At first, this question seems like a very theological one. You know, one that scholars would kick around in the back room of some graduate school. That is, until you realize that the question might actually impact your life. In fact, your whole eternal life might depend upon it.
Actually, this is a question that the average person has at least thought about. Many church attenders ponder this question from time to time. People who dabble in religion entertain this question. Sometimes, even people who have little to do with religion or the organized church, ask this question.
The question comes in many forms. Here are a few ways it is asked.
Every religion thinks their way is right – what makes Christians think Jesus was the only way?
If all religions are equal, why should I believe that Jesus is superior to all of the other prophets or gods?
I want to respect all other people’s spiritual beliefs. But if I take the stance that all religions are equally right, then I feel I would be discrediting Christ as the savior, right?
As a Christian, I want to say that Jesus is the only way, but then wouldn’t that mean that only about 33% of the world’s population will go to heaven – while the other 2/3 of the world’s population would go to hell?
Why does everyone have to believe in Jesus when there are so many other good options concerning religions and spiritual experiences?
If I were born in the Middle East, I would grow up as a Muslim. Are they going to hell when they didn’t even have a chance to hear about or believe in Jesus?
How about some poor guy living in the middle of Africa who never heard of Jesus – is he going to hell just because he never even heard of Jesus. Is that really fair or loving?
Doesn’t it make me narrow, judgmental and thinking I’m better than others if I believe that Jesus is the only way to God and heaven and everyone else is lost?
As a Christian, I have been taught to convert all of the other people in the world who don’t believe in Jesus. But doesn’t this strip all of these other people of their beliefs and identity when I force my religious views on them?
Who am I to force my view of Jesus on everyone else?
As Christians, if we are to save others by preaching “only Jesus is the way to heaven”, aren’t we degrading other cultures of what made them so beautiful and unique, such as the Native American Indians?
Can you believe in Jesus as the way to heaven, as well as some additional belief systems?
Really, all of these questions boil down to the one basic question that most of have asked, and some have deeply wrestled with, which is: Is Jesus really the only way to heaven and if so, what about everyone else who hasn’t heard about Him or believe in Him?
First, these are all thought-provoking questions. And with such questions, there are no easy answers. But with that said, we want to give you some perspectives here to re-think these questions; and perhaps give you a different light by which to view these questions.
One thought on all of this is that when we tend to become too exclusive, we also become narrow, elitists, and puffed up with pride. None of these are anything that Jesus affirmed for those following Him. Perhaps rather than focusing on who is in and who is out, we should leave this to God. He is the only real judge of a person’s heart.
Jesus Himself seemed to make it clear that some people who we think are close to God and “in” (in meaning going to heaven) may not be; while those who seem far away from God may be closer than many people think. Certainly, Jesus made this point with the Pharisees [one of the key religious leading groups of His day]. He said that while they thought they were clearly “in”, they may want to re-evaluate that because their pride of thinking they were “in” because they were better than others and relying on themselves (rather than God) was the very thing keeping them “out.”
On the other hand, Jesus often demonstrated to the religious leaders, as well as to his disciples, that people like prostitutes, tax-collectors and the poor, who would have never thought to be among the “in” group, really had a better chance of being in heaven than many of the religious leaders.
The point here is simply this: we may want to re-evaluate what it is that we think we know about who will be going to heaven and who won’t. A second point along this line of thinking is that we aren’t god – and that only the true and living God knows the hearts of people, so really only He is in the position to determine who is “in” and who is “out.”
Another thought here is, even if we have it right about who is “in” and who is not based on the bible, we may need to check our hearts about our motives, our pride and our attitudes. We may need to be careful that we haven’t fallen into becoming judge and jury of other people.
Again, we can only judge from what we see on the outside; but God is able to see both the outer actions of a person as well as their inner heart and soul.
But some of you are still asking, “Is Jesus Christ the only way to know God and go to heaven?” And the natural follow-up question is, “If so, then what about the rest of the people in the world who don’t know of Him or believe in Him?”
Let’s begin with two statements that Jesus made in John 14:1 and John 14:6.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me
In these two statements, Jesus claims to be on the same level of the God, Yahweh (the God of all creation). He calls people to trust in Him, just as they would Yahweh. In His second statement, He states no one can really know Yahweh except by knowing Him.
These would have been seen as outrageous statements to even the common person in Jesus’ day. To the religious leaders, they were blasphemous statements, worthy of death. This is what ultimately led Jesus to be crucified.
So, we either believe what Jesus says here to be true, or we need to call Him a liar at worst or delusional at best. Either way, He is either the only way to God or He is not.
If He is not, then we can basically disregard everything about His life and reduce His life to maybe having some good teachings. On the other hand, if He is who He said He was – equal to Yahweh – then His words are true that He is the only way to God and the only way to heaven.
Our position here is that Jesus is the only way to God, because He is the only man in history who was God and revealed what Yahweh was like in the most profound ways (John 1:1-14).
While this is our position based on biblical understanding, this still leaves us with what to do with those who don’t know of Him or who don’t believe in Him.
This is where you have to do some thinking outside-the-box. Thinking people wrestle with these questions rather than just take what they have been taught or what others have said. Here is another perspective that allows for Jesus to be the only way to God, while trying to answer these questions with thought and care.
If Jesus is the only way to God, and no one gets there without Him, and clearly not everyone has accepted Him, one solution can’t be what is known as Universalism. This is the thought that in the end, God will allow everyone into heaven, no matter what they have done, believed, or not believed.
If you believe Jesus is the only way to God, then Universalism really isn’t an option. If you believe all good people go to heaven, regardless of what they think about Jesus, then you can make a case that everyone has some goodness in them; therefore, everyone will eventually get to heaven.
