Are believers in Jesus Christ the only people who will be with God in heaven and have a place in God’s future when God’s Kingdom comes in fullness? Some Christians believe 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 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 preeminent place where God has chosen to meet human beings in a saving and transforming way.
But Jesus is also at work in less direct ways. According to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, the peoples of the world 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 those who did – Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” 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.
In this parable Jesus is drawing on a biblical theme that 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 welcome 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.
Once we see this major biblical thread – the Abrahamic blessing — which runs from Genesis through Revelations, other passages about the identities of the “saved” become clear. In John 5, as in Matthew 25, there are three groups named. Jesus says that those who believe in him “do not come under judgment but have crossed over from death to life” (5:24). 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).
Like Matthew 25 these passages identify the followers of Jesus as a group who have already passed from death to life. And as in Matthew 25 there are two groups remaining, one group who join Jesus’ followers in God’s eternal Kingdom and one group who do not. The response to Christ’s presence in his authentic followers is Jesus’ preeminent – though not exclusive — illustration of how people who are not believers “do good” and through him receive eternal life. These other texts indicate that there are various kinds of opportunities for human beings to respond to God’s grace in the world and in their lives with goodness.
These Scripture passages are not teaching a doctrine of salvation by works. Anyone who is saved is only saved by Jesus Christ. 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. They respond to the Light of life – to the call of goodness and truth — whether this is experienced in hearing the authentic Gospel message, in the opportunity to show kindness to a follower 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 – speak to conscience and permeate our world.
But Matthew 25 also refers to goats – people who will not be with God in eternity. 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 the Light that they have hated all along. While God continues to reach out, seeking to win all people to himself (1 Timothy 2:3), in the end God accepts the persistent 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.
Part II [In response to questions]
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. There is no other Savior and we can’t save ourselves. Only Jesus saves for eternal life in God’s Kingdom. 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 kingdomthroughJesus?
According to the Catholic Church 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 Vatical II] Council.
Notable Protestants think this as well. 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 Christian faith, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it . . .” (pp.176-177).
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.
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). Upon his ascension, Jesus “filled the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10), “fill[ing] everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23), 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 individual’s response is deeply personal, yet Scripture does describe 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 responding to God’s grace in Christ – even if they don’t recognize His presence – will grow in manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives – “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” They are people who are learning to love in a way that puts others above themselves, to do what is right even when it costs them, and to acknowledge their own moral failures. They are learning 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. In other words, whether Christians or not, those who are growing in the character of Christ (though imperfect like all of us!) are in truth responding to Jesus’ grace and love.
The same thing applies to those of us who profess Christ. Jesus says, “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21-27). Claiming to be Christian and seeming to experience miracles in Jesus’ name do not mean that someone is in a “right” relationship with God. Only those who respond positively to God’s love and grace and reflect that into the world genuinely belong to Jesus.
Does this view amount to salvation by works? Remember that it’s Jesus himself who says that people who are not his disciples 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; Rom. 2:6-7).
When the Apostle Paul writes about “works of the Law” that cannot save, he’s talking about the claim to have an exclusive and privileged status with God associated with the Law of Moses, and perhaps secondarily by 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 are expressing a heart-felt grace-enabled response to “the true Light which gives light to every person.” Without knowing it, they are embracing Christ and showing by their actions the fruit of his work in their hearts!
But what about Scripture passages that explicitly connect rejecting the Gospel message with eternal condemnation (e.g. John 3:36)? In the biblical accounts the link between one’s response to the Gospel and eternal judgment is intrinsically linked to the integrity and power of the proclamation.
When Jesus called people to follow him, and when the Apostles proclaimed the Good News, the hearers experienced an encounter with the presence, grace and love of God with tremendous clarity and power. This was an existential moment for them — a choice whether to love life or love death. So if someone persistently rejected the person and message of Jesus they were indeed making a set of life-shattering decisions to say “no” to all that was right and good – to turn their backs on God’s love and light.
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. In addition, our proclamation often lacks significant Holy Spirit power and fails to convey the 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! Distorted versions of Christianity have created an incredible barrier for many people to truly hear the Gospel.
As the Gospel is often preached today, failing to accept it does not mean that one is rejecting God’s love and grace. In such cases the biblical connection between the Gospel message and eternal judgment is severed. 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 shine on them – to be embraced or rejected — in the depth of their heart and the course of their life.
The proclamation of the Gospel continues to be God’s message that salvation and transformation is available to all. When we share the Good News of Jesus with others in love and the Spirit of Christ, and reflect the character of Christ in our lives, our message honors God and has the power to bring the forgiveness of sins and profound transformation of life.
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