The essay below is a letter I sent to someone about two years ago in response to an expres

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

===================================================== The essay below is a letter I sent to someone about two years ago in response to an expressed concern. It may perhaps be of wider interest. ON THE SALVATION OF NON-CHRISTIANS Dear Eric, You have been told that anyone who dies without believing in Jesus Christ and accepting Him as Lord, God, and Savior, will surely perish. And since what one believes is often dependent on what one's parents believed, this hardly seems fair. Let us consider what the Scriptures actually have to say on this subject. First, I want to make a sharp distinction between two statements that are often confused. (1) It is impossible to be saved except through Jesus Christ. (2) It is impossible to be saved without knowing about and believing in Jesus Christ (before death). As regards the first statement, there is no question. We read: + No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, + which is Jesus Christ. (I Cor 3:11) + There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other + name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. + (Acts 4:12) And Jesus Himself says: + I am the Way. No one comes to the Father, but by Me. (John + 14:6) + As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides + in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the + Vine, you are the branches. If a man does not abide in me, he + is cast forth as a branch and withers. (John 15:4-6) + I am the door of the sheep. If any one enters by me, he will + be saved. He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but + climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. + (John 10:7,9,1) Between God and man there is a vast gulf. And that gulf is spanned by only one Bridge, that unique Person Who is Himself both God and Man. He in His own person spans the abyss, breaks down the barrier, and unites us with God. He is utterly essential to our salvation, and for Him and His work there can be no substitute. But many Christians, seeing the truth of Statement One, pass on immediately to assert Statement Two, as if they were one and the same. And clearly they are not the same. Take an example from biology. It is impossible to live without mitochondria in every cell of your body. If all your mitochondria were to stop functioning, you would be dead in a matter of seconds. But this does not mean that you have to know about mitochondria in order to stay alive. Fifty or so years ago, no one knew about mitochondria. So you see that, having grasped the truth of Statement One, we cannot simply accept Statement Two as part of the package, but must consider it on its own merits. We read, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he that does not believe is condemned." Some Christians claim that this settles the matter, that everyone who is not a Christian, regardless of the reason, is damned. But let us consider how Christ Himself applies the principle. Disputing with the religious leaders in the Temple, He says to them, "If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins." (John 8:24) But, speaking to His disciples just before His arrest, and referring to said leaders, He says: "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin. If I had not done among them the works that no one else has ever done, they would not have sin." (John 15:22,24) Thus He makes it clear that He is talking, not about failure to believe on the part of those who have never heard of Him, or failure to believe in the absence of reasonable evidence, but about an instance of willful hardness of heart. (He was, after all, dealing with men whose response to the raising of Lazarus had been, not to repent and believe, but to make plans to have Lazarus assassinated.(John 12:10)) It is claimed that in order to be saved one must believe in Jesus. What about young children? In my church, the answer is clear. We are accustomed to baptize children, claiming on their behalf a share in Christ's death and resurrection long before they are old enough to understand what Christ has done for them. Of course in some Christian congregations it is a matter of principle not to baptize someone prior to a public declaration of faith on his part. But children too young to believe in Christ sometimes die. Eventually they will be resurrected. Is this resurrection connected in your view with the resurrection of Christ? In my view they are inseparable. When Adam entered the realm of death, it was Adam that was changed. But when Christ entered the realm of death, it was death that was changed. When the Israelites came to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land, the Ark of the Covenant (the visible symbol of God's presence in their midst) went with them. The priests bearing the Ark were the first to enter the Jordan, and when they did the water parted and the people were able to pass dry-footed to the other side (Joshua 3:14-17). So Christ has stepped before us into the coldest of all rivers, and at the touch of His foot it has dried up so that we can pass safely. So He has gone ahead of us into the prison of death, and forged a pathway leading from its deepest dungeon to the gates of Heaven. Does anyone suppose that the souls of those who have died in infancy will say, "I have no sins, and therefore I owe Jesus Christ nothing -- He has nothing to do with my being here in Heaven!"? All who are delivered from the power of death are delivered by Christ. And that includes little children. Christ says, "No one (Greek oudeis) comes to the Father except by Me." That includes little children who have never heard of Him. To say that it also includes adults who have never heard of Him is not uscriptural. It is claimed that in order to be saved, one must believe in Jesus. What about those who have never heard of Him? What does the Scripture say of them? What does it say, for example, about those who lived before the time of Jesus? What of the Jews of Old Testament times, what of Abraham and Moses and David? One answer sometimes given is that the prophets predicted the coming of Jesus, and so the Jews (the ones that believed the prophets) were saved by believing in the Christ who was to come. (Jesus says: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day." (John 8:56)) But what did they believe about Him? How detailed was their knowledge? Moses, in his farewell address to the children of Israel, tells them that the Lord will raise up from among them a great prophet, someone like Moses, and that they are to heed him. Christians ordinarily understand this as a reference to Christ. But did Moses' hearers already know that God was going to take human nature upon Him, suffer for their sins, die and rise from the dead so that we might rise with Him to life everlasting? If so, then when Moses mentioned this prophet, surely he would have added, "And this prophet is none other than the promised Saviour whom you have already been told about, the Incarnate God who is to die for your