Jesus’s meaning when he described himself as ‘The Way, Truth and Life’

Question from PM, United Kingdom

What did Jesus mean when he said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life?’

This saying of Jesus, recorded in the chapter 14 and verse 6 of John’s gospel, is one of the key texts cited by Christians who want to claim that Jesus is the only way to God, especially given Jesus’ subsequent comment ‘No one comes to the Father, except by me.’ It is a standard ‘proof-text’ used by many evangelicals and Catholics who want to assert the ‘exclusive’ nature of Christianity and it is becoming more popular as traditional faith values are perceived to be under attack. It is interesting, in these politically correct times, that it is one of the few pieces of Jesus’ actual teaching to be included in the current film The Passion of the Christ.

John’s gospel is an ‘exclusive’ book, setting Jesus apart from ‘the Jews’ (the common description in John for the Pharisee opponents of Jesus), but also from the pagan religions of the ancient world. The author was not being anti-Semitic in his sweeping reference to ‘the Jews’. It is assumed he was writing into a Gentile setting – the Greek city of Ephesus is the traditional place where John’s gospel was written – and his audience would not have known the difference between the various factions in Judaism at that time, so he does not bother explaining.

The author wants to avoid syncretism, that is, the assimilation of other religious ideas into his version of Christianity. Given the lax morality of the pagan religions at the time, this is understandable. The sexual rites performed in many Greek and Roman temples were demeaning to women and often slaves (male and female) were kept purely for religious sexual practices.

There is a huge tendency in modern theology towards ‘pluralism’, the idea that all religions have some insight into ‘the transcendent’ (i.e. God). Of course this is slightly patronising to adherents of every faith, but that does not deter liberal scholars from pluralism. This verse does, however, provide a stumbling block to pluralism, which often leads to it being ignored or discounted. Ruth Edwards in Discovering John (SPCK, 2003) is honest enough to admit this but outlines a possible way around it.

According to Edwards, ‘the way’ means ‘road’ or ‘journey’ and figuratively ‘behaviour’ or ‘teaching’, so “Jesus shows the way to God, reveals truth, and demonstrates life.” (p142 op cit). She would want to use this text “to see Jesus as the ‘constitutive mediator’ of salvation for all humankind, with people of other faiths as latent or ‘anonymous’ Christians” (p143), although she does acknowledge that it is likely this was not the author’s original intention. [For more on ‘anonymous Christians’ see previous answers on freelance theology]

This viewpoint does not sit well with evangelical claims of the priority of Christianity, but does explain ‘inclusive’ verses in John (e.g. ch10 v16 regarding ‘sheep not of this fold’). Evangelicals generally take it as ‘a given’ that Jesus is excluding other faiths with this statement.

Even from a non-exclusive standpoint, however, the above dilution of Jesus’ claim to be ‘the way’ down to merely behaviour misses much of the point of John’s gospel. The gospel author has a very high view of Jesus Christ’s nature (the technical term is Christology), linking him in this section undeniably with the eternal Father. Jesus is not just the role model we should follow, “Something much more difficult and much more profound is being stated than that… it is only in union with the Son that any man can come to any kind of union with the Father.” (John Marsh: Saint John, Penguin 1968, p506).

Similarly Jesus reveals truth about the Father, “revealing the purposes and nature of God above” (Marsh, op cit, p506) and is the life which every reborn human has a share in. Jesus’ use of the words ‘I am’ is a direct reference to the God of Jewish history, who reveals his name to Moses as ‘I am that I am’ [YHWH] (Exodus ch3 v14). This whole section of John’s gospel is thus revelatory, not necessarily about Christianity’s special status amongst religions, but about Jesus Christ’s special status amongst men – a status that Christians share in when they are born again.

This is just a small example of thoughts about this particular verse, PM. I hope it has been helpful. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology.

Lost Gospels: The Gospel of Thomas

Question from GT, United Kingdom

What is the Gospel of Thomas? Is it any use to Christians? Are there any other books written in Biblical times that aren’t in the Bible, but which could help Christians today?

There are many writings that have survived from Biblical periods and the Gospel of Thomas is one of them. These books are often referred to as ‘apocryphal’, which literally means ‘hidden’. They are a varied collection of writings; ‘wise sayings’, ‘historical’ stories written from a theological slant, prophecies and morality tales.

The Gospel of Thomas is one of the best known apocryphal books from the New Testament era. It dates from somewhere in the first two centuries AD. It was one of 52 works discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt as part of an extensive library of Coptic texts that originally belonged to the ancient Christian monastery at Chenoboskion. The majority of these works show definite traits of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was a religious movement dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom through secret knowledge (the Greek word ‘gnosis’ means knowledge). It was a ‘movement’ in the loosest sense of the term – it actually varied a great deal from straight-forward philosophy through to eccentric mysticism. Various Christian communities undoubtedly contained a few people who had flirted with Gnosticism, although historians now refer to Gnosticism as a ‘tendency’ rather than a world-view.

While many people regard the Gospel of Thomas as a lost ‘Gnostic gospel’, FF Bruce believes it is only “indirectly Gnostic” (see The Books and the Parchments pp262-3). It contains 114 sayings attributed to Jesus and according to the preface they are ‘the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down’ (quoted in Bruce, op cit). Each of the sayings is prefaced by ‘Jesus said’ and several are paralleled in the four canonical gospels we are familiar with. A few sayings are unique and Clement of Alexandria, another Patristic writer, quotes one of the sayings as well – although he ascribed it to the Gospel according to the Hebrews.

