LONDON, February 26, 2013 – The other day I had a poignant exchange with a friend who is an evangelical Christian. The discussion turned emotional after I suggested that it may be possible for people of other faiths to obtain salvation.
On hearing this my friend became alarmed and asked me whether I had ever truly known the Lord. When one Christian puts this question to another, it is a matter of great concern. Translated from evangelical parlance it means: Are you a true Christian? Are you really saved? Are you a real follower of Jesus Christ?
To be honest, my friend’s question did not come as a complete surprise. This is because in many evangelical quarters any suggestion that non-Christians can possibly be saved is akin to blasphemy.
On this view only those who openly proclaim Jesus Christ can ever make it to heaven. No one else can, no matter how much purity and godliness their lives may display. Because such people have never explicitly confessed Jesus Christ, they will forever suffer the torments of hell.
But this view overlooks the fact that the Bible – which most Christians take as the inspired word of God – tell the stories of numerous non-Christians who apparently made it to heaven. Abraham, Jacob, Noah, Moses, Elijah, are, we believe, with God today. And so are various prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, etc. There are many other names we could add to that list.
Even though these people lived in different times, they shared one thing in common: None of them called on Jesus Christ of Nazareth. So how, then, is it possible that they attained a saving knowledge of God?
There are some who try to suggest that even though these individuals were not professed followers of Jesus, they nevertheless had an intuition of him and so they were somehow Christians on the sub-conscious level. But this is simply a superimposition on the Scriptures in order to uphold our doctrine. There is really no textual evidence that Abraham, Jacob or Elijah had any conception of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Had they some inkling of him, it is likely a mention would be found somewhere in Biblical material. The claim of embryonic Christians simply does not stand on solid ground.
Others would argue that those mentioned were Hebrews or Jews and that God had a special dispensation for them. But the idea that heaven is only for Christians and selected Jews is also shown to be inaccurate, since the Bible features instances of non-Jews who were apparently granted salvation. Abel, the firstborn son of fallen Adam and Eve, is the first such an example. Enoch, whose story appears in the fifth chapter of Genesis, is another.
But perhaps the most remarkable case of a non-Hebrew with a saving knowledge of God is that of Job. Of this man and his spiritual experiences we have a lengthy record in the Biblical book which bears his name. In fact, there is no other person in the Bible whose spiritual life and struggles are recorded in greater depth and detail than Job’s.
Even though the book of Job is part of the Jewish Scriptures, Job was apparently not a Hebrew. Views vary widely as to the time he lived, his geographical location and his ethnic origin. Some scholars think he may have been an Egyptian, while others speculate he was perhaps a Syrian. One thing, however, appears to be quite clear: Job was outside the stream of the traditional Hebrew religion. In his lengthy conversations and monologues, Job makes no references to the Torah or Moses or the patriarchs which is something that a practicing Hebrew in his situation would likely have done. This is one of the reasons why many Jewish scholars refer to him as a “righteous gentile.”
Yet despite the fact that Job was not a Christian or a follower of the Mosaic religion, we still believe he is now with God in heaven. So the question naturally emerges: How did he get there? What was the mechanism of his salvation?
What Job’s case as well as other scriptural instances seem to suggest is that it is possible for non-Christians and non-Jews to enter heaven. But if salvation was possible for those mentioned in the Bible, why could it not be available to others as well?
Why could not sincere Buddhists or Hindus or persons of other faiths also find favor in God’s eyes? Why do we so adamantly insist that only Christians can be saved and everybody else goes to hell? Why is the suggestion of salvation for individuals from other traditions greeted with such dislike and objections? Why is such a suggestion considered almost heretical? The Bible itself shows that it is possible. The Bible itself refutes the claim that heaven is the exclusive domain of Christians and a few select Jews.
Why do we go beyond the Bible to draw hell-consigning conclusions about people who in many instances show more piety and moral uprightness than the average Christian?
Most evangelicals claim to be born again and to live in the spirit of Christ, and yet our behavior often fails to furnish persuasive evidence of such claims. On the other hand, we see examples of great saints from other traditions who display consuming devotion to God and who selflessly forfeit themselves in the service of others, and yet we say that these people are certainly damned.
How can this be?
The Christian exclusivist is likely to say that appearances deceive and that what really counts is inward regeneration. Even though it is certainly true that appearances may mislead, they can also offer accurate clues about the disposition of one’s inner state. So the question is this: Who gives the more compelling indications of a new birth? Is it the worldly Christian or the self-sacrificing saint like a Mahavir or a Chaitanya?
Who, really, is more Christ-like? And should we, Christians, be so confident that hell is their portion?
Refraining from sweeping judgments may well prove a prudent course lest we be caught by surprise on that day when God will “will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.”
You can read Part II by clicking here
Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life.
Vasko has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals. He currently lives on an island called Great Britain. His column “Higher Things” deals with matters pertaining to God. You can read more by clicking on this link.
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