By Jeremy K. Moritz
"...I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."
(John 14:6 NASU)
"...if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation."
(Romans 10:9-10 NASU)
For many years as I was growing up, I understood these words to mean that nobody on earth could ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless he first learned from a Christian the story of Jesus and prayed a prayer to ask him into his heart. This is still the most common doctrine of salvation in the Christian faith, and there is definitely some scriptural basis for it as well.
However, after a great deal of Bible study and reflection, I began to question this theology. I began to wonder what may be the fate of those who never hear the gospel. Are people automatically doomed to suffer God's wrath if there aren't any missionaries around to tell them this story? What about those faithful men in the Old Testament who never knew about Jesus? These and many other questions continually troubled my mind as I read God's Word for the answers.
There comes a time in the lives of committed Christians when they must decide exactly what they believe and why that is so. The very words of scripture (as best I could interpret them) seemed to steer me away from the traditional doctrine of salvation. Meanwhile, what held me back to it was not so much the Bible but rather the mere weight of tradition. It's a difficult thing to be persuaded away from any belief. For centuries, a majority of Christians have believed one way about this subject. I don't take that lightly. If it weren't for the overwhelming scriptural and theological support I have found to back up these claims, I would certainly not be holding to them today.
The following is a study I have done on the nature of God's plan of salvation. In these pages, I hope to make it clear why I have come to believe this interpretation of the Bible to be scripturally sound and essentially correct.
WHAT I BELIEVE—
Before going any further, I would like to expound on what exactly I am trying to put forth. I believe that men and women from around the world can come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ—even those from remote lands who have never heard the story. How is this possible? Well, I contend that our savior is at work in every country, every language, every culture, and even other religions.
Let me pause there for a moment. I want to make something very clear. I am in no way stating that many different religions are correct or that Christianity is just one of numerous ways into Heaven. This position is commonly called universalism, and I certainly do not believe it to be true. I profess that Christianity is the truth and the only one at that.
What I am prepared to defend is my belief that Jesus is active even in the hearts of people who may have never heard the gospel. God's law of love is at work in all parts of the earth. People may live their entire lives without ever being given the choice to accept or reject Jesus by name, but they will have hundreds of thousands of opportunities to accept or reject his law of love—to act in pure, unselfish love or to continue in self-centeredness. I believe that in all of the choices we make on a daily basis, we are actually choosing to make a lifestyle out of following Jesus or rejecting him—and this can be done by anyone regardless of whether or not they know their savior's name.
In the book of First John, the apostle writes, "...love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7-8). Now, I wouldn't claim the verse is saying that, if someone loves his mother yet hates everyone else in the world and is a serial murderer, he will be saved by the one loving relationship. Still, the verse does seem to clearly say that "everyone who loves" (probably everyone who makes a lifestyle out of truly loving others in an honest, self-sacrificial way) "is born of God and knows God." It seems a bit presumptuous to assume that someone who is born of God and knows God will still receive the eternal punishment of death in the Lake of Fire. Isn't knowing God and being his child the criterion for being accepted into Heaven? Jesus seemed to indicate that, on judgment day, those who will be sent away will be the ones who "never knew" the Lord (Matt 7:22-23). It would naturally follow then that those who do know God will be saved. And who is it that knows him? "Everyone who loves"!
I believe that this is the true way to accept Jesus into one's heart. What's more, I am of the opinion that this doctrine not only harmonizes very well with the rest of the Bible but also provides answers to many of the problems caused by the traditional belief that people have no hope of salvation unless they hear the story of Jesus and ask him into their hearts. One of these difficulties is the obvious question "How were people saved in the Old Testament?" I believe that Jesus was very active in the B.C. era. I also hold the conviction that the plan of salvation is the same today as it was in the time of Abraham and Noah and many others who lived and died before Jesus's appearance into the world. I hope to make a strong scriptural case for this and other theological issues that arise from this belief system.
When we read the Bible in search of systematic theology, we are forced to draw from many different scriptures in order to construct a doctrine that harmonizes as well as possible. Rarely do we find one or two passages that speak unequivocally about what it is that we are to believe. Instead, we take what we do know from the Bible and try to assemble a model that will fit best with all of it.
