“Can Non-Christians be Saved?” and Other Wrong Questions

If you have spent any time in a Sunday School or Christian education class, you have heard the questions: “Can Buddhists go to heaven?” or “Will Jews be saved?” and other similar inquiries. In Christian circles, there has always been an urgent concern regarding the eternal destiny of those of other faith traditions, and there have been two primary approaches to the issue.

First is the “traditionalist” perspective, which holds that only those who follow Jesus in a sincere and proper manner will be saved (be allowed into heaven). These folks take as their proof text John 14:6 where Jesus says, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

On the other hand, however, are “universalist” Christians (who believe anything that Jesus’ sacrifice pays for everyone’s sins, and therefore everyone is going to heaven) and the Progressive Christianity perspective (an earlier draft of the TCPC eight points read “Jesus is our gate to God, other peoples have other gates”).[i]

As ubiquitous as this concern for other peoples’ salvation is, however, is it wise? I believe such questions betray a Christian myopia that can prove humorous (at best) and insulting (at worst) to people of other faith traditions. They betray Christian concerns about people of other religions without consulting (or even caring) about the questions asked or answered by those religions. The question of whether non-Christians will go to heaven is as nonsensical as shouting about whether the rest of the world can have our apples, when the rest of the world is really only interested in oranges.

Apples and Oranges and Lemons and Grapes

Salvation has always been important to Christians, even though there has been a great deal of diversity in the Christian tradition regarding how it is effected. The word comes from the same Latin root as our word “salve,” an ointment for healing. Salvation, then, is concerned with spiritual healing. As with any sickness, a diagnosis is usually necessary before a treatment can be prescribed.

The problem—when we are talking about salvation of people who are not Christians—is that the diagnosis that the Christian tradition has made regarding the illness at the heart of the human condition differs substantially from the diagnoses made by other religions. Religions see the disease, the “problem” with human nature in wildly divergent ways, and therefore the prescriptions—the suggested treatment for those conditions—differ widely as well.

The problem with discussing the salvation of non-Christian people is that we project onto them our problem and our solution, without bothering to inquire about the problem of human nature as they perceive it. But if we do bother to inquire, something profound and transformative happens—the short-sightedness of our own perspective is brought to light and the depth, passion, and meaning behind other faith traditions is revealed to us. It is often a stunning revelation.

This is why interfaith scholarship is so important. When I tell people I am an interfaith scholar, the response I often get is (at best) a suspicious once-over, or (at worst) a sneer, usually accompanied by a mumble about “syncretism.” In fact, interfaith studies—when they are done well, and honestly—do not lead to syncretism at all, but help us to understand why people of differing faiths misunderstand each other and often talk past one another.

The subject of salvation is a good example of why interfaith study is important, as it reveals just how distorted and misguided our thinking about people of other faith traditions can be—without our even realizing it. By putting our own questions on hold temporarily, and listening to the questions and answers that other religions discuss about themselves can make us better neighbors—and better Christians.

“What’s the Problem?”

For Christians, the “problem” with human nature is its finitude—we die. Because of human sin, human life is hard and short. The prescription is that, because of God’s grace through the atoning work of Christ, we may join ourselves to Christ and accrue to ourselves all the benefits that are his, including abundant life here on earth and eternal life in the hereafter.

But most other religions do not see finitude as problematic. Instead, they identify other concerns as the chief difficulty faced by human beings. In the next several paragraphs, we’ll consider the major world religions in the chronological order of their emergence, ask of them “What’s the problem?” with the human condition, and also “How do we fix it?”—what is the solution that they offer?

The problem for most native traditions is the very hardness of life. The survival of one’s tribe depends upon the regularity of natural cycles, and the harmony and balance found in both human and natural systems. If spring does not follow winter, the people die. If grain does not sprout and grow after planting, the people die. If there is disharmony within a group, the people suffer. Likewise, if a person is living in an unbalanced way, his or her health will suffer. Salvation for native peoples consists of ensuring balance and harmony in individuals, social units, and the environment so that life can flourish and survival is ensured. This is done through rituals that encourage the proper progression of natural cycles and that restore harmony and balance in people and communities. Salvation for native peoples is corporate—there is no such thing as individual salvation. The people live or die as a tribe, and while there might be beliefs about an afterlife, it is not the primary focus of native religions—the survival of the tribe here and now on this earth is.

