…[complete that title sentence with some non-Christian religious tradition from anywhere in the world]. My dear sweet auntie was kind to everyone she met and she worked hard to raise a strong, loving family and regularly went to [temple/mosque/ashram/weekend voodoo goat butchering/whatever] all her life and died peacefully in her sleep after living a better life than most in this world. God’s going to do what, exactly, with her soul?
As a Christian not associated with any denomination, and not fiscally dependent on keeping members coming in or preventing them from wandering off, I get to ask questions that are difficult or uncomfortable for lots of my compatriots.
Better yet, I get to answer them as I understand things. My basic spiritual worldview revolves around three verses. The first is the definition of Law given in the New Testament. I covered this at length in the earlier post Making Sense of Love and Law but here it is again, its Matthew 22:36-40:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
With that one statement Jesus reconstructed the entire Old Testament from scratch.
When you read the word “Law” anywhere in the New Testament, “Love” is what it is referring to, namely loving God and loving everyone else as being no different than you. This is the natural state (the natural ‘law’) of those who have a connection to Spirit, and the stronger that bond is, the more we do this “by nature” as Paul said.
Which is the 2nd of the three passages my Christian worldview is based on. Its in Romans 2:14-15 and it reads like this:
When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Wait, did Paul really just say that people who have never heard of God and don’t know anything about the law he gave to Israel can still have the Law of God written on their hearts? This Law of Love? And that their consciences are perfectly capable of distinguishing right from wrong in a way that is acceptable to God? If “Law” was referring to Hebrew Law or even just the ten commandments that would be impossible if those “gentiles” were people living in those parts of the world that took many centuries for Christianity to get to.
Paul clearly meant the term “law” to mean God’s law of love, and he was making the point that Spirit can reach anyone anywhere even if they live their entire lives and pass on without ever hearing Paul & co.’s gospel message.
So yes, absolutely there are people connected with Spirit throughout history and geography who are as selfless and loving and as bonded in the Spirit as the most devout Christian. Paul is saying that the true Law of Love can be written “on their hearts” whether they’ve ever heard of the gospel or not.
So contrary to what you have probably heard all your life, the Bible doesn’t exclude people who the gospel hasn’t reached, and I would argue that the Bible itself discusses, in a positive-outcome way, this exact situation in several places. I will back that up in a moment, but this stance is Biblical. Whether it is accepted as such by mainstream Christianity is another question.
The mainstream Christian response to this question comes from the book of Acts. Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the only person who can save us, and nothing I’m about to say contradicts that. This verse is a bedrock of Christianity. Acts 4:12:
There is no salvation by any other man; for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.
[So there! Now, what’s this nonsense about people who have never even heard of him being allowed in with the rest of us?]
At the risk of sounding petty (I’m not, this is serious business), I would like to know what it means to call upon the name of Spirit’s incarnation on this earth, who we refer to as the “son of God”. What if we don’t know his name? What if we’ve got the wrong name? What if he’s been misrepresented to us, and we “reject” him for that reason? Being converted at sword-point by a Crusader who is threatening to burn my entire village if I don’t say the magic words may have changed my outward behavior but it won’t change many hearts.
What if we’ve never even heard of him? What if we’re lifelong members of some non-Christian religion and God is using us there? (Do you deny that could happen? Read on.)
A girl born in North America in the year 1200 B.C. who dies in childbirth at the age of 14. A farmer in Africa in 1100 A.D. who dies of old age. A Hindu or Muslim merchant in India in 1900 who hears about the Christian religion of India’s British rulers but to him it’s just another foreign notion that has nothing to do with him and his family.
These would be souls who lived and died before Christianity arrived where they lived, or else had never had Christ’s message properly represented to them, or for a host of other reasons had not converted from one spiritual outlook to another.
God is going to just throw all these souls in the garbage? Or worse, torture them for eternity? These and the billions of others like them? Does that make sense to anyone reading this?
If it does you worship a sick god, because the God that Jesus came here to teach isn’t going to do any such thing.
[Well, you know, it’s what the Bible says, right?]
Well, you know actually, the Bible has a lot more to say on the topic than just those words in Acts. In the early days of the Christian church there was debate over whether converts to this brand new religion of Christianity needed to become Jewish first, or if they could convert directly from whatever religion they were in straight to Christianity. Jesus, the apostles, and everyone else involved up to that point were Jewish, after all, so it was an important discussion for them to have.