Through much of Christian church history, people have believed that only Christians would ever see heaven. This belief is called exclusionism, but for the purposes of this paper, I am going to refer to it as the traditional model. Some Christians (including myself), on the other hand, have read the same scriptures—with the same faith in their inerrancy—and have come to different conclusions. I, for one, am very disturbed by much of the systematic theology that comes from the traditional belief system. It appears to be unsound and unscriptural. I have come to believe in a different model altogether that I consider to be much more consistent with the Word and with the character of our Lord as revealed in the Bible.
For the remainder of this paper, I will bring up a few serious issues that confront the Christian church. In an attempt to answer the issues, we will first look at the traditional explanation and reason along these lines, after which we will examine the alternative model. Using this approach, I intend to show that the traditional doctrine of salvation is inaccurate on some important points and that these and other questions can be answered much more adequately with a different perspective.
SALVATION IN THE OLD TESTAMENT—
In the first century, a Pharisee named Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, "and Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God'" (John 3:3). This statement is, of course, quite exclusive. Jesus didn't give an individual quota for each person to meet. He said there is only one way to see heaven—one must be born again. What does this command mean? Does it mean that each person must come to know Jesus personally and ask him into his/her heart? If so, there is a dilemma that must be reckoned with. What about the people from the Old Testament?
When discussing the meaning of salvation, it is important that we do not neglect the 4000+ years of human history that occurred BEFORE the time of Jesus—this constitutes about 2/3 of the history of the world! During this period of time, there were millions of good, loving people who would have gladly come to a saving faith in Jesus if such a thing were even an option. What do we say about them? Obviously, these people have not "confess[ed] with [their] mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe[d] in [their] heart that God raised Him from the dead." Does this mean they had no hope of salvation?
Abraham, for example, lived long before any book of the Bible was ever written, and he probably had a name for God that no one else had used—certainly not "Jesus." Abe walked with God and had a very close, personal friendship with Him, but did he believe in Jesus? Probably not. In fact, I'll bet that Abraham's faith was littered with all kinds of doctrinal inaccuracies. After all, what reference did he have to go by? To what could he turn to find out whether or not his doctrine was correct? Clearly, Abraham had only the truth that he knew in his heart coupled with the divine knowledge he received from the Lord. I would imagine that God most likely didn't care as much whether Abe had all of his systematic theology in order because his heart was certainly in the right place, seeking after Him daily.
Most Christians would certainly count Abraham among the "saved race." Likewise, they would probably expect to see Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth and David in Heaven with him someday. This naturally begs the question: "Since they lived before the time of Christ, what have they done to receive their salvation?" Is Jesus the only "Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6)? If so, then there must be more to a saving faith in Jesus than merely believing on his specific name. He must have been active in the Old Testament as well as the New.
Does the Old Testament vindicate this? Yes, to a degree. Of course the name Jesus is not used because it didn't exist until the New Testament when an angel appeared to Joseph with instructions on what to name the unborn savior (Matt. 1:21). However, there are a few different places where the Bible alludes to his presence.
The apostle John tells his readers "No one has seen God at any time" (John 1:18) and later, "No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us" (1 John 4:12). Yet in the Old Testament, there are numerous accounts of people seeing God. For example, Adam and Eve heard the presence of the Lord so clearly that they hid from him (Gen. 3:8), Enoch and Noah "walked with God" (Gen. 5:22 and Gen. 6:9), Jacob wrestled with God and saw him "face to face" (Gen. 32:24-30), and Moses knew and spoke with the Lord "face to face" (Ex. 33:11 and Deut. 34:10).
If "no one has seen God at any time," who were these people seeing? It is my sincere belief that they were seeing the true intermediary between God and man. They saw Jesus. No one can see God and live, but hundreds of people have seen His son. Most Christians acknowledge that Jesus was around during the time of the Old Testament—before he was born into the world—but Jesus is commonly presumed to have been completely inactive during this period. He essentially sat back, biding his time until the day he would come to earth.
But I don't believe that Jesus was dormant in the Old Testament. I believe that the same Christ who said "no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6) has always been the only way to God. Those faithful men and women from the B.C. era were unknowingly choosing Jesus Christ as their salvation when they willfully made a lifestyle out of following God and habitually acting in love rather than with selfish ambition.
A DIFFERENT PLAN?—
The Christians who hold to a very strict reading of Romans 10:9, Acts 4:12, and John 14:6 have forwarded a few theories as to how people might have been saved in the Old Testament. Probably the most popular explanation is that these people were under a different "Plan of Salvation" than we are under today. It has often been said that these men and women were responsible for looking forward to the coming Messiah. As we look backward to Jesus's resurrection, they looked forward in anticipation of His coming. For anyone who believes that the men of faith from the Old Testament had a different plan of salvation than we do today, I raise a few objections:
First of all, this idea of two different salvation plans is, as far as I can tell, not in the Bible. This would seem to be a very important point that God would not want to have left out, if that were truly His perfect will.
Secondly, what immediately comes to mind in hearing this explanation is that those Christians who believe in the two different plans are really going against the strict interpretations to which they intended to hold on. According to this theory, those people were saved without Jesus after all. Whether or not they were taken to Heaven immediately, Christians almost invariably believe that those men and women from the Old Testament did arrive on the good side or bad side of Hell after death. This indicates that they were judged and found innocent or guilty, regardless of whether or not they knew the name of Christ.
How were these people found innocent? Did they believe on the death and resurrection of Christ? Clearly not. Many of them didn't even have the knowledge that a Messiah was coming to take away their sins. After all, humans existed on this earth for hundreds of years before any book of the Bible was ever written. Even after Moses was inspired to write the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), it existed solely with the Jews for hundreds of years. Yet most Christians would say that some of these people will still be with God in paradise. So the strict, literal interpretation that says no one can come to Heaven without being a Christian is undermined by the alternative "Old Testament Plan of Salvation" theory.
Thirdly, it is very clear from scripture that, even after most of the Bible had already been written, there were numerous other nations (besides the nation of Israel) that didn't know anything about it, and they were still held accountable for their actions! Sodom and Gomorrah didn't have any amount of truth revealed to them through the Word of God, but the Lord destroyed them for their wickedness. During the time of Noah, God chose to wipe out all of civilization (save for eight faithful followers) because of the abundance of wickedness. If God could justly hold them accountable for their actions, this suggests that they could have chosen what was right and be saved from their punishment even though they didn't ever learn that they were to expect a Messiah.
Fourthly, and most importantly, if there was one plan of salvation for those living in the Old Testament and another plan for those in the New Testament, then this implies a major change in plans that must have occurred at some point in history. When did this change take place, and what are the ramifications of this change if it is true?
If Abraham and Noah could find salvation apart from knowing Jesus, then it stands to reason that people all over the world of that time could have been saved with the same kind of faith. This is fine up until the point when Jesus comes. Now Christians are claiming that no one can be saved apart from hearing the message of Jesus and praying a "sinner's prayer" (which is ironically left out of the Bible altogether). When did this change take place? Most Christians would admit that the change would have to have been during Jesus's lifetime on earth. It is generally considered to have occurred at the point of his resurrection.
The idea that Jesus's resurrection from the dead immediately changed the method of salvation has inherent problems. Regardless of when the event is placed, there is a major difficulty that comes with believing in a different "Old Testament plan of salvation." If there was a huge, worldwide change in the plan of salvation that transpired at the resurrection, it must be acknowledged that this change is not good for everyone. In fact, the change would have instantly stolen all hope of salvation from people who might have had a chance under the previous plan. The point in history at which knowing the name and story of Jesus becomes the only way to go to Heaven is the very point when millions [or billions] of people from around the world are lost with no hope of salvation. This would imply that good people from all over the world would be on their way to Heaven when, unbeknownst to them, Jesus's entrance into the world made their salvation impossible. How would you feel to arrive before God on Judgment Day and find that your faith would have saved you if you had only died before Jesus's resurrection?
This is a serious problem. Jesus's ministry was quite remote. He certainly did not travel to the outermost parts of the earth telling his story, and it would be many hundreds of years before some cultures would ever hear that he even existed in the first place. And of course, there are many more who have never heard and will probably still never be reached with this message in their lifetimes.
China, for example, did not receive any missionaries until the 1800s. There were hundreds of millions of people living in this one country for almost two-thousand years since the death and resurrection of Christ without getting word of what happened in the Middle East. What do we say about them? Did they have a chance of receiving an inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven before Jesus's entrance into the world? If they did, then the message that Jesus switched the quotas on them is anything but "Good News"!
Likewise, all of those living North America didn't get the memo until the 16th Century. And when they finally did hear the gospel, it was delivered to them by Spanish Conquistadors who slaughtered their people and forced them to change their religion. Frankly, if that were the way I learned of Christ's love for me, I probably wouldn't want to embrace the faith either.
Can we believe that people in distant countries living far away from Jesus of Nazareth were actually expected to figure this out for themselves? Even today, there are millions, if not billions, of people in the world who have never heard this story. Does it really sound like the Lord's perfect plan to allow these people no hope of salvation just because missionaries from America haven't gotten their act together?
For many years, the Jews operated under the assumption that their people had a lock on Heaven. They were God's chosen people. As such, they believed themselves to be the only ones who would receive His blessing in the end. They were exclusionists. And when we look at the situation objectively, it seems they had some basis for believing this way.
Now the tables are turned. During the time that God's favor was on the Jews, He never forgot about the gentiles; their time was coming. Now God's favor is no longer with the Jews because they rejected His son. Now it is the Christians who are receiving the rich blessings of close fellowship with God, and the Jews are being persecuted.
But I believe the Christians have now gone too far. Now we have taken the position the Jews used to hold. We now speak as though we alone have a lock on Heaven. We talk as if God has largely abandoned all other people groups in the world.
For all practical purposes, the Jews during their time had better reason to think this way than we do today. But we understand that God didn't for a moment overlook the gentiles. He always cared about all of His creation and would later provide a way for them to reap the benefits of a relationship with Him. But today, we have forgotten this and become exclusionists ourselves—believing that no one outside our church will see Heaven. Why do we insist on such a line of reasoning?
SALVATION IN OTHER COUNTRIES—
As we mentioned before, China and North America didn't receive missionaries for hundreds of years after Jesus's death and resurrection. Even more humbling is the reality that there are still millions, if not billions, of people in uncivilized nations of the world today who don't know of Jesus. What do we say about them? Surely the Lord loves them as much as he does each person from the more refined areas of Europe and North America. Many people from these other countries have never heard the message of Jesus Christ and don't even know he exists. Do those that spend a lifetime without ever hearing the gospel have no hope of inheriting the Kingdom of God? Is there no chance that they could achieve salvation from their remote area of the world? Has God left them out of His plan?
To illustrate this point, let us imagine that it is Judgment Day, and we Christians are standing before the Almighty. We have been waiting eagerly all of our lives to finally see God face to face. This is going to be the most glorious moment we have ever experienced, when He tells us what good and faithful servants we are and invites us into His magnificent Kingdom to spend eternity in paradise. Now, let us suppose that we walk up to the Lord only to find a very sad look on His face. "God, what's wrong?" we ask anxiously.
"My name is not God," he says. "My name is Garmecali." We scratch our heads, confused. He continues "You have lived all of your lives in faithful service to these 'God' and 'Jesus' characters, but you have neglected to do anything in the name of 'Garmecali.' Now you must be punished forever.
"What?!" we shout. "We have never even heard that name before!"
"Yes, I know," Garmecali continues. "My people lived in a tiny tribe in central Africa. I told them to go around the world spreading the news, but very few of them did as I said. I am rather disappointed in their lack of missionary support. Still, because you have not believed on my name, your punishment will be—"
"Now, hold on just a moment!" we beg. "We have lived our entire lives in faithful service and eager expectation of God. If we had only known that Garmecali is Your real name, we would have called you that! We obeyed most of Your teaching and sought Your truth all of our lives!"
"Yes, I know," He says. "It is a shame. I only wish my people would have been more productive in spreading the message. Away with you!"
This scenario might at first seem too silly to be taken seriously, but I believe there is a lot of important symbolism in it. It seems crazy to think that God would cast out all of us Christians simply because we called Him by the wrong name and didn't get all of our doctrine correct. But the amazing thing is that a majority of Christians are convinced He will do that same thing to billions of people all over the world! It must be acknowledged that there are great men and women of every religion who earnestly seek after the one true God. In many cases, their devotion and discipline would put most Christians to shame.
