Are believers in Jesus Christ the only people who will be with God in heaven and have a place in God’s future when heaven and earth are united as one? Some Christians are convinced that’s the reality, perhaps with a few exceptions, such as “children below the age of accountability” and perhaps some of the people who have never heard of Jesus.
But can this be right? If only Christians are “saved,” wouldn’t it mean that after Hitler murdered and incinerated six million Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe that God then sent them to hell forever because they didn’t believe in Jesus? Everything we know about the God who is love tells us that such a view is outrageous and unbiblical.
Jesus is at work drawing people to himself throughout the world. The Gospel message about Jesus and the faith it engenders is the place where God has chosen to meet human beings in a saving and transforming way. (Although, as preached today that message is often distorted in content and is without much spiritual power.).
But Jesus is also at work outside of the proclamation of the Gospel. According to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, the world’s people will or won't enter God’s eternal Kingdom -- not on the basis of whether they believed in him -- but based on how they treated his “brethren" – Jesus' followers. Did they treat Jesus’ disciples with kindness or indifference? These men and women aren't themselves followers of Christ. But those who respond positively to Christ’s presence in his followers by acting toward them with kindness, though they haven’t themselves become disciples, will enter God’s Kingdom.
This theme goes back to Genesis, when God tells Abraham that he and his descendants will be a blessing to the nations, and that that "those who bless you I will bless and those who curse you I will curse" (Gen. 12:2-3). Jesus applies this to treatment of his followers, saying "those who receive a prophet will gain a prophet's reward," and "those who give a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, will not lose his reward" (Matt. 10:40-42). Then in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus makes it clear that the “blessing” and “reward” for responding with kindness to his disciples is eternal life in God’s kingdom.
In the Bible the followers of Jesus are understood as a small persecuted minority, the “first fruits” (James 1:18) of the coming kingdom of God, largely rejected in the world, but precious to God, and reflecting God’s love and grace in the world. Yet many others in the larger world will ultimately also enter that kingdom. Who will they be?
In John 5 Jesus says that those who believe in him "do not come under judgment, but have crossed over from death to life" (5:24). But for the rest, "all who are in their graves will hear his (Christ's) voice and come out -- those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (5:28-29). This is repeated in the vision of the "great white throne" judgment in Revelations. In John’s vision believers are resurrected to life first (20:4-6), but then in the general resurrection of all people, "the dead were judged according to what they had done" (20:12).
Similarly, the Apostle Paul writes of this ultimate judgment that "those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and eternal life" will receive eternal life, and those who "are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil" will receive wrath (Rom. 2:6-11).
None of this means that anyone’s future in God’s presence is based on "being a good person" ("only God is good" – Matt. 19:17), or on trying to keep a strict set of moral standards -- which only leads to self-righteousness. Rather, people decide that they want to be eternally in the presence of all that is good and true by responding to the presence of that goodness now, whether this is experienced in hearing the authentic Gospel message, in the opportunity to show kindness to a disciple of Jesus, or, without knowing that it’s Jesus, to any of the many ways that the love and grace of Jesus Christ – the Spirit of Christ -- permeate our world.
Anyone who is saved is only saved by Jesus Christ. There is no salvation in anyone or anything else. People who will be part of God’s future Kingdom will be there only because of God’s saving work in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, received by their grace-enabled response of “yes” to his love and grace, whether or not they realize it is Jesus they are responding to.
Tragically, this doesn’t mean that everyone will be with God in his eternal kingdom. Some people persistently turn away from what is good and true, from light and love, as this can be experienced and embraced in their lives. In this way they make it clear that they do not want to be with God, who is the fullness of that Good. While God continues to reach out, and seeks to win all people to himself (1 Timothy 2:3), in the end God accepts the choices that each person makes whether to be with him or not. Granting such freedom – the freedom to accept or reject him – is also the nature of love.
Marty Shupack, October 6, 2011
Yes, Scripture is extremely clear! Jesus is the only way to God. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Jesus. Moses can’t save anyone. Buddha can’t save anyone. And we can’t save ourselves. Only Jesus saves. Those who do not have Jesus do not have Life. Apart from Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, bodily resurrection and Lordship, no one could be saved.
But the question is, can people ultimately be saved by Jesus without knowing that it is him. Can “non-Christians” enter God’s eternal kingdom through Jesus?
