Narrow is the Way

A reader recently asked this question:

Q: How do you understand “broad is the way that leads to destruction, narrow is the path to salvation”? This has been used to justify Christianity as the ONLY true path to the exclusion of all other religions. I have just read your “Heart of Christianity” and I want to know how you interpret that phrase in the Bible.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. – Matthew 13-14

A: Your biblical memory is good. Jesus (like much of the OT) spoke of two ways, one that leads to life and one that leads to death (both states this side of physical death).

As I understand the Bible and Jesus, “the broad way” is the way of convention, that is, conventional wisdom about what reality and life are like, and how then we should live. This is how most of us most of the time live. When we were children, we were socialized into a way of seeing life – which basically means seeing as our culture sees. Psychologically, socialization is about internalizing the cultural messages of our time.

It has always been so. This is “the broad way” – it’s “what everybody knows,” and how most of us live. In a state of “mass hypnosis” and “consensual paranoia,” to use phrases from Sam Keen.

The “narrow way” is the path of centering in that which is beyond convention and culture – namely, God, the sacred, “isness.” Not a particular religion’s conception of God, but the sacred, isness, beyond all words. Known in many religious traditions? You betcha. Misunderstood in equally many religious traditions? You betcha.

The narrow way – in Christianity, Buddhism, Lao Tzu, and others – is the path of centering in the sacred – “what is” beyond the conventions and domestications and projections created by our words.

Then your question moves to whether language about “the narrow way” in the gospels needs to be understood to mean that Jesus and Christianity are the narrow way, the one and only way. Have many Christians taken this for granted? Yes. Do a significant number of Christians today vociferously insist upon it? Yes.

But I do not think this is correct. “The way” that we see in Jesus is known elsewhere, in all of the enduring religions of the world (the ones that have stood the test of time).

For those of us who are Christians, Jesus “embodies “the way” – this is the central meaning of “incarnation,” which means “en-flesh-ment.” In Jesus, his life and his death, we see “the way” embodied. But to say this need not mean, and should not mean, that the narrow way is unknown elsewhere. It is known in the great wisdom traditions of the world’s enduring religions.

Did Jesus know and travel the narrow way? Oh yes. Do you have to know the word, the name, the two syllables Jesus, in order to travel that way. Oh no.



  1. I agree, but what then do we say to those who hold that the various religions of the world see the “problem” of humanity, and the “solution”, differently? For example, Christianity sees “sin” and corresponding “salvation” as key, but other religions, not so much. Some might say we are all on different paths, and not all of these seek sacredness.

    • Lee, after “quite a few years,” I am convinced that all religious traditions “point” us towards God. I personally think the word God is used too much in our everyday language. God is unnameable. You can call the name(s) as you see fit. To me the problem of humanity is that we have been led to believe in ways that are not necessarily healthy for us. We need to see outside the conventions of “religion” and think for ourselves. Even Buddha taught us to think for ourselves. Religion, as we have known Christian religion, will ultimately die as have all religions unless we begin anew to assimilate our thinking outside what we have been conditioned to believe. I try to articulate my thoughts as best as I humbly can. I hope I add something to this dialogue.

  2. Would you agree with the idea that we are cutoff from God because of sin? If so, the idea is that we can’t overcome that deficit ourselves and, therefore, need Christ’s atonement.

    I won’t begin to debate that this narrow way to knowing God can be found in various religions, as some teach similar principles in regards to living your life. And in living our life, with things like prayer, fasting, and contemplation, we come to know God. Even protestant evangelical Christians, for the most part, would agree to that. We do not attain salvation through those means, however we do get closer to the “isness” you speak of. This would seem to point to the idea that others can come to know God through spiritual practices.

    However, salvation, if you agree that the reason we are cutoff from God is sin and that is a deficit we cannot recover from on our own, can only come through the one who overcame that deficit for us. So, if you are right, and the Buddhist can know God, and receives the gift of salvation, it is only through Christ’s sacrifice that he did so.

    Comments please Mr. Borg.

    • I assume that you are referring to the notion that Jesus’ death, Jesus’ sacrifice, was “payment” for the “deficit” created by our sin. The semi-technical names for this understanding use the language of “substitution”: Jesus was the “substitutionary sacrifice” for sin; his death was a “substitutionary atonement” that makes our forgiveness possible.

      For more than one reason, I do not agree with this understanding of his death. First, the notion of substitutionary sacrifice, substitutionary atonement, is not found in the New Testament or in the first thousand years of Christianity. It first appears about 900 years ago in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, written in 1097/1098.

      In the Bible, both OT and NT, sacrifice is never about payment for sins – as if we deserve to be punished, but God’s willing to accept a substitute – a sheep, goat, or Jesus – instead. Rather “sacrifice” has a number of meanings in the Bible – but they are not about a substitutionary death.

      Consider what substitutionary sacrifice implies: that God is a punitive God of requirements – and because we are not able to meet those requirements, God requires that somebody pay the price, and that somebody is Jesus.

      Are we to think that God required the death of this immeasurably good and utterly remarkable person? Or was his death an execution by “the rulers of ‘this world,” as Paul puts it? Does his crucifixion indict the rulers of this world – the normalcy of this world? Or was it willed by God as the necessary sacrifice for our deficit?

      All for now, and thanks,

      • I’m incredibly thankful for your reply Marcus. I’m about half-way through your book on reading the Bible all over again. I’m enjoying it very much, thank you for writing it!

        You are correct in your assumption regarding the notion I was referring too.

        “It first appears about 900 years ago in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, written in 1097/1098.” If you could give me a piece of literature, or even a link, to somewhere that I can read more about this I would really appreciate it.

        “Rather ‘sacrifice’ has a number of meanings in the Bible – but they are not about a substitutionary death.” In the old testament, what are some of those meanings? I’m assuming they are metaphorical, however I’m certain you wouldn’t say that practice didn’t happen historically. Just a couple to help me get started on my interpretation.

        Great thoughts. I’m headed to seminary laster this year, hopefully at the University of Chicago (assuming they accept me). Before I get there, I’m really trying to get a better grasp on my understanding of the ontology of scripture, specifically these 66 canonical books.

        Thank you,
        Jonathan Philip-Davis Wilson

      • Thank you so much for this! I am one of those who has been kept at arm’s length from Christianity for most of my life (even though drawn to it), by the narrow interpretation of the “narrow way”, amongst other things. I have been drawn back in, in part through the excitement your books have instilled in me, for which I am very grateful.

        I am re-reading the Bible (NRSV) for the first time in over 20 years, and would love a bit of guidance on how best to go about it. There are so many ways that are suggested, to go about reading it (chronologically, by appearance, NT then OT, mixed readings from both each day), and I would like to know how you (and some of your readers here) feel one may go about it for best comprehension.

        Many thanks once again!
        Ariane Wolfe

        • For what its worth, I like to alternate reading the whole Bible straight through or in chronological order with reading some smaller passage in some detail, meditating and studying as closely as possible. I have also found memorization of more complex passages really invaluable, like Romans for instance.

        • Ariane, my church – the Riverside Church in NYC – has successfully used the Kerygma Program of Bible Study Books since 1998. I’ve used their “Discoverying the Bible” and “Bible in Depth” texts, as well as their shorter “Exodus” and “John” courses. I highly recommend them as a resource to check out: Because Keryma’s Bible studies are mainstream – middle-of-the-road theologically – I always reference the work of Borg, Crossan and Spong when leading Kerygma courses. Peace, Brian

  3. Grace is not awarded for the satisfactory completion of a spiritual check list – and grace is not earned for works or acts – and grace is not part of a quid pro quo arrangement or relationship – and grace is not a stipulation of a contract or covenant – and grace is not right thinking or thinking right or thinking good thoughts or having the right beliefs – and grace is not about rewards and punishments – and grace is not about later or guaranteeing a future occurrence because grace is not about having an after-life insurance policy or hedging our spiritual bets. We live in, we exist and have always existed in (not “by”, not “because”, not “alongside”, not “under”) the grace of God. Grace is now – constantly present and immediately accessible. Grace is always freely available and freely supplied and supplied freely unconditionally and abundantly without exceptions and without restrictions and without qualifications. Grace and conditions are mutually exclusive, even oppositional. A faith full of grace has no conditions – meaning no qualifications and no requirements and, consequently, no exclusions and no differentiation. A faith with any condition or any qualification or any requirement or any exclusion or any differentiation has no grace. God requires nothing of us – this is grace.

    • Doug,

      I particularly like this statement – “Grace and conditions are mutually exclusive, even oppositional.” You are right! I feel the same way. However, a bit of perspective perhaps.