If one chooses to believe this, that is their decision; but it clearly is not what Jesus or the bible teaches.
So, what are we left with? How about, all religious people, or at least all sincere religious people (those who actually practice their religion rather than just say they do) go to heaven? Again, if you choose to believe this, and it is a popular belief system, that is your choice. But remember this is not what Jesus or the bible teaches.
So then, how can we make sense of the tension between Jesus being the only way to God and the millions of people who have never even heard of Him or had a chance to know Him?
First, if we read this passage in John 14:1-6 in isolation, it can be concluded fairly that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and unless you overtly know Him, you won’t get in. Reading only this passage, one could conclude that those who don’t know Jesus by name are “out” of heaven.
But reading this passage in isolation would be unfair to the biblical message and not be a full representation of what God might be saying.
Let’s look at a fuller biblical picture here.
Peter was asked to come to the house of a Gentile man named Cornelius. He talks about how he learned from God that no person is impure or unclean because of religious traditions. He goes onto state in Acts 10:34-35 that God doesn’t show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear Him and do what is right.
Peter gives us a fuller, not a more narrow, picture of God’s view of people who are honestly seeking to know the true God.
Let’s now go to Acts 17:16-34. Here, while in Athens, Paul encounters a group of philosophers who wanted to better understand what he was teaching about Jesus. Paul acknowledged that his audience was very sincere and religious. He further acknowledged that they were worshipping An Unknown God.
Paul acknowledges their worth and desire in worshipping God. They knew not to worship the created order. He acknowledges that they were worshipping what they knew at this point. But now Paul uses this as an opportunity to put a name on this unknown God. He proclaims at this point (17:24-34) the God of all creation and that He brought Jesus back to life through resurrection.
It tells us in this account that some sneered or didn’t believe in the resurrection of Christ. And again, now that they knew, that was their choice. But others did believe.
Francis Leeman in his book, The Forgotten Way of Jesus, tells a similar story of a people called the Santal in India before Christian missionaries showed up. When the missionaries finally got there in 1867 and set up camp, they thought it would take a long time for them to share who the real God was with them. But they discovered it didn’t take them long at all.
The tribe had a long history of belief in what they called Thakur Jiu, which means “the genuine God.” Their tribe was shaped by a belief in this God. They had been waiting many years for someone to come along and tell them how to connect with this God and know Him better.
The Christian missionaries referred to this God as the God of Jesus Christ. They preached Jesus as the incarnation of Thakur Jiu. Over 15,000 were baptized into the Christian faith during that time.
Francis Leeman posed the question, “Did the members of that tribe who died before the Christian missionaries showed up to put the name “Jesus” on the “Genuine God” go to heaven?”
What is your answer to this question?
Let’s look at one more biblical passage that will help shed some light on our question about how to handle the tension between Jesus being the only way to heaven and what happens to those who don’t know Him.
Let’s look specifically at Romans 1:17-25, but also let’s read it in light of the entire book of Romans and its context.
The theme of the book of Romans in the broadest sense is “The righteousness of God”, and from this theme we have derived a secondary theme called “Justification of man by faith.” In other words, God gives or deposits “righteousness” into man’s account to wipe out the debt of sin when a person puts His faith in Jesus Christ.
Given this context, we need to look at Abraham in the early chapters of Romans as a man who wasn’t made righteousness (or “saved”) on the basis of keeping the law, but by his faith in God (Romans 4:3). Now, my question here is this: Abraham, who didn’t know the name of Jesus, but who did respond to God (Yahweh) in faith, is he in heaven?
While there is no chapter and verse that can be pointed to for this answer, it seems evident, given what the bible says about Abraham, that he will be found in heaven as one who loved God and gave his life to Him.
Now, let’s go back to the passage found in Romans 1:17-25. Here we find the words in Romans 1:20:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
The following verses talk about how many of these people knew God, but refused to glorify Him, thank Him or worship Him. It tells us that they chose to worship created beings rather than the creator.
Again, they were given inherent knowledge about God. The people talked about in Romans 1 chose not to act on that knowledge concerning their own justification or salvation.
So, after exploring these three biblical texts, what perspective can we take from this fuller picture? Two thoughts…
Perhaps people can know God and be “saved” and go to heaven even if they don’t actually know the name of Jesus. How does this happen? Based on the texts we looked at, God seems to judge our lives and deposit righteousness to our accounts based on the knowledge (no matter how limited or how vast it is) we have of God. Many people in our world have had many opportunities to know about Jesus and hear the good news of the gospel. So they have to respond to it – either accept it for their lives or reject it. There are others in our world who have a limited knowledge, or no knowledge of the Person of Jesus. But the bible also seems to make it clear even these people have a knowledge of God and are without excuse (Romans 1:20)
Let’s follow up on the above thought. When people place their faith in God (even if they don’t know His name), based on whatever amount of knowledge or revelation they have, and experience repentance and a changed life, haven’t they experienced the One true living God in their life?
A final thought is this, some might say well if there are people out there who are going to heaven but don’t know the name of Jesus; didn’t He come and die in vain? Wasn’t his death and resurrection meaningless? Absolutely not! And here is why. Jesus still needed to die to forgive sin and cancel the overwhelming debt of our sin. This act still needed to occur, even if we don’t understand it or know much about it. There are many things in life that happen that benefit us that we don’t understand or may not even be aware of. Christ’s life, death and resurrection is what has ultimately paved the way for us to be forgiven, to experience a changed life and to have everlasting life. Without Christ’s atoning sacrifice, how would any of our sins be forgiven?
This answer is a long answer to what is a very complex question. We haven’t fully answered the question, but rather have tried to give you some perspectives by which to look at this question in different ways.