On my last post, commenter majorsteve asked some questions about the fairness of the Bible’s claims that Jesus is the only source of salvation:
Ken you have written before on the topic of “why I am a Christian”. I had a fleeting glimpse of how that topic is related to my leaning away from exclusivism.
If I were to write about why I am a Christian, the discourse would most certainly emanate from the fact that I was born into a Christian household in the U.S., specifically, in northeast Texas, therefore the chance of me turning out to be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu was virtually nil. At the same time, if I had been born into a Muslim home in Saudi Arabia the chances of me being Christian would also be virtually zero. The chance of me converting to Islam is similarly slim as is the chance of a Muslim in another part of the world converting to Christianity. Although every religion has its apostates, does God really expect significant numbers of those who’ve endured decades of cultural and societal indoctrination to hear The Word and then suddenly see the light? If so, why?
Also, is it possible to get into heaven and NOT believe in exclusivism? If not, then what is the entire list of things I must believe in order to get into heaven? Is there such a list?
These are all good questions, and I didn’t want them to go unnoticed. I don’t think he’s alone in asking them either, given that a recent poll found that 70% of Americans, including 57% of Evangelical Christians, now believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” (HT: Exploring Our Matrix). I certainly can’t claim to have final answers to these questions, but I wanted to make a few points, building on what I have said previously:
One the one hand, I don’t think God is as much concerned with our particular beliefs as he is with our trust in him, with our love for God and neighbor (see, for instance, Matthew 22:37-40). Though John 14:6 is widely claimed as the proof that the Bible sees belief in Jesus (in this life) as the only means of salvation, this is not the whole story. After all, this verse only says that we must come to God through Jesus, it doesn’t spell out what that means, and the answers the rest of the Bible gives seem rather less exclusively focused on belief in Jesus. Saving faith is not about passing some kind of theological multiple choice test.
For instance, when Hebrews 11 lists the Bible’s heroes of the faith, not one of them had ever heard of Jesus. These Old Testament saints trusted God as far as they knew him, and that was apparently enough. That being the case, I hardly think that mere mental assent to exclusivism (or any other doctrine per se) is a requirement for salvation, even if God is an exclusivist (of which I am not convinced). More to the point, note that in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus says that those accepted at the final judgment are not the ones who claimed the proper title or belief in this life, but those who fed the hungry, welcomed the homeless, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned. Similarly, James 1:27 claims: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
On the other hand, the Bible is clear that we do need genuine faith to be accepted by God, and while I can’t rule out that those who follow other religions might find a similar faith, neither can I assume that they will. Certainly not all religion (not even all so-called Christian religion) points people to that kind of faith and love, and it’s up to us to spread that news. Is it unfair that some go through life in cultures that never tell them of God? Perhaps, but that’s an inevitable corollary of human freedom: our choices always affect those around us, and that includes helping to create the societies our children are born into (on that point, see here, one of my very first posts). As so often, C.S. Lewis sums this up well, in Mere Christianity (also quoted here):
Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more. (pg. 64)