Why Jesus Is No Longer the Only Way for Many American Christians

(Photo: Unsplash/Edward Cisneros)
(Photo: Unsplash/Edward Cisneros) | (Photo: Unsplash/Edward Cisneros)

Just over two months ago, as winter landed its final blows of snow in New York City, Michael A. Walrond Jr. of Harlem's 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church landed an ideological blow of his own in traditional Christendom.

Walrond, who was named "One of the Lord's Foot Soldiers" by Newsweek magazine, told his congregants that the belief that anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus is going to hell is "insanity."

"There was a time when you would see people in the pulpit say, 'well, if you don't believe in Jesus you going to Hell. That's insanity in many ways because that is not what Jesus even believes," he said in a viral clip posted to Facebook.

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People take many paths to God, he argued, noting that he personally celebrates the paths others take in finding Him — even if that path does not involve faith in Jesus.

"And so the key is you believe in God. And whatever your path is to God I celebrate that. Personally, I celebrate that," Walrond said.

The New York City preacher's message drew criticism in traditional Christian circles.

Michael A. Walrond Jr., leads the more than 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.
Michael A. Walrond Jr., leads the more than 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. | (Screenshot: Vimeo)

"The preacher on this video is both right and wrong: he's right in that all roads do lead to God; but this God is both love and a consuming fire. If you meet Him on the Christ road of His love you live, but any other road, be it religion, philosophy, or a miscalculation of the Person of Christ, the lake of fire is waiting!" Bishop Robert E. Smith, Sr., founder of Total Outreach for Christ Ministries, Inc. and Word of Outreach Christian Center and Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, said.

While Walrond's openness as a Christian to the idea that there are many paths to God beyond Christianity may have been shocking to some, new research shows a widespread departure among Christians from traditional Bible teaching such as Jesus being the only way to God. And some scholars have blamed this ideological shift in part on influential divinity schools and charismatic church leaders.

Rejecting God of the Bible

In 2008, a Pew Research Center Study found that more than half of all American Christians believe that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to salvation. Nearly a decade later, a new study has shown that even among the most traditional Christian groups, significant minorities are also rejecting God as described in the Bible.

While 80 percent of all Americans surveyed in the new study, also conducted by the Pew Research Center, said they believe in God, only 56 percent say the God they believe in is the one "as described in the Bible."

The strongest supporters of God as described in the Bible were Christians who self-identified as members of historically black Protestant churches at 92 percent, followed closely by evangelicals at 91 percent.

Significant minorities of Christians who identified as Catholics, 28 percent, and mainline Protestants, 26 percent, indicated that they believe in a higher power or spiritual force which is not God as described in the Bible.

Ken Stone, academic dean at Chicago Theological Seminary where Walrond serves as a trustee and adjunct faculty member, told The Christian Post that Walrond's celebration of "multiple paths to God" and the wisdom and truth found in various religious traditions is in line with the school's approach to faith. It is, said Stone, the "future of theological education."

Shannon Johnson Kershner, who leads the 5,500-member Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois, also caused a stir when she said in an interview last fall  that she too didn't believe Jesus is the only way to God because "God's not a Christian."

"God's not a Christian. I mean, we are ... For me, the Christian tradition is the way to understand God and my relationship with the world and other humans and it's for the way for me to move into that relationship but I'm not about to say what God can and cannot do in other ways and with other spiritual experiences," she explained.

J. Lanier Burns, research professor of theological studies and senior professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, explained in an interview with CP that this shift away from traditional Bible-based teaching among Christians to a more pluralistic approach to faith in God is an agenda item of higher education institutions.

"This is the agenda of the universities at the present time because it is felt that maybe it is religion that has generated all the wars and so maybe if we can get rid of exclusive religion we might have greater peace in the world," Burns said.

"We have got to get back to truth but I think it's a very long way back now because I think the force is against us. I would include all the divinity schools here — like Harvard, Yale, and so forth. These are all pluralistic schools ... I think they (elite universities) are the most powerful institutions in the world today. I think they train everybody indirectly," he said. "I've had a fellowship at Harvard, I've been to Oxford several times and they have tangible power. And they are using that for pluralism ... When you add up the university influence around the world it's vast."

Several scholars from both Harvard and Yale divinity schools were invited to discuss the role of their institutions in the growing acceptance of multiple paths to God in American Christian culture and only one, Harvey Cox, Hollis research professor of divinity at Harvard, briefly responded.

"I do not have much to add on this, except that I do not believe Harvard is the blame!" Cox said in an email.

Progressive Bias in Higher Ed

Mitchell Langbert, an associate professor of business management at Brooklyn College found strong evidence of a progressive bias among professors, especially among those that teach religion at leading American colleges.

In a recent study of 8,688 tenure track, Ph.D.-holding professors from 51 of the 66 top ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News 2017 report, Langbert found that there are more than ten Democrats for every one Republican among elite professors. And in religion departments, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 70 to 1. A similar trend toward the left among academia was also observed in Britain. These political biases could be indicative of a theological bias as well. 

"Political homogeneity is problematic because it biases research and teaching and reduces academic credibility," Langbert wrote in his findings published by the National Association of Scholars. "... Even though more Americans are conservative than liberal, academic psychologists' biases cause them to believe that conservatism is deviant."