These people have often grown up doing just what we have done—believing what we are taught. I am totally convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and that Christianity is the one true religion. But quite frankly, I was also fortunate enough to grow up in a Christ-centered home where I was taught this all of my life. If I had been born in an Islamic civilization, it is very likely that I would have still sought God with my whole heart but rejected Christianity.
What can be said about this? There are devoted followers of every religion who truly seek after God with everything they have. In many cases, these people would have been committed, evangelical Christians if they had only been taught the truth—and of course God knows this better than anyone. What is the fate of such God-fearing men and women?
Most Christians would say that, no matter what the condition of their hearts may be, if they have not used the name of Jesus in their prayers, they will go to Hell on the Day of Judgment. But I don't believe that is quite accurate. I don't believe God looks at our doctrine; He looks at our hearts. Why would it matter so much to God whether or not we have figured out all of the little mysteries and put together every piece of the puzzle? Is our knowledge the deciding factor on whether or not we'll spend eternity with Him? Of course not. Why then would God cast away a person whose heart is solely committed to obeying His truth but, having been taught something all his life, was mistaken as to which religion taught that truth?
Furthermore, I am convinced that the traditional belief system in regards to this subject is actually quite inconsistent with itself. Christians will claim that "there is salvation in no one else [except Jesus]" (Acts 4:12a), but they almost always believe that some people from the Old Testament were saved. Another common belief is that aborted or miscarried babies and very young children are saved as well—even though these groups have no understanding of Jesus. These beliefs are very inconsistent with the strict standard that the majority of Christians have placed on the rest of the world.
The alternate model, on the other hand, is very consistent. People from the Old Testament were saved through Jesus (even though they didn't know who he was); people from the New Testament were/are saved through Jesus; and even today, people who have never heard of him are saved through Jesus as well. In this way, God hasn't changed the quotas; He has remained steadfast in His treatment of all people from the beginning of creation until now.
THE JUDGMENT IN MATTHEW—
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me." Then the righteous will answer Him, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?" The King will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me."
This is such a beautiful illustration of the Judgment Day. It's not all beautiful, of course; the next part deals with the punishment of those who did not act so wisely. But I want to focus in on this section at the moment.
As I said before, I am of the opinion that the Lord will welcome people into His kingdom from all parts of the world—even those who did not know Him by name. In fact, it seems to me that our Heavenly Father will delight in surprising some of these people who had no idea what a blessing was coming to them. In the passage above, Jesus gives a marvelous illustration of this.
According to Jesus in the book of Matthew, who are those that inherit the kingdom? Is it only the Christians who have known ever since they prayed the sinner's prayer that they would be with Him? Not in this case. Look again at what the people say to themselves. They are astonished! They didn't see this coming at all: "Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?" (Matt. 25:37). These people were saved and didn't even know it. If there is, in fact, only one way to receive salvation—and I believe scripture is very clear that this is the case—then it seems that people can come to a saving faith in Jesus without ever joining the Christian church.
NOT BY WORKS—
I imagine that some skeptics might look at this and say that what I am proposing is a salvation that comes through works, and the Bible teaches "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). This is a very good point—and one I myself brought up at one time. But I believe that this salvation is not by works at all, quite the contrary.
It could definitely be argued that the traditional model for God's "plan of salvation" is a salvation by works as well. After all, people are told that they must pray a prayer to accept Christ in their hearts. Is it the prayer that saves them? Obviously not, for this would amount to being saved as a result of one good deed. Most Christians would acknowledge that it is the heart-felt acceptance of Jesus's death and resurrection that truly invites Christ into a person's heart and grants them salvation. If then the same person immediately goes out and does what they know to be wrong and completely ignores the Lord's teaching, many Christians would begin to doubt whether or not his decision for Christ was genuine. So it is not the works that save a person but rather the condition of his heart, as evidenced by the way he lives his life.
In the same way, I am proposing that no amount of good deeds can earn someone a place in Heaven. It is difficult for human beings to see whether or not people are genuinely loving, so we look at their lifestyles—the things they do—and make our best judgment about their values. The Lord can take this a step farther. Yes, a person's heart is evidenced by his actions, but God can read hearts directly. The Pharisees did all of the things that the Law of Moses commanded them, but Jesus rebuked them at every turn! Why did he reprimand them so fiercely? Was it because they had not prayed a prayer to ask him into their hearts? Of course not! It was because Jesus knew that they were only doing right for personal gain. All of their motives were selfish.