C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard and other prominent Christians believe that they can. Here’s what C.S. Lewis writes about the salvation of non-Christians in Mere Christianity: “There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it . . .” (pp. 176-177).
Regarding the question of how people unknowingly experience Jesus, it’s not that everyone encounters Jesus as a distinctive spiritual presence. Rather, it’s that he’s there all the time! Jesus is the Word of God -- the Divine Logos (John 1), “through whom all things were made” (John 1:3), and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He “gives all people life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). He is “the true light who gives light to every person,” (John 1:9). Jesus “fills the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10) and in him all people “live and move and have [their] being” (Acts 17: 28).
These passages tell us that Jesus is present everywhere in the ordinary world. He is always reaching out to people in the depths of their heart and in the midst of their everyday lives. Each person’s response is deeply personal, so it is not possible to generalize about what a positive response will look like. Scripture does describe, however, the kind of life that God calls people to -- what it means by God’s grace to “persist in doing good” (Rom 2:7; John 5:29).
Those who are learning to love in a way that puts others above themselves, to do what is right even when it costs them, to acknowledge their own moral failures, to trust in a power of goodness greater than themselves -- rather than relying on their own moral rectitude or ability to make things turn out right -- even if they don’t have a name for that Reality, and barely understand it, are responding to Jesus’ grace and love.
They are saying “yes” to God, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. This isn’t a matter of embracing an ethical system or a prescribed conduct to earn God’s favor. Rather, such conduct is the fruit of a grace-enabled response to Christ.
Does this view amount to salvation by works? Remember that it’s not me, but Jesus himself who says that people who are not his disciples – are not his “brethren” -- will enter God’s kingdom because they treated his disciples with kindness and “have done good” (Matt. 10:40-42; 25:31-46; John 5:29). And both Jesus and Paul say that there are deeds which will be rewarded with eternal life (Matt. 16:27;
When the Apostle Paul writes about “works” that cannot save, he’s talking about attempts to claim one’s own righteousness by earning God’s favor. Such works certainly cannot save anyone. Only by responding positively to God’s grace can a person take hold of the salvation Christ has won for humankind by his death and resurrection.
That’s what Jesus is saying about those who show kindness to his disciples or are “doing good” in other ways. They aren’t trying to earn God’s favor, but are expressing in action a heart-felt grace-enabled response to “the true Light which gives light to every person.” Without knowing it, they are embracing Christ himself and evidencing by their actions the fruit of his work in their hearts!
Finally, Anonymous notes that Scripture connects rejecting the Gospel message with eternal condemnation (e.g. John 3:36). It seems to me that the biblical link between the reception of the Gospel and eternal judgment is intrinsically linked to the integrity and power of the Gospel in the biblical accounts.
When Jesus called people to follow him, they experienced an encounter with the presence and love of God with tremendous clarity and power. This was really an existential moment for them -- a decision about choosing life or death then and there. So if someone rejected Jesus when he walked the earth, they were indeed making a life-shattering decision to say "no" to all that was right and good.
Likewise, the Gospel as preached by the New Testament apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit – and by some Christians since then -- brought the immediate palpable presence of God and his love. Their preaching was accompanied by miraculous signs, and moved powerfully in the hearts of the hearers. Under these circumstances, rejecting the Gospel message was an existential choice with eternal consequences.
But since that time, the preaching of the Gospel has often been something very different. Too frequently the Gospel’s content is distorted, with little or no resemblance to the message of Jesus. Even more often our proclamation of it lacks significant Holy Spirit power and fails to convey the real presence and love of the crucified and resurrected Son of God.
On top of all this, there is the terrible reality that rulers, nations and ordinary people claiming to be Christian have perpetrated terrible evils throughout history. And such things still happen today! This has created an incredible barrier for many people to truly hear the Gospel with fresh ears.
In these circumstances, declining to believe in Jesus isn’t necessarily a rejection of who Jesus really is. Such “unbelievers” are not the ones Jesus talks about when he speaks of those “who loved darkness instead of the light” (John 3:19). Rather they are simply unable – through no fault of their own – to experience that Light in the Gospel message as we preach it. But that “Light which enlightens all people” will not fail to come to them.
Amazingly, our sharing of the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ sometimes really does penetrate hearts and transform lives. For which we must humbly offer praise and thanksgiving to the Lord of all mercy and grace!