The other day the Pope made a statement that it was better to be an atheist than a Christian who fails to live up to the name. Upon seeing some of my friends post this news on Facebook, I saw what amounts to the predictable response from what is likely a fundamentalist Protestant:1 “Jesus is the only way to get to heaven.” Overlooking the fact that there always seem to be the need by some individuals to always play this line whenever a prominent Christian leader ever says anything remotely positive about people of other religions or even *gasp* those wicked atheists, my (hopefully holy) irritation stems around one basic point: that is not anywhere in the Bible. Did my friends who know me as a moderate/conservative evangelical think you are misreading what I said? Nope. You didn’t. The idea that only Christians get to heaven is not a Biblical idea. Rather, I would suggest it is the result of poor exegesis, the obsession of treating religion as about where one goes when one dies, and an ignorance of the Jewish background to the New Testament’s teaching.
While there are many different theological variations on the idea of why people believe only Christians get to heaven, I will summarize what is the prototypical logic of my Protestant evangelical background:2
P1) If a person commits any one sin, God will punish them with an eternal punishment in hell.
P2) Every person sins.
C1) Therefore, God will punish every person with an eternal punishment in hell.
P3) Jesus’s dies on the cross so that he would take our punishment as a substitute for us.
P4) If you believe in Jesus, Jesus’ substitution applies to you.
P5) God provides no other way except Jesus.
C2) Therefore, only those who believe in Jesus will not face an eternal punishment in hell.
Here is the thing: you will not find a single passage that clearly and unambiguously teaches P1, P3, or P4.3 You might cite a reference to Romans 6:23 which says “For the wages of sin is death,” but that passage does not actually state a) one sin makes one liable to such judgment nor b) does “death” refer to eternal punishment/hell. We frequently assume (b) is about hell because it is contrasted with “eternal life” later in the verse, but for Paul eternal life is defined by the bodily resurrection. Thus the point is that the world experiences the power of death due to sin, but God has changed that reality through a resurrection in conformity to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One could investigate more passages that might suggest teaching P3 or P4, but this blog post is not intended to be exhaustive. However, I am not aware of any passage for which a clear, strong case can be made that P1, P3, or P4 are what is being taught. At best, one might suggest that P1, P3, and P4 are explanations we create to make sense of everything else the Bible teaches, but I don’t think it even accomplishes that purpose if we read the Bible closely and well.
The problem is that argument assumes the fundamental problem of humanity is our future fate of hell if God does not intervene. For the majority of Christians who have been influenced by the Western theological tradition, particularly conservative Protestantism, the idea that we are going to hell if we don’t believe in Jesus stands as the ultimate crux of the Biblical narrative. We sin and so we are going to be punished for eternity. Even if one manages to break free of the assumptions that only Christians go to heaven and everyone else goes to hell, often times people’s thinking is still implicitly influenced by these sort of propositions and still thinks the Bible tells the story of how to get to heaven.4 But if we take a close look at the Apostle Paul in Romans, which serves as the closest thing we get to a systematic theological expression summarizing the meaning of the Christian faith5, then what one would finds is that: the fundamental problem is that sin leads to the ever present, constant, continuous experience of the realities of death in creation. In that light, Jesus didn’t come to save us from hell; he came to save us from the powers of death (and sin) through His resurrection. Therefore, the whole line about one sin leading to hell is not consistent with Paul. In that case, the very foundation of the idea that only believers getting into heaven begins to crumble.
Here is where the problem of the standard line of Protestant thinking really goes askew: we tend to believe that justification of faith is about God’s act of forgiveness of our sins as it relates to P4. Therefore, we are inclined to say that Christians are not judged by their works, but by their faith because Jesus took on the judgment we deserve based upon our works. Therefore, if one believes, one gets into heaven and if one does not believe, one goes to hell. But the things here is in error in two ways. Firstly, whenever the final judgment is referred to in the New Testament, the criteria of judgment is always said to be based upon what one has done; never is the criteria of the final judgment said to be based upon belief; there is no hint of a substitute judgment where someone else will be punished for another’s sins. This is a pretty glaring oversight for the standard way of formulating the doctrine of justification by faith. Now, there are passages, particularly in the Gospel of John, that talk about those who believed avoiding judgment. To this end, there is something the New Testament would more or less affirm: all who are genuine believers, however we define genuine believers, will have eternal life. However, the second problem is that people simply reverse the logic here and assumes its validity: if all Christians go to heaven, then all those who are not Christians go to hell. But aside from a statement in what is almost assuredly a later interpolation in Mark 16:16, nowhere does the New Testament states that everyone else is eternally judged.
