THE BLOG

The Pope, Non-Christians and the Bible

05/24/2013 11:38 am ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013

It happened on Facebook, but it could have been anywhere. I shared a HuffPost piece on Pope Francis' declaration that God has redeemed all people, even atheists, through Christ. Friends chimed in with their opinions. One friend weighed in with perhaps the most common response, John 14:6. There Jesus says: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by means of me" (my translation).

We've seen this passage invoked countless times. Many people take it as Jesus' definitive statement on Christian exclusivity. Have faith in Jesus, go to heaven. Apart from Jesus -- whether you're agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist -- you're out of luck. No one, after all, attains God apart from faith in Jesus.

So many things are wrong with this way of using the Bible. I'd like to use this post to explore why we should not use John 14:6, or any other passage, as the definitive statement on any topic. And I'd like to explain the reasons.

Let's take account of several assumptions one has to make before one can turn John 14:6 into a doctrine concerning the limits of God's grace. This approach assumes that the Bible amounts to a collection of definitive statements on doctrine and morality. If we had the right index, we could look up the Bible's teaching on every conceivable topic, from economics to sexuality, from church organization to doctrine.

But the Bible more resembles a library than a textbook. It includes diverse points of view on many topics. What happens when we die? According to Paul's earliest letters, after our death we're simply dead -- until the return of Jesus, that is (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:16-26). But Luke offers two passages that provide the impression that people arrive at their eternal destinations immediately upon their deaths (16:19-31; 23:43). The question of what lies immediately beyond death provides just one example of many, in which the Bible offers not definitive teaching on discrete topics but a range of opinions.

Those who rely upon John 14:6 to limit salvation to confessing Christians make a second assumption, that the Bible speaks directly to our questions. In 2013 we're all acutely aware of diverse "world religions." Many of us have non-Christian friends whose lives bear every sign of holiness. We know that church teaching has traditionally limited salvation to Christians alone, and we may or may not be comfortable with that teaching.

But what if John 14:6 isn't "about" the problem of world religions? No one could have written a world religions textbook when John was composed. While Jews claimed to worship the one true God, most ancient people simply assumed that people worshiped the gods of their ancestors, their city, or their region. There was no such thing as "Christianity" when John's Gospel was composed -- much less during Jesus' career. John's author had no conception that Muslims or Buddhists might demonstrate holiness and compassion on a par with followers of Jesus.

These two assumptions -- that the Bible amounts to a compendium of doctrinal pronouncements and that it speaks directly to our modern questions -- certainly clash with John 14:6. A close look at the literary context surrounding this verse reveals that it doesn't involve the question of Christian exclusivity at all. John 14 occurs within a famous section of the Gospel, the Farewell Discourse. From chapter 13 through chapter 17, Jesus is preparing his disciples for life beyond his death and resurrection. In other words, he is speaking to his disciples about their own lives. In chapter 14, Jesus is responding to a question from Thomas: "How will we know the way" to the place where Jesus is going (14:5)? Jesus' answer is that his disciples will find their way by staying close to Jesus. The passage has nothing to do with non-Christians at all.

Moreover, how do we know we should apply John 14:6 to our question about the salvation of non-Christians? What about John 10:16, in which Jesus acknowledges that he has "other sheep which are not of this fold" and that he must "bring them also," making them "one fold"? By what criteria does John 14:6 exclude non-Christians from salvation, while John 10:16 has nothing to say to the question? I am aware that some people attempt to provide answers to this question, but let's be honest: before one "fixes the problem," one must already have decided what the right answer must be. This way of sticking discrete Bible passages to our own questions simply won't carry water.

It's a dangerous thing to rip a passage out of its context and use it to as a pretext for one's one doctrinal biases. Responsible interpreters always consider a passage's historical context. (Would John's Gospel have addressed a topic that ancient people had not even considered?) Interpreters also take account of its literary context: What's the larger function of the passage in which we encounter a verse, and how does it relate to the material that surrounds it? Finally, responsible interpreters read the Bible as a whole, aware that we may encounter diverse points of view on a given question.