sins and rise for your justification." The fact that he does not say this is a pretty clear sign that they had not already been told about the Saviour in those terms. The only promise they had to go on was that there would be a prophet like Moses. This is a long way from what we understand by faith in Jesus. It is such a long way, in fact, that some Christians are convinced that the ancient Jews MUST have had more information about the Messiah than that. We point to the Twenty-Second Psalm, or to the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah (such as Isaiah 53), and take them as evidence that the prophet foresaw the atoning death of Jesus. And I do not for a moment doubt that the full meaning of these passages is to be understood only in the Light that shines from the Cross. But the question is whether the pre-Christian Jews, even the most devout of them, understood the passages in that sense. And it seems a plain historical fact that they did not. The Ethiopian to whom Philip preached was surely an earnest student of the Scriptures, but the meaning of the passage was dark to him until he had heard directly of the work of Jesus. It is a commonplace of Sunday-school lessons that the Jews of Jesus' time were expecting the Messiah to be a military leader who would give them an earthly empire. And the disciples themselves, after the Resurrection, asked Him, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" In other words: "All right, we have had the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and those were all very well as side shows. But when do we get to the main event? When are You getting to the important stuff, like raising an army and kicking the Romans out of Jerusalem?" If that was their view of what the Messiah was all about, after three years of hearing Him preach, and after seeing Him risen from the dead, imagine how much the ordinary pius Jew of the years before Christ must have understood of what the promise of a Savior meant. About all that his faith could have meant was a confidence that God is our Loving Father, and that we are in His hands, and that He can be trusted to give us what is best for us. And this is a belief possible, not only to those who are unaware of the historical facts about Christ because they lived too soon, but also to those who are unaware of the historical facts because they lived in the wrong country. Moreover, it is possible to be unaware of the facts, not because one has not heard them, but because one has heard them under circumstances that make a fair hearing virtually impossible. A Jew living in most Christian countries during most of the last twenty centuries has had ample reason for distrusting Christians. Even if he has nothing to complain about himself, it is human nature to carry a grudge on behalf of one's forebears. In Northern Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne is still a focus of bitterness. In the American South, you will not travel far before seeing a Confederate flag, or a bumper sticker reading, "Fergit, Hell!" The license plates in Quebec carry the motto, "Je me souviens" ("I remember"), which I gather means much the same thing, except that it refers to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham rather than to Gettysburg. I do tend to ramble, don't I? My point was that before I expect someone to believe something, I figure that he has not only got to have heard of it, but heard of it under circumstances which make it psychologically possible for him to be receptive of it. For example, I suspect that people seldom take a theory seriously (I don't mean believe it to be true -- I mean regard the question of whether it might be true as a serious question) unless they have met someone who holds the theory and whom they respect. ("Met" here does not mean met in person -- one can read an author's books, or follow the career of a celebrity, and feel that one knows him.) Thus, for example, astrology is not a theory I reject so much as it is something I have never considered looking into. And I suspect that this is connected with the fact that I have never knowingly met anyone who believed in astrology, or even thought there might perhaps be something to it, for whose brains I had the slightest respect. (I am not saying that this is a rational argument against astrology -- I am making what I intend as a psychological observation about the way humans, including myself, tend to think.) Back when I was in college, I had a summer job in a laboratory doing routine quality checks, and I had a running argument with my supervisor about Christianity. At the time, I thought she was very unreasonable. She dismissed my arguments out of hand. She would ask a question and then interrupt the answer. She did not, on my view, give me anything like a fair hearing. In retrospect, I can see why. The most conspicuous thing about me was that my lab technique was not nearly as good as hers, and probably below average for the summer employees. In other words, the only thing she knew about me was that I was a klutz, and the only context in which she met me was one where non-klutziness was the most important of all qualities. Why should she take me seriously? End of ramble, this time, I promise. A Jew who knows Christians only in unfavorable contexts is unlikely to give their views a fair hearing. I recently met a Russian Jewish Christian who told me that the number of Russian Jews who have accepted Christ in the last twenty years exceeds the total for all previous centuries. I doubt that statistics have been kept as carefully as that statement implies, but I do not find the assertion improbable. Before the Communist Revolution, a Russian Jew looked on a Christian as one of the oppressors. Now, he looks at a practicing Christian and sees a fellow victim of government persecution. It makes for less hostility and more open-mindedness. (Let us pray that recent changes in the Soviet Union will not have the side effect of renewing former hostilities.) So enough beating around the bush. What is the bottom line on your parents? Exactly what has happened to them? My answer is that I don't know. I claim that God is omniscient, not that I am. What I do know is that God wills not that any should perish, that He desires the salvation of every human soul. You may rest assured that your concern for your parents and their eternal destiny is a trifle compared with God's concern for them. Someone I care about died recently, to all appearances a non-Christian. What is his eternal destiny? I don't know. What I do know is that God sees his faults far more clearly than I, and measures them against a higher standard than I, and also that He loves him far more than I ever could. I don't start with God's dealings with my friend, because I don't know what they are, and, in theology as elsewhere, I try not to base theories on evidence that I don't have. But I know how God has dealt with me, and on that basis I am well content to trust Him with those I love. I care about you, Eric. Be well. Yours, James Kiefer


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank