Thanks for some great discussion on part two of If Jesus is the only way, what about people of other faiths and those who never hear the gospel? The question we’re dealing with is who can be saved and how that happens. Specifically, is it possible for people to be saved apart from Jesus? If not, is it possible for people to be saved through Jesus even if they don’t know he’s the one saving them? More than ever after the discussion on the last entry, I’m convinced that this whole debate gets muddied up because we’re unclear on what “being saved” actually means. I include myself in this, and I admit that whatever answer I offer now probably suffers a bit from this lack of understanding or clarity. Nevertheless, here’s how I’d answer the question:
I do believe that no one can or will be “saved” apart from Jesus. I think he alone broke the stranglehold of sin under which we were all enslaved. But does God save people apart from conscious faith in Jesus? Even if no one can be saved apart from Jesus, can they be saved apart from knowing they are saved by Jesus? I don’t know that God has told us this will happen, so I can’t say yes with great confidence. But based on what God has revealed in Scripture (as laid out in part 2, including some of the comments), I do believe it might happen. I’d even say I think it will happen (IMHO!). I do not think it would contradict the character and ways of God revealed in Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.
So does God save people apart from explicit faith in Jesus? We don’t know, but we don’t know for sure that he doesn’t and we wouldn’t be shocked if he did. Most importantly, we believe that God has come to all of us in Jesus, offering salvation in both the next life and this one. Our task is to faithfully respond to what we believe God has revealed.
I also promised to deal with objections to this position (technically called inclusivism), first from Christians and then from non-Christians. There are three primary objections that I’ve heard from Christians against the possibility that God might save people who never identify themselves as Christians in this life.
(1) It is based not on Scripture but on a desire to please “liberals” who don’t want Christianity to be exclusive. It supposedly accommodates our faith to the surrounding culture. Honestly, for starters, this just isn’t true. I have offered many Scriptures (as have my commenting friends) to show that this is rooted in what the Bible actually teaches. Second, this position is no less “embarrassing” than a more restrictive one. I’m still saying that only Jesus saves, which is foolishness to most people. And third, as Alex pointed out, many Jesus-followers throughout history have held to this position or an even more open one, including Ireneaus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Athanasius, Abelard, Zwingli, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and even Billy Graham.
(2) It undermines motivation for missions. Again, this just isn’t true. In case you didn’t notice, John Stott and Billy Graham are on the list above. I could multiply the examples but these two should suffice for now. Second, no one believes that all people who don’t hear are saved, so the argument doesn’t really make sense. Third and most importantly, salvation is way bigger than going to heaven rather than hell. If we don’t believe life with Jesus is truly better and desirable for all people here and now, then I’d question whether we really know Jesus. In other words, there are other motivations for missions. In addition to the beauty of following Jesus, I’d also mention the glory of God, obedience to Christ’s command, and confidence of salvation (rather than vague hoping).
(3) It is a slide towards relativism or denying the need for Jesus altogether. No it isn’t. If anyone really believes this, I can elaborate.