Paul was great at cutting through the clutter and getting straight to the point, and he argued that Christianity, the bridge built by Spirit’s incarnation on this earth between humanity and God, was best taught when it stood on its own. He made it clear that Spirit could reach every human being regardless of culture or religious background, and that in fact the Spirit does so and has done so throughout history. For people who the Spirit has already bonded with, all that Christian teaching really does is provide the name and the story of Spirit’s incarnation here that some people already recognize when they hear it for the first time.
Allow me to repeat and expand the passage above in Romans where Paul is making his case:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but it is the doers of the law who shall be justified. For if the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law are a law to themselves, and they show the work of the law written on their hearts; and their conscience also bears them witness, when their thoughts either rebuke or defend one another, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men according to the gospel by Jesus Christ. (Romans 2: 13-16)
Can you be a “doer” of the law without ever hearing of the law? This law of selfless love? Obviously yes. One would do it in whatever spiritual tradition one grew up in if Christianity hadn’t reached your part of the world yet. And given the behavior of some of those slaughtering, slave-taking, village-burning medieval “Christians” of the Dark Ages I suspect that a lot of people who had heard of Jesus might still have rejected Christianity if that was how it was presented to them.
Because what was that law again? Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s the law, according to Jesus himself.
Paul is saying that this law can be written on a person’s heart (their soul) whether they’ve heard of God’s law or not. All of us are God’s children, right? God can’t reach any and all of us no matter where or when we’re from?
Add to this an incident that is all the way back in the Old Testament, and my brief little argument is complete. 1 Kings 5 is about General Naaman of the Syrian army, who heard that the Israeli prophet Elisha could cure his leprosy. He came down to see Elisha, and Elisha told him he needed to go to the Jordan river and dunk himself in the water seven times, and then he would be healed. Despite initial misgivings he tried it, and on the seventh dip in the water he was healed.
So Naaman came back to Elisha and promised not to offer sacrifices to any god but the God of Israel. But then, as an important figure in the Syrian government, with duties to perform in the temple of their god (“Rimmon”), Naaman had a request for Elisha:
[Naaman speaking] In this matter may the Lord forgive your servant, when my master goes into the house of Rimmon and when I worship in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter. And he [Elisha] said to him, Go in peace.
Huh? Did God just give Naaman permission to participate in the worship of some other god?
What other god?
Here’s what happened: Naaman would perform the duties of his position, Naaman would participate in worship at the temple of Rimmon, an agrarian god of wind and rain represented by a steer and whose worship probably involved some bull butchery, yet God would accept Naaman’s participation in that ceremony as a calling out to Him.
Why? God could see into Naaman’s heart, and could see his law written there. He could see the bond with Spirit there that led Elisha to tell him to go in peace. Naaman was therefore recognized as one of God’s own, so Naaman’s worship even in the house of Rimmon was accepted by God as worship of himself.
So this is a God who will accept a soul that is calling upon his name using some other god’s name. You think this same God will throw out other souls who have God’s law written in their hearts, just because they’ve never heard his name? Or anything about him? Or who have had him misrepresented to them? Or have simply believed all their lives what they were taught as children, which is what most people do even today?
To call upon the name of Jesus is to call from your heart to God. And a call from a heart with God’s true law of love written upon it, a heart that Spirit has been able to reach by whatever means, will always get to the right place.
There is only one God, after all.
One God. Calling out to him by whatever name or religion or system of belief you’ve been taught since childhood is still a calling out to the one and only God.
What, there’s some other god out there capable of answering?
No, there isn’t. He’s it.
Note that Elisha’s “go in peace” blessing to Naaman came before the spiritual enlightenment offered to mankind by Jesus. This was the Old Testament, after all, with the God-ordained priesthood and the temple and rituals and holy days and a complex system of worship and sacrifices. And what, no circumcision for Naaman? And yet Naaman, with his unique set of circumstances, was fully accepted by God in the face of all the rules and regulations he’d given to Israel.
That doesn’t sound to me like a God who will abandon souls who show Jesus’ law of selfless love written on their hearts, even though they grew up Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu or whatever.
So, that’s my answer to that question. Can my friend or my loved one be saved even though they were a devout member of some other spiritual tradition?
Absolutely they can, it’s in the Bible, despite what your pastor is obligated to tell his congregation. Will they? God is of course the judge, but he is a more loving, more accepting, and more understanding God than you will ever find on this earth.
So if this is a question that has been bothering you, then remember who God really is, and what he’s really all about. And remember his prophet Elisha’s words on this very matter: “Go in peace.”