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? Is God worse than Hitler? Everything we know about the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ tells us that such a view is outrageous and unbiblical.
A careful look at Scripture provides a more complete understanding of how God saves. Jesus is at work drawing people to himself throughout the world. The Gospel message about Jesus and the faith it engenders is the clearest place where God has chosen to meet human beings in a transforming way.
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 consciously believed in him, but on how they treated those who did – Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” Did they treat Jesus’ disciples with kindness or indifference? These men and women – the nations,” aren’t knowing 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 Scripture tells us that God’s plan is for many people in the larger world to 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 breadth of God’s salvation become clearer. 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).
Like Matthew 25 these passages identify the followers of Jesus as a group who have already passed from death to life. 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. That’s what Jesus is saying about those who show kindness to his disciples or are “doing good” in other ways. They are not saved by their own righteous works, but rather are making a heart-felt grace-enabled response of “yes” 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.
These Scripture passages are not teaching a doctrine of salvation by works. Anyone who is saved is 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 God’s presence. 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.
This isn’t an unusual or “heretical” view. 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 such as C.S. Lewis hold this view as well (Mere Christianity, pp.176-177).
It’s not that Jesus makes a special spiritual appearance to everyone. Rather, Jesus is always present everywhere. He is always reaching out to people in the depths of their heart and in the midst of their everyday lives. 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).
Each person’s response to the presence of Christ is individual, yet Scripture does describe in general what it looks like 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 that this is what they’re doing – will grow in manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit – “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” They are growing in the character of Christ’s self-giving love (though imperfect like all of us!).
Matthew 25 also refers to goats – people who will not be with God in eternity. Today this is a controversial idea. Yet it’s important to try to make sense of what Jesus is saying. God continues to reach out in love, through the Gospel and conscience, seeking to win all people to himself (1 Timothy 2:3). Still, some people persistently choose to turn away from what is good and true, from light and love, as this can be experienced and embraced in their lives. To turn away from and destroy their own humanity in the image of God. This includes some who profess faith in Christ (Matt. 7:21-27). In this way they make it clear that they do not want to be with God. Do not want to bear the image of God. They want to be as far away from God and from true humanity as possible – a desire God ultimately and reluctantly grants. Though with tears, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
In sum, Jesus is humankind’s only basis for union with God. Apart from Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins and his bodily resurrection, no one could be saved. But the question is, can people ultimately enter God’s Kingdom through Jesus without knowing that it is him? Scripture answers yes.
God graciously and persistently reaches out through the Gospel and conscience to every person. All are invited into the presence of Christ – sometimes knowingly as a follower of Jesus; but sometimes unknowingly (Matt. 25:37-39). And everyone who responds in life to the “true light who enlightens every person” – knowingly or not — will be welcome in God’s eternal Kingdom.
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