What are we to think of these folks? Do they truly know God, but in a somewhat different way from us? Are they part of God’s Kingdom? Will they inherit the same glorious future promised to faithful followers of Jesus Christ? And what do we think of their religious faith itself?
In the Good News message of Jesus Christ --- which proclaims the joyful truth that in Jesus God’s Kingdom has come near – God invites human beings into his covenant family of sons and daughters. Believing in Jesus and entrusting our lives to him, we are “rescued from the domain of darkness and brought into the kingdom of God’s Beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Col. 1:14). Having been brought into a relationship with God by faith, we become learners in the way of faithfulness, and we begin growing into the very character of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
Having this wonderful relationship with Jesus is a cause for incredible joy and continuous thanksgiving. It must not, however, lead us to think of Jesus as our private possession. Jesus is the Word of God -- the Divine Logos (John 1), “through whom all things were made” (John 1:3), and “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He “gives all people life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25), and in him all people “live and move and have [their] being” (Acts 17: 28). He is “the true light who gives light to every person,” (John 1:9). Upon his ascension, Jesus “filled the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10), “fill[ing] everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).
These biblical passages tell us that Jesus is present everywhere in the world. He is always reaching out to people in the depths of their heart and in the midst of their everyday lives, whatever kind of belief they may have. If Jesus is at work everywhere, he is present in the midst of the world’s religions. As the prophet Hanani said to one of Israel’s kings, “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the entire earth [not just in Israel!] to strengthen those whose heart is true to him” (2 Chron. 16:9). And as the Apostle Paul tells the people of Athens, “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
C.S. Lewis writes about the salvation of members of other faiths in Mere Christianity: “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.”
There are hallowed elements in the world’s religions that Jesus can use to draw people to himself and the love of God, as well as destructive elements and distorted interpretations that draw people away from him and from all that is right and good. When adherents of a religious faith respond positively to the light of Christ -- “the true light which gives light to every person” -- operating through elements within their religion, or in the larger world around them, or directly on their heart, even without knowing that this is what they are doing, then they “belong to Christ without knowing it.” As Matthew 25:31-46 and other passages indicate, at the final judgment they will be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, surprised to find that they had been serving Jesus all along.
God can use a religious faith in important ways in the lives of its adherents. But as Christian thinker Dallas Willard – who finds ample evidence in Scripture that God’s salvation extends beyond Christian believers -- writes in his book Knowing Christ Today, no one has a right relationship with God because of their religion. “Religion of whatever kind is just not enough. But ‘everyone who loves is born of God and knows God . . . for God is love’ (1 John 4:7-8).” Ultimately, those who will be part of God’s future will be there because of God’s saving actions in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and their response of “yes” to Jesus’ presence and grace, whether they realize that this is what they’re doing or not.
This is also true for Christianity as a religious system. There are elements within this religion, as it is practiced culturally, where Jesus Christ is present and active, and destructive elements that draw the practitioners away from him. How those called Christians respond to Jesus as he really is, not to cultural Christianity, makes an eternal difference. There is a vital distinction between Christianity as a religious system, and the revelation of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and Life.
This understanding of the world’s religions isn’t new, unorthodox, or radical.
For example, here’s what the Catholic Church teaches about other religions: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” -- from the papal document Nostra Aetate.
And regarding those who do not know Christ “through no fault of their own”: “salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church." ---from the official Assessment of [the Vatican II] Council.
Here’s what prominent Evangelist Billy Graham said in response to a question about whether he believed heaven will be “closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people”: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish of me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t. . . . I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his Son for the whole world. And I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
We followers of Jesus should be very clear about this. We can’t leave it an open question whether after their torture and murder on earth by Nazi Germany that the Jewish victims of Holocaust were condemned by God to eternal punishment because they weren’t Christians and didn’t believe in Jesus. Or that the two million Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s “killing fields” went to Hell because they were Buddhists and not Christians. We have to say that such a view in unbiblical and outrageous. God, who looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), judges each person not by his “label,” but “by what he has done” (Rom 2:6), that is, by how he has responded to “the Holy Ghost [who] acts upon all men.”
