The question of who will be in heaven has vexed me since I was first introduced to the claims of Jesus Christ. Before coming to faith in Jesus while in my late teens, I encountered Jesus’ words in John 14:6. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father expect through me.” That single verse was a major obstacle for me in considering the Christian faith. I recall thinking, “How could it be that only Christians would go to heaven?” Of the billions of people on the planet and all those who have lived here before, many never even knew about Jesus, much less believed in him as the way, the truth and the life. How could Jesus make such a statement? Specifically, I pondered the fate of those in remote tribes who never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ. When I asked my teachers about this I was told that those who responded to the light of nature would certainly have a Christian missionary sent to them to give them more truth. Or perhaps God would give them a revelatory dream showing them the truth of Jesus. But could that be true in every instance? There are so many people far from the voice of a believer and many people groups still don’t have the Scriptures in their own language. I wondered about devout Muslims and Jews who didn’t believe Jesus was God’s Son and the savior of the world. Then there were all those who lived before the Christian era. How about those people? What about children who pass away before being able to hear about Jesus? What about those who, because of mental disabilities, are not able to understand issues of sin, responsibility, faith and salvation? What about those who have turned away from Jesus because of experiencing some sort of abuse in the church or by someone professing faith in Christ? It was all quite disconcerting to me. I never resolved those issues to my satisfaction yet came to receive Christ nevertheless. I decided that my own need for God was so great that I could not, not become a Christian despite my unresolved questions. Perhaps I believed that over time all would make sense or that God would give me faith to overcome any doubt I had about the destiny of those who never had the opportunity to have the gospel preached to them.
After becoming a believer in Jesus I encountered those questions again in small group Bible studies and yet again while attending seminary. Sometimes the questions were asked in a cold and detached manner as if this was a matter purely for intellectual inquiry. At times it even seemed to me that the person seeking to establish who’s “in” and who’s “out” was seeking a sense of godlike power and control. At other times the questioner was sincere and passionate. Years later while in pastoral ministry, I again encountered these questions from a variety of people. Sometimes they were asked by genuinely curious seekers and believers, desperately searching for an answer and hoping to discover more about God’s character, including His mercy and justice. I’ve also heard these questions asked by skeptics in an effort to dismiss the Christian faith as extreme or irrelevant. Sometimes it seemed to me that the question served as an effective deflection so that the questioner could be excused from considering the call of Christ on his or her own life.
Over the years I’ve heard and even given a variety of answers to the question of the destiny of the unevangelized. Sometimes the responses have been simplistic like, “God will work it out;” at times caustic such as, “God has a place reserved in hell for all those who ask such questions;” at times lame such as, “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere” and at times mystical, “Only God knows.”
Last night after yet another conversation with my extended family on what has become a dialogue lasting many decades I decided to commit some thoughts to paper. I thought it best to have a written response so that I might more clearly express my own beliefs to those that asked me this question. But this exercise is also, I suspect an effort to clarify some of my own thoughts on the matter.
Reflecting on last night’s conversation helped me identify four grounding principles that may not completely answer this question but at least address the issue:
First, the Scriptures clearly make an exclusive claim regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Bible makes it clear from the very beginning that God created us for community. He made us to enjoy a relationship with Him and with others with whom we share the planet. God created the first man and woman to share in an intimate relationship with Him. However, the first couple chose their own way and rebelled against God’s design and plan for them. Their relationship with God was now broken so the Lord in His mercy promised He would make a way back. According to Genesis 3:15 the seed of the woman would crush the head of man’s enemy, the Serpent. God would provide a human deliverer to address the problem of our rebellion and guilt. Later on in Genesis 12:3 God promised Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God’s promise of redemption is further developed through the seed of Abraham and we learn that “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” The Old Testament develops and expands this promise until its New Testament culmination in the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world.
During his earthly ministry, in response to Thomas’ question, ‘How can we know the way?’ Jesus makes what seems to many an outlandish claim. It is the same verse I mentioned above. In John 14:6 Jesus boldly announces, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Later in the same conversation with his disciples, Jesus reinforced his claim by saying, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work.”
This exclusive claim of Jesus is not limited to the gospels. After Jesus’ death when the apostles announce the good news that Jesus is the Savior of the world, they echo the exclusivity of the Christian message. In a bold announcement under hostile scrutiny of public officials, the Apostle Peter announces in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men, by which we must be saved.” The strength of the message and the messengers gave clear evidence to those listening that those announcing this message had been with Jesus.
Clearly the Christian message claims something that seems ludicrous in a post-modern culture. Jesus and the apostles claim that salvation comes exclusively through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. For many the matter is now concluded and the discussion has come to an end. Yet, it seems to me that there are other texts to consider as well.
Secondly, Jesus made it clear that there are those who call themselves “Christians” who presume they will be in heaven but will be disappointed when they don’t actually make it. Sometimes we forget to ask the question, “Will all self-professed ‘Christians’ go to heaven?” According to Jesus the answer is clearly, “no.” In Matthew 7:21, a text located within the Sermon on the Mount, 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. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ It seems that there will be those who show up for worship and even perform miraculous deeds yet are self-deceived in thinking they are “in.” Jesus chilling words indicate that some who believe they’re “in” are really “out.” According to Jesus those who are “in” are those believers who demonstrate the reality of their faith by “bearing fruit.” Their lives demonstrate the faith they profess.