      Assume that I have a child which I love. Out of that love, I give him a couple guidelines that I hope he follows so that he doesn’t kill himself. I know what is best for him. However, one time he does not follow these guidelines. As a result of the same love that made the guidelines in the first place, I show grace. However, we must note, that I still hope that the next time he encounters the same issue he will respond the way that I have directed him. Again, this is because I love him.

      I say this to simply point out that there is a relationship between loving grace and checklists.

      Jonathan Philip-Davis Wilson

  4. The biggest limitation to this analogy is that there is a huge difference between parenting a child and creating free-willed life. Parenting requires hands-on care-giving. Creation of free-willed life requires a strictly hands-0ff response.

    Even given that; as a parent the love is always there regardless of the child’s actions. As part of that love, the time still comes when you have to let the child go swimming without an attached flotation device, the training wheels come off the bicycle, the first car solo – and the parental fears and nightmares that go with it. Growing a child for independence and letting go – that is parental grace.

  5. Theodore A. Jones

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous” by God. This really narrows it down, but which law?

  6. Hi Marcus,

    For me, the” narrow way” is the way of unconditional, others-centred, self-giving and community-forming non-violent love. This love was embodied in the life, lifestyle, deeds and words of Jesus and in the radical inclusiveness of his love for the poor, the needy, the outcasts, and all the marginalised.

    This way is the way of the grace and , I think, he taught in the parable of the good Samaritan that it was this despised outcast who walked in the way and not those of the religious establishment. The Pharisees did not see this Samaritan as belonging to the proper religion but the Lukan Jesus sees him as paradigmatic of the way that challenges the religious principalities and powers.

    John Arthur

  7. Thank you for your many years of research, study, reflection, writing, and lecturing. If more of those who have left the Christian movement in droves could have been exposed to this refreshing way of “knowing” God, we might still have them in the fold and benefit from their many insights. I speak specifically of one father and two brothers who could not abide with the standard teachings of the church and many others I’ve met along my own journey in the church.

  8. Stephen Hickling

    Marcus – I’m not familiar with the rest of your work or this site (arrived on this page from a search engine). However, I felt compelled to say how amazed I am that a biblical scholar can come to the conclusion that you have in this article. I strongly disagree with what you have said.
    Jesus didn’t just travel ‘the way’; He is ‘the way’.
    “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” (John 14:6). The apostles taught and practised the same. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
    The pharisees did many of the good things which you and your readers speak about. In their own minds, they were on the ‘narrow way’. Jesus’ point to them was that they had missed the narrow gate. Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9).
    If we accept the authority of the bible, I don’t think we can be in any doubt whatsoever that the way to God is found only in and through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In my opinion, the view expressed in the above article cannot be substantiated from the scriptures.

    • hi stephen, i’m just replying as you said you weren’t familiar with marcus’s work. marcus and many other like-minded individuals (including myself) do not believe that the bible is ‘God-breathed’ and inerrant, but is man’s record of his experience with God. So such verses as the ones you quote are largely open to interpretation, and are biased by their author’s view of things. ‘the heart of christianity’ by marcus is a good introduction to this viewpoint.

  9. I have to say that I love your thoughtful and respectful responses. You help make Christianity relevant to today’s culture and you help make it even more compassionate. When I first came across your work, I had just left my Pentecostal church that I spent most of my teens attending. I was angry, bruised, and confused about Christianity and wanted to give up on it. However, you have presented a Christianity that is much more intellectually honest and authentic than what many associate with “conservative” or “fundamentalist” Christianity. (I know not necessarily the same…_)

  10. I have, for quite some time, come to the conclusion that when Jesus said ,” I am the way, I believe he was saying, ” the way that I am, the perfect manifestation of love and compassion. “This does not leave out our brothrs and sisters who follow to find the sacred by another path, but follow the way of compassion, sacrifice, and love.

  11. Thank you Marcus!

    My spiritual journey has been immensely enhanced by your wisdom and guidance. As one of my other spiritual counselors (Peter Gomes, who’s gone home to Glory) pronounced upon endorsing your book, “Jesus: Uncovering the Life…”, and I paraphrase, “If we didn’t have Marcus Borg, we’d have to invent him.” I wholeheartedly agree and know without doubt the Lord led me to your writings to help complete my understanding of to know, follow, and love Him.