A friend of mine has a saying, ‘There are many mountains in the Himalayas and all of them point to God’. In my more evangelical days, this just used to annoy me and I wanted to respond ‘yes, but none of them reach God’.
I’m still not convinced that all roads lead to God, nor am I certain that everyone will be redeemed (though I hope for that). Nonetheless, I find I have now moved a little way in that direction. I have at least reason to hope that many who do not know or consciously profess Christ will find themselves in God’s Kingdom. (Conversely I suspect that some who call themselves Christian or even ‘born-again’ may find their place among the chosen less guaranteed than they imagined.)
This move towards a degree of inclusivism is not the result of mere wishful wishy-washiness. I’m actually trying to take Jesus’ own words and character more seriously, rather than shoehorning them into watertight doctrines that don’t actually hold water.
The Way, the Truth and the Life?
Let’s start with the big one: ‘[Jesus said], “I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except by me”’ (John 14:6).
This verse is often read as a proof text that only professing Christians are ‘saved’, and that everyone else is automatically lost for eternity. I now think this interpretation is out of keeping with the overall sweep of Jesus’ mission, ministry and message, and that it requires reading into the verse much which isn’t obviously there.
I’d like now to offer a slightly different reading. I’m not saying this is the ‘right’ or only reading. It may well not be what Jesus had in mind when he spoke the words, and it may not take proper account of the context. Nonetheless, the same can be said for the standard interpretation, and I think this version is at least worth considering.
So, Jesus is the Way; when we look at his life, his character, his words and works, we see the perfect exemplar of the way we’re called to follow. It’s the path of true humanity; the way of redemption, of love and light and life. However, it’s possible to follow a path without knowing its name or having been shown it on a map. All who, led by the unseen Spirit, start to follow the path(s) of life are following Jesus whether they know it or not. So it may well be that people who have never heard of Jesus or read the Bible are nonetheless walking in his way of love, truth and redemption under another name or guise.
Secondly, Jesus is the Truth and the Truth is Jesus – in which case, anyone who seeks the truth is actually seeking Jesus, whether they realise it or not. Similarly, all who genuinely look for goodness will find it, in Jesus – whether or not they know his name or have heard his message.
And thirdly Jesus is the Life, but life is a profound mystery, and those who have it may well not understand what it is or how they came by it.
So Jesus can truly say ‘No-one comes to the Father except by me’, for all who do finally come to the Father by whatever route will find – perhaps to their surprise – that they came by way of Christ.
All true worship goes to God
One of my favourite passages in the Narnia stories comes towards the end of The Last Battle. The young Calormene Emeth, a lifelong devotee of the terrible demon-god Tash, finds himself to his great surprise in the Narnian heaven. Aslan the Christ-Lion explains to him:
“Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him…
But I [Emeth] said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
This to me is the crux. Those who seek truth, goodness, beauty, justice, mercy and above all love will find them, for they are truly seeking God. ‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.’ (1 John 4:16b)
Since there is only One God, all true worship must surely go to him. If there is also only One Way, perhaps all will ultimately find themselves on it. Of course, Jesus speaks of the narrow way to life and the broad road to destruction; yet perhaps these two are simply opposite directions on the same road – one into the light, the other into shadow. If so, at any point up to the very end of everything there is always hope for anyone; hope that they turn towards the voice that constantly calls their name, and find themselves on the path to life.
The law of Love
We often make much of right belief in a correct creed, and of following particular steps that will guarantee us a place in God’s kingdom. But surely true belief is about who we are in the deepest place, and about the actions and attitudes that flow from that.
The greatest command is simply – and impossibly – to love: to love God with all our heart, mind and strength; to love our fellow humans as ourselves. Those who seek to love are, as Jesus said, not far from the kingdom, whatever theologies they do or don’t profess. And conversely those who have not love, though they perform great miracles, are not actually on the Way of Christ at all.
Jesus said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). In this verse, being a card-carrying Christian and assenting to all the right doctrine is no guarantee of belonging to the kingdom; doing God’s will is – and God’s will is expressed above all in the call to love. Of course, we all fail in this to greater or lesser extents; only God’s own love and mercy keeps any of us on the path.
Paul echoes the same sentiment in Romans 2:13-15, and extends it to specifically include non-believers: ‘it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law… they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts’. This is a difficult passage, but it suggests that those who don’t know the Bible or the Christian faith can still know in their hearts what is right and wrong, and can therefore be oriented to God without yet knowing the full truth of Christ.
Redefining the criteria
So Jesus radically redefines the criteria for kingdom-belonging, away from creedal correctness and religious observance and towards treatment of fellow people. Perhaps the clearest statement of this is the story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25):
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation 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, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit 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?…’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt 25:34-40)
In this account, it’s not whether or not someone called themselves a Christian that matters, but whether they truly lived as one – quite possibly without realising – by loving Christ through loving other people.
Jesus’ story of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) also underscores that belonging to the kingdom is linked with our treatment of our fellow man – i.e. our love. The rich man (who may well be religious) lives in luxury yet won’t lift a finger to help the beggar Lazarus at his gate. When they both die, the rich man is taken to torment and Lazarus, who’s made no profession of faith as far as we know, is taken to comfort.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) also give a surprising perspective on the kinds of people who find a place in God’s kingdom: the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, mourners, peacemakers. There’s nothing to say that these are particularly religious people, who have prayed a particular prayer or accepted a particular belief. It’s about their hearts, attitudes and lives.
Insiders and outsiders?
My own belief then is that Christ’s presence and activity are not limited to those within the Christian church, and that he is often present incognito in those of other faiths and none. For wherever there is any goodness, truth, love, kindness, honesty, generosity, compassion, or mercy, there at least to some degree is Christ. Even if all paths do not lead to him, in his grace he often chooses to meet us on whatever path we happen to be on.
The Old Testament is full of people who were blessed by God and counted as righteous despite not being part of the Judaic covenant faith: Melchizedek, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, Rahab the prostitute, probably Job, possibly Naaman, arguably Ruth.
Isaiah 19:25 contains a startling prophecy concerning Israel’s enemies Egypt and Assyria: ‘The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”‘ Of course this may mean that they will be blessed by coming to faith in Christ (though it doesn’t say that); but it shows that God works outside the box of who we think are the insiders and outsiders.
In the New Testament, there’s the Roman centurion whose faith Jesus commends above any he’s found in Israel (Luke 7), the Canaanite woman whose daughter Jesus heals because of her faith (Matt 15), the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus reveals that he is the Messiah (John 4), and Cornelius the God-fearing gentile centurion in Acts 10. In John 10:16 Jesus says, ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen… they too will listen to my voice.’ He may just be referring to future Christians from other nations; but he may also be acknowledging that there will be those who will follow him outside the bounds of church or Christian commitment.
Saviour of all?
Finally, there are a couple of verses in 1 Timothy which suggest that salvation is wider open than we often imagine (emphasis added): ‘God our Saviour… wants all people to be saved…. [and] Christ Jesus… gave himself as a ransom for all people.’ (1 Tim 2:3-6). And even more provocatively, ‘we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe‘ (1 Tim 4:10). Read that again if you didn’t get the full impact.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what we believe or (more importantly) how we live, nor that all non-Christians will definitely be redeemed. I’m just saying that the Bible leaves it more open than we often do; that our usual criteria for judging who’s in and who’s out are too narrow. Thankfully, in the end it’s not our call anyway, and we can leave the judging to someone better placed to make it: ‘Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right?’ (Gen 18:25)