Is The Way Too Narrow?

"I have a hard time believing Jesus is the only way of salvation."
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Q. I have a hard time believing Jesus is the only way of salvation. So many people have never heard about Jesus. It's either unfair of God to make such a requirement, or there must be other ways of salvation. Can you help me understand?

A. Can people who've never heard of Jesus go to heaven? It's a question Christians have always struggled with for centuries. The strict answer is, "Nope. They're lost." The lenient answer is, "God's love is unconditional, his grace is irresistible, and everyone will be saved eventually." But neither of those answers seems fully based on God's character as revealed in the Bible. So, I don't have a simple answer. But I do know three truths the answer depends on:

1) God is good. He is both loving and just, and therefore, he is going to do whatever is right. He will not unjustly condemn anyone, nor will he allow sin into heaven. (If he did, heaven would be corrupted and no better than earth.) Only people willing to be regenerated, to be made new and spotless and to serve God forever, can enter heaven.

We can't know, as humans, how God will judge a particular individual who never had the chance on earth to understand that only Jesus can take away sin. But God knows everyone's heart. We can be sure that God's judgments are completely pure and righteous.

2) Death is not the end of the story. The Bible says, "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). This means death is not the end of the story for anyone. Judgment comes afterward. (How much later, we don't know.) The Bible offers hints that people do have a conscious existence after death and before their final judgment at the "great white throne" (Revelation 20:11).

For instance, Samuel, after his death, is conjured up by Saul and the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28). Elijah and Moses reappear, centuries after their deaths, on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17). And Jesus told a story of a rich man who, after death, asks for mercy (and water!) from a former beggar who was now in paradise (Luke 16).

3) Salvation is available only through Jesus. He said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6, NIV). The fate of anyone rests on Jesus' work of atonement, forgiveness and regeneration. He's the only one who can take sin away. Anyone who rejects that is risking everything.

But could some people be saved by Jesus' work, even though they never knew his name during their lifetime? Or if their knowledge of him was skewed or limited? We just don't know.

I had a daughter who was severely and profoundly retarded. She never spoke a word or was able to respond to her environment. In her two years of life, she was unable to "accept Jesus," at least that anyone could tell, but I'm confident that I will see her again in heaven. On what basis? On the basis of God's mercy and Christ's sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.

Might that same extended grace apply to someone raised in Mongolia or India who also never had clear and compelling exposure to the gospel? We just don't know. We can't be sure how God will judge humankind. But I do know that God can be trusted to do what's right.

Marshall, a former pastor, is editor of Leadership, a magazine for pastors.

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