It’s difficult to search out any Bible answer to that question which doesn’t sound both arrogant and exclusive! Similarly, whenever one church claims to be the world’s “one true religion,” other sincere people everywhere instinctively respond: “Hey, what about us?”
This all-important query finds its basis in a declaration made by the early church after the resurrection. Peter says this about Jesus in Acts 4:12: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
If you were to have extended dialogue with both a Christian and a Buddhist, you would soon come to appreciate that both followers are sincere, and that both religions teach many good and worthwhile things. The world would be a more peaceful and productive place if all six billion citizens practiced the philosophy of Buddha. However, even the honest Buddhist will concede that his faith system doesn’t provide for a salvation plan to atone for his sins. Only the Christian religion has the Son of God paying the inevitable penalty for our rebellion.
The question then comes: well, what if an innocent person – a sincere Buddhist, for example – lives in a part of the world or in an era of time where he or she never encounters the offer of Jesus. Must such a person be lost?
Two quiet champions of historic Christianity give a helpful explanation here. In The Contemporary Christian, John Stott writes: “’Exclusivism’ (an unfortunately negative term, which gives the impression of wanting to exclude people from the kingdom of God) is used to denote the historic Christian view that salvation cannot be found in other religions, but only in Jesus Christ. ‘Inclusivism’ allows that salvation is possible to adherents of other faiths, but attributes it to the secret and often unrecognized work of Christ.” He then observed that an important Catholic council, Vatican II, “embraced this view in its statement that Christ’s saving work holds good ‘not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way.’”
If we believe the Bible, this headline from Acts is crystal clear: only the name of Jesus can save. If a person finds themselves in heaven someday, it will be because of what Jesus did at Calvary. That is irrefutable. But the verse does not say that every citizen of heaven will have necessarily heard the name of his Savior. We often receive gifts, and for a time we don’t know who the Giver is.
Is it possible, as we weigh what God’s Word says in II Peter 3:9 – God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance – that a generous Judge can determine a person’s destiny by knowing their heart and determining what they would have done had they found themselves at the foot of the cross?
In his classic volume, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis makes this generous confession: “[This] used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”
Later, in Lewis’ beautifully allegorical (though he denied it) Narnia books for children, a closing scene in Book #7 has a Calormene named Emeth standing in judgment before Aslan the lion, seen by readers as a symbol of Jesus. When Emeth confesses in shame that he never served Aslan and that his loyalties had been instead with Tash, Aslan gives this generous reply:
“Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. . . . 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.”
The Calormene timidly admits: “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 to long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
Admittedly, we can’t establish Bible truth in children’s books, especially in matters so important! But the Bible clearly paints a picture of God eager to consider any evidence of a person’s willingness – early or late – to live in the eternal kingdom where his Son reigns forever.