Will there be Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus in heaven? Few questions are as thorny or as interesting. Let’s look at some common views and the gray area between them.
The Exclusive View of Heaven
The conservative extreme has a black and white answer to this question. The answer is “no” and there will be no person in heaven who has not personally accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. No Jews, no Hindus, no Muslims will be in heaven. This view is known as Christian exclusivism or particularism.
The Universal View of Heaven
The more liberal pole holds that all persons will ultimately be welcomed to heaven. This view is known as Christian universalism.
Eternity for the Self-Centered
There are hundreds of millions of people who have, their entire lives, resisted God’s will, who have not lived lives of love, who have not valued justice or mercy and who lived lives in which they were the center of their existence. Adam Hamilton sees two choices for such people.
One – their lives are snuffed out, as many believe will happen. They could have had eternal life, but instead they are eternally separated from God through a final death.
Or two – they are allowed to go to a place for those souls who wish to live primarily for themselves, and who resist God. Now if you can imagine such a place populated only by those who believe the world should revolve around them, and where all who sought to do right, and who brought sacrificial love into the world are not present, you have a picture of hell.
Where Exclusivists and Universalists Slide Toward the Middle
Hamilton points out that most liberals and conservatives already hold some shade of grey on the issue of non-believers in heaven.
Most universalists, who believe that all will be saved, admit to at least a few exceptions—particularly those people who have done terrible and atrocious things and who seem to Incarnate evil. Here we might think of murderous tyrants like Hitler.
Many of the exclusivists allow that God may judge non-believers, who have had no opportunity to receive Christ—the proverbial villagers on an island where no missionaries have ever trod —according to how they responded to whatever “light” that they did have access to. Even those conservatives who reject this idea will often believe that children of believers who die before reaching the “age of accountability” will be granted God’s mercy and will be welcomed in heaven. So, some conservatives embrace a bit of grey on this issue as well.
Consider Biblical Content
Let’s consider the question of whether the Bible gives us any indication of how God may view those who are non-believers. It is important to recognize that most of the Old Testament is devoted to telling the story of God’s relationship to one particular people: the descendants of Israel. Yet the story doesn’t begin with Israel or with Abraham. Though the Old Testament is focused on the story of God’s interaction with this particular people, we wonder whether, over the course of the 1200 years from Abraham to Malachi, what God was doing in relationship to the other nations. But here is what that Bible includes:
1 It begins with the creation of humankind in Adam and Eve.
2 In the story of the flood we find God’s universal interest in humanity as he enters into a rainbow covenant with all of humanity (even the animals).
3 We see God’s concern for other nations at various points in Israel’s story. God promises Abraham that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed [through you]” (Genesis 18: 18).
4 In Genesis 14 Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek, who is the King of Salem and priest of the God Most High.
5 God promises Hagar that he will make her a son, Ishmael, into a great nation.
6 Both Rahab (a Canaanite) and Ruth (a Moabite) are heroines in the Old Testament.
7 Cyrus the Persian is called God’s anointed one in Isaiah and is the instrument of God to save his people and restore the exiles to the promised land (Isaiah 45: 1).
8 In Jonah the underlying theological point is that God is concerned with the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. God has been watching them and their evil has reached a crescendo and judgment will come upon them. But rather than simply destroy them, God wishes to call them to repentance and to show them mercy.
9 In Matthew the magi from Persia are the first to appear on the scene to honor the Christ child.
10 In Acts, first with Peter and then with Paul, we find God opens the floodgates to the non-Jews who might come into the Kingdom. Paul understands that, in Christ, God has made it possible for Gentiles to be incorporated into the people of God.
How do We Attain Salvation?
So, from a cursory reading of the scripture, it would seem that God is concerned with all humanity. If this is God’s desire, then we must turn to a second question: how does the New Testament indicate that salvation for any of us is attained? Salvation is made possible by what Jesus has done for us. But how do we appropriate that salvation?
We appropriate it by believing in him. Paul writes in Ephesians “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2: 8-9). So, we do nothing to save ourselves; all we do is put our trust in God to save us.