Chinese Taoism is only a half-step removed from native traditions, and it is still very much concerned with maintaining harmony and balance from the individual through the cosmic spheres. The problem for Taoism is that life is difficult, but the focus is much more individually focused. The concern is not for the survival of one’s tribe, but the relative ease or difficulty of one’s individual life. Taoism perceives that the universe moves or “flows” in certain ways. If, in one’s daily life, one interferes or opposes this flow, one’s life will be difficult—which for the Taoist is damnation. If, however, one correctly discerns the way the Tao is flowing and aligns with it so that one “goes with the flow” so to speak, one is simply carried along without effort—which for the Taoist is salvation. It is as if the Tao (the sacred principle behind the universe) were a river—you can choose to swim against the current (in which case your life will be hard) or you can choose to simply be carried along by the current (in which case your life will be easy). The Taoist gets to choose whether her life will be easy or hard.

For the majority Hindus, the problem is not that we die, but that we keep coming back! Hindus believe that the phenomenal universe is an illusion—God is the only reality, and any separateness from God is illusory. But so long as we buy into the illusion we are trapped by it, and due to the law of karma, continue to live a succession of lives in bondage to this illusion. In the West, we have a very romantic view of reincarnation—we see it as an attractive teaching, an Eastern version of eternal life. But for Hindus, reincarnation is not a desirable thing at all. Do you really want to go through toilet training again? Or high school? Who would? Likewise, Hindus generally see coming back for another messy round of life to be a distasteful thing to be avoided (or at least minimize the number of times it must be done). Through various yogas (from the same root as yoke or union) the illusion is pierced, one’s true nature in God is revealed, and the imprisoning effects of karma are neutralized. Salvation for Hindus is individual, although, ironically, the individual does not exist!

Buddhism sees the human condition in similar terms: we are trapped in an illusion of separateness. Buddhists, however, do not see God as the ultimate reality. Buddhists tend to take an agnostic perspective on God questions, seeing all of existence as one thing. Humans are trapped in an illusion of “two-ness” (duality) until the unreality of this illusion can be pierced. But the two major branches of Buddhism disagree as to the method one takes to achieve this breakthrough, or “enlightenment.” Therevadan Buddhists accomplish it through their own efforts in meditation over several lifetimes. Mahayana Buddhists have this accomplished for them through faith in the Buddha, often in one lifetime. Therevadans Buddhists are saved as individuals, through their own efforts, while Mahayana Buddhists are saved as a group through the achievement of the Buddha.

For Zoroastrians the problem with human nature is that we have been born onto a battlefield in the middle of a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. Salvation, for Zoroastrians, comes through discernment of the good in everyday choices so that one consistently sides with Ahura Mazda (the Wise God). Salvation in Zoroastriansim is individual in the sense that each person much choose which side to fight on (choosing not to fight is still seen as choosing sides—and the wrong one at that), but collective in the sense that either all of creation will be saved or lost depending on the outcome of the battle. (Relax, the prophet ensures us that the good guys will win.)

Familiar religious concepts in the West such as Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, Satan and a messiah, the apocalypse and apocalyptic literature all have their origin in the revelation of the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathustra.

Early Judaism was only one step away from being a native tradition. For Jews then (as now) the primary problem was the survival of the tribe—the Jewish people. The answer to this problem is the covenant—an agreement between the people of Israel and the God of Israel. They agree to worship and serve only him, and he agrees to protect them from the gentiles and ensure that they both survive and flourish (Duet 28:1-7).

When the Jews were carried off into captivity in Babylon they encountered there (and later, under their Persian rulers) Zoroastrians, and absorbed beliefs in Heaven, Hell, vast hierarchies of angels and demons, etc. These ideas flourished for a short time, during which they were bequeathed to Judaism’s religious progeny Christianity and Islam. While these beliefs are still part of Jewish mythology, they were later recognized as not being an authentic part of the Jewish revelation, and thus are not central to Jewish teaching and play no part how Jews understand salvation.

Jews are not saved as individuals, nor are they concerned about an afterlife. The Jews are saved as a people for a prosperous (and progeny-generating) life here on earth. Christians are often shocked to hear that Jews are not invested in the afterlife or Heaven or Hell, which only goes to underscore my point that we Christians are often talking past other people of faith when we think we are talking to them.

Islam is very like Judaism in many ways, and it’s focus on salvation as a this-world concern is one of them. The basic problem with human nature, as Islam sees it, is injustice. The prophet Mohammad’s world was being torn apart by blood feuds between rival clans, and this kept everyone at each other’s throats threatening his people’s security and prosperity. To solve this problem, Allah (“the God”) chose Muhammad to deliver a series of messages (later compiled into a book called the Qu’ran) which demanded that every person submit to God alone, leaving behind tribal customs that required vengeance killings and other injustices to be governed by a single consistent sacred law (sheria) that ensured stability and justice for everyone, regardless of that persons social station or tribal affiliation.

Salvation is achieved when the ummah (the just society) is established. Muslims are deeply invested in the ummah, and are resentful of anything that threatens to undermine it—such as Western culture that inspires disregard for traditional values and morals.

It is true that Muslims believe in Heaven and Hell, but these are seen as the reward and punishment for ones contribution to the project of building the ummah. Salvation for Muslims is therefore entirely a corporate endeavor—the Just Society is the promised salvation of Allah, and when everyone submits their greed and selfish desire to God in order to build it, everyone will benefit.

Rethinking Christian Soteriology

The list of religions is endless and our space here is limited, but the above examples from the primary world religions will suffice to illustrate my main point: in asking “Will non-Christians be saved?” Christians are simply asking the wrong question. We should instead be asking, “What do people need to be saved from?” and “How do we accomplish that?” People will always identify different things as problems, in different places, and in different times.

This is true even in Christianity. Christians today are even reevaluating the meaning of Christian salvation, and Jesus’ role as savior. These questions are helpful here, too. “What is it that we in contemporary society need to be saved from?” and “How can that be accomplished?” Christians might specifically ask, “How does the life and teaching of Jesus accomplish this?”

Christians are indeed asking these questions. While Roman Catholicism has long taken social justice as a primary concern of the Gospel (reaching its apex in the Liberation theology movement in the 1970s) the up-and-coming generation of Evangelicals are breaking from their tradition and seeing justice and solidarity with the poor as an essential soteriological issue. What is interesting is that this is an example of a shift from a Pauline soteriology (concerned with the afterlife) to a Jesus-centered soteriology (taking Jesus’ teachings regarding the Kingdom seriously). The result remains to be seen, but it could very well be that late 21st century Christian soteriology may have more in common with Islamic ideas than classic Pauline formulations.

This kind of theological mutability will be threatening to some, and exciting to others. It is important to remember that the task of theology, after all, is the task of fixing things, things that are broken. It may be that traditional Christian ideas of salvation are broken and need to be reframed. And openness to honest questions of this kind in our own tradition will help us listen with humility to the questions asked by other faiths.

Conclusion

I believe we must be careful and sensitive about what questions we ask, especially when it comes to people of other faiths. Extending Christian salvation to people of other faiths—however generously intended—may be perceived by others to be an unasked for and completely unwelcome variety of Christian manifest destiny. Salvation as Christians understand it makes little sense to non-Christians because the problem it is solving is not seen as a problem by other faiths. A truly Christian approach to soteriology insists that we regard non-Christians as human beings whose questions are equally important and compelling as our own. It insists that we listen with attention and empathy for the problems that others perceive, and regard the answers they offer with serious concern.

If Jesus could learn something about his own mission from someone who was not of his faith, as he did in his encounter with the Syreo-Phoenician woman, so can we. And if we want to build a world in which people can meet one another with real understanding and respect, rather than the condescension of the enlightened for the deceived, we must.

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