The New Testament as we have it now is the ‘norm’ produced by the earliest Christian communities. They are the documents regarded by those Christians as the most reliable and all have some apostolic link (traditionally John-Mark was a scribe to Peter, Luke was a companion of Paul etc.). Documents like the Gospel of Thomas may have some insights into the life of these early communities, but whether they have anything to say in our situation is another matter. The tradition of the church down through the centuries is that these books are not totally reliable. They might contain genuine sayings of Jesus, there is no way to be sure. However, that has not stopped wacky individuals on the cultic fringe using them to further their own theories.

The real problem with using any of this literature is that we know even less about the authorship, context and what influenced it than we do about the canonical books. Given the endless scholarly debates about the four Gospels, of which we have thousands of early examples, the likelihood that we will ever fully understand where the Gospel of Thomas is coming from is slim.

I hope this answers your question. GT. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology.

Can we believe Genesis?

Question from BH, United Kingdom

Dear Freelance Theologist,

Our daughter is studying Darwin and the theory of Evolution in her biology lessons in School. How can I give her a biblical perspective, bearing in mind she is 11 years old?

The area of creation and evolution is a tricky one and, without an exhausting trawl through the current scientific world, most Christians feel a bit out of their depth on this one. On the one hand, evolution seems opposed to Christian doctrine, on the other nobody wants to be thought of as an ignorant fundamentalist.

There are some scientists and organisations that doggedly debate the evolutionary issue, most of these can be found on the web using Google. They tend to call themselves ‘Creation Science/Scientists’ or ‘Creationists’.

Briefly some of their arguments would be summed up as follows:
1) Evolution, as a theory, has a number of gaps and flaws that are conveniently skipped over (the ‘missing link’ between humans and apes continually eludes fossil-hunters for example).
2) Evolution has, for many years, relied on hoaxes (like Piltdown Man) or redundant myths (like human foetuses growing through evolutionary stages) as ‘proof’.
3) The time-scale involved does not allow for a complicated world to occur by random chance.
4) Thermodynamics introduces us to the concept of entropy – everything decays – which kind of stumps the idea of life forms becoming more complicated over time.
5) Evolution does not satisfactorily explain the development of creatures capable of abstract thought, imagination and innovation. If the race truly ‘goes to the swift’, then the dreamers should have been eaten long ago.

Creation is a key element in Christian doctrine because it affirms God’s sovereignty over this world. The ‘Fall of Man’ may be an allegory, but it explains how evil can exist in a world made by a good God. The creative aspect of human beings is easily explained if humans bear the likeness of a creator God.

There are some Christians who believe that God may have used evolutionary processes in his creative acts (‘theistic evolution’), while others reject evolution in it’s entirety and argue for six literal days composed of twenty-four hours. Whether this literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is the best use of Scripture is open to debate. Genesis was not written as a scientific paper, it was written to underline a theological truth – God is the one responsible for this world and everything in it should recognise that sovereignty.

There is an old saying that Genesis is not about ‘how the world was made’; rather it is about ‘why the world was made’. This is perhaps a bit glib, but even so it contains some truth, which will probably make a good starting point for your daughter to consider.

I hope that answers your question BH. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology. If anyone would like to make a point about creation or evolution, email the freelance theologian using the button on the sidebar.

Faith and Works

Question from LP, United Kingdom:

Dear Mr freelance theologian.

I am a little confused! I have been told that we are saved by grace, and that no amount of works will get us to heaven, it’s confessing Jesus as Lord, and accepting him as saviour. So why are we told that we have to be like Jesus? What if we are not, will we lose our salvation and go to hell? Why does what we do on earth affect what will happen to us in eternity when we are saved by grace and the ‘Price’ has been already paid?

That’s a good question LP, and one that has divided theologians for a good number of years. The emphasis given to God’s grace and our faith being the only things needed to get us into Heaven stem from the Protestant Reformation when theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin reacted to the teaching of the current Church, which included the need to do penance, pilgrimage and other ‘good works’ in order to gain acceptance into heaven.

Luther and Calvin and the other reformers rejected this as having little or no Biblical basis. From their point of view, if human beings can ‘earn’ their salvation (even if this is only theoretical) then that limits the importance of the crucifixion and the atoning death of Christ. Put simply, if you can work your way into Heaven than Jesus’ death is somewhat pointless. The reformers generally wanted to stress that it was only through Jesus’ death that we are saved.

However, the question of how Christians should behave has been one that has troubled theologians since Paul first wrote to the Corinthians (if not before!). In the letter from James, the author – who may well have been the brother of Jesus – tells the readers ‘what’s the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions?’ (James chapter 2 v.14).

That really is the key point to make. Calvin emphasised the idea that a Christian’s behaviour was a mark of their status before God. If someone did not behave according to God’s ideals (as laid out in Scripture), then it was clear they were not saved. Jesus warns his disciples repeatedly against hypocrisy – saying one thing and doing another. There are numerous incidents in the gospels where Jesus implies that right attitudes are vitally important to a person’s salvation (see Matthew chapter 23/Luke chapter 11 vs37 and following).

One of the main reasons people struggle with this concept of faith and works is that we have a very static view of salvation. It is not clear from the New Testament that our salvation is something that happens once and for all at one single point in our life. Paul compares it to running a race several times in his letters and Jesus’ post-resurrection ‘commission’ to go into the world implies a life of service that does not stop.

There is a tendency in some churches to misquote a Reformation phrase ‘once saved, always saved’ as implying that once a person has prayed the prayer they will be saved regardless of what they do next. In fact what the reformers meant by that phrase was that we could be secure in our salvation, knowing that we did not need to do anything more than accept Jesus Christ as Lord, but that results in a demand on us to continually recognise Jesus as Lord and therefore do what is asked of us.

I hope that answers your question LP. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology.
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