So, if we remember that the only criteria for the final judgment is works, not faith, and that the Bible does not say that all unbelievers go to hell, we are left with an interesting question: what is so important about Christian faith if unbelievers may avoid an eternal punishment? The question is answered by the fact that for Paul, there is an assurance that those redeemed by Christ can have that is others may not. Through Christ, people are freed from the power of sin and death,6 therefore allowing them to do the good things that the final judgment requires. Through faith, Christians can have an assurance of their righteous standing before God and know that they are forgiven,7 meaning they will not be judged for the bad things they have done in their pasts. While being a follower of Christ is decidedly not simply about getting to heaven,8 insofar as faith relates to where we spend eternity, those who genuinely believe can have a confidence and assurance when they stand before God in judgment on the day of the universal resurrection. The same assurance is not offered to the rest of the world, but this does not mean one has a reversed, absolute confidence of one’s everlasting judgment.
Now one might retort: “Aha! Doesn’t that mean there is another way to God other than Jesus. Doesn’t John 14:6 contradict what you just said?” Not in the slightest bit. Firstly, the condition for having eternal life is the resurrection, and only that occurs through Christ. Even if an unbeliever does what is good and avoids evil and is not judged, they will have life precisely because Jesus was raised from the dead. Secondly, Romans 5:18 only makes sense if the “justification of life for all people” entails some sort of an impact that happens to all people, just as the “condemnation of all people” from Adam impacts all persons. In other words, that a person who does not believe will be granted eternal life at the judgment does not deny the exclusive nature of Jesus as a way to the Father; all the essential conditions for eternal life are made possible by Christ.
Another response might be to point to passages such a 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 or Galatians 5:19-21. Firstly, let it be stated that both of these passages suggest inheritance of God’s kingdom is conditioned upon one’s behaviors and not whether one believes. However, beyond that, it is not a valid assumption to think “inheriting the kingdom of God” is about the only people who have eternal life. This reading does not make sense against the Jewish backdrop about inheritance, where Israel saw God’s promises relating to their having a land and world where they could live and rule in peace, free from the oppression of other nations. To inherit the promised land to Israel was to rule. However, that Israel ruled the land did not rule out that other people, such as alien and travelers, might reside in the land for the short-term or long-term. Inheritance wasn’t about the exclusivity of residence; inheritance was about autonomy and power that ensured the peace of God’s chosen people. Hence, we actually see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 coming after Paul has addressed the issues of lawsuits and judging the world in the future: inheriting God’s kingdom is about having a place of autonomy and power in the world to come. It is not a ruling out that people who practiced sin in this life will always, eternally be excluded from residing in the kingdom of God.
Now, there are a lot of complexities and nuances in addressing all the various New Testament, and even Old Testament, texts; a blog post could not hope to be exhaustive. However, in conclusion, I would contend that the best summary of judgment in the New Testament is that genuine believers who have been redeemed by Christ have an assurance of their fate at the final judgment; furthermore, they will know that they will have a place of automony and status in the full-realization of God’s kingdom at the eschaton where the dead are raised from the dead. However, the Bible does not make a confident statement that the destiny of all unbelievers is to eternal punishment. Rather, they too will face the same judgment of deeds that Christians face and that any hope of eternal life is based upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ that breaks the shackling power of death. In other words, one can exhibit a great fidelity to the Biblical texts and not immediately jump to the conclusion that all who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell as is common in my evangelical circles. In fact, I would go so far to say that if one reads the Bible closely and well and does not make vast theological assumptions about the meaning of terms and phrases such as “death,” “inheriting the kingdom of God,” etc. that does not comport with their usual meanings, one should reject that conclusion in the first place as being the result of logic with faulty premises, not the Scriptures themselves.