Book Club Discussion: Is Jesus a Christian?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

In Chapter 12 of William P. Young’s The Shack, Jesus talks with the book’s protagonist, Mackenzie, about the inadequacy of institutions in bringing people closer to God. 

Jesus says, “Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.” 

Mackenzie asks, “Is that what it means to be a Christian?” To which Jesus responds, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.” 

Young writes, “The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected, and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning. ‘No, I suppose you aren’t.’ 

Jesus continues, ‘Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” 

“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “That all roads will lead to you?” 

“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop, “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” 

I love this sentiment. Christians so often forget that the power of salvation lies not in a religious institution, but in a loving God who reaches out to all people. 

As many of you know, I’ve spent many years struggling with the implications of religious pluralism. Growing up, I was taught that anyone who does not explicitly express faith in Jesus Christ and convert to Christianity is, without a doubt, bound to eternity in hell. 

For many years, I believed that Christians had only two options regarding the destiny of the un-evangelized. They could either be exclusivists or universalists. Exclusivists believe that only Christians are saved, and universalists believe that all people are saved. In college, I was assured that only the first option was biblical, and that universalists themselves were most likely destined to hell along with the Buddhists, and Muslims, and Hindus, as their position was far too unorthodox to make them “true believers.” 

Since then, I have found that there are more than two ways of approaching religious pluralism. I don’t have to choose between believing that God saves only a handful or that God saves everyone, including those who reject Him or practice unrepentant evil. 

Traditional exclusivism holds that 1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and 2) explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. While I agree with the first statement, I have reservations about the second, and prefer instead to hold an agnostic yet optimistic view concerning those who have never heard the gospel or who subscribe to other religions. Peter’s joyful reaction to the unexpected faith of Cornelius best describes my reaction to what Scripture says about the unevangelized: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,  but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

If you want me to get technical, I suppose you might say I am an “inclusivist.” I will readily admit, however, that there is much I do not know about how God works among other people or how He will judge the world. 

More about that in future posts…

The focus here is on the idea that institutions themselves do not have saving (or for that matter, damning) powers. 

I don’t know how God will judge in eternity. However, I know that those of us blessed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, should  be slow to judge and careful of over-confidence, always heeding Christ’s warning that “not everyone who says to Me on that day, ’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21-23) 

I also don’t know the degree to which God is present in other religions. I’ve seen both very good and very bad fruit come from organized religion--including Christianity--and prefer to think of each individual as spiritually unique rather than the sum of his or her religious culture. I can only hope that non-Christians would do the same for me.  

I might be opening a can of worms here, but this is an important issue that I think will draw more and more attention as our culture becomes more global. What are your thoughts? Do you think it is possible to escape the confines of the choice between exclusivism and universalism? Is there a theological “third way” here? 

C.S. Lewis wrote a really beautiful passage that touches on this subject in The Last Battle of the Narnia series. It is written from the perspective of a pagan named Emeth who, until encountering Aslan, had been following Aslan’s enemy, Tash. I’ve always interpreted Tash to represent non-Christian religions, but perhaps, in light of this conversation, it is better to think of Tash as representing any institution (including Christianity) that claims to be a vehicle to salvation. 

Emeth remembers his first encounter with Aslan: 

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him…But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord is it rue, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said. It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites. 

I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? 

I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all of my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me though wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

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