My wife and I belong to an email listserve that is specifically for MK's and TCK's, but deals with all sorts of issues. In any case, I was reading an email from one of the other members today about the difficulty he has with the exclusivity of Christianity - that the only way to forgiveness and eternal life is through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and the fact that you have to believe that in order to reap the benefits. His argument was that normally "good news" doesn't require belief. It simply tells about reality as it is. He gave the example of a death row inmate who is given a last minute pardon by the governor. He may not believe the pardon is real, but that doesn't keep it from being real, or the guards from unstrapping him and releasing him from prison. His unbelief doesn't affect the reality of his good news. The emailer then went on to claim that either Christ's sacrifice was effective for all regardless of their belief, or it wasn't. And if it wasn't, then all the belief in the world isn't going to achieve forgiveness or salvation for you.
My wife responded that the difference is that the prison warden from the above example doesn't REQUIRE belief or compliance. Regardless of how the inmate feels about it, he's going to be unstrapped and put out of the prison, and that will be that. Christ essentially offers us an open door and we are free to choose whether we will step through into freedom, or continue in our bondage. This is true, but I think it is somewhat incomplete. Our friend's original problem was with the exclusivity of the Christian faith, but the answer to this also deals with the necessity of "belief".
To me, the Christian faith is not so much about what you believe or how hard you believe, though neither of these is unimportant, but about your relationship with Jesus Christ. Before Christ's death on the cross we were stuck in bondage because of our sin. We had no freedom to leave our sins behind us and come to Christ. Through his death and resurrection he has won for us the freedom to leave our sins, to "put on a robe of righteousness", and to come to him. But in my opinion, this is only the beginning. He has, essentially, given us the ability to introduce ourselves to him, but the Christian life is (or should be) about everything that comes after that. It is about growing daily in our knowledge of and love for Christ, just as we do with our spouse or best friend. And the thing is, he's the only one who can tell us how to do it. It is like this...
Imagine two men who are imprisoned in a dungeon, ransomed for a price that neither they nor their families can pay in a lifetime (or several). They believe in God, but have never met him face to face, and so have some confused ideas about who he is and how he operates. Now, imprisoned with them are others who claim to be gods - Buddha, Krishna, and a whole host of others. These others tell them many things that sound good at the time. Perhaps Krishna tells them that this is not the only life, that perhaps they are paying for an evil deed in a previous life, so they must suffer in this one, but if they will only be on their best behaviour, then after they die they will be reincarnated as something better, and hopefully freer. Buddha tells them that if they will only deny their bodies and achieve the proper level of enlightenment then their spirits will shed their bodies and ascend into a higher place where they will be free forever. Everything they hear sounds good and they decide between the two of them that probably all of them have a grain of truth, that perhaps God is to be found through any of these paths - after all they all offer freedom of some sort at some point, if you're good enough.
Then one day the door is opened and a man walks in. He is fairly plain looking, dressed in sturdy, everyday kind of clothes and with a kind but unremarkable face. He introduces himself as Jesus Christ and announces that he has paid the ransom for these two men and they are free to follow him. He warns them ,though, that there are lots of pitfalls and deceptive turns in the castle on the way out, so they must be sure to follow him exactly in order to get outside and past the moat and enter with him an eternal life of freedom. If they stray there are guards waiting to bring them back to the dungeon. This is such good news that both men leap to their feet holding out their manacles to be unlocked and unhesitatingly follow Jesus out the door. They discover he was not kidding - he takes them up stairs, down winding hallways, through empty rooms, back and forth and around in dizzying patterns. He never stumbles or looks confused but confidently strides forward towards where he knows the exit to be. But as warned they face many temptations to leave the path he is taking them on. They see rooms on either side of them filled with wonderful things that they have only dreamed about during their incarceration. Tables laden with delicious looking food and clear water and wine. Mountains of gold and jewels and untold wealth. Well dressed, good-looking people who beckon them to join in revelry and merry-making. Finally, they pass a door that looks as if it leads outside into a beautiful garden where water plays over a fountain and the birds sing merrily in the trees. One of the men stops the other.
"Doesn't this look like the outside he has promised us? Surely this winding way he is taking us on isn't the only way out - you can see it there just through this door."
"I know what it looks like," is the reply, "but he said that we would easily be deceived. Since he is the only one who was able to pay our ransom, I think we should trust him."
"But remember what we learned in the dungeon, that there are many ways to God. Look, his way is taking too long - I don't see any guards, but I can see the outside right there and I can't wait any longer!"
With that he plunged through the door and into the waiting hands of the guards who were standing on either side of the door and who took him back to the dungeon.
The other turned back to find Jesus had stopped to wait for them. He stood there with tears streaming down his face knowing the bondage the other had just returned himself to.
"Will you still follow me?" Jesus asks.
"Yes my Lord! You have given me freedom and I will follow you into death if I must!"
Jesus smiles and turns to continue on his way. After what seems like hours, they come to a huge set of iron doors, which Jesus opens with ease and leads his new friend out into sunshine and clean air. Soon they are across the drawbridge and into the open land that surrounds them. The man turns to look at the castle they just came from and is shocked to discover that even from the outside it looks dark and grimy and dingy, a forboding and sinister place. Jesus places his hands on the man's shoulders and gently turns him around, pointing off into the distance towards the foothills of the mountains.
"There is where I am taking you. I have already prepared a room for you, and in my castle you will never want for anything. You will always be free."
The man smiles to see a golden castle, shining in the sun. Even from a distance it seems a cleaner, more joyful place than that which is behind them. With a renewed hope he sets off after Jesus towards his new home.
Now the other man is back in the dungeon. They have not put his manacles back on, but having no idea how to get out on his own he is just as effectively stuck as he ever was. Jesus returns and offers again to lead him to safety, but the man decides that he is not to be trusted since he did not have the power to keep him from being imprisoned again when he left the path, and so chooses to stay where he is, hoping that Buddha or Krishna or one of the other gods will finally help him to escape.