The “Coexist” bumper sticker will probably end up ranking as one of the top forty pop icons of all time, right up there with the Darwin fish and the peace sign. It resonates so well because of its plea for tolerance between world religions. I have no problem with the message. We need to get along on this planet without killing each other. But for a while now, tolerance has been down-shifting into affirmation. As a result, I’m not only expected to put up with my neighbor. I’m also required to agree with him. If you’ve been awake for the past ten to fifteen years, this isn’t news to you. The proper state of contemporary enlightenment says you have to be cozy with the idea that all roads lead to God. If not, then you’re narrow, hateful, bigoted, and other bad words.
Plenty of Christians have been intimidated by this rhetoric, and others (especially the very young) have been programmed according to it. Whatever drives the over-romanticized sense of global village, you can be sure of one thing—few see where it ultimately terminates. Pluralism always damages the Scriptures we claim to believe and trust. Look at what it does to John 3:16, the most beloved verse in the New Testament. We start with the verse itself:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Then, according to the spirit of the age, we begin to “fix” it:
Get rid of hell—It’s dark and archaic. The word “perish” sounds threatening, as if something bad will happen if you don’t believe. So, nuke that word and the phrase surrounding it. New version of John 3:16 : For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life. By removing the implied threat, it keeps the message really positive. The improved passage reflects that you were never in any real danger not believing in Jesus. You don’t have to believe if you don’t want to, but there’s a cool bonus if you do—eternal life.
Make room for other saviors—The word “only” in “only Son” sounds pretty exclusive. What about Buddha? Brahma? Thor? Once again, get out the old roller brush and paint over that phrase. Amended version of John 3:16 : God so loved the world that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life. There. One small adjustment makes room for everybody’s favorite object of faith. Now just believe in God (whatever that looks like) and everything is fine.
Make eternal life as common as oxygen—Why suggest only “belief” merits eternal life? Any good person (or kind-of good, or at least trying, or, well…anybody with a pulse) should expect eternal life. Time for the white-out again: God so loved the world that whoever would have eternal life. Well now, there’s an improvement. We’ve truly leveled the playing field from whoever believes to just whoever.
Alter the concept of deity—Let’s leave the door open for every possible interpretation of God. That means not talking about Him in the singular (there might be more than one), or on personal terms (He might be a force or an altered state of consciousness), or by using a gender designation (He might be a she). A little snipping will eliminate references to deity altogether and give us the latest upgrade: The world [will] have eternal life. How’s that for open-minded?
Adjust the idea of the after-life—Not everyone has the same convictions about our spiritual condition in the present or the future (i.e., Nirvana, reincarnation, Valhalla). “Eternal life” then becomes a clumsy, inaccurate way of expressing our state beyond this time-space continuum. Tweak out that term and it will complete the pluralizing of John 3:16. Then its one gem, its one reality is ready to be unveiled:
Yes, more than anything else, that is what really lies at the core of pluralism.
As for me, I’ll keep the original version of John 3:16.