[Excerpt from Chapter Sixteen of
Buddha & Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?]
By R. E. Sherman
If there is just one way to God, shouldn’t it be available to all people at all points in time? Nevertheless, Christians have generally taken the position that the only people who will be saved are those who explicitly receive Jesus by faith as their personal Savior. This position does not provide any provision of liberation for those who have never heard the gospel. However, the Bible does imply that there is a way for such people.[i] We see this principle highlighted, though in a negative way, in the parable of the faithful and evil servants, where Jesus said:
And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.[ii]
While many doubt Christianity’s claims in part because Christianity doesn’t appear to offer salvation to those who have never heard of Jesus, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that Buddhism doesn’t offer liberation to those who have never encountered it. There is, however, a Christian solution to this dilemma that is entirely consistent with biblical teachings, though it is not widely known or held.
Consider Jesus’ words in John 14:6b again. He said:
I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.[iii]
It is possible that “except through me” could mean that everyone must come before Christ to be judged, and that there is no way around that. Such a belief gives Jesus the complete preeminence that evangelicals subscribe to. In fact, it gives Christ more preeminence than the standard evangelical belief. In other words, Christ is above any cut-and-dried criteria that humans think they know about who will be saved and who will not. Who will be saved? In every case, the answer is that Jesus decides.
Such an alternative belief is also completely consistent with John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.[iv]
That verse does not preclude Christ from granting executive pardons to any person who otherwise would be condemned because of his or her absence of belief in Christ. This would particularly be true of those who had never heard the gospel, as well as those who had never had a fair opportunity to consider and accept it. It might even include Jews who all their lives had been taught disparaging things about Jesus. Just as Jesus, dying on the cross, pled with God, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,”[v] so Jesus may petition God for the pardon of any person who has ever lived.
Jesus is the judge of all people, including Buddha, Mohammed, and Moses. He decides the eternal destiny of every person. As stated in the New Testament book of Acts:
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.[vi]
Since Jesus is “judge of the living and the dead,” it could be viewed as wrong and arrogant for evangelical Christians to boldly state precisely what criteria he will use in his judgments of every person in history.
The usual interpretation of the verse where Jesus says “no one comes to the father except through me” is fraught with difficulties of application. To listen to many evangelicals, many people will be excluded from salvation who never had a chance to believe in Jesus, including those who never heard of him because of where they lived, almost everyone who lived before he was born, and even children who die young. Evangelicals claim that the basis for salvation is faith, not works, and that it is utterly critical that this faith must be in Jesus, and in no one else. Curiously, many of these evangelicals also maintain that Jesus was implicitly present in many different ways in the Old Testament. For example, Jesus was the Angel of God’s Presence,[vii] Commander of the Lord’s Army,[viii] Priest Forever,[ix] Redeemer,[x] and “a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples”[xi] in different Old Testament passages that are historical accounts (and not prophecies of future events). These evangelicals also teach the Trinity, stating that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are virtually interchangeable. And yet faith in God is not enough for salvation, in spite of the virtual interchangeability of God and Jesus.
Related to this issue is whether people who knew of Jesus, but never became Christians—and yet seem to have followed Christian principles, such as loving others, during their lives—can be accepted into heaven. Typically, someone who balks at the idea of these “good” people not going to heaven will say, for example, “So, will Gandhi be saved?” The truth is, we will never know for sure in this life. According to the Bible, if Gandhi is saved, it will be in spite of his Hinduism and it will truly be by the grace and pardon of Christ. Jesus will make this decision for every human being who has ever lived or who will live. In all of this Jesus is totally exalted, as is made clear in Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[xii]
We also see the supremacy of Jesus underscored in Philippians:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[xiii]
Jesus also boldly proclaimed
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.[xiv]
That authority includes the power to judge the eternal destiny of every person. This is not universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved. Jesus will not grant executive pardons to everyone. Furthermore, Jesus will even reject many who claim to be Christians.[xv]
One reason Christians are often awkward in their sharing is that they may be overstepping the bounds of what mankind is authorized by God to do by trying to dictate what only God can decide: who will be saved and who will not. Spiritual arrogance, whether it is really that or just appears to be that, is always awkward.
[i] Romans 1:18–23; 2 Peter 3:9.
[ii] Luke 12:47–48 (NKJV).
[iii] John 14:6b (NIV).
[iv] John 3:16 (NIV).
[v] Luke 23:34 (NASB).
[vi] Acts 10:42 (NIV).
[vii] Isaiah 63:9.
[viii] Joshua 5:14–15.
[ix] Psalm 110:4.
[x] Job 19:25.
[xi] Isaiah 55:4b (NASB).
[xii] Colossians 1:15–20 (NASB).
[xiii] Philippians 2:9–11 (NIV).
[xiv] Matthew 28:18b (NKJV).
[xv] Matthew 7:21–23 and Revelation 3:14–21.