As soon as anyone starts to even hint at the idea that people of other religions get in to heaven it’s not long before someone usually drops the John 14:6 bomb, as if quoting a single Bible verse out of context somehow settled the issue of the fate of non-Christians, no questions asked.
Nevertheless, John 14:6 does require some explanation.
John’s Gospel is different from the three synoptic gospels in many ways. Rather than beginning his gospel with a birth narrative as Matthew and Luke do or with the ministry of John the Baptist as Mark does, John begins with a poem about the Logos or, as it appears in many of our translations, “the Word.”
The Logos was an important concept in Greek philosophy. It was understood as the ordering principle of the universe. In other words, the Logos was what made the universe function in an orderly manner. Philo, a Hellenistic Jew who was a contemporary of John, described the Logos as an emanation, a divine “spirit” that flowed from the ultimate reality, God.
For John, the person of Jesus was the Logos incarnate. In Jesus, the Logos becomes flesh (1:14).
Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is more than a Jewish rabbi who preached the Kingdom; he is the Word become flesh. Thus, whenever Jesus speaks in John’s gospel we must remember that what we are encountering are the very words of the Logos incarnate. This is why John’s prologue is so important. It sets the stage for the rest of his work.
What are the implications of this?
I think it’s important to recognize that what was incarnate in Jesus, according to John, was active in the world long before Jesus the first century Palestinian rabbi ever existed. John says that all things were brought into being through the Logos (1:3) and that the Logos is what enlightens everyone (1:9).
This last point, that the Logos is what brings enlightenment to humanity, is important because of the sheer universality of the statement. Everyone encounters the Logos on a daily basis–it is what allows us to reason, to make sense of the world we live in, to bring order and form to a seemingly chaotic world. It is what calls us to live adventurously, lovingly, beautifully. This action of the Logos is not limited to any one group of people. It’s universal in scope.
Is it a stretch to imagine, then, that this divine Logos, the same Logos that was incarnate in Jesus the Palestinian rabbi, was also at work in the development of Buddhism or Islam, for example?
With this in mind let us go back and reread the passage:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
If the “me” in this passage is, as I have suggested, referring to the divine Logos incarnate in Jesus then this passage does not serve as a hurdle for those who want to affirm the validity of other religious traditions.
Jesus fully embodied the Word (Logos) that God has been speaking since the beginning of time.