Other New Testament writers concur with Jesus’ assessment. In his concluding remarks to a church the Apostle Paul describes as “carnal” Paul warns, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” The book of 1 John is an entire book of the New Testament written to give assurance to those who have faith in Jesus. John affirms, as did Jesus that genuine faith is accompanied by a life that is being changed.
Thirdly, Jesus made it clear that there will be some in heaven that we would not expect to be there. What is of great concern to me as a pastor is that there are many times when Jesus takes traditional expectations of who’s “in” and who’s “out” and challenges the assumptions of his listeners. For example, the three parables of lost things (the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son) are given in response to a situation where Jesus makes a strong call to discipleship in Luke 14. He concludes his challenge with “He, who has an ear, let him hear.” It is no coincidence that chapter 15, the chapter that relates the parables of the lost things, Luke begins by saying, “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him.” Luke wants to make it clear that the Pharisees and teachers of the law who wanted to exclude “sinners” from heaven were not the ones responding to the message of Jesus. Rather it was those who were considered the marginalized of society such as “tax collectors and sinners.”
Then in Luke 13 Jesus makes a similar point as above, that some who think they will be in heaven will be excluded. When some are expecting to enter God’s kingdom are excluded they say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will answer, “I don’t know you or where you come from. There will be weeping here, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” And then contributing to the reversal of expectations Jesus says, “People will come from the east and east and north and south, and will take places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and the first who will be last.” It seems clear to me that Jesus is saying that some will be surprised at the demography of heaven. People will be in heaven from places we wouldn’t expect. When the early church was transitioning from a Jewish movement to a more diverse group many couldn’t understand or even tolerate gentiles coming to faith in Christ. After God gave Peter a vision showing him that Gentiles could be full members in the church along with Jews, Peter said in Acts 10:34 “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” Even though Cornelius, a Gentile, finally accepted the message of Christ, there were many who could not possibly envision a Gentile in heaven.
Later in Acts 14, Paul affirms the witness of God in the natural order when those in Lystra and Derbe wanted to worship Paul. In Acts 14:15 Paul says, “We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Could it be that before the coming of Christ there were those who had only God’s natural revelation from nature who responded to God’s mercy and kindness?
In Jesus’ parable of the publican and the tax collector in Luke 18:10f the tax collector is justified on the basis of his simple prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It seems that those who recognize God’s greatness and their own moral and spiritual bankruptcy capture the essence of God’s grace. Might it even be possible that there would be some devout believers of other faiths who through God’s mercy demonstrated in Jesus Christ are admitted into God’s kingdom even though they may not have vocalized the name of Jesus? Clearly, this is speculation but is it not possible? In his children’s fiction, The Last Battle, the seventh and last book in the Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis relates how an honest man that has done good his whole life but worshipped Tash, a false god, is rewarded in the afterlife. At the same time, a hypocritical pious follower of the true ‘god’ Aslan, who has done evil things in Aslan’s name is punished. While C.S. Lewis does not provide the last word on such matters, is it not possible that God will in his mercy save some who have not made a profession of Christ?
I trust that this conversation will not be taken as an opportunity to relax our search for the truth. Neither can it be used as an excuse to not take the gospel to those who haven’t yet heard about Jesus. There are other compelling reasons why believers need to share Christ with others. We need to share the gospel with others because Christ’s commands us to and for the glory of God.
Lastly, according to Jesus, the most important question is not the theological question but the practical one. Perhaps the most important Biblical passage regarding this issue comes when the disciples ask a similar question we’ve addressed in this paper. In Luke 13:23 someone asked Jesus, “Lord are only a few going to be saved?” We are not the first ones to ask God about this question. The man who asked in Luke 13 no doubt wanted to know who is “in” and who is “out.” Perhaps this person wanted Jesus to justify her prejudices or have Jesus give a formula which by which she cold pronounce with divine authority who had exclusive privileges. Perhaps this was part of a self-centered desire to play God. Or perhaps the question came from a genuine seeker desiring a better understanding of God and the way He works. I find it interesting and very challenging that Jesus never addressed the theoretical question. Jesus never gave the attendance list for heaven; nor did he give the number of people who will be there; he didn’t even give them a percentage answer. Rather Jesus responds by giving them a practical challenge. “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you will try to enter it and not be able to.”
The ultimate question we must answer is not who is “in” and who is “out.” Speculation of this sort is ultimately of little value. It is the wrong question. It is a question that diverts us from a much more important question. Will we make it? Will we be included in that group that finds ultimate fulfillment in an eternal relationship with the living God? The challenge Jesus gives to us is not to know who is “in” and who is “out.” Rather the challenge is for us to be assured that we are among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and are also giving evidence of faith in life. In John 21 when Jesus told Peter what kind of death he would die, Peter looked at John and asked Jesus, “Lord what about him?” Jesus answered Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” While we may always want to ask about someone else or a whole group of others, the only question that ultimately concerns us is, “What will we do with the truth we’ve been given about Jesus?” Our challenge is to follow Christ, even when we don’t have all of the answers.