Reading time: 14 minutes
A quote from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity caught my eye a couple of weeks ago:
“Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.“
At the end of the Last Supper, the gospel of John records that Jesus comforts His disciples and tells them, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). Later, in the book of Acts, Peter is recorded as saying this to the Sandhedrin (think Israel’s Supreme Court) after committing the crime of “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead“: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (4:12). Peter said this after explaining that it was by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth that he was able to heal a beggar who was lame from birth.
If you are a Christian or know someone who is then you are familiar with the teaching that the only way to be saved is through Jesus Christ and that because Christianity is born out of the teachings of Jesus, salvation can only come if you are baptized into the Christian faith. More specifically, the whole business of being “saved through Jesus Christ” has, over the ages, come to mean that one must repent and accept Jesus into his or her heart by having faith in Him.
But, and if I may be so bold to ask, what if God doesn’t need us to know Jesus to save us? What if God is more radical than how predictable we have made Him out to be? What if even those who do not know Jesus can, have been, and will be saved, whatever the mathematics of salvation actually look like? What if God is actually more inclusive, more compassionate, more gracious, more open and more loving than what we have interpreted the words of Jesus and Peter to mean?
I think of how much exclusivity pervades our daily lives and how it has played in the history of our world. I think of how women were excluded from voting in democratic elections until the late 19th century because of their sex when men had been voting since democracy was born in Athens, Greece in the early 500s BC. I think of Germany in the 1930s before the outbreak of the Second World War when Hitler introduced legislation excluding Jews from economic life and other areas of the German community. I think of how individuals in India’s lower castes have been, for thousands of years, excluded from accessing certain jobs because of their place in the social hierarchy. I think of young students who are bullied in their schools and excluded from belonging because of the colour of their skin, their interests, their looks, their economic status, their clothes, or their sexuality. I think of how excluded I feel when the lawyers I work with don’t invite me to lunch because I am a paralegal. I think of all the little things we do to exclude others, including when we avert our eyes from the disheveled homeless person with unkempt hair, dirty clothes, and fetid skin asking for spare change. I think of Christians who say that men, women, and children living in Syria who do not know Jesus and that have become casualties of the ongoing Syrian Civil War are excluded from God’s saving grace because they followed Mohammad.
And then I think of how inclusive Jesus was. Inviting a tax collector like Matthew, someone the Jews would have considered an enemy because he was working for the Romans, to be His disciple. Allowing a “sinful woman” to anoint His feet with her tears in front a group of Pharisees and then telling her that her faith had saved her, knowing the place she held in Jewish society. Sharing a meal of five loaves and two fish with a large group numbering the thousands. Telling a criminal that was crucified right next to Him that he would be with Him in paradise for no other reason than because he acknowledged that Jesus did nothing wrong and asked that Jesus remember him. Eating with sinners and tax collectors while the Pharisees looked on in disbelief. Healing “every disease and sickness among the people“, knowing that these were the marginalized, the forgotten, the most excluded in society. Urging His followers to love their neighbours, including their enemies, and to pray for the people who persecute (i.e., mistreat, oppress, victimize, and abuse) them. Illustrating that the Father’s love is like the love of a father waiting in anticipation for the return of his prodigal son and welcoming him back home with open arms. Asking God to forgive the people who nailed Him to the cross because they did not know what they were doing. Affirming in prayer that God loves the world even as God has loved Him. Dying for a bunch of misfits like us and being the atonement for my sins and yours.
As Christians, I think we obsess far too much about salvation and what we must do to be saved, to stay saved, and to save those who are not already in our camp. It’s enough to cause sufficient anxiety. In fact, throughout my adolescent and young(er) adult years I felt an overwhelming burden and responsibility to convert anyone who did not share my faith, and as a result none of my interactions with people outside of my faith ever felt authentic. Everything felt contrived. Oftentimes I felt some obligation to mention God in conversation or to reveal that I was a Christian, hoping that that would open the door for me to witness. Non-Christians aren’t ignorant; they can see through the artifice. Indeed, whole sermons have been devoted to the subject of witnessing and entire books written on how to witness better. However, I doubt that when Jesus told His disciples to teach the world to obey everything He commanded them* that He expected us to systematize our discourse with people and to have little to no regard for what non-Christians have to say about God and what salvation means to them. The best conversations are those that are real, honest, and human–ones where we talk about our experiences, our doubts, our hopes, our struggles, our unraveling, our faiths with true humility–not conversations where we sound like we are reciting answers from a book by Norman Geisler on Christian apologetics. I think people are more likely to take your faith seriously (and maybe even be changed by your faith) when you love them seriously. And guess what? Loving them means allowing them to contribute, to add value to the conversation about God and life and, yes, even salvation, notwithstanding that your views may differ. As a Christian, I think that is the most Christlike thing you can do.
Continuing to grow into a life of wholeness, beauty, compassion, presence, grace, and love is what I now call salvation. Participating in making our world, our cultures and societies, a little more whole, sounds like salvation. Worrying about my eternal address or being in the right group is hell. — Kent Dobson, Bitten by a Camel
In any case, might I suggest that we adopt a new obsession?
And how we can love more and love better.