The Faithful Hindu, Jew and Muslim
Now let’s consider the plight of the faithful Hindu, Jew, or Muslim—and by ‘faithful’ I mean the man or woman who is earnest in his or her faith, deeply desiring God, and who seeks to live according to the demands of God as they understand those demands. Let’s suppose that person has heard of Jesus. She has a generally positive view of Jesus but the likelihood of her converting is not much greater than the likelihood that you will respond to a Muslim missionary who would approach you. She trusts in God and seeks to do God’s will as she has been taught it by her parents and religious instructors. She bows, prays, studies, helps the poor, seeks to walk in humility, and lives a life of service. Is there any hope for this person?
Adam Hamilton believes that God, who is just and loving, sees this woman’s heart and believes that it is by God’s grace alone that she has sought God in her religion. How can someone be saved by God if he has not personally accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior? Hamilton notes the funerals of a dozen children who are unable to truly accept Christ as their Savior. He has baptized children in the emergency room as they died and prayed with families as they entrusted their little ones into God’s care before removing life support. If you believe that they are in heaven, how was their salvation possible? They were born into sin. How did God address the problem of their sinfulness and extend salvation to them?
The answer is that God can apply the saving work of Jesus to anyone God chooses to apply it to. As with children, why would God not be able to give the gift of salvation, wrought by Jesus’s suffering and death, to anyone that God chooses to give the gift to, based upon his mercy for someone who earnestly sought him, loved him, and responded to his mercy and grace in the only ways he/she knew to do so?
If God chooses to save anyone, including the Hindu, Muslim, or Jew, Hamilton believes it will only be by means of the saving work of Jesus—hence no Hindu, Muslim, or Jew would enter the Kingdom of heaven except by the work of Christ, even if they did not know to call upon that work. In other words, no one comes to the Father but by him.
Why Share the Gospel?
So why should we share the Gospel with others, if they might be granted the gift of salvation apart from calling upon Jesus’s name? Is our only motive for sharing Christ that we believe that the loving God we offer will eventually torment the souls of people in hell if they don’t accept that offer of salvation.
- We share the Gospel because we believe the Gospel is the truth about God and humankind!
- We share the Gospel with others because we believe the Gospel is not just about heaven, but about living life here on earth.
- We share the Gospel because in it is a holistic salvation that brings to us unconditional love, mercy, and forgiveness; a new beginning; a new life; a mission for our lives; the body of Christ; and communion with God in a way not found in any other faith.
- And finally, we share Christ because he asked us to. Is this not enough?
This idea, that others might be saved by Christ’s atoning work, even if they don’t know or understand to call upon the name of Christ, is a middle position, usually called “inclusivism,” that occupies the territory between universalism and exclusivism. It allows that some may reject the grace of God. It posits that Jesus’s atoning work is how God saves. And it maintains that salvation is not by works but by faith. It holds that in God’s mercy, God will save many who sought him although they did not understand the call upon to name of Christ. This view seems to be more consistent with the justice, mercy, and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ than the exclusivist’s view.
God must know that some of his children will not understand the Gospel. They will have been raised by their parents as Hindus, Muslims, or Jews and will find it far harder to accept the Gospel than those of us raised by parents who are believers. And just as God applies the merits of Christ’s atoning work to children and the mentally handicapped, and, some would say, to the faithful who lived before the time of Christ, so too, it seems God can apply these merits to those who love God, seek God, and strive to serve God, but either have never heard the Gospel, or could not make sense of it.
While considering these arguments regarding inclusivism, Christians might learn a lesson from Billy Graham about humility regarding our willingness to make firm pronouncements that those of other religions are automatically excluded from heaven.
A cover story on Billy Graham in Newsweek, noted, “a unifying theme of Graham’s thinking is humility. He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation. When asked whether he believed heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or saccular people, though, Graham says; ‘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 that 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,’ “
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Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3: 5)
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14: 6)
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16: 7b)
Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White by Adam Hamilton
Image by Marisa