Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11.
What would you say to someone who can’t believe in Christianity because of its exclusive claims, that no one enters the gates of Heaven without first meeting Jesus?
All of the questions up until now have been related to science—a subject in which I have a lot of training and experience as well as some status and ability—or to my own personal experiences. This last question is not one I can answer as a scientist—my expertise in astrophysics does not translate to any degree of authority in matters of theology. I can only attempt to answer this as a Christian layperson who struggles with such questions as much as anyone else. So, as one person to another, I offer the following thoughts.
One thing I am certain of is that Christianity can only be believed in because of its exclusive claims. Irrespective of whether the claims of Christianity are true, it is not possible for Christianity to be true and at the same time for other religions to be true. Christianity makes exclusive claims similar to the way that any theory in science makes exclusive claims; if a particular scientific theory is true, then other theories that seek to explain the same phenomenon in a different way cannot also be true. It is therefore unreasonable to reject Christianity solely because of its exclusive claims.
There is another way in which non-believers often get caught up in Christianity’s exclusiveness—they think it’s unfair that only Christians go to heaven. Unless you take the extreme Calvinist position of predestination, Christianity is certainly not exclusive in the sense that only an elect few are chosen and if you’re not among them, you’re out of luck no matter how good you are. I believe something far different; I think that anyone can choose to accept the gift of salvation that God has offered through Jesus Christ for the following reasons.
- In John 14:6, Jesus tells us that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.
- In the Gospels we are told that Jesus opened a door that had previously been shut because of our sinful nature. (That’s why the Gospels are called the “Good News.”)
- We also know that God gave us free will—we are not pets or playthings—and because God loves us as spiritual beings and has truly endowed us with the freedom to choose, he does not force anyone to go through the door who does not want to.
This still sounds terribly unfair to people who have failed, despite their best efforts, to believe in Christianity, to those who have been turned off by negative experiences with organized religion, and even more so to people who have never heard of Christ. I was for some time rather troubled by this, because I don’t like the idea of anyone going to hell. I have no profound understanding in this matter, so all I can do is share with you my personal resolution of this problem.
There are passages in the New Testament that have given comfort to me and at least one person I know who does what I can only describe as the Lord’s work, but is experiencing great difficulty in accepting Jesus. In Mark 9:38-41, we are told the following story:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.”
So, the disciple John tells Jesus that a man is performing miracles in Jesus’ name (i.e. with the authority of Jesus), though he is not part of their group. The disciples tried to stop him, because he was not a follower of Jesus as they were. But Jesus told them to leave the man alone, because he was still doing the work of the Lord. Moreover, Jesus claimed that any person who furthers the cause of believers, though he may not be Christian himself, will not lose his reward. Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage explains, “If sinners are brought to repent, to believe in the Saviour, and to live sober, righteous, and godly lives, we then see that the Lord works by the preacher.”
Consider also 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” [emphasis added]
C. S. Lewis explored the meaning and helped develop our understanding of this passage in his Narnia book, The Last Battle. In this story, there is a soldier named Emeth (Hebrew for “faithful” or “truth”) who is a good man that has been deceived since boyhood into worshipping a pagan god (Tash) and hating the name of the true God of Narnia (Aslan). However, upon meeting Aslan, the goodness within Emeth causes him to immediately realize that Tash is false and Aslan is God. Aslan assures Emeth that every good thing he did in the name of Tash was actually done in service to Aslan. As Lewis explained,
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats [Matthew 25:34-40] those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.
Even though I know this is not the view of all Christians, I agree with Lewis. I believe that it was Jesus—and only Jesus—who opened a door for all mankind; I also believe that a knowledge of and faith in Jesus makes it easier to find and get through the door. But, in my humble opinion, the door is open to all people who yearn for goodness, truth, spiritual love, meaning, purpose, and salvation—in other words, to all people who yearn for God whether or not they recognize it as such.