When Jesus declares that He is the way, the truth, and the life, the context makes clear that He means that He is the way to the Father. He further claims that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). This fits the rest of John’s Gospel: there, even many of the religious people who believed in the one true God opposed God’s agent; if they were not following God’s heart, how much less those who worship false gods or (like myself before my conversion) no God at all?
This claim is a startling and offensive one in our culture, where all truth is often considered relative (except the truth of relativism). But while some truth may be relative, sometimes it matters what one believes: if I drink nitric acid because someone tells me that it is orange juice, there will be consequences to my faulty information. Yet the claim is no more offensive today than it was for the early Christians; had they agreed to the existence of other gods in addition to their own, they would not have faced much persecution in the Roman world. Gentiles did not deny the Jewish God, but often despised Jews and Christians for worshiping him exclusively.
The claim is also painful. Many people we love do not know Christ; half the world has never even had the gospel explained to them. But the painfulness of a claim need not make it untrue. That tens of thousands of people die daily from malnutrition and preventable diseases is catastrophic, but we do the world no good by denying its reality; instead we must pour our resources into meeting those needs. In the same way, if Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s heart, we must devote our labors to making that available to spiritually needy people that God created for fellowship with Himself. We do this by sharing our faith (both with our lips and with lives consistent with our testimony), directly with with those around us, and less directly by supporting our fellow laborers who share God’s love in Christ among those who have not heard it.
Some people object that all religions are the same regarding “what matters.” Unfortunately, such an objection is offensive to most religions, because it waters down what matters to them. One religion says that Jesus is God’s Son; another says that God has no son. Some religions say that there is only one God; others that there are many gods; others still that everything is god. While such distinctions may not matter to outsiders, they matter to practitioners of these faiths. Tolerance and kindness are necessary virtues, but genuine tolerance means that we get along (and, according to Christian teaching, love our neighbor) even when we disagree, not that we always agree. Many who want to make all religions the same are unwilling to tolerate the differences!
When John’s Gospel claims that Jesus is the only way to the Father, it is not saying that no one else has any truth. It does, however, claim that Jesus is the only way to a completely saving, personal relationship with the Father. The apostolic message throughout the New Testament preaches as if our eternal destiny depends on our response to God’s offer of a relationship with Himself in Christ. If we genuinely believe that claim, we will live in such a way as to devote our lives and resources to making Christ known.
This article is adapted from Craig’s 2004 article in the Missionary Seer; Craig has also authored The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic).