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Salvation and other religions

June 25, 2008

There’s been an interesting discussion going on lately over at TCSpeak,
the blog of our Territorial Commander, Jim Knaggs.

The discussion has little to do with the blog post, but a frequent contributor makes an odd observation. Dave writes:

According to Billy Graham, people of all faiths, or of no faith, may end up in heaven. Here is a quote from the man himself:

“What God is doing today is calling people out of the world for His name. Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts they need something that they don’t have and they turn to the only light they have and I think they’re saved and they’re going to be with us in heaven.”

This comment has sparked a bit of discussion, as it seems to have surprised Jim. I can see why: the idea of followers of other religions being saved without even knowing who Jesus is seems quite contrary to evangelical Christianity, and it is certainly at odds with much of the teaching of Billy Graham.

I’m not so sure it is, though. I am certainly aware of Bible passages that suggest this statement is out of line: for example, Romans 10 and John 14 come to mind. I wonder, though, if the problem lies in the confusion of Christ with Christianity. Here’s my reply to Dave:

Dave, I think your first statement subtly misses Graham’s intent:

According to Billy Graham, people of all faiths, or of no faith, may end up in heaven.

I think you mean ‘religion’ as opposed to ‘faith.’ The point of the Billy Graham quote seems to be that God doesn’t care what religion we are, so long as we turn to him in faith. It is through Christ we come to the Father, not Christianity.

I made a similar point in an RE lesson I taught a few weeks ago. I was teaching a class of ten and eleven year olds about the story of Jesus and the ten Samaritan lepers (Luke 17). An interesting thing about this story — and in quite a few other gospel stories — is that Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned about people’s religion. The religion of the Samaritans was different to the religion of the Jews — you might say it was a cult. This was quite eye-opening for the children. They thought Jesus came to change everyone’s religion. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Jesus wanted people to follow him. That’s quite a different thing.’

There’s still a problem here, though. To paraphrase Paul in Romans 10: how can people follow Jesus if they’ve never even heard of him?

Paul doesn’t answer this question directly; rather, he starts talking about those who have heard the gospel but not listened to it. He wonders if they mightn’t really have heard it, to which he answers, all have heard.

Paul also discusses this in Romans 1 and 2. There he talks about Gentiles who have never heard about God’s law:

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Rom 2:12-16, NRSV

Nobody is without excuse when it comes to sin. Even if nobody has told us what God requires, his law is still written on our hearts.

Yet if God’s law can be written on our hearts, and in one way or another God has made his good news known to everyone, is it at least possible that God can save people outside the Christian religion? It makes sense that such people would respond to God the only way they know how — by faithfully practising their own religion. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that salvation is to be found on another path or by following a different god. I am talking about the way people express their desire to follow the God who has spoken to them.

This is, I would suggest, the intent of Billy Graham’s quote. I’ll leave the last word to C.S. Lewis who made a similar statement in The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In this passage Emeth, who has faithfully served the false god Tash all his life, recounts his meeting with Aslan, who is an allegorical type of Jesus.

“[Aslan said]…’I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’

I said, ‘Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’

‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.'”

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