Good Questions: Are Jews, Muslims or Unbelievers Saved?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

On Thursday we explored Who’s saved? – asking if it’s the good people, the believers, the repenters, or maybe everybody? What about people who’ve never heard of Christ? Or people of other faiths? Are our Jewish, Muslim or Hindu friends doomed to perdition?

Again, I hope you’ll join me in hoping not. The God of the Bible is way too big-hearted and powerful to lose billions of his own creatures in far-flung places, or who lived before Jesus showed up. I could say I have Jewish or Muslim friends, and surely they are saved; but is it because of my friendship? People are saved by God’s boundless mercy, not my friendship, or how nice they are, or even their sincerity in their own faith.

I have better questions. What about those who’ve heard of Jesus – but from people who are mean, or just plain boring, or whose lives are vapid? My parade example is of a woman I spoke with a few years back who warned me she would never believe in Jesus. Turned out her daddy, a deacon and teacher in his church, a man who’d memorized much of his Bible and believed passionately Jesus was his savior, had physically abused her when she was an adolescent. Who’s saved? The abuser who believed and sang hymns? Or the daughter who wanted nothing to do with Church or God?

We’ll say more about the value of other religions in another email, daring to ask if they’re the same, or if they’re all valid, or if one (ours?) might have some special validity. For now, I’m moved by the evangelist E. Stanley Jones who went off to India to convert Hindus. He befriended Gandhi, whom he stopped trying to convert once he noticed how Gandhi lived a far more Christ-like life than the Christians he’d known – and after Gandhi taught him about the depth, wisdom, and profound expectations of, not his Hindu religion, but Jones’s own Christian faith. Could we count Gandhi, and other great teachers and holy people of other faiths as what Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians”? A good question with no easy answer!

Here’s a Good Question with no easy answer: for those who have rejected Christ or just not gotten around to believing: is there hope for them? I hope you’ll hope so with me. C.S. Lewis gave us a titillating image of hell (which we’ll get back to another day) in The Great Divorce. He portrayed Hell as a gray, dull place where shadowy people wander about, arguing with one another, insisting on being right. A bus shows up every day taking people to heaven. But most just stay, mired in “I did it my way,” stuck in “not your will but my will be done.” Hell is your own choosing – but need not be so eternally.

What about those who’ve never heard of Christ, or those who lived before Christ? I am intrigued by Robert Jenson’s thoughtful remark, suggesting that God’s omniscience doesn’t mean everything’s already settled – but rather that “In love, everything is still open, including the past.” I was raised to think you had until the moment of your death to get right with Christ. But Jenson perceives God’s love as being so great as to be able to reach into the past – so that what we think of as “past,” either those who lived before Jesus showed up, or your own days before the end of your life, is not past to God, but a field where God can continue to labor for love.

And then we have that curious item sometimes heard in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended into hell.” Could it be that Jesus, between Good Friday and Easter, took a journey into the past? Christian art shows him rising on Easter morning pulling a host of people from the past, Adam, Abraham, Eve and Miriam with him out of the underworld into heavenly life. That’s so like Jesus! – not coming for the sweet and pious, but for literally everybody.

For Christians, being saved has everything to do with Jesus. Was he the greatest teacher ever? And if we do what he taught, then we’ll be fine eternally? Did he die to save us? All our Good Questions with No Easy Answers dance around what we need to ask next: Who was Jesus and Why does Jesus matter? Is Jesus the way?