A Radical Thought
Which brings me back to where I started. Some in the Church may argue that sharing Jesus as the litmus test for salvation is the most loving thing we can do because Jesus Himself says that no one comes to the Father except through Him. And I would tend to agree. I believe that everyone should know that there is a God and that He loves them with abandon and that a God-man named Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who died for all the things we hate about ourselves, revealed exactly what God is like. But I would add that Jesus is the One who gets to decide who “comes to the Father“, not us. Not that He predestines or foreordains who is saved, but that He is the only One with the authority to judge us at the end of our days. Which means that sharing the story of Jesus doesn’t need to be as complicated as we have made it because–guess what–at the end of the day He gets to decide. I think C.S. Lewis was on to something when he pointed out that “we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him“. He’s right. We don’t.
But what we do know is this:
Some time after Peter appeared before the Sanhedrin, a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who was “devout and God-fearing” but was neither a Jew nor a Christian, had a vision from God to call for Peter. The following day, Peter received his own vision from God involving some seriously non-Kosher animals, which he couldn’t understand. (Uh, eat reptiles and birds? No thanks, God.) No sooner than Peter receives this vision that three men sent by Cornelius come calling for him and invite Peter to their master’s home. Confused, Peter obliges anyway and journeys from Joppa to Caesarea the next day. When he arrives in Caesarea, Peter is quick to tell Cornelius that it’s against Jewish law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, but, after mulling over the meaning of his vision, God had shown him that he “should not call anyone impure or unclean.” He then asks Cornelius why he sent for him and Cornelius tells Peter that he had a vision of a man in shining clothes reassuring him that God had heard his prayers and remembered his gifts to the poor, and told him to send for Peter. Astonished, Peter shares this epiphany with Cornelius according to the writer of Acts:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34-35).
The gift of salvation, whatever that looks like, does not belong to Christians, just as God’s blessing never belonged to the Jews alone. Each and every one of us is saved by grace, not by our religion. Remember that the biblical heroes of the Old Testament never had faith in Jesus, let alone knew Him or of Him, and yet Hebrews tells us that they were “commended for their faith” (11:39). In Faith Unraveled, Rachel Held Evans asserts, “We are not saved by information. We are saved by restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.“
Which brings us to the radical part.
If the stories in the Gospels are true and Jesus is as inclusive and compassionate and open and gracious and loving as is recorded in Scripture, then what is stopping Him from saving the Corneliuses outside of our Churches (people like our Moms and Dads and brothers and sisters and friends and neighbours and co-workers and fellow humans across the globe) who love and give and sacrifice and are, frankly, more Christlike (without even knowing it) than the people who profess to be His followers?
It turns out nothing, really.
What is it that Jesus said in Matthew after all?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.” (7:21-23a)
How could Jesus be so disloyal to Christians, the very people proclaiming His name to the world? Maybe He never intended to be loyal to us alone in the first place. Maybe He was never ours to begin with. Maybe He is and always has been devoted to the world which He loves–loyal even to the people in it who, as Paul wrote of the Gentiles in his letter to the Romans, “do by nature the things required of the law … even though they do not have the law” (2:14). You see, Jesus was never a prerequisite for God to save us; He is not a means to an end. He is and always has been a revelation of what God is like. This is, after all, the unique message of Christianity–that whatever powerful, unseen, spiritual force exists out there and that we call “God” is actually, and quite literally, LOVE**, and that this LOVE loves us right back so much that the measure of this LOVE is so “wide and long and high and deep” that it “surpasses knowledge.“***
Do you know what this means? This means that the lines that we’ve drawn in the sand to separate us from the other–to require out of the other a subscription to certain beliefs in order to belong, just as Peter once did–those lines get blown away! Why? Because this LOVE knows no bounds–not the bounds of religious doctrine or affiliation, or whatever other labels we can come up with. The wind beneath its wings is grace.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that John records in Revelation that he saw in a vision “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (7:9). Christians, Muslims, Asians, secularists, agnostics, Middle Eastern peoples, atheists, Hindus, straight people, Europeans, Buddhists, gay and queer people, North and South Americans, Sikhs, Jews, Bahais, Africans, Indigenous peoples, Democrats and Republicans, the rich, the poor, and every other people group you can think of, including others that have never known Christ or had to memorize 28 fundamental beliefs in order to belong, being welcomed in God’s presence. Just the hodgepodge of people that I imagine when Jesus shares the parable of the Great Banquet in the gospel of Luke and says that the master told his servant to, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (14:23).
How can I be so sure of something radical like people who don’t know the crucified God being saved?
I think they call it faith–faith that God is good, that He is fair, and that He loves this world far more than I could ever imagine.
… God’s table is welcoming to all who seek, and if any religion is to win, may it be the one that produces people who are the most loving, the most humble, the most Christlike. Whatever the meaning of “salvation” and “judgment,” we Christians are going to be saved by grace, like everyone else, and judged by our works, like everyone else. — Samir Selmanovic, The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness: Finding Our God in the Other
*Matthew, chapter 28, verse 20.
**1 John, chapter 4, verse 8.
***Ephesians, chapter 3, verses 18-19.
Comment Rules: This post contains some content and reflections that may be disagreeable to some. By sharing online, I recognize that I am making myself vulnerable to all sorts of responses. If you disagree with any of today’s content and wish to comment, you are welcome to do so, but please be respectful. – J.