Members of the congregation I serve recently posed two questions. The first question: “Is it necessary to believe in the unique, singular divinity of Jesus to be a Christian? Divinity means specifically that Jesus was the Son of God, not a daughter or son of God like any typical human would be. Depending on the answer to question above, what does Christian mean? The second question: if Jesus is the only way to heaven, what happens (happened) to the over 90% of humans in history who did not follow/know him – also the billions following other religions?
Let me take the liberty to translate these excellent and challenging questions into four essential questions. Who was Jesus? Who is Jesus? What does it mean to follow Jesus? Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
Who was Jesus? Was he the unique Son of God, different from the rest of us? Who was Jesus? He was a person from the region of Galilee who lived during the first three decades of the common era. He was a teacher, healer, and social activist in the tradition Blue and purple of the Old Testament prophets. He gathered around him a small group of disciples. Some claimed that he was the Messiah. He was crucified around the year 30CE at Jerusalem after which his followers made a unique claim – resurrection. Most Jews believed in resurrection, a return to life of all people at the end of time for judgment. But Jesus’ followers claimed that resurrection happened to Jesus alone — during time instead of at the end of time. The expectation was that Jesus would be coming back to finish a Messiah’s work.
For much of Christian history, we have tended to focus much more on the divinity of Jesus and have often lost sight that, first and foremost, he was a flesh and blood person who lived and died. Jesus was a man, but he was also much more.
Who is Jesus? Is he God, the only Son of God? Is he divine or not? Is Jesus God? The claim of divinity, equality with God, was not made explicitly until the fourth century in the Nicene Creed. The Apostle’s creed, not written by the apostles themselves, but dating from the second century, calls Jesus “the only Son of God, our Lord.”
The understanding of Jesus as Son of God and then God the Son evolved slowly during the first four centuries of the Christian era. The title Son of God was not claimed by Jesus in the Gospels. He preferred Son of man which simply meant a human being. Son of God was a title ascribed to Jesus for the purpose of comparing the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Caesar who also claimed the title Son of God.
Diverse schools of thought developed regarding the nature of Jesus in the early years of Christianity. These included the extreme views on the one hand that Jesus was only human or, on the other hand that Jesus was God pretending to be human. The compromise view was adopted that Jesus was both human and divine. His mystical, dual nature, was designed to avoid the extreme views.
The fourth century was a time of significant change with Emperor Constantine making Christianity the state religion of Rome. Constantine considered doctrinal clarity essential to determine who was in and who was out, and to distinguish friends from enemies. His guidance led to the church’s adoption of the Nicene Creed in 325CE. For the next 1000 years, the church sought and held political power based on the idea that allegiance to the church’s doctrinal statements equated to loyalty to the church.
Who Jesus is as God or Son of God is a matter of mystery and faith. What we know of Jesus as a man is that he lived and died 2000 years ago. What we who follow him believe and trust is that he is more than that. So, given that the divinity of Jesus — Jesus as God – is a matter of mystery and faith more than certainty. The idea of Jesus as God the Son was developed by the early church during the first four centuries following Jesus’ early life. It was not a teaching of Jesus. Given that, what is a Christian? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Christian was originally a derogatory term designed to mock the followers of the Way for serving a crucified and failed Messiah. These followers, who were eventually were described as turning the world upside down became a term of admiration. Let me suggest that we think in terms of being Christian in two senses: a narrow sense (focused, not rigid) and a broad sense (universal, not relativistic).
Being Christian in this broad sense means following the way that Jesus followed – a path of love, non-violent social justice, peacemaking, inclusion, and abundant grace. It is to follow what author Matthew Fox called the Cosmic Christ, faithful to the spirit of Jesus that is present in many people and even many faith traditions whether or not they identify with Jesus or the Christian Church.
Being Christian in a narrow sense refers to those of us who intentionally follow Jesus. We embrace his story and believe that through his life, death, and resurrection the temporal and eternal dimensions of life are reconciled. We seek his mystical presence through prayer and we see in his human face the nature of God. This more narrow sense of being Christian includes, but is not limited to, those who believe in him as God the Son.
Something we must wrestle with that the early followers of Jesus did not was the religion of Christianity. Even when Jesus says, in John 14, that “No one comes to the Father but by me,” there is the sense of following Jesus’ way of relating to God and not in accepting the religion of Christianity. Religion is a human creation to help us make sense of our experiences of the mystical. It can be very helpful as a means to help us grow up in faith. Religion can also be very destructive when coupled with coercive power. In this instance, religion can be used as a way to divide and judge people on behalf God. Let us not presume to take on God’s role, but follow Jesus’ example – to love extravagantly and work for the well being of all people. As Christians in the narrow sense, we trust in the power of our faith not in it being the only correct one, but in having the name and story of Jesus to guide our path. We are able to call on the Spirit of Christ to be our friend, guide, and comforter.
The last question: if Jesus is the only way to heaven, what about the over 90% of people who are not Christians? In other words, is Jesus the only way to heaven? Is the penalty for not following Jesus hell? This question raises so many other questions. “What happens to us after we die? What is heaven? What is hell? Are either or both of these real? Is the Christian religion the only way to follow Jesus? How do you wrestle with these questions?
I suggest that the only way to become awake to the ultimate truth of life is in the way Jesus did it, by reaching out to embrace and include others, to touch and be touched by the love of God. This is true for people who never knew Jesus or who have felt rejected by those who see them as condemned by God – true also for those who have rejected the Christian religion for a variety of reasons. Gandhi is reported to have said, “I love your Christ, but I can’t stand your Christians.”