Are the Heathen Really Lost?
Will there be any Hindus or Muslims or non-Christians in heaven? Many conservative Christians would say that the answer to this question is “no”. Many Bible passages tell us that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. (John 14:6) One passage reads: “He who has the Son (Jesus) has life, and he who does not have the Son does not have life” (John 3:18) This central truth - that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only Savior - is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is the Rock on which the church is built. So doesn’t that mean that if a person hasn’t accepted Jesus as Savior that he will be lost? Isn’t that what these Scriptures are saying?
Many moderate Christians read the same Scriptures and also believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way to eternal life. But these Christians also believe that maybe God can give salvation to the non Christian who follows his conscience - or the light that he has. How can this be? The reasoning goes that some people have never had a fair chance at hearing the gospel -that Jesus is Savior. Or if these unbelievers have heard that Jesus died for them, they have been scared away perhaps by hate groups that call themselves “Christian” or by Christians who were a poor representation of what a Christian should be.
Since these unbelievers did not really hear the gospel, could God judge these ones based upon how they responded to the light that they did have? Scripture says that Jesus is the Light of the world. (John 8:12) If an unbeliever says “yes” to the light that she has, is she not saying “yes” to Jesus? If an unbeliever is kind and merciful and loving, if she tries to do what her conscience tells her is the right thing to do, and if she follows the light that she has, is she following Jesus, even though she doesn’t know that she is? She may not call Him by name or understand that the truth and the light that she is following is actually Jesus. So is she following the “hidden Jesus”?
Romans 2:14-15 says: “Indeed when Gentiles (unbelievers), who do not have the law (light), do by nature things required by the law (light), they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” And Luke 2:42-48 also seems to be saying that God judges people by how they responded to the knowledge or light that they have.
There are a host of other clues in Scripture regarding God’s interest in those who have never heard. Romans 1:20 seems to indicate that all human beings have access to a general knowledge of God. In his book, “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White” p. 103, Adam Hamilton writes: “The closing verses of the Bible, in Revelation, give us a vision of the river of life flowing from the throne of God, with trees on either side, whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations”. (Rev. 22:2) We are told of the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God, that “the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Rev. 21:24) …Generally, the term “nations” also means non-believers.”
Also in his book, “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White” Adam Hamilton writes: “There are hundreds of millions of people who long to know God, who follow Him according to what they know of His will, who pray daily to Him – often putting most Christians to shame when it comes to their prayer life- and who earnestly seek to please God by doing what is just and right. We say that God forms such persons in their mothers’ womb, knows them by name, loves them, sees and hears their prayers, and surely sees their attempts to do what is right as they understand it. Is it really the gospel truth that God then stands by and watches as they perish?”… “This image of these hundreds of millions who have earnestly sought God being tormented for eternity, whether God directly sends them to hell, or simply allows them to perish, seems neither loving nor just.” (Pg. 98.)
Many conservative Christians believe that children of believers who die before reaching the “age of accountability” will be granted God’s mercy through Christ and will be welcomed into heaven. We also believe that God saved His chosen people, the Jewish faithful who worshipped and followed Him long before Jesus their Messiah came to earth. These never believed in Jesus as their Savior since they lived before He came. But we know that they are part of Gods’ kingdom, and we know that Jesus’ atoning work is the means by which God saves.
Adam Hamilton writes in “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White,” p.106 “We know in the New Testament, that the ordinary means of receiving the gift of salvation is simply trusting in Christ as your Savior. But if you are unable to do that, as in the case of the small child, is it possible for God to give that gift to you based on some other criteria?”
Could this same mercy be granted to unbelievers everywhere who have worshipped God and followed the light they had? We have all know non Christians who lived moral, loving and caring lives. And unfortunately we have also known people who called themselves Christians but who were hateful and judgmental. Only God can judge.
But what about all of the people who all their lives rejected the light that God gave them? Again, Adam Hamilton writes in “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White,” p. 98, “On the converse side, there are hundreds of millions of people who have, their entire lives, resisted God’s will, who have not lived lives of love, who have not valued justice or mercy, and who lived lives in which they were the center of their existence. If heaven is a place where God’s will is perfectly done, and where all yield to the divine will, where people naturally put others first, and where they always do what is right, such a place would be hell for all who resisted God. The only way they could enter heaven would be if God removed their freedom to choose or reject Him. This I don’t see God doing. And if God does not do this, and they enter heaven, heaven ceases to be heaven.”
The love of God is absolute. His love caused Him to give us His Son. I believe that He loves all of His children regardless of what label they have. We read in the good Book that He is kind and merciful, full of grace and not willing that any should perish. So when we wonder- will Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people be in heaven, we must remember -those are decisions only God can make. Only God can judge. But there will be a kindness in His judgments and mercy in His justice. Scripture says that His judgments are more than we can understand. Because the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind.