Exclusivity Is Not a Wall; It Is an Open Wound

I’ve been spending time with Peter’s epistles—those two short letters penned by the seeming leader or the most prominent of the Twelve Apostles, about 30 years after Jesus’ death—and so I keep coming across the first epistle’s imperative to “always be ready to give ... a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

Here is my reason. Or here, at least, is where it starts: I think God sent God fully into the physical world, God with us. The physical world is subject to linear time, so this meant God entered history. The particular historical moment was about 2,000 years ago, and the place was near the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Then and there, God was born as a human, lived a human life, was killed, and rose from the dead. 

More, the infinite entering linear time sent ripples ahead and back in time, because another related way God entered history is this: He inspired certain affected people (notably prophets and apostles) to give us texts that explain what God would have us know about what God has done, and is doing, and our place in his work.

How that much leads to hope perhaps needs many more words to explain. Or perhaps it does not. In many cases, explaining is beside the point. The opportunity is not there; any chance to do so has been cut off by objections based on premises that do not apply. 

I want to spend the rest of this post on one such premise, one such objection, before circling back to my starting point. The objection is on my mind because I just encountered it again in a reviewer’s panning of a book I was looking for. The objection relates to exclusivity.

Christianity identifies itself as the one metaphysical framework that is true; all others are untrue. This claim is seen to be arrogant, a wall against other ways of thought, and therefore objectionable.

However, seen fully, the Christian claim to exclusivity is in fact perhaps the most humble and helpless condition of the way of thought it offers. Far from arrogance, the claim arises out of vulnerability, because the potential counterargument to this faith is so exposed.

Christians overlook this point. In so doing, we don’t help the matter under consideration here. We insist on a different purpose for the way given, and build a wall there. Specifically, we treat the Bible as a self-help book and faith as a way to happiness. Neither framing holds up well. As a self-help book, the Bible is not exclusive—other self-help books, and texts of other faiths, offer points that might help if the goal is merely moments of coping or satisfaction in this world. As a means to what we tend to think of as happiness, the way offered is questionable. Recognize and accept what the Bible offers, says the Bible, and you will suffer (John 13:66). The way is about something other than these things.

Why, then, is the claim to exclusivity not a wall, not arrogant, but instead humble and helpless? Answer: Because the claim is necessary. Because the claim even more central to Christianity offers no out from this. The beginning of my faith is a historical event: God lived as a man; that man rose from the dead. The texts of the Bible explain this. They include writings of people witness to the event, reporting based on the testimony of witnesses, and letters providing the meaning of the event to readers including those witnesses. So look where this leaves me: If Jesus rising from the dead literally happened as I believe, then the Christian framework offered by the Bible stands out as the only way that accounts for this and explains it. But if Jesus rising from the dead never literally happened—if it is a myth rather than factual history—then my faith is fiction and I ought to place my Bible on the shelf as merely another work of literature.

What I am describing here is not a secret. It is Christianity’s exposed flank, and even its open wound. There is no personal test for validating whether the faith “works.” Instead, the facts are facts or the faith is a fraud. One of the psalmists expressed it this way: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Either that cornerstone supports the weight or it doesn’t. The apostle Paul expressed the matter bluntly: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

The reason for the hope that is in me comes from history. Thus, my hope is vulnerable if that history can be refuted. The Christian way claims to be exclusive because of this distinction: It is the exclusive faith so bold, or so foolish, as to be based on a historical claim.