of course, is sin, our broken relationship with God.  The cure is salvation through Jesus Christ, his Son.  And yet questions persist about this spiritual, eternal "vaccine": aren't all faiths the same?  Why is there only one way to God?

What does the Bible say?

Several facts are clear in God's word, and essential to our question.  First, Jesus alone claimed divinity.  In John 14:9 he asserted, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."  Earlier the authorities tried to stone him to death "because you claim to be God" (Jn 10:33).  Other religious leaders claimed to reveal God; Jesus alone claims to be God.

Second, Jesus is preparing our place in heaven (Jn 14:2).  Other religious leaders taught about heaven or the afterlife; Jesus alone claims to be preparing it for us.  Third, Jesus will take us to heaven personally (Jn 14:3).  Other religious leaders taught about the way to heaven; Jesus alone claims to take us there.

Fourth, Jesus is the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6).  His Greek was emphatic: "I am the way, the truth, and the life."  Later he was even more emphatic: "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth" (Mt 28:18).  No one in all of human history ever made this claim.  Peter would later make the same announcement (Ac 4:12).

We may agree or disagree with Jesus, but we need to know what he believed about himself.  He never claimed to be a religious teacher or leader, or one way to God among many.  He claimed to be the only way to eternity in heaven.

Three popular-isms

Jesus' statements are politically incorrect, to say the least.  Three "isms" dominate our culture and reject everything we've learned so far.  The first is relativism, the idea that all truth is relative and subjective.  We're taught that language is only a convention of human power; words do not describe reality, but only our version of it.  There can be no objective truth claims, only subjective experiences.  It's fine if Jesus is your way to God, but don't insist that he must be mine.

The second word for our society is pluralism: different religions are roads up the same mountain.  They're all worshipping the same God, just by different names.  A recent poll revealed that 64% of Americans believe all religions pray to the same God.  It's fine if Jesus is your road to God, but don't make the rest of us travel it.

And pluralism typically leads to universalism, the idea that everyone is going to heaven, no matter what they believe.  Only 2% of Americans are afraid that they might go to hell.  62% say it doesn't matter which God we believe in, so long as we're sincere.  We're all on the road to God, whatever we might believe about him.

A reasoned response

First, we can respond to relativism with the fact that objective truth is an intellectual and practical necessity in life.  To deny absolutes is to affirm them.  If I say, "There is no such thing as absolute truth," haven't I made a claim to absolute truth?  We don't accept relativism with regard to the historicity of the Holocaust, or our doctor's diagnosis, or the aircraft mechanic's assurance that the plane is safe. Objective truth is an intellectual and practical necessity in life.

Next, let's respond to pluralism with the fact that the world's religions teach radically different truth.  If one is right, the others are wrong.  These cannot be different roads up the same mountain—they are different mountains.

Third, we can respond to universalism with the fact that Jesus is the only way to God we need, or can trust.  It doesn't bother me that only one key in my pocket will start my car, so long as it works.  And only Christianity works.  Our basic problem with God is called "sin."  We have all made mistakes and committed sins in our lives.  These failures have separated us from a righteous and pure God.  The only way to heaven which works is the way which deals with these sins.  And only Christianity does.  No other religion offers forgiveness for sins, grace for sinners, and the security of salvation.  Only Jesus.

If you were a parent and your daughter were facing the threat of polio in 1955, would you accept a doctor's relative assurances that she would be well?  Would you try every possible vaccine, in the belief that they're all the same?  Would you complain if you were given only one proven option?  Or would you gladly vaccinate your child?

What about your soul?