So what I am saying here is that salvation through taking on a lifestyle of pure, unselfish, sacrificial love is not at all a salvation by works and it is scriptural. Why else would Jesus have spent a majority of his time on earth instructing people on how to live holy lives motivated by love? For all intents and purposes, this teaching would have been a waste of time if, after living this way, these followers would meet their end in the Lake of Fire for neglecting to pray a certain prayer!
THE NAME OF JESUS—
Now I must make it clear that I do not claim to refute what the Bible says. I believe the Bible is God's perfect Word and is completely inerrant in its original manuscripts. But it must be acknowledged that there are a few apparent contradictions in certain verses—apparent because, when read together, they appear to be incompatible with one another. I don't believe there are any true contradictions, however; this would undermine my faith in the Bible's inerrancy. When we run up against these seemingly contradictory verses, there is always some way to harmonize them with each other and with the rest of the Word. Here are two examples that relate to the subject at hand:
"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7).
"And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
The first verse would seem to indicate that people who lead a lifestyle of genuine, unselfish love will have an inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven—this could include people who have lived their whole lives never hearing the gospel. The second verse seems to indicate that these people must believe in the name of Jesus and become Christians in order to be given the gift of salvation. Because scripture never contradicts itself, I am convinced that there is always a way to harmonize passages such as these. What is the Lord most likely trying to tell us in these verses?
Here is what I have come to believe. Jesus is the only Way to the Father. No one has ever been saved apart from Jesus. This includes people from the Old Testament as well as people from distant regions who have never heard the gospel story before. This is possible because Jesus was active in the Old Testament and all around the world through his Law of Love. By truly choosing to love one another, people are choosing Christ and choosing God because God is love. "...if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:12).
I don't believe that this is detrimental to Christian theology at all. In fact, if we take a strict interpretation of Acts 4:12, it would clearly indicate that no person in the Old Testament could be saved! After all, they didn't know Jesus and could not trust in His name for salvation. This is a more serious dilemma than what I am proposing. Yet most Christians are convinced that without knowing the name of Jesus, there is no salvation. How then do they solve the problem of salvation in the Old Testament?
CONFESSING & BELIEVING—
I'm sure that what I have written might be very uncomfortable for many people. When confronted with tough issues such as these, most Christians would much sooner abandon the idea altogether than risk looking deeply to find the truths and/or flaws in the position. For some, it makes them feel like they are doubters or are being disloyal. They might use such scriptures as Isaiah 55:9 which says, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts," or the familiar axiom "God said it; I believe it; that settles it!" While I am completely sold on the power of scripture and will never attempt to go against God's Word, I also feel that this approach is no way to defend a position that involves Biblical interpretation.
I read the same Bible and find a different interpretation that I believe is much more accurate. I will never doubt the Bible, but I have been known to doubt some interpretations of it. Every Christian does. That is why we have millions of Christians in every denomination reading the same book without agreeing on what it says. So when someone uses one or two scripture verses and claims that I am going against God's Word with my interpretation, they avoid the difficult subject altogether.
For those who willingly confront the issue, there are a number of significant questions to be asked. If people can go to Heaven without knowing the name of Christ, what is the purpose of being a Christian? Why would Paul instruct us in Romans 10:9 to "Confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead"?
To the first question, I say that it is very valuable to be a Christian because it is the truth. Jesus is our savior and the only intermediary between God and man. Why should we not want to know him personally and make him known among the nations? I do not, however, believe that Christians have a lock on Heaven and no one else has any chance of getting there unless they are given the message.
To the second question, I acknowledge that the plain reading of Romans 10:9 seems to indicate that believing on the Lord Jesus and in the resurrection is the criterion for salvation. But there also seem to be quite a number of verses that appear to grant salvation on the basis of taking on a life motivated by pure, unselfish love. Because I believe Jesus is active in this law of love—and has been since the creation of the world—I also understand taking this nature upon oneself is truly accepting Jesus. The instruction to profess Jesus as Lord then is merely an outward sign of an inward heart commitment—much like the practice of water baptism in the Protestant church. If this were true, it would not be a "2nd way to Heaven," as some might argue. It would instead be Paul and John's way of making the conversion of a believer a more substantiated and public act. After all, when people are baptized into a life of service to the Lord, the change in their hearts didn't occur at the actual point of immersion. Rather, they made a decision in their hearts to serve the Lord and some time later, they chose to make their decision public by water baptism and, in this way, solidified that position in their hearts. It seems highly possible that this is the true purpose of confessing Jesus's Lordship and resurrection.