It doesn’t take away from the reality that God has exalted Jesus to his right hand as Lord of all and Savior of humankind to affirm and respect what is “true and holy” in other faiths. Or to recognize that many of their adherents are worshipping the true God and living in the love of God, though lacking the knowledge of God’s definitive self-disclosure in Jesus. Or to rejoice that Jesus will bring many more people into his eternal kingdom than only those who know him by name.
-Martin Shupack, May 2012
But by treating Jesus’ followers with kindness because they were his disciples, they were unknowingly serving Jesus himself. One might say that they were moving in the right direction toward Jesus, responding to the Light of Life which they encountered, but for whatever reason they didn’t go all the way and become a disciple – a “brother” – of Christ themselves.
That’s how we might make sense of this and other texts which indicate that Christians aren’t the only ones who Jesus saves (e.g. John 5:24-29, Rom. 2:7- 16, Rev. 20: 4-12, Gen. 12:2-3 w/ Matt. 10:40-42 w/ Matt. 25:31-46). What seems to count with God is whether a person is moving by faith toward a fuller knowledge of Christ or away from him. (That’s surely true of Christians, too!).
Why, then, share the Good News? We tend to focus on the question of the individual. But of primary importance are God’s glory, God’s truth and God’s family. When we proclaim the Gospel, and people respond by believing in Jesus and following him in faithfulness, God is made known and given the honor he is due. That’s the first reason for telling others about Jesus.
Also, human beings are created to know and embrace the truth. It is the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. Indeed Jesus is the Truth. And it is only because of what Jesus has done on the cross that anyone can know God and inherit God’s kingdom. Making that Truth known and inviting others to fully embrace it, is a further reason for sharing our faith.
Still another is that God is creating a covenant family in Jesus to advance his purposes for the world. The church isn’t God’s only means of acting in the world – Genesis says that all people bear the divine image -- but it is his primary one (or would be if we would let him!). Inviting people to become part of God’s covenant family in Christ is inviting them be at the center of God’s project for creation’s renewal.
Finally, there is an uncertainty about whether a devout worshipper is really relating to God or not. In itself devotion to one’s god or one’s idea of God is insufficient and may be destructive (even for professing Christians – think of the Crusades!). But if someone is consistently evidencing biblical agape love in their life, then Scripture tells us that they do indeed know God.
John identifies such love as the evidence -- not the cause -- of having a true relationship with God (1 John 4:7). But that may be pretty hard to discern even among fellow Christians who we see at least weekly, let alone people of other faiths. And, of course, a person unknowingly relating to Jesus can have a more accurate (Acts 18:26), fuller and more complete relationship with him then they previously experienced – with all the blessings that brings -- by believing and embracing the Good News.
For all these reasons we should share the Gospel, with graciousness and without a sense of superiority, with the devout as well as the non-religious, as God gives us the opportunity.
You asked whether someone who is unknowingly serving Jesus might fail to recognize him in the Gospel message. Professing Christians have so distorted and poisoned the message and portrait of Jesus over the centuries – and still do today -- that there are incredible barriers to people really hearing our message about Christ as Good News.
Also, in the New Testament accounts the proclamation of the Gospel is accompanied by powerful signs and wonders, which authenticated the message. Sometimes Christians today are able to share the message of Jesus with similar power, but more often not. My guess is that this is our fault, not Jesus’ lack of desire for people to know him more fully!
I received an email, not posted on the web site, making a couple of other important points. One was an objection to quoting theologians as authorities, rather than referencing the Bible directly. In my earlier blog, “Who Will Be Saved,” I provided the biblical basis for the conviction that others besides Christians can have a relationship with God and inherit his kingdom.
But it can be helpful to quote the views of respected Bible scholars and theologians because they may understand the message of Scripture more correctly than we do. The Scriptures, after all, “contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:17). We should “search the Scriptures [for ourselves]” to discern the truth about things that are taught (Acts 17:11). But none of us can fully understand the Bible’s teachings on our own. That’s why God has placed a variety of gifts in the body of Christ, including teachers and scholars.
The other issue raised in the email was based on the misimpression that I was saying people can be saved by their love. If that’s the case, the writer asks, then why did Christ need to die. I hope I’m being clear that nothing we can do saves us. It is only Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins that enables anyone to have a relationship with God and inherit God’s future. The agape love referred to in 1 John and this blog is the evidence of a relationship with God – made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection -- not the cause.