Data from the latest Pew Research Center study on what Americans mean when they say they believe in God, also points to a strong correlation between higher education and fidelity to traditional Christian beliefs.

The study found that more educated Americans are less likely to say they believe in the God of the Bible.

College graduates less likely to believe in active, involved deity

Just over 66 percent of American adults with a high school education or less say they believe in the biblical God. Among those with some college education that number drops to 53 percent, and among college graduates it drops even further to 45 percent.

Burns, who worked as a missionary to India for 46 years and has done post-doctoral research at Harvard and Oxford universities, also pointed to the failure of churches and lazy Christians. The increasing departure of Christians from traditional beliefs is directly linked to a departure from the authority of Scripture, he said.

"We are going wrong because we have moved the authority from Scripture to consensus. That's where we are going wrong. When you say a certain percentage of people don't believe in hell, well I go to hell conferences rethinking hell and they simply say this is not something that Christians can believe in because it's inconsistent with the character of God," he said.

He also blames the evangelical church for not discipling all church members to be ministers according to Scripture.

"I fault the evangelical church on so many things. My doctrine of the church says every member is a minister. So I believe the problem is the American people have paid charismatic leaders, even people like Billy Graham and people like this, to do the work of ministry for them. But every Christian needs to be out talking about these things. And I think what we do is we're lazy. So we pay other people to do our work for us," he said.

The Dallas professor further noted that he is worried that Christians who hold traditional Christian beliefs will be persecuted.

"I think it's going to result in the persecution of people who believe in traditional Christianity because I think the universities are already against what I've told you already that I believe. I know that I am a minority on these things, OK? I'm not expressing a majority viewpoint I know that. But I believe it and here I stand," he said.

Mark R. Teasdale, E. Stanley Jones associate professor of evangelism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, agrees that institutions dedicated to the formation of healthy Christian disciples such as the local church and seminaries "stopped being effective gatekeepers" who contend earnestly for the faith.

"I do think the local church, the seminaries, I'll own that, that we stopped being effective gatekeepers within the Christian community. In 1904, we (Methodists) passed a resolution that professors in theological schools would no longer check their doctrine. So it didn't matter what you believed; you could come and teach in a theology school in Methodism. And so as a result of that our theological schools have moved more in the direction of focusing on more traditional higher education studies in religion and theology, less in terms of Christian formation and character formation. There is a move to try and recapture that now but this is over a century after we have gone the other way," he said.

"The internal effect that that has had on the local church is I think coming out in these much broader streams and changes you're recognizing in the Pew research," Teasdale explained.

"Seminaries are a big part of that. We've moved in the direction of wanting to be professionalized graduate schools and not so much schools that were forming people in character and it creates a cycle. So as pastors go out that have been developed in that kind of seminary, they don't have the skills to catechize their own members very effectively. And so when people come to the seminaries they often come with a really not very well developed faith. They are not quite sure what they believe," he said.

Searching for Deeper Meaning

While the slide away from biblical authority does not reflect among evangelicals as significantly as other Christian denominations, Teasdale explained that a search for meaning in a postmodern culture also appears to have challenged some to abandon deeply held beliefs about God.

"Before the time when evangelicalism arose, the focus was in making certain that we had absolutes. So the belief of modernity was the belief that there are absolutes. Everyone could have access to those absolutes if they simply use their reason appropriately and that those absolutes would hold no matter what the situation you're in," Teasdale said.

"What happens in postmodernity is that the idea of absolutes become far less important. Instead, we're looking at a time when narrative story becomes much more important. And so people are looking for something meaningful, a meaningful story to make sense of their lives.

"And it doesn't really matter much whether it's 'true' in the sense that it fits with an absolute truth that's out there somewhere. What matters is that it's meaningful for you and that's really what's important," he explained.

"I think that evangelicals kind of got caught with that shift because evangelicalism had gotten very good at dealing with modernity. It had gotten good with dealing with questions of people saying I'm skeptical of proof that there was a physical resurrection of Christ or I'm skeptical there's proof that miracles could occur.

"Evangelicals got very good at responding to those sorts of things but then all of a sudden the whole nature of the culture shifted and people stopped worrying so much about whether something actually happened ... instead, they just got focused on whether or not something was meaningful for them and that was a different set of questions," Teasdale added.

And because some evangelicals are not sure what is the most effective response to questions directed at deeper meaning, this has led to a dialing back of traditional beliefs such as Jesus being the only way to God, the Illinois professor pointed out.

"Oftentimes, the other piece to this I think, is when they're asking, 'is it meaningful?' it's not the answer that many times evangelicals would give which is, 'well, this is deeply meaningful because it has an eternal aspect to it,'" said Teasdale.

"The response more and more that people in a postmodern culture have given is 'we really don't care about the eternal aspect, we care about now. We don't know what comes next and we're not too concerned about what comes next. We're concerned about the fact that right now we feel like there are problems in our own lives, that are upsetting the lives of people around the world, how is it going to give me a sense of meaning or improve my quality of life in the here and now?'" he continued.

"I think that's been a big part of what's affected evangelicals — trying to recast their telling of the salvation narrative in a way that is something that people will grab a hold of in a culture that's more concerned about meaning and more concerned about affecting quality of life in the here and now than are concerned about dealing with eternal salvation or asking questions about how do we know the Bible is true."

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