Besides this, there is a danger in getting too caught up in the specific wording of scripture verses such as these. For example, if someone holds tightly to the words of Romans 10:9, saying "You must confess with your mouth," what does that say about people who are deaf and mute? They can't confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord. Does this mean there's no hope for them? Of course not. So even in the case of very strict interpretations, people almost always make some concession when common sense clearly demands it.
THE TEACHING OF JESUS—
Under the traditional model for the plan of salvation, no one can be saved unless they first pray a prayer and become a Christian. If this is the case, it would seem that this doctrine is the most important thing to accept out of everything in the Christian faith. If you do nothing else in your lifetime, you must become a Christian because your eternity will depend upon it. All other instruction would pale in comparison to this command.
Why then did Jesus Christ himself neglect to emphasize the importance of becoming a Christian? There were no Christians at all during Jesus's time on the earth. If Christianity were the only way into Heaven, shouldn't Jesus's message have been ardent about this fact?
When we read what Jesus said, we hear abundant teaching along the lines of the famous Beatitudes. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven... Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God..." (Matt. 5:3-9). Jesus didn't say "Blessed are the poor in spirit who have prayed a sinner's prayer and asked me into their hearts, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Why would he have failed to mention this? If praying such a prayer is truly the only way into Heaven, what difference does it make whether or not someone is "poor in spirit"? Why would Jesus have made the misleading statement that "theirs is the kingdom of heaven" if holding these qualities had no effect whatsoever on whether or not a person would see the place?
There are at least two very different models to be considered on the subject of what it takes to be saved. Each of these can be constructed using a logical, systematic approach to the study of God's Word, and a good deal of scriptural support can be found to back up either doctrine. Therefore, when coming to a conclusion, it would be incorrect to simply believe one way without examining the alternative. Tradition alone should never be the deciding factor when it comes to serious theological issues such as these—especially not for protestant Christians who have already put scripture before tradition in rejecting their catholic background.
In an honest look at what the Bible teaches, keeping in mind the character of God, I have resolved that there is salvation for some non-Christians. This includes righteous people who lived before Jesus's time on the earth (the Old Testament). I believe that they were in fact saved in the same way that all people are saved today—through Jesus Christ. He is the only intermediary between God and man, and "no one comes to the Father but through [him]" (John 14:6).
Furthermore, I believe "God shows personal favoritism to no man" (Gal. 2:6). Jesus Christ is not at all confined to Europe and North America. Instead there are people all over the world who come to a saving faith in Jesus without knowing who he is, or in some cases, even a few of those who have heard the message, but in a sincere quest for truth, have not believed in it. Some of these people might grow up in a different religion and believe what they have been taught. I don't believe that they are automatically left out of God's plan even if no Christian missionaries get to their area to tell them about Jesus.
In addition, Jesus himself taught people to love God and love each other. He never told people to pray a prayer to accept him into their hearts, nor did he hint that this would be the only way into Heaven after his resurrection. He rebuked the Pharisees for similar legalistic dogma because their hearts were wicked. What they did was right, but they didn't do it with pure motives—that made all the difference.
Finally, I believe this model for God's ultimate plan of salvation is much more consistent than the traditional belief system. It provides a logical understanding of how people were saved in years past and how those without knowledge of Jesus could still enter paradise. Also, it doesn't rely on the very unjust "change in plans" that must have occurred to make any sense of the old theory. It is scripturally accurate, and when it comes to candid, theological questions, it stands the scrutiny much better than the traditional, exclusionist belief system. Therefore, I believe that this is in fact what the Lord meant when he inspired the apostle John to write "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God...for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).
Written in 2003 by Jeremy K. Moritz.
See also: HELL: Eternal Torment or Complete Annihilation? by the same author for a detailed study on what the Bible really teaches about the fate of the unsaved.
Or check out: Can This Be Science? by the same author for a scientific and common-sense look at the fallacies of the theory of evolution.