The Intolerant Tolerant

It was a fall afternoon in downtown Raleigh. I took several students and volunteers into the neighborhoods around our church to rake leaves and share Christ. We were on our last project of the day when the owner of the yard found out we wanted to discuss faith and she invited us to sit with her on her porch. As I shared about who God was and what He had done for us in Jesus Christ she was very engaged. It was when I mentioned she had to trust Jesus alone for life and salvation that we hit a brick wall. While she was glad I had found something that worked for me, she felt I was arrogant for insisting anyone else had to believe it. She was content to explore different faiths and was offended by anyone arguing their faith was the only way. While the conversation remained very friendly, it was clear she wouldn’t be trusting the Savior of these naïve and close-minded folks on her porch.

I’ve had many conversations like that over the years and you probably have too. We can expect to have more. Few ideas are as unthinkable in our culture as the idea one must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved. Or to put it more bluntly, the idea that Christians are right about God and everyone else is wrong. Even Christians seem embarrassed by this 2,000 year old belief. A recent survey (2008) by the Pew Forum in USA Today reported that 52-57% of Evangelical Christians and 83% of mainline Protestants believe eternal life is not exclusively for those who accept Christ as Savior.

So are Christians simply narrow-minded, arrogant, and intolerant to claim Jesus Christ is the only way to God? No more than those who claim there are many paths to God, all religions are right, or we can’t know for sure. Those making any of the above statements are claiming for themselves the very thing they are denying the Christian – absolute knowledge of the way things really are.

The pluralist who says there are many paths to God or all religions are right is also saying every religion is wrong in some way. Not wanting to admit this, they argue each faith has a piece of the whole truth; backing this up with an analogy like: three blind men come upon an elephant. One grabs the tail and says it’s a rope; one grabs a leg and says it’s a tree; one grabs the trunk and says it’s a snake. Each has a piece of the truth but not the whole – just like the religions of the world. The pluralist telling this ignores one important fact – he or she claims to see the elephant. They sit in a superior position to the blind men (religions of the world) and see reality for what it really is. Reality is everyone on a journey to the same place. If you see things differently, we’re right and you’re wrong.

Take the agnostic who claims it’s impossible to know what is true and what is not. Setting aside the fact that they believe that statement to be true, this is also a claim to superior knowledge about reality. They claim God has not revealed Himself or if He has, humanity lacks the capacity to understand it. They see reality for what it really is. Every religion claiming special knowledge of God is wrong and we’re right.

If you’re still trying to sort this out, here is an analogy. Let’s say I am in desperate need of fried chicken from Bojangles and being new in town, I don’t know where to find the only one. So I pull into a gas station and walk up to a Christian, Muslim, pluralist, and agnostic snacking on churros and say, “How can I get to Bojangles?”

The Christian replies, “All you need to do is take a right on this road, travel 3 miles and you’ll come right to it.”

The Muslim jumps in and says, “That’s not right. You need to take a left on this street, pass two stoplights and take a left at the third, merge onto the interstate, travel twenty miles, and take the 12th exit.”

The pluralist interjects and says, “Actually it doesn’t matter which way you go because all roads lead to Bojangles. Just drive and you’ll get there.”

The agnostic, quite irritated at this point, steps in and says, “These guys are all wrong. There is no way to know if there is a Bojangles and even if there is, you cannot know how to get there. So I would just get a churro from the gas station.”

In the quest to find fried chicken, only one of them can be right. Each one is making the claim that their directions to Bojangles correspond with actual reality better than the other three. They have a superior position from which they see Bojangles the way it really is and everyone who disagrees is wrong and has an inferior view that will leave me hungry.

Reality can only be one way. That’s why it’s called reality. If we abandon one concept of how the world really is for another to be accepted as more mainstream and tolerant, we may be abandoning the real world for one which is only a fantasy. Nothing less is at stake.

So the Christian claiming Jesus is the only way is no different from the pluralist claiming every way and the agnostic claiming we can’t know. These last two masquerade in our culture as humble and tolerant, but they are not. Each is making its own exclusive, narrow, dogmatic claim about the way the world actually is while calling everyone who disagrees wrong. The Christian is ridiculed for their narrow belief about reality by someone with their own narrow belief about reality. It’s amazing how intolerant the “tolerant” can be of those who see things differently.

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4:12

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6


(image credit)


4 thoughts on “The Intolerant Tolerant

  1. Yeah this is a tricky one. To me, even before I was a believer, it never made sense that an omnipotent God who created everything would tolerate beliefs in anything other than him. It just seems silly. So I can’t relate to pluralists.

    Anyways, I feel the most effective form of the gospel is one that lived out in our lives. Yes, we need to be bold in our conversations, but I often feel the conversations (or sermons) are only well utilized to accent the life of the believer.

    I’ve found that once we “win” people’s notice as a people who live graciously and “set apart,” it goes a long way to defusing cerebral, pluralistic arguments and indignations that often plague “gospel presentations.”

    This goes beyond meeting so-called “felt needs.” (Though that’s useful as well.) How we love each other and how we show that love outwardly, especially in conflict, speaks volumes to our witness. There’s always someone watching. And I do believe we will be held accountable to not just how many people to whom we gave a presentation, but also to how we have established our credibility with said people. Our credibility directly affects our Maker’s credibility to those who don’t yet know him. This is serious, friends.

    Of course, all of this sounds great and most, if not all, believers would be nodding there heads to my written words above, but I strongly feel that the Church in America as a whole does not walk this talk. We have to make good chicken first.

  2. this is a great example because your first assumption is what is always in question- how do you know there IS a bojangles in town? you’re new there so you’ve never seen one, the people you ask give you different directions so either they are directing you to different places they each CALL bojangles or you had the unlikly misfortune of finding a group of people that doesn’t contain a single one who can give good directions. in any case you’re not in a position to tell anyone else they are wrong since you yourself don’t know where it is. The only thing you have is a BELIEF there is a bojangles in town. am i being intolerant for pointing out that you don’t know where bojagles is? can’t i be right about that even though i don’t know where it is either?

    • Depends on the definition of intolerance. In American culture, tolerance is defined as accepting someone’s belief as equally valid as your own. Intolerance is to insist your belief is more valid or right and the other is wrong or deficient. A second view of tolerance is to acknowledge there are real differences between beliefs, someone is right and someone is wrong, and to allow others to freely pursue their beliefs as they see fit. Thus, if I believe you are wrong I may attempt to persuade you out of the belief I am right and have the superior view, but I do not coerce you, instead leaving you free to accept or reject my view.

      The answer to your first question is – no. You are not intolerant in either view of tolerance because you are agreeing with what I believe in regards to Bojangles – that I don’t know where it is. But if, based on your 2nd question, you argue that not knowing the location of Bojangles is the right position you have become intolerant in the eyes of American culture. However, you are not intolerant according to the 2nd view of tolerance because you do not slash my tires and declare I cannot even go look for Bojangles because no one knows where it is. Instead, we can have a tolerant discussion trying to get at the truth of the location of Bojangles. So I don’t think you’re intolerant either way. Hope this helps!

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