When I was growing up in the Cambellite/Stone “Churches of Christ” one of the ongoing discussions among my college age missionary minded friends at Abilene Christian College (now University) was whether or not those who had “never heard” the gospel of Christ, and thus had had no chance to respond and be “saved,” would somehow be judged by a different standard–perhaps the sincerity of ones heart–and nonetheless be allowed into the Kingdom of God by God’s grace.
This would include the unimaginable billions who had lived before Jesus’ time as well as those countless multitudes since who missed the good fortune of being born in a culture where the Bible was known and the gospel was preached. After all, we believed that even the most devoted Jew, Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist–or any other faith on the planet–was lost forever in sin without “Christ.” Those who were atheists, agnostic, secular, or who just never gave their cosmic destiny much thought were destined for the same fate–the eternal fires of Hell.
There was no debate or questioning that only through Jesus could one “come to the Father” and receive eternal life–but in the name of justice and fairness it hardly seemed possible that the multiple billions who never had a “chance” to “know Christ” would be forever excluded from God, and yes, to put things starkly–cast into an ever-burning Hell forever!
After all, every human being who has ever lived was hopelessly lost in sin and “deserved” eternal punishment in hell–but since Jesus had brought salvation it surely seemed that God would have some way of “applying” his sacrifice for the sins of the world even to those who knew nothing of this offer of grace. Sometimes Romans 2:12-16 was appealed to as reflecting a principle by which one who “never knew” the Torah–or in this case the Gospel–would be somehow be “reckoned” by God who knew every thought and intent of the human heart–as “saved.” No one seemed to notice that this chapter in Paul’s letter to the Romans was simply a hypothetical “set-up” for chapter 3–which declares unequivocally that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and thus could only be saved by the blood of Jesus.
In the spurious forged ending now found in Mark 16:15-16 we have Jesus’ final words:
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
What is noteworthy are the many places, even in the New Testament, where such a view does not prevail. For example Jesus gives the example of two men who pray to God–one boasting of his goodness, the other striking his breast in deep repentance, crying out for grace. Jesus declared of the “sinner”:
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Nothing is said about believing in Jesus or even sacrificing at the Temple as some kind of atonement for sin. The same goes for the way things are pictured in the final judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-40 where the nations are separated, not based on dogma or some confession of faith in Jesus but how they treated the “least” of their neighbors.
Forgiveness, grace, and acceptance by God is consistently portrayed in the Bible as based on repentance and calling upon God for “salvation”–think David’s heart rending cries for forgiveness in Psalm 51, or Psalm 103:8-14:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.For he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.
Even Paul, who is often credited with declaring no one is saved without faith in the blood of Jesus covering their sins, declares that through a staged process, “all things” will be subject to God, who will ultimately be, in the Telos–the perfected End–“all things to all” (1 Cor 15:29).
It seems hard to believe that our perspectives on humanity, world history, and its potential meanings and purposes were so skewered and narrowed–and in the Churches of Christ some even had doubts that the Baptists and Methodists were okay–but we had all ended up with this conundrum because we read the New Testament quite literally. Our inner sense of justice might tell us otherwise but there was little question that Paul, Peter, John, and other N.T. writings–including Jesus himself–at least in the gospel of John–declared that “believing in the Son” was as the only way to have eternal life–and that has been the official position of the vast majority of the branches of the Christian Church for nearly 20 centuries.
That was 50 years ago in my case and following the apostle Paul, “when I became a man I put away childish things,” but nonetheless, rational, good-hearted, educated, well-meaning, sincere adults actually believe this sort of thing. Typical is the following “educated” statement by evangelical scholar and co-founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary, right here in Charlotte where I live:
Religious pluralism is the belief that all religions are true and that all faith-based roads lead to heaven. Geisler focused his message on the Biblical passage of Acts 4:1, which states that salvation is only found in Jesus Christ and no one else.
“Jesus is the only way because the Bible says it to be true,” said Geisler. “Why? Because only He can bridge the gap between God and man, there’s no other way.”
He said that although it seems narrow to suggest that Jesus is the only way, the notion holds true while adding that it is logically possible, historically probable, Biblically necessary and morally justifiable that He is the only way to heaven.
“All views can’t be true because all views are opposite, this is the logical aspect. For example, Islam says we are good in nature, Christianity says we are born in sin. Islam says God is a man, Christianity says He is more than a man, He is God, all truths can’t be the same,” said Geilser.
Historically speaking, Geisler said Jesus is proven to be the only way to God because Christianity is a form of exclusivism, meaning the belief that only one religion is true and others opposed to it are false. He emphasized that the Bible has been the world’s bestselling book, and that Jesus has the most followers in the world compared to other religious figure[s]. In addition, he noted that Jesus’ principles have been admired by people, including non-Christians, for many years.
“Only Jesus has prophecies made hundreds of years in advance made literally true, only He did miracles, only His immediate followers claimed He died and rose from the dead so in comparison, He comes out superior to other great religious leaders,” said Geisler.
The SES co-founder also said that any person that believes in the Bible, needs to believe that Jesus is the only way because the Bible itself mandates all of God’s followers to uphold its teachings.
Regarding moralism, he said there are several moral objections that exist regarding Jesus as the only way to God, including the view that Christianity as an exclusive religion is unjust. However, Giesler said everyone has the light of God, the general revelation in nature and in conscience, to know that His truth is morally righteous.
“Pluralism is denied logically, inclusivism is denied scripturally and that leaves us with exclusivism…you have to know that Jesus died and believe in it in order to be saved,” said Giesler.