Can only Christians go to Heaven, Part II

God may be called upon by many different names. Photo: YadavThyagaraj via Flickr

LONDON, March 16, 2013 – In an earlier piece I observed that the Bible apparently shows it is possible for non-Christians to enter heaven.

In response some readers pointed to Biblical verses that would suggest that salvation is only available to confessing followers of Jesus Christ.


SEE RELATED: Can only Christians go to heaven?


Here are some examples of such verses:

In John chapter fourteen, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

In the seventeenth chapter of the same gospel, Jesus states, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

The book of Acts records this statement by the Apostle Peter: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

In his first epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

In the letter to the Collosians, Paul says, “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”

But when examined in its entirety, the Biblical record seems to show that these statements cannot be interpreted in the restrictive way we often construe them. This is because there have been those who attained a saving knowledge of God without having expressly invoked the name of Jesus Christ. We discussed some of them here. They include, among others, individuals like Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Job in addition to a whole host of the Old Testament figures and prophets.

Thus, on one hand, the Scriptures contain declarations that seem to suggest that salvation is only available to followers of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the Bible records numerous instances whereby non-Christians were granted salvation.

How, then, are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction?

Paul’s epistle to the Colossians may give a clue. Referring to Christ, the apostle writes:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

This is obviously a description of the Supreme Being – the primal root of the universe. In other words, the point Paul is trying to assert is that Jesus Christ is God. And even though this idea may seem startling at first, there are a number of verses in the New Testament that support this conclusion. Here are some other examples:

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

[T]here is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But perhaps no one makes this point more emphatically than the Apostle John when he writes: “And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”

All these statements intimate that Jesus Christ is God – the eternal being, the creator of the cosmos. To put it another way, Jesus Christ is another term for God. And when we look through the Scriptures we will, indeed, find a number of instances that indicate that the designations “God” and “Jesus Christ” refer to the same reality.

The book of Revelation, for example, repeatedly employs terms that explicitly denominate Jesus as God. He is referred as “Lord God,” “The Almighty,” “Lord of Lords,” “The First and the Last,” “Alpha and Omega” among other names.

This means that the terms “God” and “Jesus Christ” are, in a certain sense, interchangeable. That this should be the case is not completely surprising, since throughout the Bible God is referred to by many different names and titles. Some of the most frequently appearing are Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, and El.

Then there are names that are used less frequently. Here are some examples:

  • El Elyon (God Most High)
  • El Roi (God Who Sees)
  • El Shaddai (God Almighty)
  • Yahweh-rapha (Yahweh Who Heals)
  • Yahweh-nissi (Yahweh My Banner)
  • Yahweh-shalom (Yahweh Is Peace)
  • Yahweh-sabaoth (Yahweh Of Hosts)

And there are many other names by which God has made himself known to man. All these names describe various aspects of God, but what is important to remember is that even though they sound different, they all point to the same divine reality. So when the prophet Jeremiah calls on God as Yahweh-tsidkenu (The Lord Our Righteousness), he is referring to the same God as the prophet Ezekiel who calls on God as Yahweh-shammah (The Lord Who Is Present).

Since Jesus Christ is another name for God, someone who calls on Jesus Christ calls on the same God that the Old Testament people called upon when referring to God by the designations listed above.

This may help us resolve the seeming contradiction: The apparent fact of salvation of many Old Testament figures in light of the New Testament pronouncements which state that salvation can only be effected by and through Jesus Christ. But if Jesus Christ is another appellation of God, it is possible to reconcile this dilemma. By calling on God as Jehovah-tsidkenu, Jeremiah was also calling on God, Jesus Christ. It was on this basis, it would appear, that he and many others like him were granted salvation.

This brings us to a larger question: If it was possible for Old Testament men and women to be saved without being explicitly aware of the name and existence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, why would not the same be available to sincere seekers of God from other spiritual traditions?

This would depend, one would assume, on whether their prayers, efforts hopes, and supplications were addressed to the same God that Old Testament individuals revered: the Supreme Being, the ultimate reality, the Lord of creation, the upholder of life, the sustainer of all things.

When we carefully examine utterances and statements by seers, saints and prophets from different traditions we cannot but conclude that many of them, indeed, appear to be referring to the same God. Here are but two of countless instances that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures:

“Protect me always
With Thy compassionate face.
Lead me from the unreal to the Real,
From darkness to Light,
From death to Immortality.
Reveal Thyself to me
And protect me always
With Thy compassionate face.”

 

and

“My heart is joy-filled, blossoming with love;
Ravished am I by His love –
Love of my eternal Lord.
He is the immortal Lord Supreme,
Whose will nothing restrains;
Gracious, compassionate,
In each one’s life involved.”

 

The assertion that others may have known the same God is likely to unsettle many Christians, since we like to believe that we are the only ones who truly know God while everybody else is mistaken. So serious, in fact, is everyone else’s ignorance that – on this exclusivist view – they will all suffer the pain of eternal damnation for their error.

But this view simply does not seem to correspond with reality. If we look with an open mind at the statements and lives of many God-seekers from other traditions we are forced to conclude that they experienced God in a deeper and richer way than the average Christian does. So much so that many of their statements could easily belong to the Bible. Here are a couple of examples:

“The chakora bird longs for the moonlight,
The lotus longs for sunrise,
The bee longs to drink the flower’s nectar,
Even so my heart anxiously longs for Thee, O Lord,”

 

and

“Glory to Thee, Lord of the Universe!
To praise Thee, I seek;
Never without the Lord may I live.
The Bride is athirst for the Lord;
All night is she awake lying in wait for Him.
The Lord has captured my heart;
He alone knows my agony:
Without the Lord the soul is in travail and pain –
Seeking His Word and the touch of His feet.
Show Thy grace, Lord; immerse me in Thyself.”

 

The ideas and emotions expressed here could have well been taken from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Many Christians would, in fact, assume they do come from the Bible if we did not tell them otherwise. If we inform them, however, that these utterances are by a Hindu or a Sikh, they would say the author will be damned. But such a way of thinking is, to say the least, inconsistent. It is rooted in an exclusivist doctrine that the Scriptures themselves seem to undercut.

There is an adage in an ancient spiritual tradition that may well apply here, “Ignorant is he who says, ‘What I say and know is true; others are wrong.’”

We would do well to ponder this lest we – who think we are the sole possessors of truth – miss the mark ourselves.

You can read Part I 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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Vasko Kohlmayer

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. He has discovered that no matter how many places you've been, there is always something new to learn wherever you go.

Having started with sciences, he earned degrees in philosophy and literature. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals on subjects ranging from Russian politics to the gold standard. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters. He is the founder of The Christian Writers Foundation.  

 

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